Thinking Out of the Box

Pittsburgh's bipolar octet Boxstep reconfigures Americana.

Boxstep, with Aerogramme and Dakota Floyd Grog Shop, 1765 Coventry Road, Cleveland Heights Friday, December 7



Boxstep makes its way to Cleveland.
Boxstep makes its way to Cleveland.
Seated in quiet obstinacy, an audience of perturbed post-rock enthusiasts lined the floor of the Beachland Ballroom on a chilly Sunday evening in September. Already disgruntled over having to wait more than 40 minutes to get in the door, ticketholders were in no mood for anything but the act they came to hear: instrumental experimentalists Godspeed You Black Emperor!

Unfazed, the members of Boxstep ambled onto the stage and proceeded to spill a languid folk harmony, peppered with nuances of rock and country, over the hall's wooden floorboards. A rich blend of bass, piano, and vocals slowly began to build, augmented by distant metallic notes from the lead guitar. Soon, the ballroom became a cacophony of sound, culminating in a set of dizzying screams wrenched from the lead vocalist. The band's folksy lull had swollen and burst, and the audience members -- already on their feet to the music -- were no longer unwilling spectators but an enthusiastic, responsive mass.

Boxstep had won them over.

"Right now, there are a lot of bands that are really looking at lush instrumentation and strings. A lot of indie rock bands are kind of doing that. What's different about us?" asks lead singer and rhythm guitarist Eric Graf. "When everybody seems to really want to stay quiet and unemotional, we're willing to let it all hang out. For some people, they might think we're going over the top -- like too over the top. But we like to, you know, rock out a little bit."

Boxstep's intensified sound began to take shape when Graf and lead guitarist Dave Wallace left Pittsburgh groups Five Ball and Isabel. Dabbling with a DJ at first, they slowly came around to the idea of forming an orchestrated band, which they pieced together with local players.

"It wasn't like there was seven or eight of us at first," Graf says. "We would see a certain drummer in a certain band and we'd like him, so we'd ask him to come down. Bit by bit, piece by piece, we formed. We saw Sarah [Siplak], and we really liked the way she sang. We saw Erin [Hutter] play violin in a bluegrass band in town, and we just kept going from there and building. The next thing you know, we had eight people."

And about as many different instruments, as Boxstep eventually came to include bass, drums, dual guitars, piano, organ, violin, viola, harmonica, and accordion. The varied instruments enable the band to generate the grandiose, cascading sound that infiltrates many of its songs. It's an approach that's been highly influenced by the Australian trio Dirty Three, whose slow, winding patterns and riffs bank on a similar rise-and-fall formula.

"I think, aesthetically, we all really love the Dirty Three. It's that sort of sweeping and swinging thing," says Graf. "I think, even though they're not like singer-songwriters in the way they approach music, emotionally, the swelling is something that influenced my writing."

This influence is manifested in Boxstep's debut, The Faces All Look On, which mixes the band's swollen stylings with a folk-rock feel. The album, recorded in just three days in Chicago for Overcoat Recordings, was produced by Bill Skibbe, a sound engineer with Steve Albini. The studio work was a first for many of the band's members -- a fact that, according to Graf, lent the disc a subdued tone. A good example is the rather curious absence of Graf's Black Francis-like howl, which roars from the frontman when Boxstep peaks live, but is nowhere to be found on Faces.

"I've had a lot of people say to me, 'Why aren't you yelling on the record at all?'" Graf says. "I'll be honest; going into the studio and making an album, it was the first time I had ever done it, and so it was a little bit intimidating in that sense. I was definitely reserved in the way I delivered things vocally. But as we played live, I would just get really excited and started doing it at certain parts, when we really started chugging along. When I do it, I can feel the whole band get really excited, and all of a sudden, everybody really starts wailing away on their instruments. It's hard, when you get into a room, to re-create how animated you are onstage. It's really difficult for all of us. We really didn't capture on tape the peaks and valleys we're capable of."

It's better if the excitement builds naturally like that. The one thing Boxstep wants to avoid is becoming formulaic.

"I'm leery of becoming a one-trick pony, where everyone is expecting, 'Okay, this song's going to begin quietly and then build and build into a crescendo,'" says Graf.

Of late, the band has tried structuring its songs a little more along the standard lines of verse-chorus-verse, giving each member time to bring out individual harmonies.

"In a lot of the newer stuff, you can definitely hear the individual instruments, which is really cool, because a lot of the times when you go see a band, especially when there's eight people onstage, it's hard to make everything out," explains vocalist and violist Siplak. "We're definitely making room."

All the bands atop the post-rock scrapheap are advised to do the same for Boxstep.

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