A group on Justin Timberlake’s Villa 40 artist discovery label, The Shadowboxers have one of the most unique sounds in pop music. After a YouTube video surfaced of The Shadowboxers covering Timberlake’s “Pusher Love Girl,” he sought them out via Twitter and took them to dinner in Atlanta to discuss their future in music. From their captivating lyrics and sharp harmonies to their use of rhythm and bluesy and soulful sound, they’ve taken what they learned over the years in the music industry and perfected it.
Following the release of two singles in 2016, the group is heading out on a U.S. tour and will be visiting Cincinnati on Friday (today) at the Taft Theatre for their first show of the tour. I had the opportunity to talk with The Shadowboxers about how they got into music, their sound, and what’s next for the band.
CincyMusic: The name Shadowboxers represents the rhythm and soul behind your music. How did you guys come up with the band name after winning the Emory Arts Competition in 2008? Did you have any other band names that were in the mix?
MATT: The best part about winning that contest was that it forced us to really consider our collaboration as something worth pursuing past the arts center at our college. "Matt, Adam & Scott" wasn't gonna cut it, so we started to try to find a good alternative pretty immediately. Scott and a friend of his on the baseball team sat down in their sophomore dorm and brainstormed for a while. As you say, rhythm, soul, as well as a few other nouns and adjectives were mentioned (maybe a Rocky movie was referenced), and "The Shadowboxers" was one of the first things they came up with. When Scott came back to us with it, it absolutely beat out our next best option: "The High Tops". Phew, dodged a bullet with that one.
CM: Your first major EP was released in 2011 with six recorded and two live songs. Where did your inspiration for these songs come from? What about the writing process? Any comments on why six recorded and two live songs as opposed to all live or all recorded?
ADAM: Wow. Haven't been asked about this relic since probably 2011. Well played. We were just starting to figure out our collective capacity back then. It was all experiment and record. No discretion or precaution. And to our credit, we didn't say no to anything back then because our scope was so big. We've organically honed that breadth now, but we were hopping genres from song to song like a high school mixtape on that EP. A lot of the songs were written completely individually by one of the three of us which added to the hopping. And we added the live songs because we couldn't afford any more studio time. Pragmatic, right??? But yeah, this EP was really a young snapshot of us still learning who we were and what it all meant.
CM: In 2013, you did a cover of "Pusher Love Girl" by Justin Timberlake (who owns the artist discovery company Villa 40). Do you attribute your sound to inspiration from artists like Justin Timberlake, etc., or do you find that you put more of a soulful twist on some of these covers?
SCOTT: I think it's both. Our sound is completely shaped by our influences, and Justin is totally one of them, but we are also artists who live for reinterpreting and reimagining things. We like to study the song first, take it apart and put it back together our way. In doing so, we usually find parts that we want to change, expand, harmonize, simplify, complicate...it's like the ultimate exercise in musical creativity.
CM: Red Room was released in 2013 following an approximately one-month Kickstarter campaign in 2012 to cover the costs of recording the first full length album. The album went on to be named a top music pick by the New York Daily News. How did that, public reception, etc. feel as your first major milestone album hit the shelves? What was the planning and artistic process to the 14-track album, and how did that differ from what you worked with in the EP?
ADAM: This was really our first experience spending real time in a studio. Before this, we were essentially only a live band. We'd probably played 300 shows before we ever spent any notable amount of time in a studio - which is backwards for the majority of our generation's music makers. And we had no clue what we were doing. The process was very rushed and most of that album was played live to tape. You can hear the sort of unripened energy on those recordings. But we were a different band back then. We had different priorities than we do now. We wanted to record, mix, master, and hit the road. We were impatient and it's quite the opposite now, but the recordings were a means to an end. All that being said, we're proud of that album and we wouldn't be who we are today without it. And while it was received well by our fans, it showed us how and where we needed to grow. So, we locked ourselves in a studio for the past 3 years and learned how to record. How to leave space. How to really hear. With the type of music that we wanted to create, recording is a completely different beast than playing live. And we had focused 95% of our effort on playing live. It was time to let the empty end of the see-saw get some weight.
CM: If you had to pick a favorite track off the Red Room album, which would it be and why?
