Billy Bob Thornton brings rockin’ Boxmasters to Jergel’s
The Billy Bob Thornton and the Boxmasters tour bus has pulled up at the Big House, the Allman Brothers museum in Macon, Ga., where the singer, drummer and Oscar-winning actor is sitting in on a panel discussion with some legends of Southern rock.
On the phone from the museum, Mr. Thornton, who grew up in Arkansas in the late ’60s, early ’70s, says, “The Allman Brothers were kind of my bible at the time.”
Back in the days when he was just getting his footing in the music world, and acting and screenwriting were barely a thought, he was paying homage to a different set of Southern rock kings.
“We had a band called Tres Hombres,” he says, “and we did a tribute to ZZ Top ’cause this band I was in at the time sounded just like them. We were a three piece and I was on drums, and [Billy] Gibbons saw us, way back then, late ’70s, early ’80s, and it was really funny, but we keep up with him. [The Boxmasters] actually open for ZZ fairly often. We make a pretty good fit.”
The Boxmasters, formed in 2007 in the LA suburbs, have some touches of Southern rock but veer more toward roots and heartland Americana with occasional waves of surf rock. The band, which plays Jergel’s on Tuesday, took shape while Mr. Thornton was working on his fourth solo album, “Beautiful Door,” and got J.D. Andrew, who had worked with the Rolling Stones, Kanye West and The Pussycat Dolls, to sub for his regular engineer.
“I got the call to cover for a few weeks,” says the engineer and Boxmasters guitarist, who is also on the line, “and during that time Billy asked me how well I played guitar because he had to do a Hank Williams cover for a Canadian TV show. It just had a thing to it that was inspiring, so we started right off covering Chad and Jeremy’s ‘Yesterday’s Gone,’ and we went on with that stuff combining hillbilly music with British Invasion. Over the 10 years, we’ve settled into a more naturalistic style that sounds like us.”
Proof that the 61-year-old Thornton never rests is that in a year when he hit the screen with projects like his Golden Globe-winning turn in HBO’s “Goliath” and “Bad Santa 2,” the Boxmasters were issuing not one, but two double records of 20plus songs. “Boys and Girls ... And the World” is in the Boxmasters’ rootsy singersongwriter vein while “Tea Surfing” is a beach party blast of ’60s-style surf and British rock.
“It’s more of a thematic thing: our influences of British mod music from the midto-late ’60s as well as the Southern California music,” Mr. Thornton says. “They’re all original songs, but we wrote them from the perspective of being a band in ’66-67. We’re big fans of the Small Faces and Kinks and Animals as well as the Beach Boys and Ventures and all those people. It’s songs written as if we were in those bands then. ‘Boys and Girls’ is more of a heady record in terms of the lyrics and everything.”
How readily can they get into the mindset of a band from 1966?
“It’s actually pretty easy to get there,” he says. “We use all vintage gear when we record anyway, and we’re so tuned into that music ’cause we listen to it all the time, so it’s fairly easy to make the transition. We include four or five songs off of ‘Tea Surfing’ in the new tour and those songs seem to really to go over. Usually in concert, we explain what the songs are and what they’re in tribute to, but I think, subliminally, it just sneaks into people and it’s almost as if they’ve heard it before. Even if it’s new songs, particularly the audience that was there at that time, they really plug into those songs.”
He was having a little trouble with the sequencing on “Tea Surfing,” so he brought in an old friend in Dwight Yoakam, the country legend and his bad guy co-star in “Goliath” and their 1996 film breakthrough “Sling Blade.”
“Dwight and I haven’t done much together musically over the years,” he says. “He and I did backup vocals on Warren Zevon’s last album on a song, but mostly Dwight and I, it’s been through discussions. He and I have similar tastes. Even though Dwight’s more in the country field, he’s really a rock ’n’ roll guy at heart. He was just like me. He was around when the Beatles came on Ed Sullivan, so he knows it inside and out.
“We normally are really good at sequencing our records, and I know it doesn't matter much anymore because people download stuff anyway, but we still like to sequence a record like you used to and tell a story with it, and we’re always pretty good at it, but on ‘Tea Surfing’ we were having a little trouble and we got Dwight over there who is very good at that. And Dwight sat there and worked his butt off there with us and listened to things over and over and over ’cause he really gets into stuff. Dwight, like me, he’s got OCD, so he really gets in there, and he sequenced the album.”
Finding time to write and record 40-some songs was no problem, Mr. Andrew says, because “We love being in a studio. It’s pretty much our favorite place to be besides being with our kids or ... well, that’s just about it.”
“For the most part, we set aside a time,” Mr. Thornton says, “so the first part of this year is really just devoted to music, and the movie agents know to leave me alone during that time, and starting in June, I’m going to be back in movie world again, so the music agent knows not to book us until late October. We usually keep this separate, although recording, it is more mixed up, so I’ll have a few weeks off between movies, and we’ll record during that time. The recording kind of never stops.”
Although his musical output runs much deeper, Mr. Thornton, like Kevin Bacon, Johnny Depp and Kiefer Sutherland, among others, is a musician clearly much more famous for his work on screen. So, do a lot of fans come out to the shows just to see a movie star up close?
“Not as much anymore,” he says. “In the first few years of my solo career and the first couple years of the Boxmasters’ career, we had more of those people that just wanted to see the monkey in the cafe, you know. But that’s kind of dissipated over the years, ’cause we’ve developed a really good cult following. I mean when we come to Pittsburgh, we haven’t played there much in that area, so we’ll probably get more of those people there. Or not many people at all,” he says laughing, “one or the other.”