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Songs About Yucking

After Five Years of Rocking and Mocking Audiences from Baltimore to Europe, Oxes Get Ready for Their Next Move--Whatever That Is

Jefferson Jackson Steele
Beasts of Burden: (From Left) Chris Freeland, Marc Miller, and Nat Fowler of Oxes.
Jefferson Jackson Steele
Jefferson Jackson Steele
Jefferson Jackson Steele
Jefferson Jackson Steele
Bringing Down the House: The randy ruckus that Oxes stirred up at Emo's in Austin during SXSW earned them an adulatory blurb in Entertainment Weekly, those little media whores.

By Bret McCabe | Posted 3/26/2003

Rubber Gloves Rehearsal Studios is an L-shaped bunker of a club that sits across the street from a quarry's loose-dirt parking lot on East Sycamore Street in Denton, Texas, a sleepy college town about 40 miles northwest of Dallas. En route to Austin for the South by Southwest Music Festival, Baltimore's Oxes have popped in to do what they do. The trio--guitarists Nat Fowler, 27, and Marc Miller, 24, and drummer Chris Freeland, 25--have been doing it in Mobtown and around the country since 1998. And they've made a damned good name for themselves by doing it.

What they do, however, is hard to explain. Musically, Oxes play heavy instrumental rock. Just don't think "rock" in the usual sense of the word; Oxes (no "the," please) aren't only a musical experience. Their tunes boast rifferiffic guitar spew punctuated by orangutan drumming to be sure, but what the band members do while hammering out their music often undermines everything "rock" about it. Miller and Fowler play through wireless units, untying them from their amps and allowing them to wander through the audience, to come up to people and interact with them as if they weren't the ones playing a concert. Freeland is often the only Ox who speaks during a show, but Oxes play with a single microphone front and center stage, so he has to leave his kit to do so. And what he says frequently doesn't have much to do with anything--absurd rhetorical questions, innocuous comments, or half-serious instructions for the audience that habitually go unheeded.

And then there are the damn boxes--two square black wooden cubes that Fowler and Miller sometimes stand upon, leap from, fall off, balance on one leg atop, dance on, etc.

Little about the band makes much sense. Yet all this--the package,the shtick, the whateverthehellitis--has earned the band a healthy following. With only two albums of material--2000's Oxes and 2002's Oxxxes, both on Brian DeRan and Jason Foster's Baltimore-based Monitor Records--Oxes have roamed the country and through Europe establishing themselves as one of the more unpredictable live bands in indie rock.1

Something was amiss in Denton, however. Oxes played a low-impact set, loading up the set list with their slower songs, and, for some reason, playing them glacially. And the audience responded by giving them glassy-eyed stares. The set crept along, and when Fowler and Miller entered the crowd, it felt as though they were escaping the stage rather than engaging the audience.

More incongruous was Freeland and Fowler's monotone chatter. Between songs, the usually silent Fowler stepped to the microphone and Freeland leaned into the mic above his high-hat cymbal and they laconically mock-drawled "Yep"s--for up to a full minute--until the stereotypically Texan monosyllabic affirmative became a mantra of Yupyupyupyupyupyup . . . . And they didn't let up until somebody started the next number. When they finally called it a night after an hour, they shrugged offstage, looking glad it was finally over.

And they weren't the only ones. "Oxes sucked tonight," said Patrick Costello, bassist and vocalist of the Dillinger Four, which followed. Well, "said" doesn't quite do his booming vituperation justice. It was more screamed: "I love the Oxes, and you should buy their records. But tonight they played some Live in Pompeii bullshit."

The small crowd--some 50 to 60 people--finally came alive under Costello's rant. Nothing gets people's attention quite like tearing somebody a new one in public.

"That's right, I see you, you Ox dumbfuck," Costello continued, spying one of the guys in the crowd. "I see you. Shut up you motherfuck. You played some dissonant emo shit, and you were not up to your game. So fuck you."

Oxes can take it as well as they can dish it, so the D4 dis slid off their backs as if their boho back-to-school wear2 were coated in Teflon.3

Four nights later at the Monitor Records SXSW showcase, the band came out swinging for its 1 a.m. headlining slot, kicking off with the muscular "Panda Strong." Freeland pounded out the thumping intro as Fowler and Miller took their box perches and launched into the song's chugging recurring motif. The two guitarists then immediately headed into the throng, which had already started tossing drinks in the air, at the band, anywhere. It's the sort of scene the band lives for.

