The Box – Painting a New Canvas
Those of you planning a late summer’s vacation jaunt to the Laurentian Mountains, just north of Montreal, may find yourself in the scenic village of Mont Tremblant. Should you decide to stick your head inside the quaint 806 (Rue de St Jovie) Art Studio you may discover a familiar face manning the cash register.
That familiar face belongs to Jean-Marc Pisapia lead vocalist/guitarist for The Box who gained national fame in the early 80’s with three successful albums that produced major radio hits such as “Closer Together” and “Ordinary People”.
Over the past four years, Pisapia has turned a life-long passion for painting into a lucrative business. Aside from working as part of an 11-artist collective that creates paintings for the Mont Tremblant gallery; Pisapia has also developed a passion for painting boats, planes, cars and bikes, travelling to major boat shows and bike rallies in the States to solicit clients directly.
Yet still Pisapia retains a love of performing and has revived a new lineup for The Box, re-launching his concert activities with a performance August 20th Montreal’s Cafe Campus and at Ottawa’s Brass Monkey September 5th.
“The difference between performing in the early eighties and performing now is that now all the pressure is off and we can perform just for fun,” explained Pisapia on the phone from his Mont Tremblant residence. “Creatively, I still have something to say so I still write new material but there is little incentive to record a new album. The way radio is right now, it’s virtually impossible to generate airplay so I might slip a new song into the beginning of our set which we split into two parts. The opening part might focus on some new stuff or more progressive stuff, but when we reach the hit singles, that’s it, nothing but the hits and that’s when the party gets started.”
“The difference between performing in the early eighties and performing now is that now all the pressure is off and we can perform just for fun”
Tired of falling into bed at 3 in the morning, half-drunk from performing live gigs, Pisapia sought an activity that allowed him to take a break from the music industry and spend time with his wife and two daughters once demand for The Box had begun to wane in the early 90’s.
“What I found was that creating a painting and writing a song was exactly the same process,” explained Pisapia. “In other words, if I don’t find it possible to express myself in a song, I find it easier to express myself in a painting.”
It was the Mont Tremblant gift shop that his wife operated, which provided the initial platform for Pisapia’s artistic talents. “About once every six years I’d come up with something just for fun and my wife displayed the painting in her gift shop,” said Pisapia. “Well, the painting sold right away so she asked me to create another painting, and that sold right away as well. So when the Iron Man Triathlon was staged in this region, I did pictures on guys on bicycles and they all sold too, so I’m thinking this may be a cool way to spend my later years.”
Ever the entrepreneur, Pisapia discovered it was financially more lucrative to contact clients directly rather than wait for them to visit his studio so he found himself flying off the attend major boat shows in Florida, , Newport Beach and Baltimore. “I’d meet the boat owners and convince them to let me paint their boats,” explained Pisapia. “I paint boats, motorcycles, cars, planes, they are all works of art in their own way and it’s a very easy way to make a lot of money.”
There’s always been a rebellious nature about The Box, ever since the original band emerged in 1983, supported by guitarist Guy Florent, bassist Jean-Pierre Brie and drummer Sylvain Coutu with a debut self-titled album recorded totally in English, something Francophone bands just didn’t do back then.
“The rest of Canada probably perceived us as a novelty act if not an oddity and in Quebec there was no chance of us ever being booked for the St Jean Baptiste parade,” laughed Pisapia. “The Quebec Intelligentsia felt anyone representing Quebec culture should be responsible for promoting the province’s independence movement but we refused to position ourselves in anything political, we refused to express our political views in public.”
Signed by Tom Berry’s Toronto-based Alert Records, on a recommendation from Men Without Hats’ manager, Marc Durand, The Box’s debut record sparked two hit singles with “Must I Always Remember” and “Walk Away” generating strong airplay from Montreal’s CKOI radio station and their 1986 follow up `All The Time, All The Time, All The Time” (featuring the vocal debut of Sass Jordan) produced a bona fide hit with “Say To Me” which snagged a Felix Award.”
But it was the band’s third album, `Closer Together’ recorded in 1987 which generated serious national attention. Released just as Much Music was becoming a Canadian force to promote new music, the band’s videos for “Closer Together” and the controversial “Ordinary People” received almost constant exposure.
“I actually got sick of listening to “Closer Together”,” bemoaned Pisapia. “That song was everywhere, you couldn’t escape it. Turn on the car radio, turn on Much Music and there it was.”
