Why Stop Now?: A Conversation with Billy Bob Thornton and JD Andrew of The Boxmasters

Call it a shot across the bow. Or raising the bar. Or putting their money where their collective mouths are. Whatever. The bottom line is this: When you hear what The Boxmasters band did with their free time during the global pandemic of 2020, you’re first reaction is more than likely to be something along the lines of this:

“Holy shit!” Yep.

There’s making the most of your time, and then there’s MAKING THE MOST OF YOUR TIME. ALL CAPS. That was what pandemic-era Billy Bob Thornton and JD Andrew (aka, The Boxmasters) did.

Rather than sit on their asses (like many bands did), or use the 16 months as an extended vacation to “find themselves,” they did what they do best — create music. Before long, a new album of material was done, start to finish. Why stop there, though? They continued. Soon, pandemic album No. 2 was done. Finally; it was time for that COVID-induced break they’d heard about from other bands.

Or was it?

Nope. The collective thought was more along the lines of “if we can do two albums, why not three? And, what the hell, let’s make it a Christmas album to boot.” So they did. Three albums. In the can. And that doesn’t count “Light Rays,” the band’s fall of 2020 release. Not a second was wasted.

We just made the most of it,” says Andrew, who was brought in as a sound engineer to work with Thornton in 2007 but ended up fitting into the band so well that he grabbed a guitar and joined in full-time. “It was June or July of 2020 when we were finally able to go back into the recording studio, and once we did that, we went in every couple of weeks, or every month, and record three or four songs. We just kinda kept going. Any time we weren’t really doing something with the family, we went for it.”

Thornton, with his ever-recognizable, southern, cigarette-pulling drawl, needs no introduction. Although he’s made a name for himself somewhere else (hint: movie screen), in his music world, he just wants to be “one of the boys.” And he is. See, despite what you might think, this world is his first love. The big screen thing was an “accident,” as he calls it. Before becoming Billy Bob Thornton Movie Star, he’d been a roadie for recognizable music names such as The Statler Brothers, Johnny Paycheck and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. Thornton even released four solo albums from 2001-2007. He knows his way around the stage and studio, put it that way.

The Boxmasters have released 10 albums since forming in 2007, but don’t let their productivity fool you. A one trick pony this band isn’t. Their diverse — and now large — catalogue of songs feature styles that range from swinging rockabilly, to Beatle-esque pop, to rubber-meets-the-road rock ’n roll. Just when you think you’ve got them pegged they make a slight right and accelerate, just enough to keep your attention.

ListenIowa caught up to Thornton and Andrew on the band’s tour bus recently to discuss the new album, the duo’s song writing process and more.

On the band’s touring itinerary is a stop in Arnolds Park this Wednesday night for a performance at the legendary Roof Garden. Showtime is 7:30 p.m.

So ….. three albums?
JD: The first one is kind of our “dark and moody” pandemic record, and it’s called “Nothing Personal.” It’s very personal, of course. We aren’t sure what we’re going to do with it. The next one is called “Help, I’m Alive,” is going to be released next spring. And the last one we made was the Christmas album that we’re going to put out this year.

Billy: We did a lot of work over the pandemic. It was actually a nice time to work because we knew that’s all we could do. There were no distractions. We just got in the studio and went to work.

And let’s not forget about the other new album you guys put out, “Light Rays,” last fall. Talk about that album. Did anything change from your previous releases?
Billy: We’ve kind of been on the same path for the last few albums. From our very first album, to this, we’ve gone from being experimental, and sort of combining a couple of styles, to just doing some very stylized records. And then after that, we kind of slowly started to get away from that and start to sound like we sound. And now, we’re fully in as who we are. And that’s happened in the last few albums. I would say the last two albums — “Speck,” the record we did with Geoff Emerick; and “Light Rays,” — are pretty much in the same vein in terms of the songwriting and the sounds. “Light Rays” is a little influenced by what Jeff did on “Speck.”

Is this a sound you envisioned all along that you were trying to get to, or did it just evolve naturally?
Billy: A little bit of both. We knew where we wanted to go, but some of the songs we’ve done have been a little outside what was in the vision even though they’e in the same core. We did some songs that had some slightly different sounds than what we thought we’d do. Sometimes our songs sound pretty slick, and sometimes they’re pretty raw. We’ve got a record called “Boxmasters 66,” which we’re going to put out at some point, which is much more raw. “Light Rays” has more of the production like Geoff did on “Speck.” So essentially this is where we are headed.

Now that you’re out playing live again, how many of these new songs are you putting into the set?
JD: There are some. There are a few from “Light Rays,” a few songs from “Help, I’m Alive,” and some of the older ones, of course. Some of the new songs just made sense to play. We worked them out in rehearsal, and they just seemed to really work. And they’re fun to play. We really like a lot of these new songs. It made sense for us to try some new stuff. We’re still playing songs we love.

