Setting The Tone

After years as a successful covers band, The Boxtones are making a name for themselves with their own songs.

THE BOXTONES: Patrick Thibault, Gary Tierney, Louise Peel, Gill Tierney and Will Janssen (from left)
Yves Heye
By Matt Ross
Oct 06, 2013

IN RETROSPECT, it might not have been the best idea to meet The Boxtones in the Nell Gwynne bar – a Welsh-themed pub where, up until a few months ago, the Dubai-based five-piece worked as the resident band. Over the course of a couple of hours, barely more than 10 minutes goes past without somebody they know coming over to congratulate them, or shake their hands with vigorous enthusiasm. You see, just four days ago, the Dubai-based Boxtones won Rolling Stone’s Street to Stage competition with an impressive, energetic set at the annual competition’s live final.

And for the group’s members – guitarist and vocalist Gary Tierney, his drummer sister Gill, vocalist Louise Peel, keyboardist Will Janssen and bassist Patrick Thibault – the celebrations are still continuing. Their impressive fan base, hundreds of whom showed up to cheer them on at Dubai’s Hard Rock Cafe, have been bombarding the five musicians with calls, messages and emails. “The phone just wouldn’t stop,” says Gary. “From everywhere. People in Scotland, our families, our friends, everybody that voted [in the competition’s early stages], everybody that’s been keeping tabs on us. We’re getting messages the whole time.” What makes their victory all the more impressive is that, though The Boxtones have long been known throughout the Middle East as one of the region’s leading cover bands, they’ve been writing and performing many of their original songs for less than a year.

THEY MIGHT BE RELATIVELY NEW TO PERFORMING THEIR OWN MATERIAL – they were still finalizing tracks for the Street to Stage competition as little as a fortnight before the final – but The Boxtones have been around for a while. For founders Gary and Gill, whose childhood has been inextricably linked with the Middle East, music is something they’ve been doing for as long as they can remember. The Tierneys have lived in the region for nearly 30 years – their parents still reside in Bahrain – and though they sport warm, Scottish accents, they’ve spent more time in places like Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. than they have their native Scotland. Twenty years ago, when Gill was 10 years old, their mother bought their father a drum kit as a joke Christmas present – “He’s a frustrated drummer,” Gary admits. “Everything’s at the same time and the same speed” – and Gary, who had begun teaching himself keyboards and guitar, encouraged his sister to give it a go. “We started playing Green Day and all that kind of stuff,” says Gill. “It was terrible. I’ve seen the videos.” Undeterred, the pair continued to play together and, after picking up a bass player, began to book shows as a three-piece. “Our first show was in Bahrain,” says Gary. “In front of 3,000 American naval guys. On an aircraft carrier. We were crapping ourselves. I remember standing there, waiting to go on, and hearing the sounds of all those guys. [It sounded like they were] breaking beers in half and eating the cans. And it was amazing.” The trio, then called Fuse, continued to play together, moving to London in the early 2000s to play original music. They lost their bassist, so the pair headed back to Bahrain, found a replacement and, lured by a burgeoning rock scene, headed for Edinburgh. They spent the next few years gigging across the U.K. “Around 2004, 2005, we started getting support slots for other acts,” says Gary. “We played the Astoria once, played in France. We met Biffy Clyro, played with them at The Venue in Edinburgh, way before they were famous. We played with Dogs Die In Hot Cars, Dead 60s. We did all that kind of stuff, but we weren’t making any money.” To support their original material, both Gary and Gill were also playing the wedding-band circuit, where Gary had met Peel – the pair are now engaged – and, tired of the financial situation, the trio decided to relocate. “Gary and Gill’s parents said to them, ‘Why don’t you come out to the Middle East and do what all the bands are doing out here?’” Peel says. “Which was to do [hotel] contracts. They said they were going to do it. And it was my two favorite things combined: music and travel.” In 2006 the trio headed to Bahrain, and for the next four years played in locations such as China, Macau and the U.K. At the end of 2010 they made the short trip to the U.A.E., where they’ve been ever since. In 2012, Canadians Janssen and Thibault, who had met The Boxtones separately on the region’s cover circuit, joined fulltime. But while they were making a living from playing other people’s songs, the band never lost the desire to perform original material. It’s just that they would have to play the long game in order to bring it to the forefront.

