Billy Bob Thornton has gone silent.
Crickets accompany a question about whether music hits a different artistic spot than his other creative pursuits.
Seconds pass before Thornton, who will play Folsom’s Harris Center with his rock band the Boxmasters on Sept. 14 and 15, replies by saying, “I am not sure how to answer that.” This is celebrity-speak for “that’s a terrible question.”
OK, how about, “Is playing music something you feel compelled to do?”
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“If you had asked me that when I was 14, it would have made more sense,” Thornton, said, voice quiet, tone acid. “What perpetuates this junk is when journalists ask me stuff like that. If people didn’t start articles that say, ‘Billy Bob Thornton is not just an actor.’ … It would make more sense to say, ‘Was acting your first love?’ I started out in music, was always in music, went to L.A. to be in music, accidentally got into an acting class, and now I have been apologizing for being famous ever since.”
This article never would have started with “Billy Bob Thornton is not just an actor,” because he became famous for directing and writing, as well as acting, in “Sling Blade” 20 years ago. So that particular cliché already is driving and can drink legally soon.
Also, some of us “junk” peddlers like our interview subjects challenging, because it makes for more interesting articles. Especially those of us who have interviewed Thornton before and appreciate his authenticity, whether it manifests in a crankiness that reached a zenith in an infamous, stonewalling 2009 Canadian interview, or in Thornton’s famously world-class charm.
That charm emerges in abundance as Thornton’s interview with The Bee progresses. By 15 minutes in, he’s joking about how the Boxmasters, a group formed in 2007 that plays driving, 1960s-style California pop rock with honky-tonk inflections, built followings in Southern California and parts of the South and Northeast but generally strikes less of a chord in Northern California and the Northwest.
If his interviewer attends the Sept. 14 Folsom show, Thornton jokes, a good seat is guaranteed, since there likely will be about 16 people there. On the second night, “It might just be you and me, and we might be able to do an interview on stage.”
Thornton, 61, sings and plays drums on Boxmasters records, the latest of which is the double album “boys and girls … and the world.” On stage, he mostly sticks to singing, though he will get behind the drum set “if people dare me – if people want proof I know how to play.” (Though critical reception to Boxmasters albums has been mixed, there seems to be a consensus that Thornton, who writes all the band’s lyrics and co-writes its music, is no poseur).
I started out in music, was always in music, went to L.A. to be in music, accidentally got into an acting class, and now I have been apologizing for being famous ever since.
Billy Bob Thornton
Thornton, speaking by phone last week before an Illinois Boxmasters gig, had started to warm up earlier, while talking about his musical youth and influences. He started playing drums at 9. When he later joined bands, during high school in Malvern, Ark., sometimes he drummed and sometimes he sang, depending on the band’s configuration and degree of in-fighting.
“When you are a teenager, you got a band with Bill and Chuck, and then Chuck steals Bill’s transistor radio, and he gets mad, and you get in a band with Chuck, and neither one of you speak to Bill for a while,” Thornton said, his trademark comic delivery – that mix of slightly bored and slightly biting – spinning memories into yarns. “And ultimately, you realize Bill’s the only guitar player on your side of town, and nobody has a car. And you end up back in a band with Bill.”
The young Thornton would travel to Memphis, three hours away, to see local bands such as the short-lived, exceedingly influential (and later revived) power pop band Big Star, and blues-psychedelic act the Yardleys.
You can hear a bit of both in the Boxmasters’ music, along with 1960s British Invasion and Southern California pop-rock. The Boxmasters’ twang element has lessened since its 2009 album “Modbilly,” but has not vanished. It likely never will, given Thornton’s Arkansas roots and ’60s California rock’s country influences.
Thornton cut a 2001 solo country album called “Private Radio” that was produced by Marty Stuart and contained the song “Angelina,” an ode to then-wife Angelina Jolie. On that record, Thornton’s baritone sounded like an extension of his speaking voice. With the Boxmasters, he goes higher and more elastic, evoking Tom Petty and the Byrds’ Roger McGuinn.
“If you want to find a contemporary equivalent, we are digging in the same hole as Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers,” said J.D. Andrew, the Boxmasters’ rhythm guitarist, producer and a veteran studio engineer who, along with Thornton and keyboardist Teddy Andreadis, form the nucleus of the band’s shifting lineup. “We have the same sort of influences. … A lot of our songs are pretty heavy subjects but with the uptempo kind of music.”
Thornton shows impressive lyrical range on “boys and girls,” moving with ease from the flirty promise of a night to remember on the song “Wait Until You See” to a reproach of society’s technological obsession on “Look Up.” “There’s a life not built for your convenience,” he sings in the latter song. “And things that happen naturally that we call experience.”
“Technology is slowly but surely destroying our culture,” said Thornton, whose song urges people to rip their eyes away from their screens. “But people don’t believe that. They just say, ‘You’re an old dinosaur.’ It’ll bear out that way, and people will see. It is not real communication.”
Technology is, however, enabling more programming on more platforms, including Amazon, home to Thornton’s forthcoming series “Goliath.” Thornton stars as an ambulance-chasing attorney on the cusp of redemption in the David E. Kelley series, debuting in October. Thornton also played a lead, as the ice-veined killer Loren Malvo, in the first season of “Fargo,” on FX.
“There is no independent film business anymore, and if you are going to do a studio movie, they are all ‘event’ movies,” Thornton said. “If there is a (studio) movie that’s just about people, it’s because they owed a big movie star a movie. If Robert Downey hadn’t been Iron Man, ‘The Judge’ (a 2014 drama in which Thornton co-starred) wouldn’t have been made.”
But studios still make movies like “Bad Santa 2,” due Nov. 23. Thornton will reprise his role as the debauched department-store Santa from studio-yet-subversive 2003 film. “They will always do a sequel to a movie that was successful the first time,” Thornton said. “(But) I don’t know if we walked in there right now, at this day and time with that script of the first one, we would get it made.”
The TV/film discussion had started out shaky, with Thornton going silent again, after being asked “Why a TV series?” and following with this: “I tell ya what, let me ask you that. Let me ask you what you think of the current state of the motion picture business.”
When the interviewer replied that TV is where the best stories are being told, the moment passed amiably.
Because Thornton and The Bee were pals by then. The conversation ultimately went so swimmingly that Thornton called back, 30 seconds after it ended, to apologize for hanging up too swiftly. This was an unprecedented act in the businesslike, often cold celebrity-interview game.
He accidentally pressed the red button on his iPhone too soon, Thornton said.
See? Technology. Had it been a rotary phone with a receiver and cradle, it never would have happened.