By Kay Halbrook
Boxkar’s fully loaded rock sound isn’t a happy accident. It might be easy to start a band, but it takes talent, smarts and lots of hard work to keep growing as a musical group for more than 10 years. Talking with Chris Szebeni, you get the impression that those years have taught him lessons that he is turning into the most deeply honest music he has ever recorded. Plus a lucky connection to the Goo Goo Dolls cranked the production quality sky high, giving their new album Can You Hear Me a polished tonality that somehow still rings true as rock and roll.
A candid interview with Chris Szebeni left me with an impression of a careful business owner who understands the value of sticking to his goals in a nearly corporate manner. Yet he is a self-aware creative showman who can open up emotionally to an audience and share a personal tune. That is a rare combination.
Boxkar’s latest album took four years to complete. The band went through a period of rediscovery during that time, replacing their original guitar player with Brian Saunders, who pitched in to write the new tunes along with Chris and bandmate Tom Thiel. They spent those years gigging full time, spreading the word about their music, while transitioning to their current roster. “I decided to pick up some of the song writing on this new CD with my new guitar player Brian Saunders. This album was a long time coming.
“This is by far our best sounding album. I would compare it phonically to any national, produced album. A fan of ours is friends with the engineer at Inner Machine Studios, the studio of the Goo Goo Dolls in Buffalo, New York. The engineer was listening to our first albums and Robbie Takec, the Goo Goo Dolls bass player asked, ‘Who is this?’ and took a liking to the sound. He asked to produce on this album.” They completed the album back in Appleton working with Tony Anders at Studio H.
“This is our most honest album. My writing is a lot more about finding your inner self, lots of self-exploration. Lyrically it comes out that way. Musically, it is right in line with our first three albums but has more of a pop sound to it. Our producers alone added the pop feel. Tony Anders has a great ear for pop, and the Goo Goo Dolls took us in that direction. We would go into the studio and they would be brutally critical ‘I don’t like this, take out that harmony, etc.’ And we stopped talking about whiskey and women and started talking about finding ourselves. That is a big difference lyrically. We are still a rock band, just not so cock-rock sounding. Don’t get me wrong, we still play all those songs, but we have added another layer,” said Szebeni.
“This album is self-financed and self-promoted. Unless it’s an independent radio station, it’s hard to get original independent music played. They are so constricted on how much local music they play. The national labels want to push their music and they have lots of money. Record labels are signing less and less people. Radio stations are playing less and less non-signed artists. Back in the 80’s-90’s it was easier––there were less bands around. Now there are more bands and people can pick up guitar and pick up Pro-tools and sound pretty good. There is more competition.”
Szebeni yearns for a simpler distribution and marketing model but is willing to put in the work to get his tunes noticed. “Back in the day, it would have been a lot easier to be signed and the label would put lots of effort into getting you ready. Now they want you to be ready and polished with a fan base. The good news is we can produce our own albums, pick where we want to record them. We can market ourselves on all the different platforms out there. With the Internet, it is easier to reach people. There are more tools, but it is harder to capture people’s attention. The challenge is how to make enough noise from Wisconsin to get people in the big cities to take note. I challenge the festivals to hire more original bands and take the chance on the music.”
Szebeni and his bandmates are full-time musicians with part time jobs teaching music lessons or working at Heid’s Music. Chris sings jingles on the side, as well as running the band’s business. “I own the band and make the big decisions, but we are all in this together. The band members are truly my best friends. We hang out together when we aren’t playing. They realize I do the most work and take the most risk, so they are totally cool with the way things go. We do our own bookings, as well as working with some booking companies around the Midwest,” explains Szebeni.
“When we started in 2001, there were a bunch of cover bands playing here. And the mind-set was that you couldn’t do the “original” thing. But I knew we could do it. I knew I could run a band if I had the right writer. Brian Bremer was in Fall Out, and I was playing with Cool Waters and with Boogie and YoYo’s. Right away when we played our first show at Barley and Hops in Oshkosh, we had a good-size crowd. We were ahead of the game because we had some fans already.”
The band is known for their polished live show and Chris for his front man Jagger-esque stage vibe. “When we first started the band, our goal was that no matter where we go and who we play for, we want to come across as a national act. The first few years all the profit went into buying sound and lighting equipment, so we would have the best possible sound and light show. We want to come in and already be polished, wow them like you are a national act coming to their town. Our posters, our photos, our equipment, our hired sound people and our media materials––it’s stuff that major labels do. We put this effort into it is because we have that goal––to be national quality. People put us down sometimes for doing this like we are trying to be something we are not, but that’s unfortunate. We are trying to spread Wisconsin original music,” said Szebeni.
“Our goal is to be a national act that plays around the US and tours all over the world. But while we are here working to achieve that goal, we want to come across professional and authentic. We walk into places where they are used to hearing covers, and we play originals. We take that risk to get people to hear our originals. At every show, I swear I say, ‘Please take the chance and go out and hear original music.’ There is so much great original music around here. “
Boxkar recently won the Chicago Hard Rock Café battle of the bands. Out of 700 bands, they were chosen to represent Chicago. One of only two bands from the Midwest to be in the finals, they ranked fifth out of the final 12,000 bands. “We had to perform in Chicago twice, then it was judged by voting. It took a big group effort, but it did a lot for us. It got us fired up”.
The band members are Chris Szebeni, Matt Hammen, Matthew Gieseke, Tom Thiel and Brian Saunders. Their latest release Can You Hear Me is available on iTunes, CDbaby and Amazon.com. Check out their live show if you get a chance.