Our second interview with The Boxer Rebellion in one week (check the first here) shouldn’t surprise anyone that follows us faithfully. From the release of Exits to the present, this has been one of our favorite bands. When Union was released and promptly topped the iTunes charts in the US and UK, we felt vindicated. With the announcement that they will be appearing on The Late Show with David Letterman tonight, we feel triumph. The newest album, The Cold Still merits the attention and should become a name you’ll be seeing on most of the cool kids’ top tens at the end of this year. Guitarist Todd Howe has always had to time for TDOA and this time we spoke to him about the Letterman appearance, the new album and the upward trajectory of the band.
TDOA: How did the Letterman thing happen?
TH: It was our press guy in New York. The Letterman people were fans of our music and obviously wanted to support it, which is a big deal, right? There’s not many independent bands that get that sort of opportunity.
TDOA: And as a result, you’ve bumped up the release of the album.
TH: We went back to iTunes to see if we could release it a week early and they said, yeah that’s cool. We’ve got a good relationship with those guys because of everything that happened with Union. They’re really respectful of us and vice-versa. For an independent band to have a relationship like that with iTunes, it’s pretty cool.
TDOA: How did the original relationship with iTunes happen?
TH: It started with Damon Marzano, who’s been a fan since he owned a record store in Connecticut and got our very first promo back in 2003. He ended up becoming the head of Rock and Alternative at iTunes and he sought us out towards the end of recording Union and said that he wanted to do something with us. We just jumped on it and we had the success that we had and it’s been very lucrative. iTunes have been a key part of our success all along the way, since the release of Union. We never thought we’d have the success that we did with that record and we certainly couldn’t have had it without them.
TDOA: Having the record go to number one in the U.S. and U.K. had to be a heady experience.
TH: Yeah, it was a weird experience. Seeing it creep up the charts. We couldn’t believe it was doing as well as it was. Then started people writing about it and it started a domino effect. We ended up selling 10,000 records in a week and that sort of paved the way for us to remain independent.
TDOA: And you’ve remained independent! I wondered if you might sign to a label prior to the release of The Cold Still. In hindsight, it was a brilliant decision because you could never have bumped the release of the album up to coincide with the Letterman appearance on such short notice.
TH: Yeah, probably not. I don’t think we entertained the possibility for this release. We had a lot of success with Union and we knew what we wanted to do this time.
TDOA: Is it necessary to sign with a label anymore? Not just for you, but hasn’t your success on iTunes shown that there’s no longer a need for any band to sign to a label?
TH: I dont know. It’s more a case of waiting to see if the right thing comes across at the right time for people. It’s not right for us right now. We feel like we know what we want to do and we have the right people to do it, working around us.
TDOA: I want to talk about the new album now. Can you talk about how this album is different for you than the previous albums?
TH: I think first of all we don’t want to repeat ourselves. Union is so unique because of the situation that we were going through at the time. It was such a success, but we wanted to push ourselves to be better. We’re our biggest critics. Certain things happened along the way as people, which were quite tough to deal with around the end of 2009 and start of 2010 which I think paved the way for the feel of this record. It’s a darker and more introspective record. We didn’t want to do another record that was about escaping. We wanted it to be more direct and, I think sincere as well.
TDOA: Do you collaboratively work on the lyrics together? As a musician how do you personally let the tone of the lyrics effect how you write your guitar parts?
TH: The whole album was very collaborative. It all stemmed from us all being around each other rather than ideas that were brought in. They were ideas that evolved when we were in a room together. Subject matter is where we start. When we’re playing music, I’ll have a phrase like in the song “Caught By The Light”. Nathan then picks up on it and writes lyrics. On that song, we did discuss subject matter and all that sort of stuff including a death in the immediate family around us. From music to lyrics it was a lot more open. We all had a hand in the final product.
TDOA: I don’t want to pry into things you don’t want to talk about, but was the death that you’ve referenced a business relationship or a familial relationship?
TH: It was family related on Adam’s side and it’s not something I really want to discuss. I had some personal things going on, which I also don’t want to discuss. It all just added to the mood of introspection.
TDOA: The first time I heard The Boxer Rebellion, I thought of you as having a sound that was much like U2 (and not in a negative way!); massive, spacious music that should be played in stadiums. The new album is, as you said, very introspective. It’s also a much quieter record. As you recorded the album, did you ever have any fears of alienating your audience?
TH: No, I don’t think so. I think ultimately, this record more than any of them, I really don’t worry, because I’m so proud of it and how we wrote and recorded it. It felt so organic. I suppose people may be expecting Union. When Union came out, they were expecting Exits. And those are two very different records as well. This is us at a different time period. This isn’t a statement of a direction where going to go in. Record four won’t be The Cold Still.
TDOA: The use of keyboards is very prominent on this record. When you were writing these songs, were these parts added early on in the process or were they added on afterwards?
TH: “No Harm” came about because I was a bit sick of playing guitar and we had the keyboard there, so I came up with it. “Caught By The Light”: I’m playing guitar and Nathan is playing keyboards. There’s a lot of sharing of roles on this record.
TDOA: The songwriting process is an interesting concept to me, when I interview bands. For most of them, the formula tends to remain the same throughout their careers, but for this record, it sounds like you guys approached it differently.
TH: I don’t think there’s any one, fixed approach. It was all very rehearsal room based. The lyrics always come second and the melody always comes first.
TDOA: You referenced that No Harm changed quite a bit from it’s original inception to the final recording, can you talk about that a bit?
TH: It just wasn’t there when we walked into the recording studio. We’d played it live a couple of times, but we ended up completely re-engineering the song sonically and it just shocked us. It was the first indication of how working with a producer like Ethan (Johns) was a really good thing.
TDOA: Some bands look for producers who are there purely to press the record button and merely observe the process. Other bands let producers get involved in everything from the sound of the record, to arranging the songs, to helping to write. What role did Ethan play on this record?
TH: As far as composition goes, we didn’t deviate too much. The main difference is that we recorded the songs live. For example pn “No Harm”, we had a drum loop that Piers had recorded. I played guitar over that, while Nathan played piano. We were feeding off each other and Ethan is very good at capturing that.
TDOA: What’s the next step for you guys after Letterman?
TH: We’ll go back and start finalizing everything with tour dates and the album release. I will say that I think we will have a slightly different approach live because of the nature of this record. Whether that is lighting or how we present ourselves on-stage, I’m not sure yet.
TDOA: Because you’re not on a major, you’re left to do a lot of your own promotion. You’ve embraced social media to connect with your fans. Is that something you enjoy or is it something that you tend to leave for your management?
TH: We all do it, all four of us and our management. We all have our strengths. We’re one of those bands that recognizes that you get out, what you put into it. So we push pretty hard on all fronts.
TDOA: Lastly, can you talk about the album cover and what it means to you.
TH: First of all, the title of the album comes from a lyric in the last song on the record, “Doubt”. The leaf on the front of the cover was a concept produced by Jonas Valtysson. I’d done the Union cover and didn’t want to do it again. Jonas came up with a number of ideas and this one was very simple. It’s about a leaf that’s burning brightly and throughout the book, the leaf shrivels up and dies.