Oxes can whip up this tizzy because their songs are prebuilt for the elasticity with which they play them in concert. Songs are written with the foresight that, at any time during a show, there could be only one or two people playing, and they might not all be onstage. They've developed a set of cues both visual (eye contact, hand gestures) and sonic (drum fills, guitar breaks) that signal what and when is going to happen next. And it's a grab bag of tricks the members learned in their collective histories, stemming from previous bands--Freeland and Miller's International Soundscape Internationale, Fowler in Haberdasher--and a nebulous motley pack called the Baltimore Rowdy Crew.

Friends since fourth grade at Catonsville's Hillcrest Elementary School4, Catonsville natives Freeland and Miller formed ISI while they were attending the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. With Freeland and Miller on guitar, longtime friend Zach Poff on bass, and jazz drummer/composition student Will Redman on the traps, ISI took the standard indie-rock blueprint of Freeland and Miller's high-school band Yard Sale and slowly introduced improvisation into its live sets. After two years of ongoing experimentation--where its "song modules" became linked by structured improv such that the band's concerts were continuous 45-minute excursions of bricolage--ISI had run its course.

Fowler, an Ellicott City native5, transferred to UMBC from the University of Delaware in 1995, where he eventually began playing bass for a band called Haberdasher. He met Freeland and Miller the following year, but they didn't immediately hit it off.

"As is the case with most people who first meet me, they hated me," Fowler says. "Because I'm not, like, polite. I don't like small talk, but I think I've changed over the years. But at that time, I really hated small talk."6

Serendipitously, both ISI and Haberdasher folded about the same time--practically at the same show, a bill on which both bands opened for U.S Maple at the old Ottobar7, Aug. 2, 1998--and Freeland, Fowler, and Miller decided to start a new band. Two weeks later8, they had their first practice. And they knew exactly who they were going to rip off.

"In that two weeks, we had basically been listening to a lot of Champs9 and other metal, and we really weren't metal kids," Miller says. "So we showed up for practice, and I thought Nat was going to play bass. But he wanted to play guitar, and I didn't want to play bass. And I thought that would be too much like the Champs. But he [Fowler] didn't care. So we both played guitar [and] tried to play something metal-like. And we wrote our first song in about four hours."

Though "Challenger"--"I think a better name for it would be 'Trans Champsallero," Miller admits, confessing it was equal parts Trans Am, Champs, and Don Caballero--never made it to either of the band's albums, the trio was feeling themselves out. They played a show in a Bolton Hill basement and, slowly, the band gelled.

A great deal of what became Oxes--including the name10--came out of the Baltimore Rowdy Crew. Formed by Fowler, Freeland, and a handful of other friends in 1998, the Rowdy Crew lived to smash shit in public and cause general mayhem, all in the name of yucks. "We just took these ideas that we thought would be really hilarious, and [we'd] do them," Fowler says. "Like going to parties with a bunch of ceramic figurines, putting them on shelves, and then, when the party was getting really rambunctious, take them and smash them on the ground and go, 'Woo!'--stuff like that. And then when people would start looking at you like, What are you doing? and start cleaning it up. And then we started going to shows dressed up really weird and doing stuff."11

"Everything about performing in Oxes I got from the Rowdy Crew," Freeland says. "In every Oxes performance, there's a balance between the 'rock'--the dun dun dun dun dun dun dun dun--and what Marc calls the 'dicking around,' but what I call the 'performance' or 'God's love' or, worse, 'art,' and that's what I enjoy most. Sometimes there's more of one than the other, but both are always in there."

The performance aspect soon crept into Oxes shows. First came the boxes, which they unveiled at their second show 12, then the wireless rigs13, which debuted at a show Jan. 21, 199914, and Oxes became the beast they are today.

But last year, the band started feeling growing pains. "We've been in a lull for quite a while, as anybody knows who has seen us recently," Miller admits. "We haven't been able to write new songs in some time, things just haven't been coming together. Which really sucks, because people come to the shows and it would be nice for everyone--us and them--if we could get off our ass and write some new stuff. But we've been on tour so much and then come back and had to take a break from each other, so we're doing other things.

"I've always wanted to be more active in our writing. I'd like to be more active in touring, too--without burning ourselves out like in Europe last year. That was--I don't know. It was just traumatizing."

Traumatizing? Oxes' 2002was a year for which any young band would kill. Shellac invited the trio to perform at the famed All Tomorrow's Parties festival last March in the United Kingdom. They performed on John Peel's heralded BBC Radio 1 program. They then departed for the Continent, where they toured for six weeks before returning to the United Kingdom for two weeks to find themselves indie-rock tabloid celebrities.

