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Billy Bob Thornton Explains the Musical Experiments of the Boxmasters

If there were a futuristic movie about a machine disguised as a human who could generate a new song every day, Billy Bob “Bud” Thornton would be the lead. In fact, the truth is probably stranger than fiction. Thornton, a real human from Arkansas, has written hundreds of songs, only about 300 of which have been recorded, and even fewer released, according to Thornton’s Boxmasters bandmate and rhythm guitarist J.D. Andrew.

Eight years and four albums ago, Andrew was brought in as an engineer for Thornton’s fourth solo album, Beautiful Door. Andrew, a full-time engineer who rarely played guitar, was asked to contribute on a track Thornton was recording to a TV show and the chemistry led to a band.

“I hadn’t been a musician more than playing a song here and there,” he says. “I was a full-time engineer and he said, ‘How well do you well play guitar?’ Then, he said, ‘It doesn’t matter. We need to record a song for a TV show, so, let’s do it.’”

Now, hundreds of songs later, the band intends to release albums of the unreleased music digitally while still cutting on a label. The most recent digital release is “Providence,” which Andrew said was spurred by fans wanting to own unreleased songs the band frequently played live.

“We evolved from our crazier country-ish stuff eight years ago, so we’ve gotten to a more natural sound,” he says. “We’re a band that plays 100 percent live. There’s nothing propping us up, so you never quite know where our songs are going to go.”

Even though there’s star power with the band, Andrew and Thornton stress the grassroots feel of their work. Andrew takes songs they’ve recorded in the studio home with him, where he can master them at his kitchen.

“The economics of making the records these days makes it cheaper,” Andrew says.

When it comes to touring, this most recent leg includes 29 shows in 35 days. The band members unload the gear and set up their equipment. Andrew adds he’s in charge of T-shirt sales.

“It’s so much work that it’s hard to explain how difficult it is, but getting out and playing out songs for the people is what makes up for it,” he says.

Thornton, who drums and sings as well as plays guitar for the band, is the Christmas-music loving, cheating vegan who enjoys whomping his band mates at bowling alleys across the nation. The group is touring in support of its latest release, “Somewhere Down the Road,” and will be performing at Livewire in Scottsdale on Tuesday, September 15.

I know you’re not a fan of these questions, so let’s just get this one out of the way. As an experienced screen actor, how is taking the stage as a musician similar or different?

I’ve been playing since I was 10. I was playing birthday parties and PTA meetings. It hasn’t changed drastically. The main thing is you always have to be age appropriate. When I was in bands as a teenager, I would say I was probably more animated. I guess Mick Jagger can pull it off. Most people his age shouldn’t be hopping around and running around. We’re very influenced by the British invasion bands. On Ed Sullivan, they’re not moving around much.

Your performance from night to night varies because you have to read the audience. If I have anything from my film acting career, if any of that helps me is I’ve learned to read people very well. Film actors are good observers. When we come onstage, I can tell with the first song or so how the night is going to go. I adjust our show accordingly. Some audiences, I talk to more than others. Some nights, I blast through the songs. Other nights, I talk a lot and explain the songs.

Beer joints, which are the rock ’n’ roll clubs, those are usually the audiences you don’t talk to as much. By the time we come onstage, they’re halfway in the bag and we sort of just play the music. But, if you’re in a proper theater where everything is sitting, you talk to them more. They’re more subdued. By the end of the show, they stop being subdued. You really do feed off the audience. We play big places, like when we’re opening for a big name. Each place has its own energy.

Are you talking about Willie Nelson shows?
The good thing for Willie is his fan base is broad. He has bikers and grandmothers. I keep the language cleaner when we’re opening for Willie. We’ve also opened for Heart and ZZ Top. We just opened for Steve Miller a few days ago. It was a good fit.

I’ve been opening for big names since I was teenager…Humble Pie and Ted Nugent. A lot of people think you should be more nervous in an arena. You’re not, since it’s not as personal. So, you’re really not that aware that there are 10,000 or 12,000 people there. The more nerve-wracking shows are small theaters where they’re very intimate and the audience is sitting there like a Edward Hopper painting.

