Excursions in sound

Zox goes bigger and bolder on its latest release.

By Naila Francis

Eli Miller knows the drill. Want to make it easier to market your music? Put a label to it. And so when Zox, the eclectic quartet for which Miller serves as principal songwriter and vocalist, needed a descriptive peg, “violin-laced reggae rock” seemed the most appropriate.

But that was several years and two albums ago, and the Providence, R.I.-based band has a new CD and a bolder, more aggressive sound that is admittedly tough to classify.

“Line in the Sand,” released in January on Side One Dummy Records (Flogging Molly, The Mighty Mighty Bosstones), takes the ska-heavy amalgam delivered on 2005’s “The Wait” and expands it into a more ambitious, even epic fusion of punk, rock and acoustic folk, with the reggae influences a more subtle presence lurking beneath kinetic rhythm changes and ingenious, contrasting textures that have some alluding to ’80s revivalist tendencies.

“Because you’re forced to come up with a phrase that can define your sound, we often put something to do with violin or something to do with reggae in the past both because it felt accurate but also because it made us stand out and raised eyebrows,” says Miller, also a guitarist who is joined in the band by percussionist and namesake John Zox, violinist/vocalist Spencer Swain and bassist/vocalist Dan Edinberg. “These days, a lot of people hearing our songs wouldn’t be able to pick out the violin line because its natural naked voice is being masked by all these other ideas that Spencer’s using. … Sometimes, to me, (the violin) feels more like a synthesizer or a guitar or a wash of delay or a steel drum. Sometimes, it has a percussive quality when picked with the finger instead of played with a bow. These days we have a harder time finding a single phrase that defines the band.”

The violin’s presence itself is unusual, but Miller had a roommate who was a classical violinist at Brown University in Providence, where he and drummer Zox would jam regularly at the campus bar. Having included his roommate in some of those sessions, he decided to advertise for a violinist when it came time to form a band. Swain, who had recently quit his classical violin studies at the music conservatory at Purchase College in New York to move to Rhode Island, answered the ad.

“He spends a lot of time finding new ways to use the violin,” says Miller, 27. “From the beginning, it has had more in common with the guitar than it does with the violin. That takes the sound away from where most rock bands who incorporate a violin are coming from. His background has been primarily in classical music rather than in Celtic fiddle music. Most famous rock bands who use a violin — like the Dave Mathews Band or the Charlie Daniels Band or even Yellowcard — most of those players come at the instrument from a fiddle perspective, more like roots music, and Spencer is able to incorporate classic melodies, more like single-note kind of riffs that I think give the band a more unique sound.”

With its seamless, sophisticated musicianship and affecting lyrics, Zox, which performs Thursday at Crocodile Rock in Allentown and Friday at the Trocadero in Philadelphia, has drawn comparisons to seminal rockers The Police and U2 — a heady compliment but one that Miller acknowledges bears some relevance.

“We were all born in the ’80s, and the ’80s these days when you think about them have gone from being cheesy and superficial to influencing the way a lot of bands sound,” he says. “John, our drummer — his favorite drummer is Stewart Copeland from The Police and that band is one we look to a lot because they were able to incorporate a lot of influences and still develop a sound that you know when you’re hearing a Police song. And early U2, there’s an emotionalism to it that I really relate to. The Edge, his guitar is very distinct, and I think Spencer’s violin has that quality, too.”

But “Line in the Sand” is not all sonic bombast. Two of the album’s more stirring moments can be found on the acoustic ballads “Goodnight,” a determinedly optimistic perspective on change, and “The Wait (part II),” a vivid portrait of yearning.

“I spent a couple of months living in Argentina two years ago and I wrote that song in my hotel room as I was waiting for my flight to Miami and thinking about the endless opportunities to start over that we’re given,” says Miller of “Goodnight,” the first single off the album. “So many times, people can get bogged down in the past and carry around a lot of baggage, but I like the idea of sort of being able to just put things down and try again.”

Elsewhere, the themes of relationship challenges, an emerging sense of purpose and a self-conscious ambivalence about the tumult of our times play out in dark, moody passages and trippy danceable rhythms, wailing violin solos and delicate interludes that give rise to swells of symphonic rock — sometimes all in the same song.

“In general, I think this album is much more optimistic, much more hopeful than other albums have been,” says Miller, who studied urban planning at Brown, briefly taught music after graduating and turned down an offer from Stanford Law School when Zox began to take off. “In the past, I tended to write a lot more songs that were … ‘She broke my heart and I have a guitar so I might as well write something down about it.’ I don’t know if it’s because I’ve gotten older or further away from the track of going through college and graduating and trying things out in the real world and trying to figure out who I am as an adult or an aspiring adult, but I think this album is really different for me.”

He acknowledges that sanguinity is a little harder to come by when it comes to romance, a struggle evident in tracks like the blaring “Don’t Believe in Love” and frenetic “I Miss You.”

“We’ve been touring full time for almost five years and it’s been really difficult for all of us, but particularly for me, to make a consistent relationship work,” says Miller. “It’s a little discouraging, but there’s always hope, and I figure good relationships end up falling into your lap when you’re not looking for it.”

With Zox having been primarily an underground Internet success with a cult following the last few years, he is reserved about future expectations.

“Once in the music business, there was a path, a series of steps, to take to more or less guarantee some level of mainstream success — you know, you put a video on MTV, you tour … and record sales are the barometer of your success. Nowadays, it doesn’t feel as clear-cut; bands are hitting that level of success but in so many different ways,” he says. “It’s really exciting, but it makes no point trying to get there. You have to make the music that appeals to you and appeals to your fans, and if it connects on a greater scale, you can decide what to do from there.”

– The Intelligencer