The Boxcar Boys. John David Williams,
third from left.
In the age of technology and all things digital, where does a classically trained clarinet player find his place in the music scene? By bringing the past into the present, of course. John David Williams, bandleader of the six-piece old-time ensemble The Boxcar Boys, harnesses the vitality of New Orleans, Dixieland, klezmer and bluegrass to bring the roots of jazz to the streets of Toronto. As Williams proclaims, “in a time where it’s difficult to part yourself from a computer screen or cell phone, there’s something grounding about playing acoustic music of this style.” However, his musical influences extend much farther back than the early 20th century.
Before his current project came into fruition, Williams had studied classical music at the University of Toronto. But with interests in the sounds of folk and country, it was difficult to figure out where the clarinet fit into the mix. “The sort of folk styles on the clarinet are really just jazz, klezmer and Eastern European music,” Williams states, “and I wanted to get away from the structure of classical into a looser, more celebratory music.” Williams began scouting for members to bring his various influences to life, scouring Toronto for just the right musicians. From Tranzac Club performers to school peers, Williams pieced together the five-piece band that would become known as The Boxcar Boys, fusing his unique tastes into a weaving gumbo of versatile sound and performance.
At first, Williams didn’t have much ambition to pursue this act as a major endeavour. The ensemble began busking on Saturday mornings in St. Lawrence Market, and soon they were getting a highly positive response from passersby and regulars alike. As their passion grew and their name became more familiar around Toronto, The Boxcar Boys began taking the project more seriously. For Williams, busking was not only a crucial part of the band’s growth, but an important part of Toronto’s music culture: “I think having bands doing performances for free or for whatever people can afford really adds a lot of colour and charm to the city.”
The band recently celebrated their six-year anniversary; they've had a few roster changes over the years, including the addition of Justin Ruppel on the washboard; they're now working on their third studio album, Cicada Ball. In fact, the name of the album is somewhat of a nod to their newest member. “We were talking about how Justin’s washboard sounds like we have some kind of insect in the band when he’s scratching,” Williams says. “But really, it’s just the name of one of our new songs.” This album also takes on a more improvised, performative feel as opposed to their first album, Don’t Be Blue; as Williams notes, there used to be more of a concern about charting their tunes. As the band has continued to master their sound, the focus has shifted more towards general ideas in which each member can bring their own flavour. Williams emphasizes this point, saying “it’s all about trying to capture that energy of playing together.”
Striving to capture the live-off-the-floor feel has been a consistent concern for Williams when the band hits the studio. Most of their recordings have been in one take without headphones, allowing the instruments to breathe together naturally. “You can really develop your music and make it slick and perfect in the studio,” Williams states, “but for me the beauty of music is in all of the imperfections; all those little glitches and scratches that come with acoustic performances. The scratchy fiddle sounds, the clarinet clicks … they just add something special to it.” It’s the little idiosyncrasies that each member brings through their playing that define The Boxcar Boys’ raw sound.
Having so many diverse members in the band comes with its struggles, though. “All of us play in a bunch of different acts,” Williams says, “so there are definitely difficulties as far as scheduling goes. But that’s the reality of being an instrumentalist in this scene.” As a member of Lemon Bucket Orkestra and Jaron-Freeman Fox & The Opposite of Everything himself, Williams claims that it ends up being a benefit more so than not. “The whole community around Lemon Bucket Orkestra has been a huge influence on The Boxcar Boys, and the way Jaron plays fiddle has affected the way I play clarinet. So all that stuff really comes through in my own playing, and I’m sure it’s the same for the rest of the band.”
The unique instrumental arrangement is truly what makes this band shine, and is always a wonder for new listeners. “There’s always this murmur when we play in bars, like ‘what is that instrument?’ or ‘is that a euphonium?’” Williams says. “People are always taken aback by the sousaphone, just the image of it.” The Boxcar Boys are not just an ensemble you want to listen to; they’re an act that captivates with every show.
Their connection with the larger Toronto music scene has also directly added to their sound. From Adrian Gross’ bluegrass mandolin chops to Nicolas Buligan’s virtuosity in all things brass, The Boxcar Boys have featured local talents in their acts and recordings from across genres, recognizing the importance of Toronto’s musical diversity. Indeed, it’s these very connections that allow the band to be so versatile, especially for their upcoming TD Toronto Jazz Festival performance. “Our show at the Painted Lady is going to be a special one for a couple reasons. We’re going to playing with Nicolas for the whole show, making us a seven-piece for one night. It’s also going to be our sousaphone player Rob Teehan’s last show for a bit. He’s a fantastic composer, so he’s going to be moving to LA, and Nicolas is going to join us on tuba.” As their hot jazz sound continues to evolve, the future looks bright for Williams and the band, keeping the folk alive in the concrete jungle of Toronto.