The Boxer Rebellion: 'A lot of young men find it difficult to open up about their feelings'

Frontman Nathan Nicholson opens up about recording the band’s new album ‘Ghost Alive’, as well as mental health and skirting round the days of ‘indie landfill’

Elizabeth Aubrey
Monday 09 April 2018 12:27 BST
Andrew Smith, Nathan Nicholson, Adam Harrison and Piers Hewitt
Andrew Smith, Nathan Nicholson, Adam Harrison and Piers Hewitt

A few seconds into a chat with Boxer Rebellion frontman Nathan Nicholson, talk turns to our differing accents. “Man-cun-ian,” Nicholson says, slowly, enunciating each syllable cautiously in a thick Tennessee accent. “Is that how you pronounce it?” he asks, nervously.

Through short vowels and H-drops, I inform him that it is, commending him on being one of only a handful of people who can in fact pronounce it correctly. Despite living in the UK for more than 20 years, his southern American accent is still distinctive, lyrical and strong.

“Did you see the Oasis documentary, Supersonic?” he asks later, as we discuss how Alan McGee, founder of Creation Records – the label to which Oasis signed in 1993 – changed the course of his band forever. The Boxer Rebellion were signed by McGee to his Poptones label in 2003 amid a wave of media speculation and hype.

Knowing McGee had previously signed Oasis, Primal Scream and My Bloody Valentine, to name a mere few, it was an offer the band proudly accepted. Their 2005 debut, Exits, was critically acclaimed and everything was in place for a life-changing breakthrough.

“He signed it to Mercury Records and then a week or so after our album came out, the whole label fell apart,” Nicholson explains. “We were, along with the entire roster, just suddenly without a label.”

The Poptones label imploded; the initial joy of being signed by someone Nicholson grew up admiring as a fan of Britpop from afar was soon replaced with feelings of dejection and despair. Alone and struggling, Nicholson explains that the band had to take up “crappy part-time jobs” to survive, rebuilding everything from scratch.

Despite such a crushing early disappointment, Nicholson is still able to see the positives in McGee’s involvement. “The album ended up better because of him sticking his oar into it,” he laughs. “When we first gave it to him he wasn’t impressed and showed us straight back to the studio.” Nicholson compares it to Definitely Maybe where McGee did the same thing to Oasis. “It obviously did Oasis well and it ended up making their and our record better.” I ask him how soon after the rerecording it was before they realised the label had issues. Did they even realise?

(Rob Ball/Redferns

“We knew relatively quickly that things were not going the way they should be going,” he says of the ill-fated label. “It was a bad thing at the time but it wasn’t a bad thing for us in retrospect,” he reflects, philosophically. Nicholson was an avid follower of Britpop growing up in Tennessee. Soon after he arrived in the UK in his early twenties as an exchange student, he found his bandmates on an online forum via the famous 12 Bar Club on Denmark Street, London’s Tin Pan Alley.

“They had a ‘musicians wanted’ kind of thing,” Nicholson tells me. “So that’s where I met Todd Howe, and we were into the same kind of stuff at the time – The Delgados, Travis, acoustic stuff. Adam Harrison and Piers Hewitt were studying at a music college together. It was a pretty organic formation.” Despite suffering such a setback so early on in their career, the band retained a stalwart determination to continue making music. Andy Smith replaced Howe after the latter moved to the US with his partner in 2014, otherwise the lineup has stayed the same.

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“There was never any question of us not writing music together,” Nicholson says, when explaining how the band picked themselves up. “Our second album was the biggest challenge of our career because it was really us trying to figure out how we were going to record, how we were going to fund it and make it by ourselves.”

“The hardest part was trying to write an album piecemeal over four years or so alongside jobs, but it worked out. We eventually finished the record and it ended up kind of relaunching us to a degree.” It took them four years whilst working other jobs, but eventually their second album, Union, emerged. Not having enough money to produce physical copies of CDs, the band self-released the album online. It later became the first ever self-released album to enter the US top 100 through digital sales alone.