Oxxxes, which came out while they were Over There, has sold some 5,000 copies to date, not bad for an indie release. It charted on college-radio playlists all last year and received a steady stream of positive reviews from its initial release last spring until well into the fall.

After a short break upon its return to the States, the band was asked to open for postpunk legend Wire on its East Coast tour, followed by an invitation to join indie up-and-comers Isis and Dalek for a three-week stint. All the attention earned Oxes an opening slot for Mission of Burma reunion shows in Philadelphia and Washington this past February. And now, they were heading to headline Monitor's first-ever SXSW showcase with their labelmates singer/songwriter Cass McCombs (for whom Oxes served as backing band) and veteran local experimental rock ensemble INK.

But it was an enormously stressful year. Due to a booking misstep, a week of shows in Spain were canceled in the middle of the European leg, leaving the band with nothing to do and five days to kill while not making any money. Their fussy British tour manager made every day a chore by constantly badgering them to be more serious, creating stressful road trips between shows. By the time they returned home, they had barely broken even financially--eight weeks on the road and nothing to show for it but exhaustion.

"I didn't have a good time last year," Freeland says. "I was trying to figure out a lot of things, like do I want to be spending so much time away from the people who are important to me. I felt really, really shitty twice. One, because there were things in my life that I just left behind that needed closure and people that I wasn't there for. And consequently, those people were not around me when I needed them. And that's upsetting.

"But that's the dream of every band. I felt like I was betraying who I was when I was 16 playing my guitar. That's what I wanted to be doing. I wanted to be in a van forever and in a new city all the time and seeing all this stuff. And so many people probably want that, and I couldn't appreciate it at the time."

Fowler and Miller feel the same. After the European tour, each left town--Miller to visit his girlfriend in Chicago, Fowler to visit his girlfriend in Italy--needing to put some distance between themselves and the tour. But where Miller came back from the Windy City with a renewed vim15, Fowler's time in Italy exacerbated his anxiety.

"My girlfriend lives there, but she works full time," he says. "So for three of the six weeks I was there, she was at work and I was just sitting around the house, kind of freaking out. It was just me with my guitar, and I'm thinking, What's going on? I'm in Italy. My band is--I don't even know what the relationships are like anymore.

"And the truth is, I really think it was the case last year--just getting sick of each other," he continues. "You spend enough time with the same people doing the exact same thing that you're obligated to do every single night, you're just going to get sick of the whole situation. So at the end of the European tour, I was like, 'Man, I can't wait to see my girlfriend again.' But Marc and Chris? Jesus."

The band's unexpected quasi-fame started making Fowler feel like Oxes concerts were pure sideshow, as if audiences were coming to see their traveling American circus instead of something they appreciated. And it really turned him off of music in general.

Recently, though, both he and Miller are getting their groove back. Fowler started playing with local psychedelic art ensemble Long Live Death, and playing with other people has rekindled his enthusiasm for Oxes; now he's able to appreciate the good things about the band again. He and Miller have even started feeling out new material for the first time in more than a year.

"2002 was a bad year," Fowler says. "I'm writing it off as that. It's been a lot better this year. I don't why. Maybe I just hit a peak where [constantly thinking about the band] mattered so much, but now it just doesn't matter anymore. And so now anything goes for me."

The entire band threw caution to the wind during its scorching SXSW show. Three songs into its set, Touch and Go Records founder Corey Rusk and Man? or Astroman?'s Brian Teasley stepped onto the stage and climbed atop the Oxes' boxes, crossed their arms, stared at Freeland, and didn't budge. Neither Fowler nor Miller could move them off, and the guitarists characteristically played around them.

Teasley whipped out a cell phone and started to place a call. Fowler came up to him and took the bottom of the phone into his mouth; Teasley responded by doing the same, until they were locked in a comic/erotic double-ended kiss.

This sort of improvisational mischief is part of the rush that Fowler enjoys about Oxes, the chance for spontaneous silliness. It was one of the original ideas behind their wireless rigs and the reason he enjoys interacting with fans so much. And he and Miller are both feeling the charge again.

"I think now when we're playing shows, we're finally having fun again," Miller says. "We're all prepared to do this as long as we can. We're happy with ourselves."

