Sand men: Zox has matured into a great band

This story originally appeared in the Fall 2008 issue of Limelight Magazine.

By GEORGE AUSTIN

Through their three CDs, you can see the growth of the band ZOX. When they wrote the college rock and reggae songs for their first CD, they were in their late teens. They were in their early 20s when they produced the second album three years later and they had their own producer and used a better quality studio. But with their most recent CD, called “Line in the Sand,” ZOX took their recorded music to another level. The band enlisted the help of John Goodmanson, a recording engineer and indie rock producer who has worked with the likes of Death Cab for Cutie, Harvey Danger and Hanson. Instead of just recording songs for the CD as the band has done in the past, ZOX made demo tapes of the songs first, listened to them and then honed their work into a finished product they were satisfied with.

“The album reflects our band members’ tastes more,” drummer John Zox said. “It’s darker. We were just more experienced as musicians and as people in life. I think that is reflected in the music.”

Zox said the members of the band also had become better musicians since their second album. “Line in the Sand” was produced on the same label as the Mighty Mighty Bosstones in February. The band pre-ordered 1,000 copies of the CD and did a press and radio campaign to promote it.

“We’re really proud of it,” Zox said of the album. “We think it’s the most mature album out of our three albums. I think people recognize that also.”

Songs from the album that have been chosen for airplay have included “Goodnight” and the title track. “Line in the Sand” is an upbeat rock song that the band has made a video of with a guy dancing as he is walking down a sidewalk after buying the “ZOX mouse” in a pet store. The members of the band are seen inside what looks like a pet box that the mice would be in playing their instruments during the video.

“If you read the lyrics, it’s pretty self explanatory,” Zox said of the meaning of the song. “It’s realizing who you are or what you believe in and fighting for it.”

“Goodnight” is more of an acoustic sounding song. It won third place in a national songwriting competition that had 15,000 submissions and was judged by Tom Waits, Robert Smith of The Cure, Frank Black of The Pixies and producer Steve Lillywhite who has worked with U2, Talking Heads, Dave Matthews and The Rolling Stones.

“It’s not traditional Zox stuff, but it’s still in the vane of what people like about us,” Zox said.

“Line in the Sand” charted 48th on Billboard Current Independent Albums during the first week it was released and has been played on alternative radio in Seattle and Columbus, Ohio.

Zox said the band has a traditional song and music writing process. Singer Eli Miller writes the lyrics and a skeleton section of the song on acoustic guitar and then the other three members of ZOX create the musical arrangements. They then take the verses and chords and turn them into a complete song.

Zox met Miller in college at Brown University in Providence, R.I. Miller was playing guitar and needed a drummer for a band. They started playing at fraternities and at the campus bar. They added Zox’s roomate who was a first chair violinist in the Brown orchestra. But the violinist graduated and got a job and so they put an advertisement in a paper for a violinist. That’s when violinist Spencer Swain, who had transferred to the University of Rhode Island, joined ZOX. A friend of the band, Dan Edinberg, joined as bass guitarist.

Swain adds a different twist to the music of ZOX. A lot of bands use the violin for support music. But with ZOX, the violin is an integral part of the music and Zox says Swain is a different kind of violin player. You won’t see too many violin players on stage in orchestras with a lot of tattoos, as Swain has. Swain also does not play the violin fiddle style. Zox said it is more of a rock style and on the third album, he used a lot of pedals with the violin.

“The violin is treated as the lead,” Zox said of the use of the instrument in the band. “He doesn’t treat it as a violin in many ways. He treats it like a guitar.”

The members of ZOX have a wide range of influences. Miller likes Paul Simon. Zox is interested in electronic music. Swain listens to a lot of heavy metal. Edinberg is in to jazz. Zox said the different influences allows the band to cross genres in its appeal to people.

Zox, who was an engineering and sociology major at an Ivy League school, said the best part of the band is that the members are their own bosses, get to see the country, playing their music for a living and are able to do something creative for a job. The band signed with record label Side One Dummy of Los Angeles 2 1/2 years ago, but Zox said the band has maintained creative control.

ZOX is not like the band that appears on the stage when their show starts and disappears afterwards. Zox said the band members like to talk to their fans before and after their shows and have made friends that way.

“I think we’ve done over a thousand shows in the last five years,” Zox said. “Our fans are very fervent and devoted.”

And when ZOX is not working together, the members of the band are all involved in some other music. Edinberg, who was a musicology major at Brown, writes music and commercials and is in a couple other bands. Swain, who was a music major at URI, is in a couple other bands.

ZOX recently completed seven months of touring. Locally, ZOX has played at venues, like Lupo’s in Providence, R.I., the Paradise in Boston and the Narrows Center for the Arts in Fall River, Mass. The band has toured with punk band Streetlight Manifesto and singer/songwriter Matt White and has headlined some of its own shows to promote the new CD.

“It’s been a good run off this album so far,” Zox said.

ZOX also recently toured Europe, playing in Germany and Switzerland. Zox said it was an honor to play at the Reading and Lee festivals in England. Zox said he sees a lot of differences in the way music is treated in Europe. He said the venues have better sound and lighting systems and said the musicians are treated better by the people who run the venues. He said people in the United States go to one or two big concerts a year, and not as much to smaller venues to see shows.

“Going to music events is more ingrained in their culture,” Zox said of the Europeans. “There’s more venues. There’s more appreciation for the arts, overall. I think that’s in their blood. They pay more money for tickets. The experience of live music is appreciated more.”

Zox said the band is taking the fall off and looking at the possibility of touring next spring. He said the band will probably release an EP with a couple of new songs.

The fans of Zox also have been maturing over the years. When the band started out, most of the audience was high school and college-aged people. They still have people in that age range at the concerts, but they also see older people who have stuck with the band.

“That’s good because our albums have grown and matured with us,” Zox said.

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