Lately, the English-born singer-songwriter's life has been determined by his battle against alcoholism. Tom Keller questioned Marcos John Arrow, aka Boxer John, if it was helpful to put this issue all out in the open on his new album Delirium Tremens.
Marcos John Arrow (Boxer John): I'd say it was liberating to some degree. The actual songwriting process itself tends to be more therapeutic in terms of releasing certain emotions but once a recording has been made of the song you can truly let go of it. Those songs on Delirium Tremens were written around the time leading up to quitting and the year that followed when physical symptoms of alcohol withdrawal were still running amok in my body. Alcoholism is never a thing unto itself; there are always reasons behind getting oneself into such an advanced state. Delirium Tremens only deals with some of those issues.
Many of the songs I recorded during the thick of alcoholism I decided not to record for the simple reason that I couldn't necessarily do them justice with the budget that was available to me. You can hear my budget on that album but I think the rough nature of the recordings and mixes (which were done by me with no previous experience) add to the roughness of the songs in some way and perhaps they would have been ruined by a better production. I have to admit that some of those songs were really unpleasant to record because they brought me back to a state of mind that I was reluctant to return to. However, it was important to just get them out of my head and forget about them in some way; let someone else have the opportunity to decide if they would provide any release for them in turn.
Tom Keller (Walkin' Tom): Well, let's look back first. How did you come to play folk music at all?
I grew up listening to a lot of sixties music and especially had a penchant for the underground psychedelic sounds. I always liked the folkier sounding psychedelia a little more than the electric driven sounds although that sometimes changes. Anyway, I somehow got into starting a purer, more traditional folk collection and became engrossed in the stories and emotions of those songs. I guess I have always been a music listener who pays special attention to the lyrics. For me it is one third of a song along with melody and delivery. I had often been disappointed by the one dimensionality of the words to many songs and often felt that they were an afterthought as opposed to an integral part. I feel the words just as much as the music and folk music often gives me the words, images and emotions I need to see me through certain periods of life.
I started learning guitar when I was about seventeen and had written maybe twenty songs within the first three months of learning my first three chords but my songs were still lyrically wet behind the ears so I'd often go to the folk clubs in England and perform a mixture of traditionals along with songs by sixties singer/songwriters. I felt like I could put more fire and passion into a song if I could relate to the lyrics somehow. I especially like folk songs where I feel the writer got their hands dirty with the subject and didn't try glossing over anything in too much of a sweet way. I kinda like folk to be lyrically hard and dirty and the singer should be able to deliver the grit. One of my main aspirations in songwriting beyond my own imperative to process life has been my desire to create an emotional platform for others to feel a sense of relief and understanding of their own experience.
What does your stage name 'Boxer John' mean?
I have performed under several different names over the years and they have varied from mildly embarrassing to completely ill fitting. I have often viewed songwriting as some sort of a fight: almost like shadow boxing with the darker side of one's self or fighting through certain periods of existence with lyrics and melodies. Boxer seemed to be a fitting title and just came to me on waking up several years ago. There is also the fight to do what you feel you have to do despite the lack of financial compensation. The vast majority of boxers make barely enough money to feed themselves and I doubt many songwriters would disagree that this is also true of them. You don't necessarily do it because you have some vision of reward: you do it because that's the only way you know how to express yourself.
John actually came to me at the same time as Boxer and somewhere in the back of my mind I had John of "Revelations" fame. I wouldn't consider myself to be a religious man in any prescribed or indoctrinated sense of the word but the utter poetical madness of "Revelations" struck a chord with me as a songwriter and I could somehow relate to the madness of the writer. I also feel that the songwriting process reveals something of one's inner workings and puts it out into the world so you can no longer run or hide from it anymore.
"Delirium Tremens" is only one of four musical projects at the time. Why that hyperactivity?
The hyperactivity stemmed from my own madness. It was a constantly nagging imperative to drive through those four albums. It felt like if I didn't do it the void would open up even bigger and swallow me down. I had the ideas for the different albums at different times over the couple of years that they took and I knew that I would have to see each one through to completion. The hardest fight was with my own self doubt concerning the value of what I was doing beyond my own needs. I knew there would be no money to record them and get them mixed in a professional environment and I knew the voices of doubt in my head would tell me that I shouldn't even attempt to do it myself.
I guess I just decided consciously that I would do it despite myself and I taught myself as much as I could concerning recording and mixing within the limits of the equipment I was able to afford. "The Great Folk Heist" and "Fifteen Furlongs From The Farm To The Frontier" were both recorded on a tiny eight track recorder but I didn't want these limitations preventing the projects from getting done. These albums were perhaps the best therapy I could have wished for in terms of getting some sense of normality back into my life after alcohol had nearly destroyed it.
"The Great Folk Heist" traces the traditional songs that inspired the early Bob Dylan. What do you mean exactly?
From the four albums, "The Great Folk Heist" came first conceptually although some of the songs on the other albums had already been realised. I have always loved the musical traditions of Great Britain, Ireland and the U.S. and I have often admired Bob Dylan's ability to be inspired by a melody or a lyric from some of these songs and turn them into something unique and fiery. I started researching which songs inspired which Dylan songs and unearthed a whole history of influences although to many Dylan fans, this might not come as such a revelation. I focused mostly on "Another Side", "The Times They Are A Changin", "Freewheeling" and "The Bootleg Series". Many of those songs were influenced by traditionals to some degree. In some cases Dylan may have built on a lyric line here or there. In other cases a whole melody may have inspired a song. In still other cases, a combination of the two.
