Despite the critical acclaim Billy Bob Thornton’s music has received since his 2001 debut album Private Radio, most people inevitably assume that any musical project from an actor is a vanity effort—an inferior product released by an artist slumming in a foreign milieu because fame and fortune allow it. But Thornton (who just released The Boxmasters, his new band’s self-titled album) has real musical cred: He’s played in bands since he learned the drums at age 12, he used to roadie for the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and his directorial debut was a documentary on Widespread Panic.
Expressing his frustration with those who see a conflict, he points out that Sinatra, Elvis, Dean Martin and The Beatles all acted and sang. “Nobody said, when Bing Crosby did White Christmas, ‘Hey wait, you can’t be in a movie.’ Nobody ever thought of that. That was brought about by this cynical generation.”
Thornton’s passion for music is evident in his 24-track home studio, a Beverly Hills basement space filled with vintage amps, an assortment of guitars, a sizable drum kit, high-end microphones and everything else a professional studio needs. Warren Zevon cut his last album in this basement, which has hosted such musicians as Daniel Lanois, Jackson Browne, T Bone Burnett and Dwight Yoakam. “I bought the house [from Guns N’ Roses guitarist Slash] mainly because of the studio, although I love the house, so that was a bonus,” Thornton explains. “People that come here love the vibe of the studio, and they’re starting to call this the new Big Pink. Even Robbie [Robertson, of The Band] said it one night.”
Over the course of a wide-ranging, hour-long conversation, Thornton laments the decline of the record store, lambasts music and film critics whose passion for the clever dig overshadows any love for the art, explains how he mixes analog and digital recording methods, discusses drumming techniques, and declares his solidarity with music geeks who read every liner note. “When I was 10, I shouldn’t have known who Tom Dowd was,” he says. “There was no reason for it, but I did.” Thornton also bemoans the current lack of eclecticism in radio: “When I was 11 years old, I was listening to The Mothers of Invention and Hank Williams all at the same time—that’s why I ended up as weird as I am.”