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Big Music Feature

Over There

Oxes Take Europe by Storm

Sam Holden
The Yoke's On Them: (from left) Marc Miller, Nat Fowler, and Chris Freeland.

Big Music Issue 2002

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From a low-lit stage, oxes drummer Chris Freeland announces that the trio is holding onstage tryouts for his replacement. Several would-be drummers from the noisy crowd try their hand at the traps, among them Shellac's Todd Trainer. Even he is dismissed as guitarist Nat Fowler, sheathed in a skin-tight black vinyl body suit, unleashes a wall of muted metal noise from his custom-built guitar. Freeland retakes the kit, and third Ox Marc Miller joins in the frenzy.

These high-octane rock antics are familiar to Baltimore club audiences, but this scene took place at All Tomorrow's Parties at the Camber Sands Holiday Resort on England's southeast coast in April. The six-day event spread over two consecutive weekends brought to the resort a smattering of American indie rock, handpicked by members of the Chicago supergroup Shellac, including Oxes and Baltimore-based Will Oldham's latest nom de band, Bonnie "Prince" Billie.

But one thing that Shellac, All Tomorrow's Parties, and England wasn't prepared for was the enthusiastic response Oxes received. "I was amazed," Miller says. "I couldn't have anticipated how well it went over. The first weekend we were pretty much the second band to play, after Shellac, and so many people were in there they had to stop letting people in. And people were going nuts."

Oxes T-shirts quickly became de rigeur garb at All Tomorrow's Parties. Following the fest, Oxes embarked on a six-week tour of the continent--the Netherlands, France, Germany, Austria, Italy, Belgium, and Spain--and then returned to England, playing almost 50 shows in two months and doing a live studio session with legendary BBC DJ John Peel. Along the way, the band sold almost 1,000 copies of its new album, Oxxxes, released on local label Monitor Records while they were overseas.

Local fans of the band, formed four years ago this Aug. 16--"same birthday as Madonna," Miller notes--by members of esteemed local units Haberdasher and International Soundscape Internationale, have embraced the trio's tongue-in-cheek instrumental-rock theater, as have its growing followings throughout the United States. But Oxes' sensational impression on English festgoers is even more impressive when you consider the company in which the band found itself for the two All Tomorrow's Parties weekends, a lineup featuring the likes of Wire, the Fall, and the recently regrouped Mission of Burma. And Oxes' two performances--one of which included an encore cover of Sheryl Crow's "Strong Enough" with Shellac bassist Bob Weston and vocalist Oldham joining in--made their return to England at the tour's close even more eventful.

"Coming back to the U.K. made a lot more people come out to the shows," Miller says. "There were lots of repeats, people saying, 'I saw you at All Tomorrow's Parties,' or 'My friend saw you at All Tomorrow's Parties and told me to come to this.' That sort of thing."

"It was sort of ridiculous," Freeland says. "At one show, I was eating dinner in the club and stepped outside just to hang out. And there were a ton of people there way before the club even opened. They were waiting in line in case it sold out."

All the attention Oxes drew in England also caught the eyes of Wire. The venerable British art-punk quartet is touring America behind its new EP, Read and Burn 01, and it asked Oxes to open for five East Coast dates this September. "The Wire tour is a direct result of All Tomorrow's Parties," Miller says. "They saw us there. Otherwise, I don't know how they would've been exposed to us."

"It seems like it'll be a lot of fun," Freeland says of the Wire tour. "I've never met any of them. So if their way of saying 'I love you' is, 'Hey, come up and open for us on tour,' that's cool. I'm guessing it will be the biggest houses we've played in America thus far."

Oxes' mounting success in America and abroad is just one indication that the local indie scene is finally starting to make a dent in the world's vast and longstanding indifference to underground music from Baltimore. "I do think that there are a lot more bands from [Baltimore] than people outside here know about [now]," says Brian DeRan, co-head of Monitor Records. "And I think it's because [local acts] are playing more out of town. That makes a difference. Club music here is really big, but it doesn't leave the city. But people like Cex and Oxes, they tour. People are realizing that Baltimore isn't their only arena."

It's a trend Oxes notice while on the road. "In Europe when you tell people you're from Baltimore you get, 'Oh, John Waters,'" Miller says. "But in the States, people will ask us about other Baltimore bands. Love Life, Convocation Of . . . they've heard that stuff. It's weird. It's like the renaissance of Baltimore."

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