For Dylan aficionados, it may be relatively easy to listen through the album and say which traditional inspired which Dylan song but I didn't want this album to just be about the Dylan connection; I love this music and I wanted to give each song a whole new feel and arrangement based on the emotional content of the lyrics and story being told. The album is just as much for lovers of folk music as it is for Dylan academics. I also wanted to trace the influences back even further in some cases. "With God On Our Side" is a case in point; this Dylan original is said to have been directly inspired by Dominic Behan's "The Patriot Game" but if one traces the melody back even further, you find many incarnations and I settled on a very old English or Scottish version called "The Bold Grenadier".
Perhaps the most interesting thing for me as a native of Britain was to see just how many of those lyrics and melodies have their origin in England and Scotland and to see how they changed as they passed from country to country. It became clear to me that folk music is so interconnected in terms of geography and nationality and I'm often amazed at just how often those songs have been interpreted and reinterpreted by generations and generations of different people from different places, each one bringing their own sense of feel and uniqueness to the table.
"Fifteen Furlongs from the Farm to the Frontier" then is an album of Anglo-American folk ballads set to original music...
"Fifteen Furlongs From The Farm To The Frontier" came to me when I managed to get hold of two out of print books, one being full of farm and frontier ballads and the other cowboy ballads. I was blown away by the level of lyricism in these books. There were none of the formalities that I dislike about some old English poetry for example. These poems read like song lyrics and were down-to-earth, emotionally engaging and strangely relevant to me. The stories were incredible and the level of honesty, mind blowing. It made me realize just how little emphasis is put on lyric writing and story telling in the modern times and why someone like Dylan or Cohen may have been somewhat of a revelation to many people at the time they came along.
The lyrics on this album seem to have been written by real people about real situations and although people may not always relate to the settings or the language in some cases, the stories and feelings they convey are equally, if not more, relevant now than they ever were because these things weren't written to sell records or to garner popularity; they seem to have been written for the purity of expression alone.
I read both books over and over trying to establish a musical connection in my mind. Some of the lyrics I chose came from epic ballads that I had to condense and, in some cases, rephrase in order to form a narrative of some kind. I chose the lyrics that struck an immediate emotional chord with me and worked with what I had. The most beautiful part of the process for me was writing the melodies if you can even call it writing. Strangely, each melody came to me at the instance of picking up the guitar and trying to sing something to these words. It was a little overwhelming in a positive sense as I felt like the melodies were writing themselves and I was somewhere else observing. All I could really hope for in any case was that the melodies would serve the lyrics to the degree that they were emotionally compatible and did them justice in some way.
Finally, "Blighty and Beyond" is sort of a protest album, criticising Britain to bend to corporate demand...
"Blighty and Beyond" was a bit of a strange one. There was no immediate concept and it came to me way later than the others. Almost all of the songs were written over a several week period one summer. I had been away from England for a fair old number of years and I found myself both romanticising and lamenting it as one tends to do when they've been away for a while. I had this feeling, whether right or wrong, that England like many Countries was beginning to lose it's cultural uniqueness and that this had been replaced by consumerism, corporate ideology and apparent internal cultural division. Of course I have a very active imagination and the reality may be vastly different but this was the spark of thought that kickstarted the album. Apart from the first couple of songs seeming to be rather reactionary, the album takes on a rather more personal nature as it progresses.
You are currently living in Vienna, Austria. Is this city informing your music?
Living in Vienna has been a great place for me to find time and space to be creatively expressive. I wouldn't say that the city itself has had a great influence on my music in any way but it has provided me with the surroundings and peace that I need for my mind to keep turning over. I am not someone who necessarily likes being conveyed along the street by a heaving throng of people and I get super claustrophobic in crowds. At the same time I like activity and people around me. It's a weird contradiction but Vienna strikes the balance for me. Unfortunately it was also the city that saw the peak of my alcoholism but that's not the city's fault.
Do you find an audience with your songs over here?
I have somewhat of an audience over here although I wouldn't say I really have an audience at all per say. I have a handful of people that back my crowdfunding projects and will turn out to concerts and I'm really happy to have them. The music scene in Vienna is relatively small but it is home to some amazing musicians of all genres. The press here are hard to reach without fixed contacts as I'm sure is the case in many other places and I'm quite reluctant to spend time chasing reviews that could be spent creating new music but that probably works against me in some ways. As I'm a one man operation I find it pretty tricky to divide my time up between earning a living, writing, recording, mixing and promoting so unfortunately the latter tends to get quite neglected.
But I guess there is a chance to see and hear more from you...?
There have been a release concert in Vienna at a place called Schwarzberg, formally known as the Ost Klub. I chose this location because I love the stage and the sound system and engineers more than do their job. I'll have some other concerts scattered throughout the year including a 3-night live presentation of my monthly radio show "The Vintage Underground".
I have already started recording the next couple of albums as the writing urge hasn't even come close to slowing down. All I know so far is that some songs are going to sound vastly different to anything I've made so far in terms of vocal expression and lyrical content. I will also employ a whole host of different instruments to create the soundscape including more of my favorite keyboard ever made, the mellotron, although it will not permeate everything. I have been developing my fingerpicking skills and hopefully you will also hear a difference there too. It's easy to fall into a routine with your guitar playing and I wanted to consciously break it this time.
At least one album will be getting my hands dirty with the subject of relationships which I have seldom done in the past but it might not be the kind of relationships album one might expect in terms of lyrical approach. I have also written a few folk songs about people I admire who have amazing life stories but perhaps not the public notoriety they may have deserved.
Photo Credits: (1)-(6) Boxer John, (7) The Vintage Underground (unknown/website).