Dan Holloway talks to Todd Howe of The Boxer Rebellion as the UK’s best Indie band prepares to play North America
I was tired and cold and sopping wet, and the only seat on the Tube was covered with a dog-eared copy of Metro. I put on my gloves, picked it up by the corner with a look of disgust, and caught sight of a small article halfway down the page about a London band. In the few months since then, my wife and I have been to see The Boxer Rebellion four times, and acquired every piece of merch we can lay our hands on. Which, I gathered from guitarist Todd Howe, isn’t unusual for the band’s fans. “Yeah, we’ve had one guy who’s followed us around the country for five years,” he said in his cool Australian drawl when I spoke to him at home, between gigs. “Which is pretty cool.”
That original article recounted how the band’s single, Evacuate, had become the first iTunes Single of the Week (the album, Union, making the iTunes top 5 in the UK and the US). All that without a record label (they were dropped by their label in 2005 the week their first album, Exits, a dark, claustrophobic masterpiece that became an underground sensation, was released) or, indeed, a physical recording. Union, in fact (a few special, tour-only CDs, one signed copy of which is a proud possession, aside), isn’t released as a CD until August.
So what is it that makes fans so crazy for what has to be the hottest band in the UK right now, to the extent Evacuate achieved 560,000 downloads in a week? I wonder if it’s something to do with their unique sound. “We started off aiming at something between Massive Attack and Muse,” says Todd. What they ended up with is a sound that’s 100% their own. The combination of frontman Nathan Nicholson’s powerful but haunting vocals (think Richard Ashcroft gone down to the Crossroads) on songs like Silent Movie, the infectious hook of Forces, and the brilliant layering and structure of Semi-Automatic, give their music both instant appeal and the ability to stand endless relistening.
The band also has an incredible stage presence, and their gigs in front of their home London crowds are just electric. “Our London gigs have a family atmosphere,” says Todd. A family like The Sopranos, maybe. The night I saw the band play Scala, they sent the crowd berserk, and Todd ended up playing the guitar meltdown at the end of their signature track Watermelon on his back, on top of someone who later became my twitterbuddy! It helps build the relationship with the fans that they always sell their own merch and have a drink with the fans after the show “Yeah, we can’t afford a merch guy,” Todd laughs, adding, “Sometimes we spend longer selling merch than we do playing the gig.” It’s something the band loves doing, and it enhances the sense of being part of a family – or, given the band’s history, part of a story.
The Boxer Rebellion will be playing The Mercury Lounge, New York on August 6, and The Mod Club Toronto, on August 8, and the three shows they’ve played in the US so far this year – their first US dates – have been sellouts. But the band almost toured America before, supporting The Killers in 2004, when Nicholson was struck down with an illness that took a year to recover from. It clearly means a lot to the band to be playing there at last. “When we finished Flashing Red Light Means Go (the thumping set opener, to which the band – Nathan, Todd, and bassist Adam – make their rock’n’roll entrance – “but you feel like a bit of an idiot if you’re playing to like 10 people,” Todd jokes – whilst drummer Piers builds momentum) in LA the crowd just went mental. It was awesome.” I could sense both the pride, and the relief in his voice.
Between shows, the band is currently writing and recording their third album, which must be a little weird, I suggest, when they haven’t actually released the second one. “We want to make sure we stay ahead of the game,” says Todd, quickly. The band have had it all taken away before, and it’s clear they’re going to do everything they can to avoid it happening a second time.
The Boxer Rebellion embody everything that makes Indie culture great, from their unique sound to their absolute commitment to their fans (“if people are paying that much money, we want to make sure they get a hell of a show,” says Todd when I ask him about their unusually high quality of support acts, which have included the outstanding electro-prog band Pure Reason Revolution, and “the best unsigned band in Britain” according to many, InLight). But what about the clincher. Anything in the pipeline in terms of a label? “We’ve done a licensing deal in Japan and New Zealand,” says Todd, “and we’ve got a great distributor in Europe, so technically I guess we’re no longer unsigned.” Nonetheless, he explains, “we made a collective decision we didn’t need a label. If we were going to change our minds and look at anyone, they’d have to follow the way we wanted to work.” The kings of UK Indie look set to retain that status for some time to come.
Dan Holloway is author of the novel Songs From the Other Side of the Wall, a founder member of the Year Zero Writers collective, and organiser of the Free-e-day Indie download festival. Based in the UK, he will be speaking at the annual conference of the Mid-Atlantic Popular Culture Association in Boston this November.