Don't call it a comeback; technically, Rx Bandits only broke up for a year. But about three years ago, it sounded as though the Long Beach ska/punk-turned-prog outfit were calling it quits for good. In 2001, the guys announced they would stop touring after a 36-date summer excursion across North America.
With that, it seemed as if the band would be on extended hiatus, even though guitarist Steve Choi did say at the time that it wasn't a break-up, per se. Still, for a lot of medium-level national acts 16 years into their career, that might have been it. A lot of people thought the band might be done, both inside and outside the organization.
"There was a lot of angst and frustration, strife that was expressed through our music," Choi says, adding the break could have been "six months or eight years" or forever—nobody really knew.
It wound up lasting a little more than a year. The band reassembled in spring 2013 to do exactly what it said it was through with doing, embarking on a summer tour in celebration of the 10th anniversary of their most popular album, The Resignation, playing the album front to back across the U.S. and U.K.
"For us, personally, it felt like a really long time," Choi says about the hiatus. "There was a lot of addressing our personal lives and ourselves, a lot of maturing that happened. Some of us were tending to children, some of us were getting clean in rehab, [and] some of us were figuring out where we stood in our creative journeys."
Bassist Joe Troy "just decided to go in [to rehab] and take control of his life," says Choi. "That's very much the future of Rx: Once upon a time, we were a group of twentysomethings partying our way cross country. Now, when you think about making a career out of it, you kind of have to shift the paradigm."
Thus far, that shift has been fruitful for the band, who are poised to release their first full-length recording since 2009's Mandala, and Choi directly attributes the charge in creative energy to the time off. "When we came back together, we were much better at communicating with each other," he says.
A sneak preview of Gemini, Her Majesty, due out July 22, confirms that Rx Bandits are, without a doubt, jelling at a higher level. They are proggier than ever, which shouldn't surprise anyone following the band during the past decade. Singer/songwriter/guitarist Matt Embree began pushing the boundaries of Rx Bandits' ska-punk origins on the aptly-named Progress album in 2001. Up until that point, the band had squarely situated themselves as purveyors of the third-wave ska movement alongside the likes of Reel Big Fish and Save Ferris. With Progess, the band offered skank-chopped rhythm guitar against unconventional meters; the song "Consequential Apathy" provides a nice reference point for when the band took its beeline toward prog-rock. And when Choi joined them for The Resignation, the songwriting become even more ambitious: The grooves hit harder, the horn parts took on a more psychedelic, affected quality, and Embree's vocals maintained an organic, earthy appeal.
By Mandala, the remaining hints of ska were buried beneath weaving and interlocking guitar and bass arpeggios and countermelodies, as though the band spent a year studying the vintage East Coast punk stylings of Television. Add in the furious tension and unrelenting off-time grooves of drummer Chris Tsagakis' increasingly mathy drum style, the record ultimately telegraphs the band's current direction. To get an idea of where Gemini is going, check out the Mandala track "It's Only Another Parsec"—and take one giant prog step forward.
"The main difference is that this time around, we didn't write with being live in mind," Choi says about the Gemini sessions. "Normally, we're like, 'Oh, we want this to sound live and roomy; we don't really want to add too much so we can replicate it.' . . . We threw all that out and were like, 'Let's just make the record however we want. Let's add whatever we want; let's go as big as we want to go.'"
And it's big. The band prereleased Gemini's first single on its social networks and to music blogs; called "Meow! Meow! Space Tiger," it might be the most subdued, straightforward track on the record. Embree chops a reggaeton-inspired rhythm-guitar part; Choi puts a Rhodes keyboard through a delay filter and runs up and down arpeggios outlining the chord progression. And there's a catchy vocal melody over the top of all of it. It's upbeat, but relatively mellow next to songs such as "Ruby Cumulous," with its glitchy intro and Tool-like stutter-time riffing; "Stargazer," with its Battles-esque bass and guitar counterline and pacey tempo; and "Fire to the Ocean," on which Choi channels Relayer-era Yes in the intro and breakdown, while Tsagakis changes time signatures on what sounds like every other measure. Next to these tunes, "Tiger" feels like the black sheep.
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As tight as everything sounds, it seems hard to believe the band did most of the writing in the studio. "Usually, we're really well-rehearsed and have most of our creative decisions made just because we're tracking live," Choi says. "Because of the amount of positivity and trust that we have in each other now, we'll just make these decisions writing in the studio. In the past, that might have created conflict, but this time, we just let it be so there could be that kind of spontaneous element in the record."
What inspired their turn toward the proggier side of rock spectrum? Choi plays it a bit coy. "What we're listening to doesn't really come out in our music as much as it might with other people," he says. But earlier in our conversation about musical self-discovery during the hiatus, he talked about how he had been jamming with bassist Ed Breckenridge (Thrice), and guitarist Sergie Loobkoff (Samiam, Solea, Knapsack) undeniably shines through in Rx Bandits' latest effort.
At the moment, the band are gearing up for a four-month long co-headlining tour with the Dear Hunter, as well as putting the finishing touches on the live versions of their new songs. "Everything is just about dialed in," Choi says. No small feat considering the breadth of the new material. He's stoked to hit the road and repeatedly emphasizes the positive energy flow Rx Bandits have going at the moment.
"We're closer now than we ever have been," he says. "I know that sounds cliché and cheesy—but the truth is that's how it's going for us right now."