THERE’S NO SHORTAGE of cover bands in the Middle East. But there aren’t many who take it as seriously as The Boxtones. So much so that, in February of this year, the band set themselves up as a fully-fledged company. Becoming The Boxtones FZE buys the band the kind of autonomy that few acts in the Middle East enjoy. “That’s one of the main reasons we wanted to start our own company,” says Gill. “We’re still doing covers, but we decide where we play, we decide what we do, we decide who we work for. And at the same time, it gives us a lot more freedom to do our original stuff, which is our main priority.”

A welcome side effect of not having to fit music around various day jobs is that the band’s musicianship is of the highest order. The core of the band have been playing together for years and Janssen and Thibault, both career musicians with decades of experience between them, have slotted seamlessly into the lineup. And being a cover band with a repertoire of hundreds of songs, they believe, can only be to the benefit of their original material. “Experience is everything,” says Peel. “You’ve got to learn what you’re doing. Sometimes we put stuff in [to our own tracks] and we don’t really think about it too much. But working six nights a week playing covers, that must come across. You’ll go from ‘Sweet Child O’ Mine’ to Adele. You’re learning all this different stuff, so it’s going to come out some way.” “You become more confident with every style there is,” says Gary. “So you’re gonna use every style there is, and then put it into your music.” A band that can switch from Metallica to Ed Sheeran to Johnny Cash to Erykah Badu (all requests the band have received) without skipping a beat has to be versatile. “It’s the same as learning a language,” Thibault says. “It’s our vocabulary.” Janssen, whose previous playing experience covers everything from church organ to death metal, also believes it sets them up as stronger songwriters. “I don’t particularly listen to jazz music, for example. But playing it is a completely different story. It allows you to be comfortable with anything that we might write in the future.”

Conversely, you might assume that such wide-ranging musical influences might make it hard for The Boxtones to have any kind of distinct musical identity. “What’s great about this band,” says Thibault, “is that we have a bunch of influences, from A to Z. We might draw elements from all that, but there is this cohesion and sonic direction that reflects our influences. We have ‘a sound.’”

“We’ve tried this before with a different lineup,” Gary adds. “It was complicated, and it wasn’t working. I guess I’m quite a strong personality in the band – they’re my songs, initially at least. When we write together now, we go through it and say, ‘That’s terrible, take it out. That’s great, keep it in.’ And I’m open to it. I used to be a Hitler in the band. I’d say, ‘No. This is how it is.’ And then I used to invite everybody to rip it apart. And that didn’t work either. Now it’s something in-between.” “We’re not just professionals, we’re also perfectionists,” adds Janssen. “We have our own criticisms, but it’s all constructive. It’s all for the greater good.” It’s worth noting that the previous incarnation of The Boxtones, before Janssen and Thibault joined, played together for five years, and didn’t finish an album. The current lineup is on the verge of releasing a disc after little more than a year together. “I think we all have a similar vision,” says Gill. “And it’s not because we’re into the same kind of music, because we’re not at all. We have different tastes and influences. But we have the same kind of idea of where we want this to go and what we think it should sound like. We work very well together. That’s the advantage of this lineup, and it’s what has brought us around so fast with getting the album finished.”

AS IF TO PROVE THEIR POINT, The Boxtones will release In The Pockets Of Clowns at the end of October. The title, says Gary, is a not-so-subtle jab at a global music industry that forces artists to sacrifice their integrity (and, in some cases, their dignity) to make a buck. “The music industry to me, right now, is a joke. You could actually torture someone to death just by continuously playing pop music to them, without any breaks. It’s like water-boarding. It would be the CIA’s next form of hurting people. Things like Pop Idol and American Idol were big for a while. These guys make millions off of people that are talented, but have no idea what they’re doing. And then they turn them into these ‘things’ that maybe they do or they don’t want to be – you don’t know the background to 90 per cent of it. But they just want to be famous. And they’ll do anything for it. They’re in the pockets of clowns. They’re doing whatever it takes to make other people more money than they can make.”