“Ever since the second album, we’ve self-released,” Nicholson adds – the experience of Poptones having clearly left an indelible mark. “We’ve used different third parties, whatever is there at the time and who is liking what we are doing. We’ve always just said, ‘here’s the master’ – besides the four of us, whoever we’re working with producer-wise and our manager, there’s never been any discussion with anyone else. We’ve stuck to the principle of ‘this is the final record and this is the artwork’ [laughs]. We’ve never been told much what to do.”

This fierce independence and creativity has proved essential to their survival and success. Now, 17 years into their career, they are often described as existing in a hinterland somewhere between Radiohead and The National, with melodies drenched in emotive introspection resonating with their large fan base around the world. Success overseas has always been greater for the group than in the UK, an anomaly many of their loyal British fan base struggle to understand.

Their sixth album, Ghost Alive, may very well change that, however, with many regarding this as one of the band’s most successful to date – not least because of how personal and emotive the album’s themes are. Losing his father early last year, his mother when he was aged just 18, and his unborn child six years ago, Nicholson reflects on ideas of loss, love and grief.

“I’ve gotten better at it,” Nicholson says when I ask him if it was difficult writing about such deeply personal themes. “When we started the band I was probably the opposite of what teenagers would do, where they wear their heart on their sleeves and write very personal, poetic stuff. I guess I was trying to be like Radiohead, where I wrote lyrics that sounded cool but didn’t really make any sense,” he adds, laughing. “Almost like overcomplicated poetry, but where it just sounds seriously cool.”

“I’ve tried to write in ways that are still hopefully poetic but which make sense, and you can either relate to it or you know someone that’s related to it. I think the easiest way to do that is to kind of share your experiences or put yourself in someone else’s shoes.”

Most of the recording took place immediately after his father’s funeral, and while the songs had been written prior to his father’s death, recording them so soon after, he says, meant they took on a new meaning.

“It all made more sense to me when I got back from my dad’s funeral in Tennessee. I came back and we recorded, starting it within a couple of days. I wasn’t an emotional wreck, I guess I’m okay at dealing with certain things. I lost my mum aged 18, so I’ve lost a parent before. It’s never something that you choose to go through or what anyone would want to go through.”

The theme of loss runs throughout the album. On opener “What the f**k?” Nicholson sings “accept the gifts you’ve given and accept it ends too soon”; on “Here I Am” the lines “I lost you once / I won’t lose you again” echo against an acoustic backdrop, making the band sound vulnerable and exposed.

On “Love Yourself” the band teamed up with mental health charity CALM (Campaign Against Living Miserably) to explore issues surrounding mental health and depression.

Arguably the most personal song on the album, Nicholson explains that “Love Yourself” is about overcoming both grief and difficult times, especially when he looked back at losing his mother and his unborn child.

“It was a quite open song about getting through it. It was really nice to get involved with someone like CALM. I know a lot of musicians who have personal issues – it may be depression or mental health issues – but I’ve always felt, being a songwriter, that it’s very beneficial for me to write songs because I can be – and people expect me to be – very open and vulnerable. Whereas I think a lot of young men, especially, find it very difficult to open up about their feelings.”

With suicide rates in the UK still increasing – and those for men being three times higher than females – the lyrics on “Love Yourself” are painfully poignant: “Can’t look in the mirror, much less anyone else / You try and move on from here / But you look like a ghost… You can’t think, always running in place / A lost soul that won’t show his face.” Nicholson hopes the song will help to initiate a more open conversation with those suffering with mental health issues.

“It’s about everyone knowing that there’s someone to talk to, that it’s okay to feel this way and that it’s not necessarily unusual. Hopefully it will help to start a dialogue and helps people when they need help.”

