The Boxer Rebellion: We're still not too old
The indie quartet's frontman Nathan Nicholson talks to Edwin Gilson about a lack of street-cred, life in LA and being a little more upbeat
Self-deprecation is a trait not often found in rock frontmen, especially those who are known for their epic, portentous music. So it comes as a pleasing surprise when Tennessee-born Nathan Nicholson, lead singer of London-based The Boxer Rebellion, jokes halfway through our interview that both he and his band have "never been cool".
"The only reason people used to think I was cool," he muses in a soft transatlantic accent, "is because I looked like I was on crack. I definitely wasn't!"
Rather than talking up the street-cred of recreational drug users, Nicholson is commenting on The Boxer Rebellion's low profile in the hip alternative music press since the band's breakthrough in 2005. "Those sorts of magazines, like the NME, never featured us much. It's just one of those things. I think we used to care about it, but not so much anymore."
The Boxer Rebellion – who come to The Limelight 2 on February 11, four years after their last Belfast gig at the now closed Auntie Annie's – have garnered favourable and unfavourable comparisons to stadium-rock acts like Snow Patrol and Coldplay throughout their career. At best their sound is anthemic, at worst, as The Guardian once put it, 'mope-rock' might be a more appropriate term.
Nicholson is aware of such criticism and was determined to make a "more positive, simpler" album. The result is Promises, which was released in May last year and recorded in LA, a wholly appropriate location for a band searching for a sunnier sound.
"Yeah, LA was... nice," agrees the singer. "I think we were getting cabin fever in London. Winter in London, or anywhere in the UK, is cold and bleak, and it's better to stay indoors. In LA we were liberated from the mundane things and the weather helped, of course."
After much "head scratching" Nicholson, co-Australian Todd Howe and Englishmen Adam Harrison and Piers Hewitt arrived at their desired end product. So what's the secret to a more upbeat sound?
"Not getting bogged down in trying to be poetic," says the frontman. And then, as if to emphasis his breezy new West Coast approach "... or whatever."
There was no time for Nicholson to visit home, Tennessee, while the band were in America. He's only been back to his birthplace, which he left for London in 2000, once in the last year. "I do miss it and I wish I could get back more often, but when I'm in the States it's easier to fly back to London!"
In the early days of The Boxer Rebellion, Nicholson had little time for homesickness. The band's second album Union became the first ever record to break into the Billboard chart on digital releases alone, and briefly topped the ITunes US alternative chart. And all this without a record label, after they acrimoniously left Universal.
After a spell on Alan McGee's ill-fated imprint Poptones the band decided to go it alone, and remain unsigned to this day. Nicholson is both pragmatic about past experiences in the music industry, and optimistic about the future.
"It wasn't anything that most bands don't go through at some point or other," he says of the tension between the band and Universal. "Everyone has trouble with the industry. Very few bands start a band to be in a business. I wouldn't call it a struggle ... it was just what happened. It worked out for the best in the end, as now we have full control of what we're doing. We value our freedom."
Nicholson's unassuming nature is perhaps due in part to this freedom, and the knowledge that, though his band's peak may be beyond them, there is still plenty to look forward to and achieve.
"We're not 20 anymore," smiles the singer, "but we're still not old."
The Boxer Rebellion play The Limelight 2, Belfast, on February 11. For details, visit www.limelightbelfast.com