There’s also another way to read their choice of album title. “It’s taken us a while to get to where we are now,” says Gill. “We’ve wanted to do this for a long time, but obviously [in the past] we’ve been doing the contract work – going to places like China, the U.K., here, Bahrain, and all that. It’s been our bread and butter; our day job. And at the same time, you’re still in the pockets of other people. You’re making money for someone else.”

Perhaps The Boxtones’ biggest advantage is that they’re in nobody’s pocket. They own all their own equipment – by virtue of being the band’s only single member, Thibault has also had to turn his apartment into the group’s unofficial storeroom – they handle all their own bookings, and have recorded the tracks for In The Pockets Of Clowns themselves. Since they won the Rolling Stone competition, they’ve been approached by a few producers who are interested in mastering the record but, as with everything else that the band does, you get the impression that who they work with will be a carefully considered, pragmatic decision.

“It’s a dynamic record,” Peel says. “It’s not all heavy, heavy, heavy.” “The music’s simple enough to be accessible,” adds Gary, “but it’s also got a little bit of intelligence to it. My biggest influence is Biffy Clyro. I love that band to death, so I think that comes through into my songwriting. It’s all up and down, very different.” The album includes everything from eight-minute epics to an acoustic ballad that Gary and Janssen have yet to record, and the four high-octane rock numbers they played a few nights ago will definitely be on there. “Those four songs were the most energetic,” Gary says. “There’s a few more. We’ve actually got a dubstep song. Dubstep rock. We did three bars of it on the night of the final, as an intro, and then we went to something else because we haven’t finished it…”

Some groups might be worried that, a month before release, they haven’t actually finished recording their album, and have yet to finalize the mastering, but not The Boxtones. Though they’re all laid-back and relaxed in person, it’s pretty clear that when it comes to anything regarding the band, they get shit done. “We learned to get really, really organized very fast,” says Gary. “If you’re not organized, you’re not gonna do anything. You’ve got to get on top of it if you’re going to achieve anything.”

THE BOXTONES ARE ALREADY, as their victory at Street to Stage suggests, a talented bunch of musicians. And their independent status gives them a stability that many of their peers undoubtedly envy. “We’re all in it for the long run,” says Gill. “We’re not just a band, we’re a company. There’s no band-member changes, there’s no lineup changes. Nobody’s going to lose their job and have to leave Dubai because it’s so transient. We’re not going to lose our lead singer. The original stuff is a massive priority for us. And [doing the corporate work] allows us the freedom to do both. Which is amazing.”

“We’re trying to do something that, maybe, won’t work,” Gary says. “But we’re giving it a shot. And we’ll always have the backup that, if it doesn’t work, we’ll still have the corporate work. But we won’t stop doing what we’re doing, which is trying to make original music out here. And actually trying to do something with it.”

Speculatively, if we were to repeat this interview a year from now, what would The Boxtones like to have achieved? “I’d like to say that we built our fanbase,” Gary says. “That we’re working on a second record. For someone. That we’ve got a tour planned.” “I’d like to say that we’re too big now,” says Gill, laughing. “That I’m sorry, we can’t sit down with you.”

In the meantime, the band are playing at Gulf Bike Week in Dubai in October, and opening for Eighties hair-metal legends Europe in November. Plus, they’re in negotiations for a show that could see them play to 50,000 people at an international venue – they’re clearly desperate to say where, but professionalism reigns once again. In the last few days, the phone, Gary says, “has not stopped ringing. People have been offering us things. I didn’t think that would happen. I thought it was possible, but I didn’t think it would happen so quickly. Instead of me phoning people, they’re calling me now. It’s vindicating. We’ve previously talked to so many people, and been ignored by so many people.” He manages to remove almost all the glee from his smile. “And now they’re phoning me back.”

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