“I remember I was talking to my friend who is a journalist in Tennessee where I’m from and he’d lost his dad the same day I lost my dad. We were discussing how we were able to deal with it… as a journalist he writes very much from the heart and I do that as well – I don’t try and hold back too much. A lot of people are very guarded, they find it difficult to say what they want to say or they just shut it away; a lot of men obviously do that. Trying to be open is something that everyone can be better at.”

Despite being an album that deals with challenging themes, this is also one of The Boxer Rebellion’s most hopeful albums in their oeuvre. Part of this, Nicholson thinks, is down to his relationship and perspective on the past.

“Every day before I go to bed, I try and remember something my parents did from my memories so things don’t fade. I find it’s good to remember things, whether it’s through just singing a song or remembering what that song represents, or just in general trying to think back. Not living in the past but having a reverence for the past… I don’t feel like we try and write songs that are just down and in kind of dark places; it is more just hopefully telling it like it is in a more uplifting, cathartic kind of way.”

More catharsis, Nicholson adds, came from returning to their acoustic roots. Originally, the band were planning to release an acoustic EP or “best of”, but the idea grew once the band returned to the studio.

“It’s not like we were intending to make some bold move or anything. It morphed into a bigger idea gradually. Do you remember a few years ago Bombay Bicycle Club did something similar where they made their first record and then did an album? And when Beck did the same thing with Mutations? That was like our blueprint.”

“When we started as a band it was a much more acoustic-driven landscape with the likes of Coldplay and Travis. Returning to a predominantly acoustic album wasn’t a difficult thing. I would say the songs have become a little grander-sounding live because it’s probably more in keeping with the rest of the stuff we’ve done, but the acoustic songs have worked well; they’ve been really nice to play.”

Many of the early Noughties bands who emerged at the same time as The Boxer Rebellion have since split, their music largely forgotten amid the “landfill indie” period between Britpop’s heyday and the late Noughties embrace of electro. Nicholson is proud the band are still here and still making music, especially after overcoming so much personally and professionally. I wonder if this now affords the band an opportunity to look back with a greater sense of satisfaction, or if overcoming so many arduous hurdles has taken a toll?

“There was something a few years ago when we were looking through NME online and there was a thing on there about bands of the Noughties that had ended – what happened to them, where they are now. I’m glad we weren’t on it. That era was a weird transition for the music industry, and many of the bands aren’t really remembered necessarily for any big records now. It’s like some weird black-hole space that’s been forgotten about. I think everyone got tired of the bands The Libertines spawned. Releases were so quick; as we didn’t have the means to do that, it helped us out a bit to weather the storm, to release on our own time.”

With new fans attending their concerts more than ever, is it now time for The Boxer Rebellion to enjoy things and to finally have cause to celebrate?

“I don’t know if we’ll ever get to a point where we have time to enjoy it,” Nicholson laughs. “We’ve never been a band that’s been so big at one point that the rest of our career is a certainty. We’ve always had to grind it out a little more than say U2. I don’t think that after The Joshua Tree U2 were necessarily worried about doing music for the rest of their lives,” he laughs. “I find it very hard to see it as just a career. Being in a band, especially a band like ours, it’s very much intertwined with your life. My adult life has been punctuated by what’s happening in between albums.

“I wonder what will be weirder for people – those really into our last albums and then discovering this really different one, or those discovering this one and then going back to our back catalogue thinking, what the hell? What is this?”

The protagonist on “River”, one of the album’s closing songs, wrestles between chasing or forgoing a dream – a fear of failure ever present: “Fear of sadness / fear of a broken heart / I held back on a gamble / I assumed would only fall apart.” At the end of the song, Nicholson concludes: “And I used to sit by the river / Knowing one day it would lead me to my dreams.”

It sounds almost like The Boxer Rebellion have hit something close to contentment after years of struggles and beating the odds. Have their dreams finally come true? “We’re really happy with the album,” Nicholson smiles at the end of our interview. “It all worked out.”

Ghost Alive, the new album by The Boxer Rebellion, is out now

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