Guitarist Marc Miller on Oxes’ Unlikely Collaboration with Will Oldham

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I have no trouble believing Will Oldham (AKA Bonnie “Prince” Billy) would cover Sheryl Crow’s “Strong Enough” — I could even imagine what it would sound like, to the point where I could probably get his version stuck in my head without having heard it. But Will Oldham collaborating with Oxes — the legendary Baltimore three-piece known for dissonant, technical guitar workouts — on a cover of the song sounds like an event with a probability of zero. Trying to guess what it would sound like makes my head hurt.

But it happened. Oxes recreated a Sheryl Crow song with Brooklyn’s pseudonym-loving folkie. And Friends Records put it out as a seven-inch. And the weirdest thing about it is it’s not that weird. (Listen for yourself.)

The B-side is actually much wilder. It’s Microkingdom (featuring Oxes guitarist Marc Miller) working with Future Islands vocalist Sam Herring on Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m on Fire.”

By the way, Future Islands would be a great group to reinterpret Springsteen’s 80s material — they could take it to the moody heights that Springsteen never quite put down the fake twang long enough to crest. They could also give the songs a more natural synthesizer arrangement — the use of which always made the Boss sound so awkward.

For better or for worse, that’s not what happens here — as far as I can tell from the teaser soundclip that Friends Records has made available. Instead we get a more revisionist take on the song — Herring’s voice not so much buttressed by the instrumentalists  as fending for itself in a wilderness of gnarled melodies. (Miller assures me that it “makes sense” all together, and that in fact all they’ve done is reimagine the song as a “heroin ballad.”)

Oxes, L to R: Marc Miller, Nat Fowler, Chris Freeland

When I asked Miller for an interview, he made a half-hearted attempt at shrugging me off, calling himself a “lousy interviewee.”

The self-deprecation is a little ironic considering that his two main projects are the bombastic, mathy Oxes and the bombastic, avant-jazzy Microkingdom — whose drummer Will Redman often extemporizes absurd and long introductions to the band’s improvisations while a seated Miller waits patiently to start playing and occasionally breaks into a smile.

Friends Records’ Soundcloud page mentions that the “Strong Enough” cover has been “hidden in the vaults for years.”

It has. We recorded it back in October of 2001, when we were recording our second record [Oxxxes] in Chicago. We knew Will [Oldham], and we knew Bob Weston who recorded it and played bass on the track, and somehow in conversation it had come out that we all had an affinity for Sheryl Crow.

So it’s been sitting around for 11 years.

Well, we played it live with Will three times: once in a basement in Baltimore, once in Bordeaux when we opened for him, and once at All Tomorrow’s Parties.

We never had a good B-side for it. There were various ideas. For a while we wanted to put it out with a Baltimore club remix on the B-side — we were trying to spread the word about Baltimore club before people really knew about it.

We had a bunch of covers under our belts at that time. We recorded them ourselves in the hopes we’d add vocals to them later. We did this one in pretty quick fashion — we sent it to Will in Kentucky, and he recorded his vocals with his brother and added all that feedback that you hear.

None of that feedback is Oxes?

It’s all Will. A lot of our covers tend to be more straightforward, which maybe doesn’t even make sense.

What other cover songs has Oxes recorded?

At that recording session we recorded five covers. But [“Strong Enough”]’s the only one we had someone put vocals on. The other stuff is lingering around, instrumental versions of things. One of them got released — our cover of “Everlong” by the Foo Fighters. It got released as a B-side. We played that slow and faithful; I played all the vocal parts on guitar.

How did “I’m on Fire” come about?

Most of the time you hear Sam sing, it’s not really my thing — that’s not the Sam I like. But I work at the record store, so I hear all the Future Islands records — and sometimes he’s mellow-Sam and I’m like, He’s got a great mellow-voice.

I don’t think of Sam as anything like Bruce Springsteen, but he’s a great choice for the song — it’s so moody.

My first exposure to Sam singing was me just thinking, Why is Bruce Springsteen wearing all white? And then I got to know him — and he’s a super sweetie, and we got along really well. And I thought we should take this Springsteen thing to the logical extreme and record this song that I’m obsessed with and always have been.

Springsteen in general isn’t my bag, but that song kills me. And it’s so short, and that’s part of the idea — like, Man, this song should be long. We kept the chords the same, I just play in a different tuning. The rims shots are still there. When you hear the whole thing I think it all makes sense.

This unholy seven-inch is available through Baltimore’s Friends Records.

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