Prescription for Progression

Rx Bandits continue to evolve and inspire fervor—and tattoos

Rx Bandits are the best band to come out of Orange County in the past 10 years. But it wasn't always that way. They had to undergo serious evolutionary changes to reach this apex. In the process, though, Rx have inspired a rabid following.

Among the usual compliments and I-love-yous in the comments of their MySpace page, you'll find pleas pulling them to all corners of the Earth: San Diego, Virginia, Asia, Italy, Hawaii, Detroit, New York, Portugal. One post laments the cancellation of an East Coast tour for a West Coast tour; another celebrates it. Rx Bandits have played in most of those places, but one post brings especially good news: "Counting the days till the home show. LBC. Weee." Rx Bandits are coming home.

Everywhere they go, Rx find pockets of froth-mouthed fans eager to pack the floor and get down. "There are people with Rx tattoos," says Steve Choi, guitarist/keyboardist/co-songwriter. "I've seen people with the latest album cover done up, full back. If people ever tattoo their band on them, that's nuts. I trip the fuck out."

Rx's ever-changing style is difficult to pin down, with elements of punk, ska, reggae and jazz coloring the sound. Front man/chief songwriter Matt Embree (who resembles an OC skater, philosopher king and vagrant with his substantial beard and hoodie) delivers sometimes tender, sometimes guttural vocals that complement his ambitious arrangements.

As the Pharmaceutical Bandits, Rx released their first effort in 1997, Those Damn Bandits, a poppy, straight-ahead ska record. It earned them the ears of Drive-Thru Records, but the group did not stagnate. It's rare for a band that have enjoyed success to eschew their original sound so profoundly, but Rx have done just that, throwing off the third-wave ska that gained them a following and plunging into a breathtaking metamorphosis.

The third Rx album is aptly titled Progress, and even though it's clear from the first track this disc represents the dawning of a new day, the sun doesn't burst over the horizon until the third track, "Analog Boy," one of the most beloved among Rx's fans. The hopeful organ and upbeat hi-hat build a feeling of unmistakable optimism.

Clearly, Rx were moving up and on. It wasn't a push to become more accessible, though, but rather the honest stretching out of limbs and imagination. The band were blossoming in a big way, and Progress marked a definite fork in the Rx road.

Constant progress came to personify the band and the way they operate. The following album, The Resignation, might as well have been titled Revolution, as it severed all ties with their old ways. The band recorded the album live, leaving only horns, vocals and a few details to be added later. Since then, they've recorded all their material in the same manner. "Recording live, you get a truer sound—you have to accept blemishes," Choi says. "It's difficult, but there aren't many drawbacks. It's beneficial for an artist, learning to let go [and] focus on the grand idea. For us, the expression doesn't come through in tiny details."

As songwriters, Embree and Choi have pursued new ground as if the old stuff were falling into the ocean behind them; giving their sound the impression they're in a hurry. In pursuit? Yes. Of a specific destination? Not really. "Our aim musically is to never think too far ahead, not how it's going to affect things in a larger sense, just put it out there," Choi says. "The big picture is just about self-expression."

In its first decade, the band have undergone a name change, numerous lineup adjustments and, with last year's . . . And the Battle Begun, a move from Drive-Thru Records to Embree's own label, MDB (Mash Down Babylon).

The lyrics call for social change, the music evolves and the styles flow, proving that for Rx, as they say in the latest album's "A Mouth Full of Hollow Threats?": "The only thing left that's constant is a change."

RX BANDITS PERFORM WITH FALL OF TROY, MAPS & ATLASES, AND CASKET SALESMEN AT VAULT 350, 350 PINE AVE., LONG BEACH, (562) 590-5566; WWW.VAULT350.COM . WED., 7 P.M. $13-$15.

 
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