The lively single and video was popular on Much Music because the station actually paid for the video. “Our song was released smack in the middle of that period where Much Music and Factor started funding videos to make sure they had enough Canadian content for their programming, “noted Pisapa. ”Our timing couldn’t have been better.”
Much Music’s factor support also played a significant role in the exposure of the band’s second single off Closer Together; “Ordinary People” which created controversy by mashing the U.S national anthem with the Soviet national anthem during the song’s instrumental break.
“That song labelled us a politically oriented band but you have to put yourself in the context of the time,” explained Pisapia. “The Korean 007 airliner had just been shot down over Siberia, The Berlin Wall had yet to come down, then U.S president Ronald Reagan was calling Russia “The Evil Empire” – things were pretty tense at that time. But all that song was saying was, `Look we are ordinary people, we don’t care about your politics, we just want to live in peace.”
“The ironic thing was that most people recognized the U.S anthem,” continued Pisapia. “But they didn’t even recognize the Soviet anthem. They didn’t know what the Russian anthem sounded like?”
Pisapia acknowledged the band’s first three albums were successful because he purposely made sure each album had two or three accessible singles before doing what he wanted with the rest of the record’s contents.
“My feeling was, if the radio programmer got the two songs to give us airplay and promote our concerts, then I could be a little more experimental with the rest of the album’s material”
“The Police did exactly the same thing,” declared Pisapia. “Each Police record had two or three obvious singles but then the rest of their albums had progressive influences or darker sides to the songs. My feeling was, if the radio programmer got the two songs to give us airplay and promote our concerts, then I could be a little more experimental with the rest of the album’s material.”
Such was the domestic success of `Closer Together’ that Alert’s Canadian distributor, Capitol/EMI convinced their U.S counterparts to release the band’s fourth album, the 1990 `The Pleasure and the Pain ‘internationally, a decision that totally backfired.
“We totally sold out on that record” admitted Pisapia. “We conscientiously made the decision to give in to the label and make a West Coast –sounding record to fit in to what was being played in the U.S at that time. We had spent four months in England recording with top producer Martin Rushent (Human League, The Stranglers) , there was tremendous pressure on us to give the label a record that would break us in the States and we made a very big mistake.”
The subsequent failure of `The Pleasure and the Pain’ ( despite strong airplay for “Carry On”) resulted in the band splitting in half in 1992. A Decade Of The Box , greatest hits record was released by EMI later that year and Pisapia utilized the surviving members to record a solo album “John Of Mark” which was recorded in 1995 but only released recently. “It was not a happy time for me,” noted Pisapia. “But instead of spending time on the road, I was able to spend time with my family, helping to raise my two daughters which is something I will never regret.”
Pisapia managed to slip two new songs into a repackaged `Always In Touch With You’ compilation, which was actually him plus a bunch of session players in 2003. Pressure from his label then pushed Pisapia to reform The Box with new members for requests to play live shows, which sparked a new record `Black Dog Then’ in 2005. Such was the response, Pisapia was encouraging to give the band a new lease on life.
“It was just fun to get back on stage again,” confirmed Pisapia. “There was no pressure on the new members. They were playing for the fun rather than the performance and as a band we are probably better players than we were in the 1980’s when we did have all that pressure to achieve certain objectives.
This freedom transcended into Pisapia fulfilling a life-long objective of recording a progressive rock album in French ,`D’apres le Horla de Maupassant’ in 2009. I had eclectic tastes in music growing up, My main influences were jazz musicians like Miles Davis and Weather Report but I was also a big fan of progressive music. I still love Genesis, Pink Floyd, Gentle Giant, Yes, and for different reasons, the Police,” explained Pisapia. “All these progressive rock bands were huge in Quebec first before they caught on in the U.S and the rest of Canada. Especially in Quebec City, I remember The Box opening for Jethro Tull at the Colissee in Quebec City and the place went crazy, same when we toured with Marillion.”
Yes the lure of the road has resulted in Pisapia downing his paint brushes and easel for a guitar and microphone and he hopes to follow the renaissance of other classic rock bands and play select concert dates.
Along with current band members Francois Bruneau (guitar), Isabelle Lemay (vocals), Dan Volj (bass) Guillame Jodoin (keyboards) and Martin Lapierre (drums), The Box is committed to hitting the road and having some fun.
“I have no expectations, I am not trying to achieve any specific goals,” concluded Pisapia. “I see bands like Chicago, Journey and Foreigner out there playing, I still like performing, I still feel I have something to say and the band I have now love to play the hits and have a party with the songs.”