It was a long, slow process, assembling the four people who eventually became The Box Tiger, an indie rock band that spans two countries and two wildly different music scenes. While singer Sonia Sturino, bassist Ben Tran and drummer Marcus Cipparone live in Toronto, guitarist Jordan Stowell lives in Portland. Since Stowell and Sturino formed the band in 2009, a series of challenges have tested their mettle as a band – from people coming and going in the lineup, to long hours logged on American and Canadian highways, to a hefty list of technical difficulties.
But judging from the Box Tiger’s recently released single, the bouncy yet passionate “Set Fire To Your Friends,” off their forthcoming album “Set Fire,” the effort was definitely worth it. The band will play in Maine on Thursday, Dec. 20, at Slainte in Portland, and on Friday, Dec. 21 at Paddy Murphy’s in Bangor with Bangor band Chamberlain.
Despite the relative proximity of Maine to Canada, there isn’t all that much cross-pollination between rock bands in different scenes. When Stowell and Sturino met online back in 2008 over a shared love of the Toronto band Broken Social Scene, they knew that their separation would make it hard to collaborate – but they made it work anyway. They just drove back and forth a lot, developing their creative partnership and friendship via two weeks stints together and hours spent emailing and chatting online. The lineup for the band did not completely gel until this past spring, with the addition of bassist Tran.
“I’m away from home a lot, so I miss out on a lot of important life events – which can be very hard,” said Stowell, who also is in the Portland band In The Audience. “To make it work, I basically just travel a lot. The rest of the band comes to the U.S. every 2-4 months, and we just try to put together short tours during those times to make the best of what opportunities we have.”
The route from Portland to Toronto is now old news for Stowell. For Sturino, who grew up in Toronto surrounded by its vibrant music scene – bands like the aforementioned Broken Social Scene, Metric, Feist, Alexisonfire and Moneen – coming to Maine has illustrated both the similarities and differences between Maine and Canada.
“Toronto and Portland both are good cities for music and art in different ways,” said Sturino, the primary songwriter for the band. “Portland, for such a small city, has so much going on. It’s like the travel size big city. I really love it. [But] Toronto is my home. I feel like in very recent times that there is a real underground music scene building in Toronto, and I’m excited to see where it goes.”
Aside from Broken Social Scene, Metric and bands like Florence and the Machine, the members of The Box Tiger share a lot of local band influences from their respective towns – Stowell checks now-defunct Portland bands like Jacob & the House of Fire, Jacob Augustine’s old project, as well as the Cambiata, as favorites. Sturino likes local Toronto bands Casino, Elos Arma and Rebel Rebel. The Box Tiger’s sound combines all those things – a lush, dynamic atmosphere, paired with a distinct pop sensibility and lifted up by Sturino’s soaring vocal style. “Set Fire,” the new album, comes out in March 2013. The band started recording it last May, and the process was more than a little hairy for everyone involved.
“If we thought we were done recording all the parts for an instrument, it would turn out that there was a problem with the files. All of them. So then we’d have to go back and re-track things,” said Stowell. “The saving grace of the album has been Ron Harrity [the South Portland-based producer and owner of Peapod Recordings), who is mixing and mastering the album. He has an incredible attitude, he’s kind, and he knows his stuff. If there’s a problem he sees, he just uses the Harrity touch and it’s fixed.”
Besides, if playing in a band was supposed to be easy, it probably wouldn’t be quite as gratifying. Even if you’re only walking away from a show with 50 bucks to split four ways, and you’re falling asleep in the passenger seat of a van at 3 a.m. somewhere in the U.S. or Canada, Sturino knows that at the end of the day, it’s the music that matters.
“When you’re doing everything DIY and on a budget, pulling from crappy part time jobs and selling DVDs on Amazon, it becomes hard,” said Sturino. “But we’ve really put our hearts into it, and I feel really great about it. The harder things get the harder we’ll push as a band. There is nothing else we want to be doing. So it’s worth it all.”