Having been active for 15 years, The Boxer Rebellion remain something of an anomaly to many. Although based in the UK, the cosmopolitan four-piece haven't quite attained the same level of commercial success here as they have in other corners of the globe. Which to all intents and purposes is a crying shame as their extensive back catalogue contains several gems among its prized archives.
Later this month (29th April) will see them release their fifth album, Ocean By Ocean. The first to feature new guitarist Andy Smith who replaced founder member Todd Howe two years ago, Ocean By Ocean represents another giant leap forwards for a band who've constantly reinvented themselves at every given opportunity.
Today, we're sat on the roof terrace of an East London public house just a stones throw away from the band's studio with Smith and fellow band mates Nathan Nicholson (vocals & guitars), Adam Harrison (bass) and Piers Hewitt (drums). The mood is understandably buoyant with the new record already picking up early positive reviews. So with Ocean By Ocean imminent, what better way to start the conversation than from the album's humble beginnings...
DiS: Your fifth album Ocean By Ocean comes out at the end of April. When did you first start writing and recording the album? Which song dates back the farthest?
Nathan Nicholson: The oldest song on the record is probably 'Redemption'. It was written just after Todd (Howe) left the band. It was originally only meant to be on the digital edition of the album. We recorded it last June. We went over it and replayed everything about two months before that. It was a continuous cycle trying to get everything up to speed. We spent about a year and a half writing then demoing the album. Everything was pretty finely tuned by then. The recording process took about three or four weeks in total.
DiS: Were there any songs written and recorded around that time which didn't make it onto the record?
Nathan Nicholson: Yeah, we've always been prolific when it comes to writing.
Adam Harrison: Probably even more so with this album than any of the others. So we probably ended up with about 25 songs. Then whittled it down to 15 which we had finished off before choosing the final 10 to go on the album. So there are more offcuts from this album than we've ever had.
DiS: Will any of them be revisited in the future?
Adam Harrison: There's always possibilities for us being able to use offcuts from an album.
Piers Hewitt: In the business that we are, we always end up doing a lot of work in TV and film. Quite often, we'll get a brief through that says,"So-and-so likes a song off a certain album so have we got something similar?" So then we'll delve into our back catalogue of offcuts. It's happened a few times before.
DiS: A lot of your music has been used for films, television and also games over the years. Do you think it's important for bands to embrace these mediums of getting their music heard in the current climate, if only as a means of survival?
Adam Harrison: It's vital!
Nathan Nicholson: They're the only mediums where you don't have to speculate as you've already spent the money writing and recording the song. I don't want to go into the financial benefits too much but it is free money. In the sense that it keeps the band going.
Piers Hewitt: Also, I think our music has always suited that kind of area anyway. Right from the second album, Union, we kind of discovered something about our music that suited those areas. It was quite eye opening. It's not that we write in a direct way to suit that. It's just how everything's worked out for us. Aside from the situation of keeping us going, it's also raised awareness of our music. It's just as hard to get played on the radio as it ever was. It's actually given us an outlet outside of radio. It's quite exciting to see our music set to images whether that be a film or video game.
DiS: The band's sound has continually developed from where you were on your first album Exits to where you are today. Do you make a conscious effort to change with every album? Is there an idea of how you want a record to sound before you go into the studio?
Piers Hewitt: I wouldn't say we do actually. We used to approach writing an album by thinking we could do it differently or focus on a specific agenda. But then we came to the conclusion that's actually more restrictive than it's worth having. So rather than have a lateral or conceptual finishing point, we like to push our songs as far as we can albeit in the direction where they're meant to be going without trying to pigeonhole them or make them fit into a certain box. So I guess each record is a reflection of where we're at rather than where we're trying to be. Where we're at is an old band now. A band that's matured and a band that feels differently about the music we listen to and I think our records are reflected by that.
Andy Smith: If I trace back over the year and a half of writing, obviously having a new member changes the chemistry quite a bit. The certain energies in the band and how they mix together. During the writing, because we wrote so many songs we got to a point where a little accident triggered something which changed the whole direction of the album. Which then also affected some of the songs we'd written before. For instance, when we first wrote 'Weapon', we all contributed different ideas to the song which went on to affect the imagery and direction of where we saw the album going. That then informed some of the previous decisions we'd made about the record. For example, the first version of 'Big Ideas' was completely different to the one which eventually made it onto the album. And that came about by accident. I bought a new guitar pedal that gave us a certain sound and took the record in a different direction. So we thought maybe we can make these songs a little more cohesive. Eventually it gave us a theme upon which to base the album but it was a total accident in getting there.
Adam Harrison: Every album we've done has a keystone track.
Nathan Nicholson: Promises had 'Diamonds' and the record before that had 'Both Sides Are Even'.