So, when you tour, do you pepper the types of venues?
You kind of take the best shows you can and there’s usually an even mix of all those things. Unless I notice there are too many casinos or theaters. We rarely play casinos, but those are great because we get paid more and the rooms are free, but you have to do them for the tour to make sense. If we notice [out] of 35 shows, 15 are casinos … we say, "Let’s book a few rock ’n’ roll clubs."

The band’s sound is definitely evolving. Tell me about these changes.
What’s funny is I would say we went the other way around. When you listen to the progression of our records and it may seem like we found our sound, but the sound we have right now is what we actually sound like. The other records are more experimental. [My] solo records were totally different, too.

We invented this band and it was kind of tongue in cheek. I’d say, "Let’s sing these songs like David Allen Coe. Let’s mix the British Invasion and turn English rock songs into hillbilly rock." Those were stylized and experimental records. In fact, those records don’t sound like what we really sound like.

How did it happen?
It was a conscious decision. We love those records. We think they’re very cool. They go past most people. They’re not made for a broad audience. They were our hilly-billy version of a Mothers of Invention record. We said, "OK, we did that." We wrote a rock opera that hasn’t come out yet. Let’s just make rock ’n’ roll records we came up on. We have five or six records of this style in the can. That doesn’t mean we’ll put other five or six on the label. Maybe one on the label every year and the rest on the website. That also doesn’t mean we won’t stop experimenting either, for example with a lo-fi ’60s record, like garage band, California songs. I said, "Let’s just write a whole record about California." More than likely that’ll go out on the website.

You guys seem pretty prolific.
We have 300 or 400 songs we haven’t put on record yet. We can’t stop recording. We love recording.

We don’t write everyday. We may go for a month or two and then write seven songs in two days and then we go through these periods where we record all the time. We don’t construct songs. The Nashville way of recording, they have writing appointments. That’s unfathomable. The only time I have an appointment is with the dentist.

What about these digital releases, like “Providence”?
Probably nobody will get it and no one will care, that way, for the people who want that thing and those who don’t, they don’t have to be tortured by it. We have a terrific cult following. We don’t have many fans, but they’re amazing and they get us. A 73-minute rock opera about how our society is crumbling [is not for everybody].

Our cult following, those are the people we make [records] for. We have songs about how if you grow up in the heyday of rock ’n’ roll like I did, how do you exist in this society? The social network, it should be used for positive things instead of negative things.

I think artists this day are afraid to stick their head out of the cave or are afraid to put their art out there. It cheats the fans in a way. I think people are getting more tight-lipped in interviews these days. [He laughs off that he isn’t one of them.] A lot of people are afraid to tell the truth.

Isn’t that what art is for?
Art is supposed to be telling the truth or whatever your truth is. It’s someone’s artistic vision, not a committee’s vision. Art by nature is someone’s idea. A painting is someone’s idea. Imagine if Picasso had to go around to every city and had to have a test screening of his painting and someone said, "Hey, the eyes are crooked." Then we wouldn’t have Picasso.

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We’re not a commercially oriented band, so, generally, a record label will say, ‘We love you guys. We’re not worried about a video and single.’ As soon as you sign on the dotted line, they want to know where the single and video are.

Our artistic process is easy. We’re all friends. We all know our role in the band. Each one of us has different strengths. Usually, in the melody and lyric department, they leave that to me.

J.D. was telling me you guys are unique in that most of the band members don’t live near one another.
I write songs on guitar and JD writes songs on guitar. Teddy writes on piano. Teddy will come up with some different things. I may be stuck on a bridge, and Teddy will come up with (a solution). We all have things that help us out.

Sometimes, you want a song that just sounds like a straight-ahead pop song. You’re not trying to reinvent the wheel. Just interpret what rock and roll has always been…Billy Haley, Elvis, The Beatles, and the root of it all, Little Richard. We’ve all just been doing different versions of that forever. They loved Carl Perkins and Dean Martin and Buck Owens, but when The Beatles would play one of their songs, they sound as they sound. We have all these influences and the closest you can probably pin us down to is Memphis rock and roll…a band like Big Star…the greatest band nobody ever heard. I knew the Big Star band and saw them live in the day. They came from The Box Tops… That’s our vibe. You could say there’s any one band [that inspires us], it’s Big Star. We’ll never attain the greatness they did, though we probably have just as many as people as they did [at our shows]. 

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