LONG - AWAITED HOMECOMING - It's been a long time coming. The Boxtones - possibly the hardest working band in the UAE - finally release their new album, Home, this month. And the buzz is palpable.
A Dubai-based FZE where the staff regularly work 80-hour weeks, are required to perform two completely disparate roles and are "always skint" might not attract many job applicants. Fortunately, in the case of five-piece rock band The Boxtones, the entire workforce (guitarist and vocalist Gary Tierney and his sister - drummer Gill - who are the managing partners; Gary's fiancée, vocalist Louise Peel; Gill's fiancé keyboard player Will Janssen; and bassist Patrick - or Pat as everyone calls him - Thibault) are happy to slog their guts out chasing their dreams.
That's why, three years ago, they decided to set up in the UAE as an official business, shunning the traditional cover band route of playing three-month residencies in a single hotel, concentrating instead on one-off corporate shows with some regular weekly slots, and focusing on recording original material, based mainly on Gary's back catalogue of around 300 songs he's been writing since his teens.
Their debut album, 2013's In The Pockets Of Clowns, was a bombastic rock record, which showcased the influence of Gary's favorite band, Biffy Clyro, and the high energy of The Boxtones' live performances. "Everything was turned to 11," Gary says of their self-produced debut.
It did very well (for a band in the Middle East), reportedly selling a few thousand copies, and it led to gigs where they got to perform their original material. It also got the attention of Universal Music's regional office, and in March 2015 The Boxtones joined a select (i.e., almost non-existent) group of non-Arab-pop Middle East-based artists to be signed to a major label. November 25 sees the release of their second LP, Home.
Hype meets up with The Boxtones over lunch at Dubai's Hard Rock Café, where they're performing a corporate gig for Bose later in the evening. The band are, as usual, pretty shattered. They got home from a gig about 2am and were up around 8am to soundcheck. They might (after a couple of hours for this interview) be able to snatch a quick nap. Or at least, Gary says, "have a shower and throw on some fresh clothes". In The Boxtones' schedule, that's a luxury.
Aside from the hours spent on music (Gary estimates they've played around 530 gigs over the last two years), each band member plays a crucial role in keeping the business going: Gary's the manager, Louise "looks after the blogs", Gill handles planning and Will does marketing and is "the social media guy". Pat is the technical director, responsible for all their gear. Thankfully his engineering skills have improved since his childhood when, tinkering with his remote-controlled car, a rocket engine and a tank of fuel "to see if I could make a bomb", he found that yes, he could. And inflicted third-degree burns on a friend in the process. "We were playing with stuff we shouldn't have," he says with admirable understatement.
The Boxtones maintain a cover-song repertoire of around 600 tracks. Between them, the five members have experience of a dizzying array of genres, including rock, metal, choral music, jazz, funk, blues, punk, Scottish Highland music, country and two different ABBA tribute bands. Will takes the prize as 'most versatile', at one time holding down positions in a few death metal bands as well as a job as a church organist - "Black metal by night, white metal by day," he says. Chances are, Will claims, "even if we don't know the song you request, we probably know one by that artist. Even a Justin Bieber song. We don't want to, but it's there just in case."
Oh, and if that doesn't sound like enough to keep them all busy, Gary and Louise have Louise's ten-year-old-daughter, Rosie, to care for. All in all, each band member must be delighted if they ever manage the recommended eight hours sleep a night.
They take this workload in their stride, though, and there's a clear camaraderie between all five band members. That might be expected given the familial and romantic ties but that doesn't always play out well for bands, as Fleetwood Mac fans will know.'Banter' is an important part of Boxtones life. Gary, Gill and Louise are all Scottish and enjoy the daft, gentle fun-poking that's characteristic of their homeland. Will and Pat are both Canadian (and both joined the band just three years ago, five years after it was formed, and even longer after Gill, Gary and Louise first started playing together in a wedding band in Edinburgh). But Pat's French-Canadian, which makes quite a difference, apparently. "Pragmatic", is how he describes himself. "But they probably see me more as a pessimist." Has he got used to the Scottish sense of humour? "They think they're funny," he says, face completely deadpan. "I don't think any of us are funny." But Louise suggests Pat can be a comedian. "When we interviewed Pat for the band, he was so serious. But the first night he nicked my shoes and was prancing about in my high heels so that king of broke the ice."
Louise says it's "hilarious" that she and Gary ended up together. "The first time we met, I did not like him," she says. "He was so rude. There were a couple of things where I was like, 'He's so arrogant.' Little did I know..."
Gary can sympathise. "I'm a pain in the butt, really," he says. Living and working together can be stressful. "We can rip each others' head off sometimes," Gary says. "But it's that 'opposites attract' thing. And it works." There are big pay-offs too. Being able to share the experience of signing a record deal is one example Louise gives. "And then when we do the big gigs, all the nerves before and then the elation afterwards, it's amazing to share that side of it." The couple are now ten years in, so, says Louise, smiling, "We've given up all the niceties."