Piers Hewitt: It also sent other songs into the bin, which is important when trying to construct an album. It can be quite a long winded process. We do enjoy it but some days are better than others. I remember the least about how songs turned up but I fully remember when those two songs came along. 'Flashing Red Light Means Go' for Union as well. They were really exciting days and ones I really cherish. They're the reasons I'm in a band.
Adam Harrison: They're like waves that you catch for the rest of the ride. When you have a song like Redemption written before you start writing the album you know you're onto something pivotal, and that's what sets the tone.
DiS: Did the tracklisting change at any point?
Andy Smith: It did because certain songs became stronger. A song like 'Big Ideas' for example became much stronger than it was before. We knew at that point it would definitely be the lead single. Originally it was only on the "B list" to make the album, but then everything flipped around. They all affect each other. The songs frame each other as well. They don't just stand alone. Piers Hewitt: We had a "C" list as well, and by the time we'd finished they'd all been swapped around several times.
DiS: Ocean By Ocean seems a very personal record in places. For instance, songs like 'Let It Go' and 'Pull Yourself Together' seem quite autobiographical.
Nathan Nicholson: A lot of the times when I'm singing it can be very, "You need to do this, you need to do that," as though it's someone talking to me. 'Let It Go' I really feel a connection with because I'm always telling myself to look at what I've got. That life can be pretty easy. I've got a wife and a healthy little boy. That you don't always need to try and find some kind of unattainable happiness. That no amount of telling yourself you have to be happy is going to make you happy. It's a view on that. I was looking at children's books for my son and it came up in one of them. I can't remember where exactly but it was something along the lines of, "You have a choice to be happy." It wouldn't have been something really deep because it was a children's book. It struck me, that kind of thought process of trying to tell yourself this is the way, the way you should be but you are who you are.
DiS: My favourite track on the album is 'Let's Disappear'. What's the story behind that? What influenced it?
Nathan Nicholson: The chorus is about if you're not in the right spot you don't always have to be in that spot. Not in a bad way or anything drastic, but you have the power to escape your situation. I always think a lot about that kind of stuff because I believe it's quite true. Whenever someone's upset or depressed and things aren't going their way everyone has the power to change. The verses are the masks you hide behind each time you change your mind. Like in London, everybody's wearing a mask. Everyone has skeletons in the closet I guess?
DiS: It's the first album to feature Andy (Smith). How did you become involved with The Boxer Rebellion?
Andy Smith: I was playing in a support band with these guys on a tour about two years ago. We were an acoustic trio, so I met up with the guys that way. By chance really. We spent four or five weeks on the road and got to know each other quite well. When we played the last gig it was more of a drunken goodbye than an emotional exit! Then I just got a call a few months later which was really out of the blue asking if I wanted to play guitar, initially for a few shows. Everything was taken a bit tentatively and gingerly at the start. So I played these few gigs to see how we all gelled, then from there the logical step was for us to start writing together.
Nathan Nicholson: We were lucky because we'd just started writing again at that time. Todd (Howe) had just got married to a girl in Arizona. He was over there and we were writing. Andy's first gig was in Singapore. The funny thing about that show was we'd literally just got off stage and all these people came over wanting autographs, but they only wanted Andy's!
Adam Harrison: I ended up packing away all his stuff!
Piers Hewitt: 12 years of playing gigs and he just comes along..! But yeah, the whole process with Andy just came about. Nothing was particularly thought out in advance. Todd left the band and we had these shows that needed to be fulfilled. Retrospectively, I can't believe it all happened so easily.
DiS: Was there a sense that the band needed reinvigorating at that point?
Piers Hewitt: One thing which happened that was quite surprising was when we started writing again we realized we were still full of ideas. Although all of this stuff was going on with Todd leaving the band, me, Adam and Nathan knew at that point there was still something in us to be put out. There was still something to be created artistically. The timing was so perfect when Andy stepped in because we had to get these gigs done. But not only that. He could come down to the studio and start writing small pieces for some of the stuff we'd been working on as well. None of us felt like we had to have a moment or a day where we thought to ourselves, shit, is this going to continue? There was no kind of dramatic fork in the road.
Nathan Nicholson: We're all still on really great terms with Todd. He loves the new record which is a great compliment for us. I'm not sure how I'd have felt had it been the other way round, but he wants to come to some of the shows and we're looking forward to hanging out with him again.
Piers Hewitt: If someone had asked me ten years ago could I imagine being in a band without Adam, Nathan or Todd I'd have probably said no. We were like brothers in a way. We don't get on all of the time but then what siblings do? But we had that understanding very few bands manage to achieve. I've heard so many horror stories from other bands about how much they've fought amongst themselves. Whereas we've never really had that at all. I always thought if one of us left we would just stop. I couldn't have imagined playing in a band if A) one of the other three left; or B) having to go through the process of finding another member. Because things just happen and time passes so quickly it made the whole process much easier. Getting Andy on board was just so natural. I know it's three years since our last album but I'm so proud with what we've churned out given how things could have ended up. If things hadn't worked out with Andy we could have been going through guitarist after guitarist in search of the right one and might never have found one. I don't know how some bands go through members so regularly and still make great music. It's quite hard.
