An Americana alt country Canadian band playing to UK audiences may seem like an unlikely combination, but then again, Ox are not your average band.
Ox was put together in Vancouver by Mark Browning, it's a band with a nucleus of four people but with an extended 'family' of ten musicians who also add their talents to the mix. They're currently touring on the back of a successful self produced debut album which managed to hit number one in the Canadian College Radio chart (and break into the influential US College Radio chart). Quite a feat, by anyones standards. Not surprisingly they have gained a lot of attention on their homeground, and things are starting to gain momentum elsewhere too, especially in the UK.
The album stirring up this interest is Dust Bowl Revival, a serene mix of songs and sparse arrangements, with a very clean production. The album's peppered with tunes that The Thrills would trade their instruments for, from the sweet and catchy Carolinah, to the alt country musings of Oh Eileen and Fat Old Sun, and the double-time rock of She Shot Me Down. Between those elements and a number of close harmonies you'll have a crinkled snapshot of the flotsam and jetsam of America's dark heartland, the prime influence on this album.
Ox are currently taking in all the minor venues that they can cover in a compact Renault Cleo. A car which has to contain three musicians, all their equipment, a box of tea-bags and some Alice Cooper tapes. Nicole would probably be most welcome in this scenario, if she could squeeze in...
Mark Browning has brought along Ryan Bishops (bass and vocals) and Matt Foy (drums and occasional ukulele) on this tour. Keyboard player Ruby Luvs U has to pass on this tour due to being eight months pregnant. This is their fourth visit to Britain and they're getting a good response. "Its better because we seem to be getting a little more attention" explains Browning, "I can feel a buzz this time that's obviously building from our previous three trips over. People are coming to shows who are obviously serious fans of our music."
Touring is nothing new to Browning, he started off his music career traveling across America and Canada on a Greyhound bus with just a guitar, in true troubadour style.
"I did the west coast, it was a very potent dose of Americana; the diners, the bus stations, the grit of it, the underbelly of the country. You don't see the glamorous side (when you're on a bus)."
"Even in the nicest towns, the area around the bus station for about a hundred yards radius is shady. It's the grittiest way to travel a country, especially the US."
"I toured for three or four years like that, once the Ox record came out I did it one more time and then it was a band situation."
"Everything on the road has influenced Dust Bowl Revival and the Greyhound trip certainly did."
The character building and inspiring trip through America perhaps has its roots in Brown's admiration for the giants of American folk and their own fascination with the traveling lifestyle.
It certainly wasn't 80's music or Duran Duran's version of luxury travel.
"I didn't listen to radio, it was shit music, it was the 80's, all the stuff I listened to was old, I was surrounded by my dad's old records (his dad worked in a radio station), such as Bob Dylan, all of his albums were there. My mum is English, so there was some stuff like the Rolling Stones and The Beatles. There was a bunch of Crosby Stills and Nash and I took to that, especially their first record, also John Wesley Harding by Bob Dylan, and stuff by The Band"
Currently you'll find Browning listening to the likes of Bonny Prince Billy, Lambchop, Willard Grant Conspiracy, Guns 4 Hire, Giant Sand, Iron and Wine. "I love all that stuff, that's right up with what we're doing" "That's probably where Ox starts and then goes into lots of other stuff that you wouldn't expect; Alice Cooper, Cheap Trick…" and even Reo Speedwagon. Browning states the case for the defence: "I'm into that stuff. When I first started playing the folkie kind of stuff I closed the door on that music. It's rock and roll, even if it's a bad tune, if it's got the right attitude to it, you can't go wrong. I think folk artists get into the danger of being too precious, to me what I'm doing is rock and roll, it's not folk. That's the difference between someone like me and someone like maybe Ron Sexsmith, he's a serious songwriter, he's trying to write really good songs. I'm not trying to write really good songs, I'm just writing songs."
Ox are now in a position where record labels have suddenly started to take notice, especially since their success in the Canadian College Charts, they're now seen as a band with a lot of potential.
There's certainly been plenty of hard graft and Browning isn't about to sign on the dotted line to a label that doesn't have their best interests at heart. In Canada, Maximum Music seemed to fit the bill as a record company with integrity.
As Browning explains. "I kinda drove a hard bargain, I wanted it to just be a Canadian release, no worldwide thing, not giving the rights for everywhere, which is unheard of, most labels don't do that. Usually it's 'we want to write you down for five albums, and lock you in', which benefits the label because if they don't want you for the second or third album they can just dump you. So I said 'alright one album' and they were ok with that, it gives us a chance to prove ourselves with this record, and we'll go from there"
Not that Ox have much proving to do. Now's a good time to catch them on their tiny venue tour, to see them before they start the gradual move up the rock ladder, to bigger venues and who knows, bigger cars.
Writer: Peter Doherty