Will and Gill, on the other hand, were rarely in the same city for the first few years of their relationship, when Will was in another band. "When Will first joined The Boxtones, Gary warned me that 'Things will change now you're working together.' but they haven't," says Gill. "He's my best mate." Gary's message to Will was slightly different, the keyboard player remembers. "The first thing he said was, 'You break her heart, I'll break your legs.'" He laughs. "I haven't forgotten that."
It would be easy to assume that Pat can feel like a fifth wheel, he knows. "There's always that spoken or unspoken 'What about Pat?' thing." he says. "But it's not difficult or weird. I don't feel left out. When we go to Bahrain, to Gary and Gill's parents, I feel welcome. They're like my adoptive parents in the Middle East. I really have that feeling I'm part of the family."
It was the chemistry in the current Boxtones line-up that convinced Gary this could be the group to make his songs work. The new album - their first major label release - will be the real measure of whether he was right. This time around they weren't working from Gary's old demos, instead taking, Louise says, "a fresh, organic approach from scratch". Louise has written lyrics for many of the tracks, and while Gary remains the principal songwriter and the man with final say on creative decisions ("Every band needs a Hitler"), there's been a greater collective input into the songwriting process. "We worked to our strengths," Will says.
They also worked with a producer for the first time - Elvis Garagic of Dubai-based Soundstruck Studios. It was tough, Gary admits, for him to accept advice from an outside party at first. "It was hard to give up the reins. As a songwriter, I'm a bit bossy, but it was an exciting dynamic. We learnt a lot from Elvis."
Elvis says it was "an honour and a privilege" to work with the band, adding: "A lot of the time, [my] input was bare minimum." But the band are adamant he did far more. "He pulled things out of us that we couldn't have done ourselves," says Louise, and they refer to Elvis as 'The sixth Boxtone'. he stripped back their songs to give the album the accessible appeal both The Boxtones and Universal were aiming for. "In [this case]. the vocal had to have room. So, without compromise, whatever comes in, you have to make sure it works with the vocal," Elvis explains. "If it doesn't work... retirement."
'Retirement' came most often for Gill's drum parts, many of which were drastically pared down from the demo versions. "It was weird not to drum as much," she says. "We'd rehearsed the tracks so much and that was the sound in our minds. But Elvis was like, 'You don't need that big fill there' or 'That's too complicated!' I'm not very good at recording at the best of times - I don't have a lot of patience for it. So I was like, 'What do you mean? That's my favourite part.' It was definitely simplified and pulled back a lot. It might not be as much fun for me to play but listening to it as a final product, it worked for the songs."
Working "for the songs" is something of a mantra when The Boxtones discuss Home. There are hints that Gary feels the typical songwriter's misgivings at deliberately targeting a more commercial sound. At one point in the studio while laying down their 'winter' song (elsewhere in the world it would be their Christmas song), he slapped a hand to his head and proclaimed: "Oh God! We're turning into bloody Coldplay." But all five band members stress there's still a strong rock element to Home - first single Against The Odds backed up that claim - and they're very happy with how the album's turned out. It's certainly more varied and less hectic than Pockets, with a few ballads and even an EDM track in second single City of Mirrors, on which - although Gill can rap, as those who've witnessed her take on No Diggity will testify ("The things we do for covers," she sighs) - the band got UAE-based rapper Two Tone to feature. "None of us are into rap," Louise says. "But the song needed it and his rap is awesome."
The album's been well received by Universal too; they apparently identified six or seven possible singles at the listening session. And while label approval is less important to The Boxtones than to many signed bands, since they continue to self-fund to retain a greater level of creative control, the band were all relieved with the results of the playback. "We thought it was good but you don't know because you're in your own little bubble," says Louise. "So to get that feedback from Universal was great."
Ultimately, their hope is that Home will be another step towards making their living entirely from their original material. "That's the idea," says Louise. "But we have to survive. People think that when you join a label, that's it. But we've had to push and push."
Gary agrees, "We're still working hard," he says. "The thing the label does is open doors that a lot of people don't get access to." So, they're aware it may take some time before they can completely drop the corporate work. Which is fine. "Originals are what we want to do," Gary says. "The covers are how we make our living. And we throw that money back into the band."
For now, they're just looking forward to the reaction to the new album when it drops. "It's way cooler than what we've done before because it's good songs, not just clever or technical songs," adds Gary. "I'm not that interested in money really. I mean, it's always nice to get a pay cheque but I just want people to listen to the tracks. We love people to tell us what they think; that's the coolest thing. You can feed off that," He pauses. Thinks for a second. "It's terrifying too."
Words: Adam Grundey