Nathan Nicholson: I think it would maybe be easier if just one person made every decision instead of the whole group. Someone just deciding this is the way it's going to be and someone else playing the guitar part. Andy Smith:* What I will say is it's been a unique experience for me. I've had nothing prior to compare it with. Joining a band that's already established with four albums. The whole process really from when we started writing together. My initial thoughts were how does that work? Then musically and socially, everything. There's a fine balance to walk there. And I guess it's the same for the others as well as they've always been used to playing with Todd before. Considering there was no prior experience to gauge it on it's worked beyond all expectations.
DiS: Have the label set any targets or expectations around the album?
Nathan Nicholson: We've been around far too long to pay much attention to that kind of stuff.
Piers Hewitt: The way things are set up. The way we've always grown has led to us having this missed opportunity each time around. I don't know how that happens but somehow it does. Our fanbase has grown considerably over time and different territories start to get to know us. We always tend to have new things in new places after every album. This time around we're lucky to have partnered with a pretty innovative label, Kobalt. They've got a big network of teams around the world. In terms of sales figures, rather than it just be piecemeal this time around, we've actually got quite a joined up international process going on. People all over the world talking to each other and getting things going. Hopefully it will be more organized and we'll get to more places.
DiS: It's interesting you say that as you've always done as well if not better overseas than you have in the UK, particularly with the second album Union. Why do you think that is? Is it something you consciously think about?
Nathan Nicholson: We would have done ten years ago but I think now the walls are open musically. Because of the advancement in digital technology it's so much easier to get our music out there anywhere in the world. Whereas ten years ago we were only in the UK so if that had been it then we would have thought about it more.
Piers Hewitt: It's stifling in all sorts of ways in the UK. We're a nation that produces prolific amounts of music. Because you're in straight up competition with more people it can sometimes mean quality doesn't always get a look in. There's less attention to go around so it's been absolutely key to our survival to get out into different places. To be able to breathe and have attention even if its spread out in the Netherlands or in the US for example. Whereas if we were confined to the UK it would have been far more of a struggle. I only ever see it as a positive. I don't see us as a band that's broken the UK. I see us as a very fortunate band that's managed to travel the world where so many bands in the past haven't managed to break out. When we were making that first album there was so much to take from being signed to a major and in retrospect, more what not to do than what to do. But there was never a conversation to be had really outside the UK, and that's not to belittle the UK at all as it is a big market. But we simply wouldn't exist any more had we continually tried to bang down the door in the UK. We just couldn't have existed, and now the way I see it we've become a better band for it. Most of my friends think we must be a really successful band for this to be our main job for years and they always why we don't play more shows in the UK. But it's the fanbase we've built overseas that's made us fortunate enough to be able to continue playing new music for our fans in the UK. We're so privileged to have such a great fanbase including those in the UK and I think a couple of times I've spoken to people and they've gotten the wrong end of the stick in thinking we don't care about people in the UK. We just have to service as many areas as we can in order to ensure that fanbase is kept up to date with fresh great music that we're proud of making. We get to tour the world doing this. I couldn't imagine a better job to be honest.
DiS: You're going back on tour at the end of this month including a week of UK shows at the beginning of May. With such a massive back catalogue of music, how do you choose the setlists? Are there any songs you're unlikely to play any more?
Nathan Nicholson: We don't really play much off the first album. Not that it's a bad record or anything, but it would be difficult to marry some of those songs with what we're doing now. If you look at our albums over a period of time they make sense as a collection. But if you listened to them in descending order from the most recent to the oldest it's almost like listening to two different bands. We're trying to incorporate a little bit of everything. So songs like 'We Have This Place Surrounded' or 'Flight' which is really atmospheric off the first album still work. I'd say there's probably a few others that would still work as well.
Piers Hewitt: We try to keep the sets authentic to where we are as a band now. We were much younger and angrier back then so it wouldn't be right trying to recreate that. I get embarrassed watching old bands trying to recreate who they were twenty years ago or whatever. Of course there are some songs you have to play in the set that the fans love. But we're lucky enough to have fans that consistently seem to love all of our back catalogue. Which is really fortunate for us otherwise we probably would have to approach gigs playing just a singles heavy set.
Nathan Nicholson: I'm not sure whether we're less angry socially?
Adam Harrison: But we're definitely a lot less expressive of that anger.
Nathan Nicholson: When you're younger you tend to be more pissed off at your own situation. Nowadays I'm more pissed off about what the world's become.