MATT: Oof, you're asking us to pick a favorite child from a previous marriage. I think I'm gonna have to go with "Lovers In Rome". I think it's our strongest ballad and the payoff at the end works well with crowds that are familiar with us and new audiences alike. But more importantly, it was one of our first (and most organic) collaborations. Scott started the song and asked Adam and to work on some verses, so while the two of us were pounding boxed wine on the beach in Barcelona, we did just that. It's one of the few tunes we still play off Red Room, and I think we'd all love to re-explore it one day in the recording realm.
CM: As a band, The Shadowboxers hit harmonies that are unmatched not just in this but other genres as well. Did you build your sound around those harmonies over the years, or did it come with the music process?
SCOTT: First of all, thank you. Very nice compliment. We formed this band around putting our voices together and liking the sound of it. I think from the beginning we knew that harmony would be our bread and butter, despite the type of music we wanted to make, which is ever changing. It's the thread that weaves through everything we do and ties it all together.
CM: When writing a new song, what is your track for doing so? Do you guys as a band have any traditions for songwriting that may strike readers/listeners as unique?
ADAM: Probably nothing too interesting. There's a lot of pacing. A lot of singing nonsensical words. But we've really learned how to be fearless when we're writing. It can be a very vulnerable process and when we're writing with each other, we have to be comfortable airing it all out. That's taken time. But we've figured it out.
CM: The Shadowboxers have built a collective voice since winning the 2008 competition (9 years ago), changing some band members and releasing new hits along the way. Where do you see yourselves in the next 9 years as a band and individual artists/musicians?
MATT: Right, we feel like the 10,000 hours have been put in and that all these years of exploration and serendipitous moments have gotten us to this place where we're finally ready to show the world who we truly are as one collective voice. Where we go from there? I think we've gotta see how people react to this sound and how we react to it ourselves once it's finally out in the open. But I see us evolving into a band that spans genres like on Red Room...just across a few albums instead. Maybe album four will be a folk album? Maybe we all break off after that and do solo albums before coming back to The Shadowboxers and slamming people with another dance album? Who knows.....
CM: Your latest releases "Build the Beat" and "Woman Through the Wall" focus on rhythm and seem fairly upbeat in nature. Build the Beat in particular has a very rhythmic sound, with mild instrumentals and breaks in the vocals to "build the beat back up" and entice the listener, if you will. What was the recording process for this single? Any different than what you've done previously? Can we expect to see an album again soon that includes these hits?
ADAM: The process for recording these songs could not have been more different than recording Red Room. First of all, we did it all ourselves in our own studio. From writing, to tracking, to drum programming, to mixing. It was all us front to back. And that was the idea. These songs were a window into our writing and demoing process and they were completely insular. Secondly, we set no deadline for ourselves. We spent about 3 weeks in total recording Build and probably something similar for Woman. Then another couple of weeks mixing each song. On Red Room, we averaged like 2 songs per day. And lastly, these songs are a perfect bridge between what we used to be and where we're going. We WILL be releasing new material. And soon. But these two songs wear our influences heavy on their sleeves. They are throw-back, in a way. And we wanted that because while our new material has those influences, it's very forward looking. It sounds like 2025 to me. So stay tuned.
CM: As a band OR as individuals... how did you first get involved in music? How has that shaped you today?
MATT: All three of us grew up in households with vivid soundtracks; Paul Simon and Talking Heads on road trips, Al Jarreau and MJ in the living room, Yellowjackets in the backyard by the grill, and that informed our tastes beyond and to this day: we look to the future but always keep one foot in the past. In high school, Scott was writing around Nashville, Adam led a jam band, and I played in two different proggy pop bands. When we first started working together, we knew we had something special because even with all of the different directions we'd gone in during our teen years, we had this foundation of great music from our childhood to initially bind us. Then we found commonalities in current music tastes, and that right there is this band; we try to make forward-thinking music using all of the contemporary influences that fall into the center of the Matt, Adam, and Scott venn diagram of taste, and then we take those comforting influences from the 70's and 80's that make us all feel like kids again to ground the music in a place that feels like home to us all.
CM: What can we expect to see/hear at your show in Cincinnati July 28th?
SCOTT: Cincy will be the first stop on our tour! We are debuting nearly all new music that we've never played live before, so you can expect to see some jitters and (maybe) mistakes, but also really genuine excitement about what we're playing. These are songs that have lived in the dark for a while.