Led by actor Billy Bob Thornton, the Boxmasters are all about balance: a balance of covers and originals on their self-titled double CD debut; a balance of tragedy and humor in their lyrics; and a balance of country, hillbilly and British Invasion-era rock in their music.
Perhaps not surprisingly for a band fronted by Thornton, whose screen credits include roles in films such as Sling Blade and Friday Night Lights, Boxmasters songs focus on working-class life, where life can be a prison of your own choosing. But the lyrics, backed by guitarist Mike Butler and bassist J.D. Andrew, remind us that if our choices build those prisons, they are also the key to our release. The euphoria of this realization is conveyed through The Boxmasters' foot-tapping, have-a-good-time music, which you can sample yourself Aug. 24 at the Rex Theatre.
How would you describe the hillbilly attitude?
Billy Bob Thornton: Reckless, funny and dark.
J.D. Andrew: Life's hard, sometimes it's funny, sometimes it's tragic. We just try to combine all those elements.
Mike Butler: There's an irreverence about hillbilly music that goes back decades. It's the difference between hillbilly and country music -- which, right now, is really just pop music with pedal steel. Hillbilly music's always been sort of rough around the edges, and that certainly holds true with us.
BBT: What they call country music these days isn't really country music as much as watered-down '70s and '80s pop. Our music is a little bit more of a combination of rock 'n' roll and old-school country music. It's a little more raw.
MB: We definitely don't polish things up too much. We like to hear the instruments and the rough edges and the humanity behind the music.
Is there less emphasis on bands sounding different these days?
JDA: A lot of times these days, the producer's own sound is more important than the band's. A band like The Beatles or The Rolling Stones have their own sound, but if you turn on the radio these days, the new bands are so homogenized that you can't tell them apart. Everyone used to want to be different, but these days everyone's trying to sound the same. They're all chasing that hit.
The line "If you build your own prison, you serve your own time," from the song "Build Your Own Prison" perfectly captures the spirit of the first disc. What prisons have you built for yourselves or see others building?
JD: My prison is that I'm a workaholic. All I want to do is be in the studio making music. My girlfriend doesn't appreciate that too much. She wants me to come home and hang out, but, at the same time, it's hard to fight the love of what you do.
MB: It happens all the time on the small and large scale. It can be a relationship, addiction, or skipping breakfast and being hungry. The whole originals disc is based on the lower-middle-class lifestyle that the three of us grew up in.
Relationships come up a lot on the album. What do you think it takes to maintain a good one?
BBT: Friendship is at the top of the list. If it's just a sexual or romantic relationship, you've likely lost something already. The best relationships I've had in my life came about when I was friends with the person first.
JDA: Honesty and respect.
MB: I would avoid jealousy. You really need confidence in yourself before you can put it in somebody else. You need to know yourself well enough to know when something isn't working. People get wrapped up in the wrong kinds of things, and not looking at the big picture can really be a pitfall.
The sound of the band takes listeners back to an earlier time. Is there anything else you'd like to bring back from the past?
MB: Gas prices, that'd be nice. Personally, I try to keep up with all the changes and new things rather than live in the past. I think there's too much access these days, though. Everyone has a camera on their phone, and they can just capture any moment and put it online. It used to be that when you liked a band, you went and saw them live because it was the only chance you got to see them, but now you can see almost any performance on YouTube. Same thing with all the behind-the-scenes features on DVDs: They take away some of the magic from the experience.
BBT: I think that's one of the main evils in the entertainment industry: There's too much access. People become less special to you because you feel like you know everybody. In a time when everyone wants to be famous and anyone can do it because of reality TV, it's really watered it down.
What's next for The Boxmasters?
BBT: The Christmas album's done and already being mixed. It comes out Nov. 11. When we get back from the tour, we're also going to start mixing the next regular record, and it'll probably be done by the spring. It's another one like this: It's two records, one disc of all originals, one of covers. We covered everybody from The Turtles and Rusty Weir to Tom Rush. This next one's going to be a little more rocking, but it's still hillbilly music. There's going to be some more thematic songs on there, but there's going to be a few of the funny songs, too.
The first album certainly maintains a good mixture of humor and tragedy.
BBT: I grew up with Southern literature: Erskine Caldwell, William Faulkner, Mark Twain. Humor and tragedy were so mixed up in the lifestyle that I was raised in that it's natural for me to see them as being intertwined. I think it's important to mix the two, because if you see a drama and the characters are over-earnest every moment, then that's more like a soap opera than real life. Same with comedies: If it's all wacky stuff with no real heart to it, it makes for a very superficial piece of art because you can't go below the surface since you've created characters that don't seem real. Nobody has just one element to them.
The Boxmasters. 7:45 p.m. Sun., Aug. 24. Rex Theatre, 1602 E. Carson St., South Side. $30/$35. 21 and over. 412-381-6811 or www.rextheatre.com