The bubbly and unabashedly unpretentious Freeland certainly seems happy, but he's a one-man magic bus of merry pranksterism who seems to be able to find a joke in everything. He's the most charismatic of the three Oxes onstage--primarily because when Fowler and Miller are off goofing, he has to be doing something worth watching. He doesn't stick to the rock drummer's standard bag of clichés--the two-fisted stick raising, the quick three stick-click song intro, that constipated expression drummers get when they're thinking. Freeland gets a world of sound out of his sparse four-piece set, walking around it, playing from a hunched-over crouch, and mugging a grab bag of Jerry Lewis facial tics.

In April, however, he leaves Baltimore to play drums on singer/songwriter Will Oldham's three-week West Coast tour stretching from San Diego to Walla Walla, Wash. And after that, he's flying to Los Angeles to look for work--a prospect he'd like to pan out into a career.

"I want to produce records," Freeland says. "Actually, my big dream is to be the session drummer for the Neptunes.16 I really like working with songs that already exist and trying to create a sense of momentum in them. I'd like to do that for whoever wants me. I think I can get some session work while I'm out there, and hopefully produce people from there. If it goes well, I'll move out there. Maybe I can live here and fly out there if people want me."

Freeland sounds like he's undergoing a slight change in what he wants out of his musical career and his band. "I only want to play one beat,"17 Freeland says--a surprising admission from a drummer in a band that trucks in such dense polyrhythms. "That's something I don't really like about some of our songs. A lot of them are so disjointed rhythmically that I think something could be better about them. There'll be a weird cut right in the middle, and you'll lose all of your momentum. That was what I wanted to be making at that time, but now I want the power to come from someplace else.

"I want to play dance-metal,"18 he continues. "That's where I want us to go. Like if we could play with [San Francisco noise-groove band] !!!, and they could play and we could play and people could dance the whole time, nothing would make me happier. So before I go to L.A., I'm going to make a CD of beats and give it to [Miller and Fowler] and let them work with that, let all the songwriting come out of changes in melody and the changes in their rhythms' dynamic."

Dressed in a frilled brown shirt at the SXSW show, however, Freeland was his characteristically impish self, looking tickled to be there. He winked and made goo-goo eyes at the box-perched Rusk and Teasley, even looking genuinely surprised himself once he realized they weren't getting down. He tried to poll the audience as to how many beers they thought were consumed during all of SXSW--6,000? 600,000? (Nobody hazarded a guess.) And when the set ended, all three Oxes stayed onstage waving goodbye to people, waited for Rusk and Teasley to leave, chatted with fans who approached them, and watched the crowd slowly disperse out of the club, leaving behind a beer-soaked, ashtray-smelling steam room.

And then all of a sudden Freeland was hammering away again and Fowler and Miller were running at the tipsy stragglers with tongues hanging out of their agape mouths, pinball-bouncing from person to person while playing a double-time wall of treble-fuzzed noise riddled with snare machine-gun fire. They ran a headless-chicken lap around the bar and rushed back to the stage before stopping as suddenly as they started. And then Freeland belly-laughed like he'd been waiting for that one minute of mayhem all night.

Right now, however, he's not sure what he's waiting for. "I really don't know if we have anything planned for Oxes right now," Freeland says. "So I don't really know what were doing next. Nothing's written. And I think we all don't want to make another album until we're ready. I mean, I hate our last album. I don't listen to it at all. If we do another album--I don't know. I don't think we have a vision for it yet."

And with Oxes--a band that relies on its wits and riffs equally--chasing a vision is half their battle. "And that's the thing--we've done everything I wanted to do with the band," Freeland says. "That's very nice in terms of accomplishment, but it's also too comfortable in a sense. I wanted to go to Chicago and make a record with Bob Weston. We did that. I wanted to play a Peel session more than anything. We did that. I wanted to play the 9:30 Club. We did that. So I'm not sure what's next. Anything can happen. I'm not very superstitious, but everything right now is steering me in an anything-can-happen, get-ready-for-something new direction. Fortune cookies. Horoscopes. Any sign that you can possibly find is telling me I have no idea what's coming next."

FOOTNOTES:
1. British music magazine Mojo thus spake: "Musically suggestive of a leather-clad Link Wray surfing across one of the Andromeda Nebula's outer arms, the Oxes refuse to be constrained by the accepted parameters of rock performance."

2. Man? or Astroman?'s Brian Teasley recently called Oxes "Band sporting the most Abercrombie and Fitch wear" in the Chunklet zine, and DeRan reports that the band has done an entire string of shows outfitted in Old Navy apparel with the tags still on. And it doesn't sound like Oxes are being sarcastic about it:

City Paper: Are you looking forward to playing SXSW?

