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Interview with Billy Bob Thornton and his band, The Boxmasters, performing Saturday for ARF

Electric hillbilly meets British Invasion meets Tony La Russa's Animal Rescue Foundation concert this Saturday night

Courtesy of The Boxmasters

This Saturday night, Tony La Russa’s Animal Rescue Foundation hosts its annual Stars to the Rescue benefit concert at the Lesher Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek. I have a specific fondness for this event, because it was the first one I covered for Diablo's Faces section back in 1999, when the Eagles, Bruce Hornsby, Clint Black, and Eddie Money performed. Over the years, Stars has showcased some amazing talent: Bonnie Raitt, Chris Isaak, John Fogerty, Kool and the Gang, Father Guido Sarducci, Kevin Nealon, and Emmylou Harris have all performed in Walnut Creek to benefit ARF.

This Saturday’s show features Air Supply, Tony Orlando, comic Will Durst, and an L.A.-based electric hillbilly-meets British Invasion pop band called The Boxmasters. You may recognize the lead singer, Billy Bob Thornton, from his many memorable performances on screen (Sling Blade, Monster’s Ball, A Simple Plan, Bad Santa, and The Man Who Wasn’t There are my favorites), or from his solo music career. As the Boxmasters, Thornton, along with bandmates J.D. Andrew and Mike Butler, are creating some fantastic rockabilly-hillbilly-garage rock-pop records. The band’s debut is a two disc set featuring an album of originals, penned by Thornton, and an album of unexpected covers—The Beatles, Mott the Hoople, and Kenny Loggins all get filtered through the Boxmasters sound. The results are delightful and spooky at the same time. I caught up with the band about their upcoming show.

Diablo: I read in your press kit that you guys feel like the Boxmasters exist in the year 1964. What is it about that time that is so magical?
MIKE BUTLER: It was just such a cool time: muscle cars were in prominence, the Beatles were on Ed Sullivan, and popular music was changing. This was coming after the ‘50s—a very stiff time, everyone wore a suit. By 1964, things were a little more reckless. We may look back at this time we’re in now, someday, the way we do 1964, but I doubt it.
J.D. ANDREW: Also, everyone at that time was striving to be different, to have their own sound, to be themselves. It’s what people were trying to really do. Sometime after that, everyone started trying to be the same.
BILLY BOB THORNTON: I was 9-years-old in 1964 and that music changed my life. I knew, and everybody knew that was never going to happen again. We’re all about originators, which was what that British Invasion music was all about. I think music ended in about 1974, anyway, if you consider the music that’s out there today. I’d rather listen to Freddie and the Dreamers “Do the Freddie” than just about anything that’s out there now. It was better music. Even punk music came of that time. If there hadn’t been a Who, there wouldn’t have been a Sex Pistols or a Ramones. And when you think about The Beatles in 1964, “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” is a GREAT record. If you talk to different musicians about their favorite Beatles song, the’yll say that over some of the headier stuff that came later.

How did the Boxmasters come together?
JD: I was working as an engineer on Billy’s solo record, Beautiful Door. He came into the studio one day and asked how good I was on guitar. I said, ‘Oh, not so good,' and he said, ‘Well, doesn’t matter, we’re going to record a song for Canadian television. So we recorded Hank Williams’ “Lost Highway,” and we found we had a really nice sound together. So we did a couple more and then brought Mike over, and it sounded even better. We said, ‘Hey, we got band here!’ So we recorded enough songs to do a record, and then Billy was going to do a solo tour and we decided to have the Boxmasters be the opening band for Billy’s solo stuff. Two sets a night and we had a blast.

The band has only been together a year, but you’ve already put out a double album, a Christmas album, and have a couple more albums coming out this year. How are you making this much music at this pace?
MIKE: Well, it’s all we do. If we’re not on the road, we’re in the studios at Billy’s house. J.D. and I have engineering backgrounds, so we can do that as well… By eliminating the middle men, we can just keep making records. It doesn’t feel like work, because we love it so much.

This band has a real identity—the sound, the matching suits. How did you come up with this scene?
JD: From the very first song we recorded, it was that Hank Williams song, but with a British Invasion sound. So that’s where it all came together. We’re a bunch of hillbillies that love the British Invasion. The name the Boxmasters is a Southern term for a playboy—the guy who got all the chicks. Billy thought it was a great name for a band—it sounds like a band from the ‘60s and has meanings that you can’t put in print or say on the radio.
BILLY: It’s not like we came up with this idea to be so stylized right from the start. A lot of it came from me, where I grew up. We had a local band called the Yardleys and they felt like the Beatles to us. They’d be in suits and they’d play “Hanky Panky” or “House of the Rising Sun” at the party on Saturday night.

How many live shows have you played as The Boxmasters?
MIKE: We counted it up, somewhere around 100 shows now from three tours and a few one-off dates.

There’s a bar here in Walnut Creek called Spoontonic that’s away from downtown, and it's under an Indian restaurant. You’d never know there’s a bar there. But the crowd is really eclectic, and so is the music in the jukebox—everything from surfer instrumentals to heavy metal, just all kinds of music. I think your album would fit in nicely there. Anyway, I’m curious about what cities, or parts of the country, have really embraced the whole Boxmasters scene?
MIKE: Austin, for one. But we do really well in the South in general. We also do really well in Chicago. Anywhere that has an open mind.
J.D.: Or a sense of humor.
MIKE: Right. We really haven’t run into too many people who don’t get it. Everyone seems to be really nostalgic for that time and that kind of music.

Billy, what can you tell me about your song, “I’m Watching the Game.”
BILLY: (Laughs) I’m a die-hard St. Louis Cardinals fan. And that song comes from all of our girlfriends interrupting us when the game is on. It’s like, ‘No, I can’t go to Bed Bath and Beyond right now. Because it’s the bottom of the ninth, we’re down by two, the bases are loaded, and Pujols is up.’

I know Billy knows Tony La Russa. Do J.D. and Mike know Tony as well?
J.D.: Yes, we’ve met Tony a couple of times. He came to a show we played with Willie Nelson in Champagne, just a couple of weeks ago. When we were on tour, we went to a Cardinals/Dodgers game and hang out with Tony a bit. Billy is a huge Cardinals fan so he’s always pumping him for stuff about the team. I’m a Dodgers fan, so I’m trying to scout for them.
BILLY: I’m sure that I get more joy from my friendship with Tony than he does from being my friend. I’m sure he’s gotten kind of tired of my 3 a.m. phone messages, where I all of a sudden have some idea that will help the Cardinals this season.

Are you all animal lovers?
MIKE: I’m allergic, but I had some reptiles growing up.
J.D. I grew up on a farm in Kansas and people would often just dump dogs and cats on the side of the road. That’s where 90% of our pets came from—dogs and cats that were left out on a country road. We always had a yard full of them.
BILLY: I had dogs my whole life, but I don’t have one right now. I’m jonesing for a dog, big time. We have a cat, which I’m allergic to. In fact, a couple of years ago, I posed for ARF's calendar. He asked me to pose with an animal, and I said sure. Then they said, ‘We want you to hold a cat, because we have enough pictures of people with dogs.’ I said, ‘Look, I’m horribly allergic to cats.’ But he talked me into doing it, and I did, even though my eyes were watering the whole time.

The Boxmasters perform Saturday, January 10, as part of Animal Rescue Foundation’s Stars to the Rescue benefit. For more info information, click here. To learn more about the Boxmasters, go to www.theboxmasters.com. And check back on Diablomag.com on January 14 to read my extended interview with Billy Bob Thornton about his film and music career.