Music

The Union Endures: An Interview with the Boxer Rebellion

Jason MacNeil
Photos: Tessa Angus

Singer/guitarist Nathan Nicholson talks to PopMatters about his band's new album, the return to a label-less existence and his thoughts about the relationship between music and disaster relief.


The Boxer Rebellion

Union

US Release: Import
UK Release: 2009-09-15
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When a new group encounters constant setbacks and disappointments, it can do one of two things: harden them to persevere through the valleys or end up beaten, battered and broken up.

British rock group the Boxer Rebellion have had their share of hurdles, perhaps none worse than in 2005 when the Poptomes label they were signed to dissolved, leaving them without the financial backing and support a lot of teething bands need.

However, the label stress only fueled them more, resulting in the quartet taking a small step back to move forward with their latest (and impressive) independent release Union.

As singer/guitarist Nathan Nicholson explains, Union -- which has been out for a year on iTunes but is still getting “buzz” recognition -- was a sporadic labor of love constructed over a series of years.

“We were label-less and we all got part-time jobs so we were recording it when we could, so that’s why it took so long,” he says. “So that was probably the toughest part, not knowing when or how it could come out. We finished it and then it sat on the shelf for a year before we had any opportunity to do anything with it.

“We were writing it, and then we would record it and then we would write some more and record that. So we ended up always thinking we had an album finished and then we would add a new song so it would always change. So we ended up with a fair bit (of material) and then we’d go back and change things we had already done.”

Perhaps most importantly, that label limbo didn’t cause Nicholson, bassist Adam Harrison, drummer Piers Hewitt or guitarist Todd Howe to let the Boxer Rebellion die.

“No, oddly enough, you would think we would have because we really didn’t have much going for us,” Nicholson says. “But I think we all thought this was our thing, this was what we enjoyed doing. But the point that we were on our own, we didn’t have our manager any more, we didn’t have our agent, we didn’t have press anymore, nothing. We were back to square one. And in a way it was kind of nice because you didn’t have the strings attached. I think it was what we really enjoyed doing. We had already written some new songs and wanted people to hear them. It was probably complete stupidity but we kept going.”

After getting financial backing from Japanese promoters and putting up some of their own coin, the Boxer Rebellion began recording Union. Nicholson says Union is a more mature sounding album than their debut Exits.

“It’s probably not as bleak,” he says. “I think it is grown-up in the sense of songwriting. I think if you were to take everything away the songs would be better songs.”

Union itself is an adventurous rock record which seems to mix a teaspoon of the dramatic flourishes of Radiohead and Coldplay with a few healthy tablespoons of urgent, up-tempo guitar rock in the vein of Editors circa An End Has a Start.

The album also gets off to a great start with “Flashing Red Light Means Go", a tight, bombastic jewel which Nicholson says began with some rough ideas on an acoustic guitar.

“I kind of had a verse and chorus and brought it in and we decided to do something different with it which was the percussion,” he says. “The other guys were doing percussion and just trying different things that you haven’t done before, sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t. And that just seemed to work.”

Other memorable numbers include the lighter, airier “Move On”, which has a grandiose payoff, “Evacuate” which shines in concert, “Soviets” with its message of heading for something better and “Misplaced", the second song written for Union.

“It was just one of those songs that had a few lyrics and we added a few more just to make sense,” Nicholson says of “Misplaced". “It was also around the time that our label didn’t happen anymore. It was kind of a low point, I was feeling in a cathartic mood and I wanted to write something that was a bit soothing, kind of like a lullaby. It was one of those songs where you know when you finish it you’ve got something.”

What the Boxer Rebellion has now is a growing fan base, critical acclaim and more opportunities. The group recently played in Japan and Australia and head off to Austin in March for South By Southwest. Nicholson is looking forward to the event, hoping to fit some time in to see other bands when the Boxer Rebellion are off.

On top of that, the band also will make a cameo in the upcoming Drew Barrymore flick Going the Distance.

“It was really surreal, really strange,” Nicholson says. “We played our songs and we wrote a song for the movie. It was just a different experience in seeing how a movie is made. I mean I did film in film school but I never saw a Hollywood kind of deal. It was a different league.

The Boxer Rebellion are also set to start work on the follow-up to Union in late April, an album Nicholson believes will have a “more grown-up, better” collection of songs.

In the meantime, the quartet will take part in a benefit for Haiti on Feb. 19 in London, something they are proud to participate in. But the tragedy has not fueled any creative juices for Nicholson unlike some artists who feel inspired by world events.

“I know that Bono does but usually I think pretty much everyone is well aware of what’s going on,” he says. “If they aren’t I don’t think a song is going to change that. With music I like for it to be a kind of escape, so that’s kind of where we’re at on things like that. We’re not trying to get anyone to vote… maybe someday when all of us become parents.”

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