For Nathan Nicholson, it’s been a long journey from Murlin’s Music World in Maryville to the Glastonbury Festival in England, and not only in terms of mileage. Nicholson, now the lead singer of critically-acclaimed indie rock band The Boxer Rebellion, began his musical career at the age of 5 with guitar lessons from Steve Kaufman at Murlin’s. Though he never became a guitar virtuoso, Nicholson and The Boxer Rebellion have found themselves in a music-industry Cinderella story for the internet age: in less than six months, they have gone from being a talented-but-broke band with a loyal following on the London club circuit to reaching #82 on the Billboard charts and briefly outselling Coldplay and Kings of Leon on iTunes.
After graduating from Maryville High School in 1999, Nicholson went to Florida State University, where he had the opportunity to live in London as an exchange student. Nicholson had been to London twice before, and had long wanted to return. “Despite the overcast skies, the compactness, and the lack of baseball, I really liked the place,” he says. “I think I made up my mind very early on that I’d have to live in London at some point.”
Two weeks after moving to the UK, Nicholson met Australian guitarist Todd Howe through the message board of a local music club. Nicholson and Howe began to perform as a duo, but soon recruited bass player Adam Harrison and drummer Piers Hewitt, who at the time were both studying at a contemporary music college in London. After its formation in 2001, The Boxer Rebellion built up a following through regular gigs in London clubs and the occasional show outside of the city. In 2003, the band was signed by Poptones Records, a subsidiary of Mercury Records, and produced their first full-length album, Exits, which was released in 2005 (they had also recorded a self-titled EP in 2003 which had been very well received). Exits received stellar reviews; The Fly called it “flawless” and music industry news source NME reported “This band will change your life.” Sadly, Mercury Records dropped the Poptones label the same week the album was released, leaving The Boxer Rebellion without promotional connections or funding. With only 6,000 copies printed, a brilliant record fizzled.
For the next four years, Nicholson, Howe, Harrison and Hewitt worked part-time jobs, saved money, and diligently performed new material at live shows in London and across Europe. Over time, they gathered their new material into a roughly-mixed and mastered self-produced album that they dubbed Union. Still, without a label or the resources to release Union themselves, they were stuck. They even considered posting the album for free on their website just to keep the buzz going among the fans. However, in the last months of 2008, two things happened that began to turn the tides: they began working with a new manager, Sumit Bothra, and they caught the attention of Damon Marzano at iTunes.
Suddenly, The Boxer Rebellion was on the cusp of global exposure. Marzano offered the band the opportunity to release Union as an iTunes exclusive, and selected the track “Evacuate” as the worldwide Free Single of the Week during the week of January 13, 2009.
More than 560,000 people downloaded “Evacuate” during that week, and a re-mixed and re-mastered Union rose to the top 5 on both the US and UK iTunes album charts within 48 hours of its release. Because it only exists in a downloadable form (with the exception of an extremely limited release sold only at live shows), Union doesn’t qualify for conventional album charts, but this doesn’t bother The Boxer Rebellion. “I don’t think we are too worried about the UK album chart fiasco,” Nicholson says. “I was more pleased that we made #82 on the Billboard chart, which has never happened for an unsigned band before.”
Though courted by record labels, The Boxer Rebellion remains unsigned, at least for now. “We're talking to a few companies in Los Angeles and New York at the moment,” Nathan says, “and hopefully we'll find the right partners.”
In the meantime, the band has found a niche on the festival scene, performing last weekend at the world-famous Glastonbury Festival, a showcase for emerging indie-hipster bands, and receiving a riotous reception at the Great Escape festival in Brighton this May.
The band has done some limited touring in the US, but hasn’t yet made it to Nicholson’s hometown. “It would be great to play Steve Kaufman's Palace Theater,” Nicholson says. “One of my hopes is to someday take the band to Neyland and see the Vols play,” he continues. “One wouldn't find a stadium here in the UK or in Europe that seats over 99,000, so I'm sure they'd be impressed by Knoxville's own.”
While waiting for The Boxer Rebellion to appear locally, check out http://www.theboxerrebellion.com, and listen to tracks on their MySpace page at http://www.myspace.com/theboxerrebellion.