The Boxer Rebellion are an indie band based in London. Their music has an alienated, chilly quality which has always drawn me in. They are one of the few bands beside Radiohead who have honestly explored themes of loneliness in the Information Age.
Sitting down with front man Nathan Nicholson and drummer Piers Hewitt, I was keen to talk new LP Ocean by Ocean. Isolationism and adventure seem to be very much a motif on the album.
HN: The idea of being cut adrift does seem to be a big theme on the album. There are tropical flavours, tribal drums. It’s hard to pin down. Was that concept an inspiration in the writing?
NN: “The name itself was meant to be Waves and Waves. But then Kanye said he was going to bring out an album called Waves. And we had deliver it literally a day before. We had to come up with a new album name in less than 24 hours.And then he ended up calling it something else anyway!”
PH:”We would have ended up on page 5 of Google. Which is annoying obviously, not that we swim in the same waters as him.”
NN: “We wanted it to have a name that still sounds expansive. And if we had more time we probably would have came up with a shittier name…”
PH:”There is an expansiveness to what we came up with though. We recorded it in LA. We’re a London based band, but LA for us has become a home from home despite bring so different to our usual writing environment. I think we were writing about our experiences of being elsewhere a lot, and enjoying it. That reflects on what we create, and it doesn’t sound like four guys in a windowless, airless basement studio, which it could have.”
NN: “It’s funny how some people hear it. I remember when the first reactions were coming out, and we thought this was upbeat. And you read some opinions which are like “man this is dark!”. We were not going for dark, but maybe we just can’t help ourselves.”
HN : I was going to bring up the album cover. I like it a lot, but to me it suggests something otherworldly rather than comforting.
NN: “We worked with a comic book artist. We gave them a mood board and said we want it to be colourful. There was no grand plan but we wanted it to be colourful because historically our albums are black and white, beige and dark green…”
PH: “The third album cover is a dying leaf…”
HN: ‘Keep Me Close’ was the first song I hear from the record, and immediately I was struck by the sense of menace. The bass heavy intro puts me in mind of sinking, like it’s almost wet sounding, or something….?
(The band stares at me whilst I reel off more airy bullshit)
NN: Well…eh, I brought in some loops that I put together. It was before the guys came in and I was just singing over it. We just liked the groove and just wanted to keep that going. It’s kinda got that Masssive Attack quality to it.
HN: There’s just a lot of fun guitar songs on this album, you all sound pretty well adjusted and like you’re having a good time.
NN: “I guess cause by now we’ve made five albums. Like some bands labour and suffer for their art. You hear about bands and they have heroin addictions, and they can’t cope and they break up, and its like wow, we are boring as fuck!”
PH: “Were not a very angry band. But I think most bands that try aren’t really either. There’s no point trying to write like your some angsty twenty one year old when you’re actually thirty six, married and a father. There’s nothing I want less than to write songs that I can’t relate to. We’re not writing about girls any more. Mostly because our wives would be a bit miffed. If we did I’d blame Nathan, he writes the lyrics.”
HN: ‘Big Ideas’ has a really fun video, how did you come to do that?
NN: “We were put in touch with this guy called Adam Avilla, and he made us dress up and stand in front of green screens. It was different, weird to do a video. We didn’t want to necessarily perform in it, but we wanted to be it.”
PH: “Well we didn’t have to act out too much…there wasn’t loads for us to cock up. But we liked the part animation style of what he presented. With stuff like that you never know if it’s gonna work out until you’ve done it. On the day of filming I was stood there in an old crappy suit, with an eye-patch on wondering ‘is this gonna be any good?’ It worked out, you’re asking us about it in a positive light so that’s good.”
HN: ‘Diamonds’ is my favourite Boxers song. I love the vocal delivery on that song. It’s almost like a surrender. How did you come to write that?
NN: “Well usually with songs we’ll have a lower vocal in the verse and then the chorus will be falsetto. It’s weird on that one we didn’t. It doesn’t lift a lot, vocally. The music lifts for it.”
PH: (to Nathan) “I think it’s the best phrasing you’ve written. There’s a lot to be said for not just melody but the rhythm of the melody. Not to blow smoke up your arse. I feel you’ve written better melodies, and I’ve thought that before, the phrasing gives it that flow.”
HN: The chorus is perfect on that track. Did it grow organically from that?
NN: “I think it started with the verse. I was just writing to a looped beat that Piers had played. Sometimes lyrics just come out, and that phrase ‘I’m no good next to diamonds‘ just came out. It’s so rare that it makes sense straight away.”
HN: That is bizarre because it is probably the truest lyric you’ve ever written, and yet in context it was just a filler line sung over a drum beat.
PH: “Things are as underwhelming as that quite regularly….”
HN: I can’t remember seeing a band tour so widely and extensively. You’re back in Leeds for the second time this year!
NN: “Last time we played here was at Live at Leeds. That was kinda weird to be honest. We played to a few people, but there weren’t many people there.”
PH: “We were on after the last trains, at an inner city festival, out of the inner city.”
HN: Some friends of mine did see you there, and they said you were very good.
NN: “Oh good!”
PH: “But they were obviously very drunk”
HN: Probably worse than drunk to be honest…
HN: 2016 is nearly over now, has it been a good year for you guys?
PH: “It’s not been normal, for us as a band and outside of that. We hadn’t put an album out for three years. It’s a weird time for music. So many bands we know this year have just quit. Going forward there is a lot of change on the horizon. For some of us it’s gonna be fine and for some of us it’s gonna be hard work. In terms of how we’ve enjoyed this year, we’ve enjoyed a lot of it, and having the privilege to present a piece of work to people is always a huge pleasure. Getting the best out of that is the hard work.”
PH: “On the whole, as a society it’s been a bloody disaster!”
NN: “It all started with Bowie…”