Smile Politely

Boogying Around the Farmland: Marimbist and Metal Drummer Jane Boxall

I wanted to review Jane Boxall. I really did.

I trudged to Aroma Café last week with all the best intentions: I would write up the show with Lynn O’Brien that she was playing at the café that night. However, as soon as Boxall took her place behind her instrument of choice — the marimba — and picked up her mallets, I found myself quite unable to describe exactly what was happening. My stilted review (“The noises Jane makes on the big marimba are very nice”) would not have done her justice.

Boxall is a diminutive performer who harnesses the sound of the 500-pound marimba like a lion tamer, and in her spare time, she drums for — of all local groups — aggro-metal band Tritone. (She’s also the former drummer for prog rock ex-outfit Triple Whip.) At Aroma, the longer I watched her intriguing performance, the more I gave up on finding my own words, and the more I wondered what led her to choose the marimba, choose a metal band, choose central Illinois as the stage for her career.

Growing up in the UK, Jane showed an early interest in mallet percussion. She says, “My mum got me one of those little multi-colored bell sets on wheels, with seven metal notes, and I used to drag that around everywhere bashing out my various tunes. Which must have been delightful for everyone within earshot.” Thanks to some favors owed to her grandfather, an accountant, she received free weekly piano lessons from the age of five, and this began her formal education in music.

Growing older, she became more interested in beat-driven rock and hip-hop, “boogying around the farmland with Cypress Hill as [her] soundtrack from a pretty early age.” She began learning percussion in high school, when she won free lessons thanks to her natural talent.

“I learned snare drum, timpani, xylophone, bells and — with some resistance from teachers who felt it was unladylike — drum kit,” she says.

College brought Boxall her first exposure to the marimba , and she fell in love with the “sound and the possibilities” of the instrument, spending the majority of the next three years developing her skills.

The marimba certainly seems a rare and exotic beast — half a ton of rosewood and aluminum — especially in central Illinois. But Boxall says that she has spotted more marimbas in the United States than in the UK. And she points out that Champaign-Urbana has a special tie to the instrument: “The U of I has William Moersch, one of the most respected marimba professors in the world, and so I came here to study with him.”

Boxall and Moersch are part of a “scene” that is evolving into an exciting market for interested players. Boxall says, “Quite a lot of the high and even some middle schools here have marimbas, and last weekend I saw a whole lot of really good high-school marimbists playing in Missouri. At their age I didn’t even know what a marimba was.”

Today, while working toward a PhD at the University of Illinois, Boxall gives lessons at Skins-n-Tins drum shop, and often travels with her instrument to perform for children at local schools. Staunch in her belief that music should bring people together, and obligated by the lifelong musical education she has been afforded, she says, “I want to share the knowledge and training that I’ve had. Certain areas of music have always been in danger of becoming elitist, and I hope that by doing school presentations I’m — in a very small way — opening up the world of concert marimba to people to whom it might otherwise be closed.”

That drive to share and perform has led Boxall to work with various local bands as a drummer and percussionist — most notably with Triple Whip, which became an all-female duo with bassist Holly Rushakoff after guitarist/vocalist Santanu Rahman left the group in 2006. A successful all-girl local band is just as exotic a sight as the marimba around these parts, but Boxall says that any reactions the group encountered were nothing new: “People often commented on the female rhythm section back [when Santanu fronted the band], and I remember Mike Coulter making some dumb joke about it being a contraceptive method back at the first Triple Whip show I ever played.” As a duo, Triple Whip was all-instrumental (download “Lesson Learned,” from their 2006 album Horsepower, here), and Boxall considers the lack of vocals to have possibly helped them escape the label of a “girl band,” for better or for worse.

“I loved the fact that people who heard us on the radio would have no idea whether the band was male or female,” she says. “Thankfully, I think in the 21st century we’ve finally reached the point where seeing ladies play rock instruments isn’t really that unusual. In my late teens, I played with a couple of all-girl bands and things were rather different in terms of reception and acceptance.”

Triple Whip ended their run in 2007, but the pull to “be part of an active, purposeful band” did not desert Boxall. “It seems I am more ambitious than most about getting stuff done,” she notes, “and this can be one of the problems of being a drummer — you’re never really in control of the work-rate of a band.”

Tritone, a metal trio, was seeking a drummer, and Boxall, anxious to “break out of the art-rock box,” fit the shredded bill. The group traditionally performs in an almost theatrical display of capes, skulls and smoke that pitches a tent just short of camp (“It’s like Satan took out his evil stick and beat the living crap out of them while they were falling out of the evil tree,” reads their MySpace page), but the choice to sign on to such an eclectic project seems in keeping with Boxall’s history as a musician. She explains, “Before I came to the States, I’d done different kinds of drumming — jazz, punk, rap-metal, hip-hop, Latin, electronica, riot-grrl, sappy indie and other genres.” And the group (guitarist/vocalist Adam Wolfe and bassist David Ward) matches her work ethic: “The Tritone guys are both superb musicians, and I can barely keep up with how fast they write music — or how fast they play it, for that matter.”

Tritone has plans to record a handful of EPs (“Justice League Volumes I and II, apparently”), and Boxall has been dabbling in drumming both with electronic music and with her bassist husband, but currently her focus is “strictly marimba,” as she continues to play solo shows at venues and schools around town, as well as continuing with her doctoral responsibilities. She is currently working on her sophomore album (the first, Wood Water & Land, is available for only $5) to be released in early summer.

“Things are on the up for the marimba,” she concludes. And therefore they are on the up for marimbists in metal bands, the C-U music scene and, of course, Jane Boxall.

You can next catch Boxall in town on Thursday April 3, playing a free “Uncorked” performance in the lobby of Krannert Center for the Performing Arts from 5–7 p.m. Krannert is located at 500 S. Goodwin Ave. in Urbana. Stay updated on Boxall’s adventures in all things metal and marimba by visiting her MySpace page or joining her mailing list.

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