The Boxer Rebellion Scores Big With iTunes

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The Boxer Rebellion. Courtesy of the artist hide caption

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Asiaphiles and history buffs may recognize The Boxer Rebellion as a Chinese uprising against the British at the turn of the 20th century. But it's also the name of a little-known English rock band. Lead singer Nathan Nicholson, an expat from Tennessee, recently sat down to talk about the band and its second album, Union, which has been released on iTunes.

Last month, eyebrows were raised when the iTunes free single of the week was by an unsigned and largely unknown British band. The Boxer Rebellion couldn't even afford to print CD copies of its second full-length album. But it did have a fan in the iTunes music department, and he offered to have the band release the album straight to iTunes — and to give it a week of much-coveted front-page coverage.

"It's an offer you can't refuse," Nicholson said. "We didn't have any other option. We had this album just kind of sitting there. It had been finished and we just wanted to release it. For a while, we were thinking about, 'Should we just put it up for free as a last-ditch attempt?' But this came along just at the right time. Because we don't have any money, except for our own money — which is very little — we couldn't print up physical copies."

The impact of the iTunes promotion was instantaneous. The band went Top Five in the U.S. and U.K. iTunes album charts, briefly outselling bands such as Coldplay and My Morning Jacket. It even blinked briefly onto the U.S. Billboard Top 200 albums chart.

"We went [to] No. 82, which I didn't think we had a hope in hell," Nicholson says. "It's just great — being from the States and never being able to play there — being able to do something like that. [It] really meant a lot. It was a good week."

A Bumpy Ride

The Boxer Rebellion has had a bumpy ride since it first formed in London in 2001, while Nicholson was there as an exchange student. In 2003, the band was signed to Poptones Records by indie impresario Alan McGee.

"He signed Oasis and the Super Furry Animals and Ride and Primal Scream and My Bloody Valentine, all those bands from the late '80s, '90s and stuff. So he has quite a reputation," Nicholson says.

In 2005, Poptones and Mercury Records released Exits, the band's first full-length CD. Unfortunately, that very same week, Poptones folded. So despite strong critical reviews — without marketing dollars, without touring support and with only 6,000 CD copies printed — an album that looked like it might make some big waves sank with barely a ripple.

Asked to pick out a track on the new "Union" album that he feels particularly proud of, Nicholson selects "Soviets."

"It's quite a hopeful song," he says. "The main lyric at the beginning is 'heading westwards towards the sun,' and ... it's kind of when all else fails, you can always go somewhere else and start anew."

'A Bit More Ambiguous'

It can be refreshing to talk to a young artist who hasn't done dozens of interviews and refined his bio patter. Nicholson seemed almost shamefaced when talking about his own abilities as a lyricist.

"I don't usually try to write too specific," he says. "I'd love to be Bruce Springsteen or Bob Dylan. I'm kind of a bit more ambiguous."

Nicholson's lyrics are, for the most part, vaguely emotive vowels and consonants that blend into the impressionism of the music. Overall, the sound has become familiar to fans of British alt-rock in recent years: a kind of chiaroscuro of airy, sweet, often falsetto vocal melodies winging precariously over a darker, more aggressive musical atmosphere. The stand-out track from Union — and the single iTunes put on its home page — is called "Evacuate."

"I kind of wish we did more heavier songs like that — more rock 'n' roll songs," Nicholson says. "... We don't do many of them. That's because I think they're a lot harder for us to write."

"Evacuate" showcases what The Boxer Rebellion does best, and did more of, on Exits. The new record is a little softer — more pop, more falsetto and acoustic guitar — more approachable. It should appeal to Coldplay fans.

The band's stronger work is the harsher, harder-driving stuff that's more likely to appeal to fans of amped-up Radiohead: complex dissonance, driven forward by the fantastic, pounding grooves of drummer Piers Hewitt and Nicholson's beautifully understated melodic hooks.

You may not be able to buy The Boxer Rebellion's CDs in stores. But do check it out online: It's an obscure band worth getting to know.

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