A young Billy Bob Thornton watching the famed Beatles appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show on a black-and-white TV in 1964 would carry that influence with him for the rest of his life.
He was a big fan of The Animals and The Kinks and while he is widely known for his acting roles, Thornton has been playing in bands since he was a teenager, picking up the drums at the age of 10. In his late teens he would open for likes of ZZ Top and Humble Pie.
“When I saw Ringo on television I said ‘you know what, I’d like to do that,’” Thornton laughed.
Thornton became a roadie for a couple of years working for a lot of big name bands and ending up in California.
“I tried to get into a band out there and found out it was harder than I thought,” Thornton said. “One thing led to the next and I started recording again in the ‘90s. It’s been a long road. We still feel like we’re 19 year olds in a band trying to make it.”
It was while recording one of his solo albums that he met Boxmasters rhythm guitarist J.D. Andrew, who was working as an audio engineer on Thornton’s 2007 album Beautiful Door, and the two made a connection through the love of British Invasion music.
“I was supposed to do a song for someone on a TV show and the rest of the band wasn’t there and I got J.D. to do it because I knew he played guitar,” Thornton said. “We liked the sound.”
Both were influenced by the invasion of British rock music, striking a connection over that sound.
“They (the Beatles) took American music and put it into sort of a pop form that was radio-friendly for the times over here. It was just one of the things that we all grew up listening to,” Thornton said.
“They really took the early American music and expanded on it. You really get into The Beatles because at the beginning they have the catchy, poppy songs you could grasp a hold of and really be a fan of. But as they grew and changed musically, people and the times changed with them. They were never doing the same thing. They were always evolving,” Andrew said.
Something The Boxmasters ended up emulating.
“We’ve really taken from that model. We’ve almost been together 10 years, which is just about as long as The Beatles. We had done the same thing. We started with more country influences with steel guitars and stuff like that, but as we’ve gone on, it’s less of that and more of rock ’n’ roll stuff, bits of Pink Floyd, Warren Zevon and John Prine,” Andrew said. “There’s ambient, texture kind of things happening as well as good ol’ jangely rock ’n’ roll tunes.”
It was that connection during that first session with Andrew that ended up creating The Boxmasters.
“We dipped into this kind of unique sound that was a little different than what I was doing on my solo records and we decided to form the band,” Thornton said.
They developed a sound they dubbed Modbilly, not quite rockabilly, but akin to The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield and Tom Petty.
Ten years later, The Boxmasters have six albums under their belt, and according to Andrew, they’ve recorded almost twice as many.
“We had a few years where we were without a label and just kept recording constantly,” Andrew said.
With more than a few songs in the bank they were able to put out three albums over the last two years. The Boxmasters are currently on their first tour of the year, completing two last year.
“We’re all over just trying to beat people over the head with: we are a band that gets out there and works,” Andrew said.
Developing a sound over 10 years can bring about all sorts of different influences.
“We sound more like we really sound now. The first couple of records were really experimental. We decided lets sing like David Allan Coe doing British Invasion combination hillbilly songs. They were almost concept records in a way. These days we kind of sound like we sound more naturally when we play. We don’t go for a specific thing. The songs we write are just what we kind of what we naturally write,” Thornton said.
The chief of police in a town The Boxmasters played once wrote in after a show describing his impression.
“He described us as Mick Taylor-era (Rolling) Stones, mixed with the Blues Brothers, mixed with the Ramones,” Andrew said. “I thought that was pretty great description of what we do, especially live.”
Andrew added they bring “energy” to their live performances.
Though Thornton cautioned: “don’t misunderstand J.D.’s version of energy. We mean musically, we don’t jump around and stuff,” Thornton chuckled.
“Too old to jump,” Andrew said.
The shift to a more rock ‘n’ roll tone came over time for The Boxmasters. In the early days, they would cover songs, with their first two albums containing a bonus disc of covers that influenced the band, changing tempos and instrumentation to make a version that was their own.
“You learn a lot from doing those kinds of things. Different song structures and chords. All that gets thrown in the pot, melds together and becomes your sound,” Andrew said.
The Boxmasters hit No. 1 on Americana Radio with their song Poor House and are currently touring their latest double-album Boys and Girls … and the World.
“We believe in giving people a proper record experience,” Andrew said, noting their albums are only available in a physical format. Both the band and the record label believe in keeping things out of the digital realm.
The Boxmasters come to the Mule Nightclub on Sept. 11. Tickets are $55 available on ticketmaster.ca