With each album, is it getting more difficult to pick which songs you’re going to play, and which are of them have to take a seat?
Billy: You know what’s interesting is when we go into rehearsals, the songs pretty much tell you whether you ought to play them live or not. There are some songs that are really hard driving songs on the record, with a hooky chorus, but when you rehearse them with a live band, they just kind of fall flat. You expect it to be one of the songs in the set, but it’s doesn’t work. And then there’s the surprise songs where you just try something because you don’t know about it, and I’ll be damned if it doesn’t turn out to be one of the songs we play live. We play a song in the set that’s not out yet called, “I Got A Girl.” It was actually written from two different songs. I was singing this melody one day, and also working on this other thing with some major7 chords and played it for JD. He goes, “Oh yeah. What if we do this?” And then all of a sudden we’ll have all these verses that wouldn’t seem like they could go together, but I’ll be damned if they didn’t go together very well. We didn’t know how well that song would go over live, but it’s become of the best in the set.

You guys have been doing a lot of touring behind “Light Rays.” Do you think the touring hiatus you took a few years ago has allowed you to keep things fresh now?
JD: It definitely made us appreciate it more, especially during this last year when we hadn’t been able to get out and play. You miss having that energy that a crowd gives you. It’s something you can’t get anywhere else. We love the recording studio, creating, and writing these songs, but at the same time, if you don’t see somebody in front of your face, smiling, and singing along, you miss something. Our core audience keeps growing, and we’ve really come to appreciate that. People are listening and hearing that we love the same music that they do. As more people see that, they’ll understand what we do. We’re a band that loves the hay day of rock n’ roll. We wear it on our sleeves.

You two are the core of The Boxmasters, and have been since the beginning. What does a songwriting session look like for you two? A six pack of beer in the basement and see what happens?
Billy: It happens a lot of ways. Generally, we don’t write in the same room. One or the other will bring something to the other one, whether it’s a melody, a chord progression or lyrics, and go from there. JD will come with some chords, put it on his voice recorder, ship it off to me, I’ll listen to it, see if there’s anything I can add, strum something on the guitar and send it back to him. That’s kind of the way we do it. It’s not that we’ve never written in the same room, but we both have kids and family life and stuff like that. JD’s kids are 5, 7, and 9, so it’s like a war zone up there. (Laughs) Most of the time when we meet up to work on songs it’s after his kids go to bed, and he comes over to the studio late at night.

Who has given you guys the best piece of musical advice in your careers, and what did that person say?
Billy: For me, Johnny Cash told me a long time ago, he said, “Listen to other musicians, listen to other things, let them influence you, but at the end of the day, do what feels right to you. What people want to hear from you is the truth of who you are.” I think that was the best piece of musical advice I’ve ever gotten.

JD: I don’t know that it was a piece of advice, but just watching Geoff Emerick work on songs. He wasn’t scared to say, “Hey, you don’t need this part,” or “You don’t need these tracks in this song.” Things like that. He was very unabashed about knowing what is needed. He knew you didn’t need all these noises, just what is essential to give a song meaning. He’s a master of taking a song and pulling out the essential elements that you need for it, and I think that’s really stuck with us the last few years. It was a huge benefit to work with him and get that insight. It’s been invaluable.

Billy, you’ve worked with Dwight Yoakam (in film) on a number of occasions. Have you two ever discussed doing anything musically together?
Billy: We’ve talked about it. Dwight and I are close and have been for a long, long time. We’ve talked about doing shows and opening for him, even though we are slightly different genres. But there’s some rock in what Dwight does. And he’s like me in that we’re kind of music historians. We sit and talk about this stuff all the time. He’s a big fan of the kind of music that we do. We talk about The Animals, The Kinks, Stones, Beatles. We did actually write one song together years ago on my first major label solo album called “Starlight Lounge” that I wrote with Dwight and Holly Lamar. It’s a cool, moody song. And Dwight and I have also done background vocals together on Warren Zevon’s last album.

Oh, cool.
Billy: Yeah, we talk about working together sometime. We’ll see.

Last questions, then. What can the Roof Garden expect when The Boxmasters roll into town?
Billy: We hit the ground running. (Laughs) We’re just into playing music, connecting with the audience and presenting our songs. We’re not exactly what you’d call a choreographed act. (Laughs) You won’t see a lot of dancing around onstage, but we do enjoy connecting with our audience. Sometimes I’ll tell a story between songs about what a song is about, especially if it’s a new one. We think that’s important. We’ve never believed in the philosophy of going out there and not talking to the audience, blasting through the set and then just going, “See you later Cleveland.”

The Boxmasters on tour
Where: The Roof Garden, Arnolds Park
When: Wednesday, Aug. 25
Time: 7:30 p.m.