Analogue Music | Big Ideas

Big Ideas

By Matt Conner

A new approach required a new outlet.

For as long as the members of The Boxer Rebellion have been making music, it's been a true collaborative effort. That's been their ethos since Exits released in 2005. So when Adam Harrison and Nathan Nicholson began to write music on their own, apart from the indie rock collective that has been their musical home for six studio albums, it made sense to start anew.

Big Ideas is the new moniker, a musical outlet featuring Nicholson and Harrison along with friend and filmmaker Ben Lankester. It's an addition that Harrison says matches the band's cinematic music. The American Dream is the debut EP, and fans of the Boxer Rebellion's emotional rock will find lots to love here as well.

We recently sat down with Harrison to hear more about the transition to a new band, the pains of starting something from scratch and the excitement of a blank slate.

Analogue: I've been a Boxer Rebellion fan since The Cold Still, I think it was, so it was surprising to see a new turn here with Big Ideas. Has this been in the making for a while?

Adam Harrison: It's worth saying at first that this definitely doesn't replace the Boxer Rebellion. The Boxer Rebellion isn't finished. We all still get on really on, and to a certain degree, we're all missing touring together. But also added to that is the fact that we've written six studio albums together. In any group dynamic, I suppose there comes a point at which you've explored a lot of the avenues that you want to explore with that group of people.

At a certain point, I'd started to write my own kind of stuff and Nathan [Nicholson] had also done similar things with his own stuff. We were swapping ideas back and forth between us but it didn't exactly sound like the Boxer Rebellion. We'd kind of developed a few songs that we didn't have any big plans for that ended up becoming their own thing, forming their own identity. It was mine and Nate's identity more than the four of us.

'The American Dream' cover art
'The American Dream' cover art

Instead of tagging them onto or forcing it to be a Boxer Rebellion thing, we decided to mix it up and call it what it was, which was a group of songs that were different. We'd approached these songs differently and they felt like they needed their own identity in parallel, I suppose, to the Boxer Rebellion.

Analogue: Was there any consideration for just taking Boxer Rebellion in a new direction? Did you not feel permission for the band to take such a sharp turn?

Adam: There's never been a question about permission, because we've had the same ethos for the entirety of our careers. Right from the beginning, we had this ethos that in order for the band to survive and the songs to be authentic, this has to be a joint endeavor. Each person expressing what they do. You have to have a stake in the writing of it, the message behind the song, the bones of all of the writing of the music.

So we always kept that with the Boxer Rebellion. Every single record has every single member's involvement with the writing of it. I know plenty of musicians in plenty of bands that don't work like that at all. They have a main songwriter or two and the other musicians might have a little bit of input. I've always thought that you can hear that. I've always thought you can hear when a band has a single songwriter versus a group of them made up of all the band. So that was a founding ethos of the band.

So when Nathan and I started writing our own stuff—just me at first, just him at first, then both of us—it didn't have the same original intent as Boxer Rebellion stuff did. I suppose we could have made it a lot easier on ourselves in terms of finding listeners by saying, 'Okay guys, let's put this out as Boxer Rebellion.' We would have had hundreds of thousands of followers already on streaming sites and social networks, and we'd have reached a bigger audience instantly.

I don't think people would have necessarily thought it was completely bizarre music or a completely bizarre different direction. But behind the scenes, we didn't have what a Boxer Rebellion had and we didn't want to change that for this.

Analogue: Yeah, it does, but it does bring up what you said about the amount of work it takes to start something new versus to move forward with the platform you'd built. How much did you wrestle with that?

Adam: I think there's a couple things to say about that. One of them is that the Boxer Rebellion, as a business or money-making enterprise, is not at the point where ... If the Boxer Rebellion was this incredibly successful band and to keep the checks rolling in, we just had to make more tunes and it was as easy as that, it would have been a harder decision. But the truth is that it's hard to make money as a mid-level act in this current day and age, with streaming models and everything else that's going on. So I suppose it wasn't as big of a dilemma as it could have been.

I suppose the other thing is that we craved, to be honest, a little bit of freshness. What we've done with it is we've built on my friend, Ben [Lankester], who is a filmmaker and gives us a cinematic angle. So I suppose there's a real craving for that as well.

Analogue: Did it feel foreign to not make music with the same quartet you'd had for so long?

Adam: I think we'd been heading this direction for a while. I don't know whether you know about the Boxer Rebellion's history in TV and film, but a lot of our career has been sustained by placements in TV shows and film. It's because our music is cinematic and it's grand and it's emotional. It takes you on a journey, and music supervisors really love that.

I guess what probably happened around The Cold Still, which you mentioned, is that we started to almost write while thinking of potential for TV and film, imagining the song in a film. I suppose that we started to lean into that with the Boxer Rebellion as we were writing. At first our music just happened to be good for film for TV, but when we started to see the potential of it, it started to come into the conversation.

When Nathan and I started writing Big Ideas, we were imagining it as a scene, as a picture. We didn't have a specific show or film in mind, but "The American Dream" for example. We asked what if the song was a scene played out? What if a film had that subject matter? How could we enhance the song in a cinematic way? Because we wrote with that in mind, it made sense to work with a visual member of the band to almost bring that to life instantly, to help the song have a visual identity to it straight away.

VISIT: Big Ideas