Miller: Sure. Hopefully we'll get some more free jeans like we did at CMJ. This jacket? It's a CMJ Levi's score.3. Besides, payback's a bitch. At the following night's Houston show, Oxes repeated everything Costello said, only with "D4" everywhere he said "Oxes," and then announced that the show was over after they finished and tried to shoo everybody home, sending the D4 crew to the doors to tell leaving patrons that the pop-punk combo was, in fact, playing.

4. And Catonsville Middle and High schools.

5. Actually, that's a bit of a fib. Fowler was born in 1975 in Shiraz, Iran, where his family lived for two years while his Westinghouse-employed father made air-traffic control systems for Shiraz and Tehran airports.

6. CP: So UMBC is where y'all met Nat, right?

Miller: Yeah. The fucking asshole. Chris and I both hated him.

CP: Why?

Miller: Because he was an asshole.

CP: How?

Miller: Ask him.

CP: I did.

Miller: Oh, so this is my version? Well, he's a different person now. At the time, I think I reminded him, in a bad way, of the way he used to be. Maybe I just talked too much or just didn't think about what I said before I said it. I tell bad stories, stories that just go nowhere, stories that just aren't interesting to anybody. And his constant, belligerent badgering and general assholeness, through that he points out things that he sees as wrong with other people. The big thing is the economy of words. When he says something, he means exactly that. Which is a good thing. I've become more and more self-conscious about it, which makes it harder to talk to people. Especially when I'm talking. I just try to say things to get to somewhere else. Small talk. I mean, it's nice to say "Hi" to people. But it's also nice to say something with something to it, too, rather than to find out where I'm going with it. Like this.

7. Which, at the time, was not co-owned by CP promotions/marketing representative Craig Boarman.

8. Aug. 16, 1998, which, as Miller always points out, is Madonna's birthday.

9. You ever notice that even the most asinine hair metal band has a couple of really good moments in a song or on an album that they mess up by singing or turning into a power ballad? Well, Champs--now the Fucking Champs--started off as a late-'90s power trio that made an album composed entirely of just such good moments. No songs in the traditional sense. No vocals to get in the way of the headbanging. Just short snippets of bar-chord rock and anthemic solos, high on drama, attitude, and sarcasm, and low on all of metal's pop aspirations. This subgenre of indie-metal sarcasm reached its apotheosis with Crom's 2000 Cocaine Wars: 1977-1997. Dude.

10. "We had a whole bunch of slogans," Fowler says. "Like, 'Graceful Like a Swan, Ferocious.' Or, 'Buried, Not Married.' Or, 'Oxes Are Better Than Cars,' which ended up how we came up with the name."

11. One of its most infamous stunts involved forcibly kidnapping To Live and Shave in L.A. guitarist Weasel Walter offstage when the band played the Ottobar (see disclosure, above), putting him in Freeland's truck with the idea to take him out to the country somewhere, give him a shovel, and have him dig his own grave. The poor guy had dropped acid earlier in the evening, however, and though they got him in the truck, it didn't go much further than that.

12. "The boxes were just a way of exaggerating the distance between the crowd and us onstage," Miller says. "It was around the time when hardcore bands had been playing on the floor, staying low. So we decided to play onstage, not use a drum riser, set our amps up in back--you're self-monitoring that way. And Chris can be in front, because he wants some spotlight, too. And then we stand up on the boxes, and it's like we're super-far from the crowd. It's just part of our thing to exaggerate the show. That should be our motto: 'Exaggerate everything.'"

13. "At the time, there were these bands that had, like, 60-foot cables and they were going out in the audience and slapping their bass in people's faces," Fowler says. "And we were like, 'Let's do that but in a friendly way.'"

14. Miller: We made buttons to commemorate the event.CP:What did they say?

Miller: wireless since 1999.15. "Being apart was a good thing," Miller says. "We needed it. But we surprised ourselves when we got back together. We didn't have to relearn the songs--we fell right back in. It can be a slow progression [for us], because our whole thing is every time we play the songs to do something a little different. But a few shows into the Isis tour, it just all came together and we were playing the best shows we've ever played. It was starting to be as fun as our first shows again."

16. Note: Seeing that Freeland credits himself as "auditioning to be the Neptunes drummer" on Oxxxes, and knowing that the entire band has trafficked in oddball pseudonyms in the past, we have to wonder: You fucking with us?

17. Ibid., w/r/t the fucking-with-us-ness.

18. Ditto.

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