Billy Bob Thornton in Modern Drummer

(October 2008 Issue)

While many only know Billy Bob Thornton as an Academy Award–winning actor, he’s in fact been a musician far longer, ever since growing up in Arkansas. Thornton’s been playing drums since the age of nine, has released three albums under his own name, and is now leading a band called The Boxmasters. The group’s first self-titled double-disc set has recently hit the shelves.

A catchy marriage of the music he loved during his ’60s youth and hillbilly upbringing, the album features one disc of Thornton originals and a second of cover tunes, including countrified versions of The Beatles’ “I Want To Hold Your Hand” and The Who’s “The Kids Are Alright.” Thornton handles all the drums on the record, as well as lead vocals. (On tour, he leaves most of the drum duties to Mike Bruce so he can come out front to sing.)

Thornton was self-taught, and got his first “real” drumkit–a four-piece, Ringo-inspired red sparkle Ludwig–when he was fourteen. “I loved Ringo,” Thornton admits. “Being a kid and interested in the drums, Ringo was the one I wanted to be. The first time I saw a picture of The Beatles and it said Ludwig on the front of the drums, I thought his name was Ludwig. I got those Ludwig drums from a kid who lived nearby. There was no hi-hat; it was just a four-piece kit with a ride cymbal, until I got the money together to buy one. These days I’m a Slingerland guy, and I play a big ol’ four-piece kit. It’s set up similar to how Buddy Rich or Gene Krupa used to have theirs, with all of the drums and cymbals positioned pretty low and flat. That’s how I play.”

Thornton’s philosophy as a drummer is to play for the song. “It’s not to go back there and show off,” he insists. “The idea is to feel the song. If you’re paying too much attention to a click or to your time, sometimes the feel can get lost. The idea is to play to the click, but ignore it as much as possible.”

While Thornton’s movie career continues to be successful, it’s his music that really excites him. “I grew up playing in a band,” he admits, “and that’s what I came out here to LA to do in 1980. I kind of accidentally became a movie star, so I do that to pay for the house,” he laughs. “Now I schedule my time so that I do the two movies a year I need to do, and then have time to record and tour.”

Robyn Flans