Set to Break
Separate but equal songwriting partners click in Box Set
By Bruce Robinson
Make no mistake. Despite its origins as an acoustic duo, Box Set is now a full-fledged, plugged-in, five-man band. Singer-songwriters Jeff Pehrson and Jim Brunberg first expanded with a rhythm section (Chad Heise, bass, and Mark Abbott, drums), and later added keyboard player Sam Johnson to give the group a rich variety of tonal colors with which to deliver their original material, fresh, intelligent pop-folk-rock with literate lyrics and nicely turned melodies.
“When I sit down with the guitar now, I definitely start thinking about parts for five people,” says Pehrson, the amiable hulk who co-founded the San Francisco-based group–one of the most popular unsigned bands on the Bay Area club circuit. “There are so many ways we can go with the instruments, it’s really nice. Having the organ underneath opens us up to do some different things on guitar.” In addition to extra harmony voices, their tonal palette also features Johnson’s harmonica playing and Brunberg’s occasional trumpet licks.
But it was Jim’s songwriting that drew the two together in the first place. It was a chance encounter in a small San Francisco cafe called Simple Pleasures, Pehrson recalls. “One night, Jim was there during the Persian Gulf War and had a song about it that really struck me, and I went up and started talking with him, and the next thing I know, we’re making plans to go up to Oregon and play.”
Thus, with minimal forethought or fanfare, was the initial duo formed. As for their name . . . “I was coming from this band that was already formed, as was Jim, and so when we got together, it was this mishmash of a band,” Jeff says vaguely. “We figured it wouldn’t hurt, publicity-wise, because everybody and their brother was putting out a set. It finally paid off when the Steve Miller Band went out on their Box Set tour. We got thousands of phone calls: “Are you going out with Steve Miller?’ ‘No, but thanks for calling.’ “
Despite their affinity for performing together, four years later Jeff and Jim continue to compose separately, which Pehrson sees as a strength. “It’s really important for Jim and I to explore ourselves as songwriters within Box Set. It kinda adds to the diverse sound that we’re looking for, he and I are so different,” he explains. “Most bands have one writer, or they write together, and the songs come out kind of sounding the same. We don’t want one guy to take over as songwriter.”
With two prolific sources, Box Set has a wealth of new songs, which they have showcased in two early cassette-only recordings, followed by a pair of self-produced CDs, an eponymous debut in early 1994 and last year’s 27. No, it doesn’t boast that many tracks. The significance of the title is that “both Jim and I were 27 when we wrote all the songs,” Jeff confides. ‘It was kind of a fear of putting together this CD and maybe another one, and a fear of getting older and not having anything to fall back on.”
Even before recording 27, Box Set was singled out by Billboard a year ago for the industry magazine’s “Honor Roll of America’s Unsigned Talent,” a slightly unnerving bit of recognition. “We have an interest in being signed, but only the way we want to be signed,” Pehrson says cautiously, explaining that one key point is maintaining control of the publishing rights to their songs. “Major [labels] tend to take everything away from you. We don’t want to sign our lives away,” he continues. “Unless a major comes along with a deal that’s cast just for us, we’re probably looking for an independent. We’re not interested in giving anybody ownership of anything of ours right now.”
Talks are under way with a small, East Coast independent label about a licensing agreement for a planned third CD, which is due to be recorded this spring. “We’re going into the studio March 1st and work on the third one,” Pehrson says with anticipation. “That will be a year to the day after the last one.”
Box Set performs at Magnolia’s, 107 Fourth St., Santa Rosa, on Thursday, Jan. 11. The Willnots open the 9 p.m. show. Tickets are $5. 526-1007.
From the Jan. 4-10, 1996 issue of The Sonoma County Independent
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