Piers Hewitt: I was listening to a few of our older songs recently to get tempos. Particularly the ones we don't play that often. And I actually listened to 'We Have This Place Surrounded' which is twelve years old now yet potentially could have been on the new album in a different way. That's kind of what we're getting at with the setlists. I'm very passionate about touching everything that we have albums wise. I know there are people who like our entire catalogue but I'm also there are people coming to our shows that might only have one album whichever one that might be. If I go and see a band and I've got one of their albums and they don't play a single track off it I'm not going to be very excited by the end of the show. I know we've been around a while now but there may be some people out there that only have Exits so they'll want to hear at least a song off it. But finding the ones that are still suitable for what we're doing now is the challenge.
Andy Smith: Funnily enough, we were having this discussion earlier today about putting the set together. In a weird way, I feel in a position where I'm lifted above the view these guys have as I wasn't involved in making any of them before Ocean By Ocean. Also, before I joined the band, I hadn't heard any of the albums. I knew some of the songs but not the entire albums they came from. I remember watching the set for the first time and hearing songs like 'We Have This Place Surrounded' and 'Always', which are four albums apart. Yet they didn't seem like that to me. Also, when you listen to an album you have to remember different production styles count as much as different playing styles at the time for how that record turned out. Chronologically there is a marked difference but when you hear them live they gel a lot more because you're playing them in the same instance. So with this album, we play them in a style that just does naturally fit.
DiS: Andy, you re-recorded 'Always' with the band in 2014 soon after joining. Why did you choose that particular song to rework?
Andy Smith: We did an acoustic version of 'Always'.
Nathan Nicholson: I think we chose that because it was going to be a single so we wanted to do something different with the song.
Piers Hewitt: It quickly became apparent when we were recording 'Always' that Andy is far more musical than any of us! He fills a role that we've just never had before.
Andy Smith: Because I come from an acoustic background it's something I'll always gravitate towards. Those things are a bit more natural to me.
DiS: You're one of the headliners for Live At Leeds at the end of April. Are there any other bands on the bill you're looking forward to seeing? Are there any other festival dates lined up for this year?
Piers Hewitt: I think Spring King are playing? I'm looking forward to seeing them. I really like their stuff. That's the only show on this run of gigs that's a festival. We're just thinking about doing normal gigs for now.
Adam Harrison: We've got a couple of festivals in Holland in June. They invest so much into their venues and festivals. Same in Germany as well. It's such a stark contrast to what you find over here. It's just testament to how much they value the arts.
Piers Hewitt: We're just doing a few of the smaller ones this summer then touring again in the autumn. Hopefully we'll pick up a few of the bigger festivals next summer. Both have their merits whether it's a small event or a bigger one. We've had some great gigs at small festivals before and crap shows at big ones.
DiS: What are your plans for the rest of the year?
Nathan Nicholson: From September we've got a European tour. Straight after that we go to the States, and then we're back over here for a UK tour.
Piers Hewitt: Which probably ends at Shepherd's Bush Empire I think? Hopefully it will be reopened by then.
DiS: Are there any new bands you've been particularly impressed with recently?
Nathan Nicholson: We've just started putting together this playlist on Spotify and there's a few things that have really grabbed me. There's this band called Wand I really like. They're great.
Piers Hewitt: I'm listening to playlists more so hear a lot of new music which is great, but the downside is I spend less time listening to whole albums which isn't. It's also made me check out a few more radio shows than I was doing before. I listen to Shell Zenner on Amazing Radio a bit more now. I don't think I've got myself fully engrossed into a pattern of focusing on one specific band - and that's not to say there isn't any great stuff out there because I'm sure there is. I'm listening to more music now than I have in the past five or six years. I'm just listening to it in a totally different way. I'm just struggling to get into any one particular band. It's weird.
Adam Harrison: I'm listening to a lot of really obscure stuff by established artists which is probably quite weird, but then I wouldn't have been able to hear a lot of this stuff in the past without purchasing it so services like Spotify and You Tube are great for making that possible.
DiS: What advice would you give to new bands just starting out?
Nathan Nicholson: Wait until you're ready. Because of social media, you have a history straight away. If you're going to post music it's always going to be there. I'm glad that our earliest songs and earliest gigs are in my memory rather than on the internet. Try and get someone you trust to give an unbiased view on whether your music's ready or not. Same when it comes to playing shows too. If you're serious about your band, don't just sit in front of the laptop playing a cover into the webcam and upload it onto You Tube.
Adam Harrison: Be serious. Be choosy about how you want other people to see you.
Piers Hewitt: I'd also add don't stop writing music. I've been in bands and seen it with other bands where they write enough songs to form a live set and that's it.
The album Ocean By Ocean is out on Friday 29th April via Absentee Recordings/Kobalt.
For more information on The Boxer Rebellion visit their official website.