Man in the Box: Billy Bob Thornton and the Boxmasters channels the British Invasion and classic country on its self-titled album

Aug 6, 2008 at 4:00 am
"Billy's reaching for the phone." With that, Boxmasters guitarist/bassist J.D. Andrew hands off to his drummer/lead singer, Billy Bob Thornton, who won the hearts of miscreants everywhere as Willie, the booze-swilling, expletive-spewing St. Nick in 2003's Bad Santa. In Boxmasters originals such as "I'll Give You a Ring," "Shit List" and "I'm Watching the Game," Thornton's characters have a lot of Willie in them, but on the phone, the 52-year-old Hot Springs, Arkansas, native — who once played in a ZZ Top tribute band called Tres Hombres ­— is a perfect Southern gentleman.

Billy Bob Thornton: Hello Chris. How are things going?

Chris Gray: Fine. I'm putting together a thing about Todd Rundgren for our website.

Oh wow, that's cool. I love Todd Rundgren. One of his songs I remember from when I was growing up — you know how you associate a song with a girl or a time in your life?


This rich girl split up with me one time, and "Hello It's Me" was on the radio. I'll never forget that — I think about her every time.

How is the tour so far? Good to be back on the road?

Yeah, it is. I like being on the road. The only thing is I miss the kids. We can't really take the kids on the road. My daughter's two and a half, and it's too dangerous. Plus the lifestyle out here is not really conducive to the child thing.

What was your line of work way back when?

I worked for a rental company. I drove a truck and did equipment, rented it, like bulldozers and backhoes for a construction company. We did that all week and then on the weekends we played music. Two of the guys in our band, their dad owned the rental company; they'd moved it down from Arkansas. I remember [Highway] 45 and a couple of other freeways. Boy, driving the truck and hauling bulldozers and stuff over those highways, it was something else. There were so many trucks on the road.

Who or what first inspired you to be a musician?

I grew up with Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis and all that sort of stuff around the house. That was pretty cool, but I have to say it was probably the Beatles. Just about like any kid who was in a band, you know? Once the Beatles came along it was like, Wow, that's what I want to be right there.

Were you one of the Ed Sullivan kids?

Oh yeah. Definitely. I was nine years old in '64.

Which one did you gravitate to?

Initially, in the pop days, Ringo, and that's why I became a drummer, I guess. I just thought, Boy, that cat's cool. Look how much fun he's having. Later on I became a Lennon guy, and have been ever since.

I was talking with J.D. a little bit about how the Boxmasters record is a sort of hybrid of country and all those British Invasion bands, and how they were really influenced by bands like the Everly Brothers.

Yeah. That's right. It's like they listened to our music and sent it back to us in a pop form that was palatable, I guess, for teenagers, you know, and the radio. This is kind of like the third recycling. [Laughs] We had this, and they did it, and now we're doing it back to them. But that was the whole idea behind the band, to sound like a '60s band. The kind of equipment we use and the way we record is pretty old-school.

Did you cut this live in the studio?

Not really, because there's only really three of us that make the records. The other guys play on it some, too, like Marty [Rifkin] plays some steel on it quite a bit, and Brad [Davis] played guitar on a song or two and Ted [Andreadis] played harp on a couple of songs, but we essentially made them ourselves. Our initial thing on every song is we do an acoustic guitar and scratch vocal. We start with that, and then we put bass and drums to that. We do it kind of piecemeal, but it's still kinda live because it's just us banging away and throwing stuff on there.

I hear a lot of Waylon Jennings on a lot of these songs. Do you agree?

Yeah. I do agree with that. As a matter of fact, one of the covers on there is "Memories of You and I," which is a Waylon song. It's such an obscure Waylon song that I have his box set, which has got like every song he ever recorded, and "Memories of You and I" is not on it.

There's a couple by Mike Nesmith, too.

Oh yeah, absolutely. Mike's an old friend of mine, and I think one of the unsung heroes of not only songwriting and music, period, but also for film and — you know, obviously MTV wouldn't be here without him.

People always forget MTV is basically his brainchild.

Oh absolutely. He's an amazing guy and a true artist. We actually have already finished the next Boxmasters record that comes out next spring, and we cut another one of Mike's songs. That's our plan, is to always have one of Mike's songs on the record. [Laughs]

You've been in bands since you were in high school, right? Did that have any effect on your wanting to be an actor?

Not really. The actor thing kind of happened — almost a fluke, really. My buddy Tom Epperson, who wrote several screenplays with me — we wrote The Gift and A Family Thing and a couple of other things — well, we wrote about 25 things together, but most of them were never made. Tom was going to go to California. He was four years older than me and as a young man was already a teacher at the University of Arkansas, an English teacher, and he said, "I want to go out to California and try to be a screenwriter — you were in drama, why don't you go out and try to be an actor?" I was shoveling asphalt for the highway department at the time, playing music on the weekends, didn't have much, so I said, "Yeah, OK, I'll go."

But I was really going with the intention of getting in a band in California. That's what I went for, really. The only reason I was in drama in high school is because there were chicks in there and I thought I could get above a grade of C in something. So I went out there with him and I got in this theater group and an acting class, and I was discovered out of that theater group. I just had to go with what I was making a meager living out of.

Who are a couple of your favorite musician-turned-actors?

I'd say the best two examples would be Levon Helm and Kris Kristofferson.

Good ones.

I mean, those were definitely role models for me.

I just saw something Levon Helm was in. Is from the approximate same part of Arkansas as you?

He's about an hour and a half away, something like that. He was raised a little closer to the Delta; I was a little closer to the middle of the state. But, you know, when you're over there, everything's pretty close. You're not very far away from anybody.