William Birkenbuel has a few regrets: spotlight-hunting coyotes in his hometown of Great Falls when he was in high school; maybe a little too much partying and chasing girls. But that's what rock and roll confessionals are for. Along with drummer Abe Jindrich, the guitarist and songwriter for Missoula's The BoxCutters lays it all out there in a new album titled The Evil in Young Men. "I've been trying to think of a way to explain it," says Birkenbuel, "but that's pretty much what these songs are: growing up and suffering from heartache and causing heartbreak and all the evil things you do in between to pass the time."
"Evil" might be too strong a word here; "mistakes were made" seems more apropos. The story behind "Skinning Knife" is probably startling for big city folk: skinning dead coyotes to sell the pelts to buy booze to go to parties to chase girls. But it's an intriguing story nonetheless. "If you think about it, your teenage years are such a weird time to tap into to extract stories," says Birkenbuel. "There are all sorts of scenarios. You totally aren't that way any more, but it's just fun to go back and pull the stories from it."
Fiction or fact, The BoxCutters's songs dig into dark habits and youthful inhibitions. In the swingin' song "Honky Tonk," there's "cuttin' cocaine on the cellar floor." But even with "Only Seventeen," where Birkenbuel sings about a beautiful girl with "Spanish eyes" who turns out to be underage, it only really comes off as innocent intentions gone wrong. In his gritty, wildly soulful voice, Birkenbuel sings,"Oh yes I'm lost! / I'm so damn lost. / I never knew that she was seventeen!"
Jindrich and Birkenbuel have been a two-man band for two years. They got their start at Sean Kelly's open mic. Last year, they won KBGA college radio's battle of the bands, which aired for a suspenseful two months before the winner was announced. For a while, The BoxCutters were playing everywhere, every week: The Top Hat, the Palace, the Badlander, Sean Kelly's, a show at the Wilma for Sick Kids XOXO's album release party. "We were taking any gig we could get anywhere, any time of the week," says Jindrich. "People see your set enough times. We still have a strong contingent of friends who come to our shows, but it's hard to justify every week. At that point, they've heard our songs and there's only so many orders we can play them in until they've heard it all and then their enthusiasm starts to wane, just like anything you do too much of."
The BoxCutters play a few Black Keys covers, plus "Folsom Prison" and Edward Sharpe's "40 Day Dream." But listening to their original songs on The Evil in Young Men, it's clear why they rose to the top. Birkenbuel has the voice for ita crooning, desperate confidence that you can also hear from Jack White or Dan Auerbach or Greg "Oblivian" Cartwright. You can't just cultivate that sound; it's the kind of fervid delivery that comes from impassioned outbursts. "She's So Damn Beautiful," which seems like The BoxCutters's radio gem, could be misconstrued by any number of singer-songwriter cheeseballs, but Birkenbuel makes it sweetly raw. Same goes for "Wanna Make Love," a term that only classic rock bands like Bad Company could barely get away with. With The BoxCutters, it doesn't seem foolish: The sauntering intro and Birkenbuel's "Please, please, please get out of my head" is so persuasively tortured that the subsequent line, "Please, please, please get into my bed," doesn't actually sound like a bad pickup line.
The Evil in Young Men was recorded in a cabin outside of Missoula.
"We wanted it to be lo-fi with a hollow sound," says Birkenbuel, "but the instruments to be right in your face, kind of like the first White Stripes album or the first Black Keys albums. They were so raw and so soulful, just pure. There may be quite a few people who aren't impressed with our album because it's not that crystal-clear or perfectly [equalized], but that's not what we wanted."
It's true that the album isn't super produced, but it's not overly lo-fi eithernot like old '60s garage rock or The Mummies. It's a nice in-between that enhances Birkenbuel's vocal style and swampy guitar riffs and, also, Jindrich's stomping, '70s-style rock drumming.
Birkenbuel and Jindrich have been playing together for six years. They were first in LP and the Federales, which started out as a Jack Johnson-style lite-rock and reggae outfit and then was amped up to a sort of Pearl Jam rock style. That's fine for college rock "bro" audiences, but as The BoxCutters, the musicians have come a long way: They now have an authentic, edgy feel that perks up punk and lo-fi aficionados but is still accessible to mainstream crowds.
Live, The BoxCutters bring a loud, full sound. The best two-piece bands do.
"When you make the decision to go two-man, there's only one way out the door and that's just going as hard as you can," says Birkenbuel. "There's no screwing around. If you're not up there giving it your all and not having fun, the audience will smell it out."
"And you're on a stage built for four or five," adds Jindrich. "So you've got to be bigger-than-life."
The BoxCutters play a CD release party at Sean Kelly's Sat., May 12, at 10 PM with Airstream Safari. Free.