Don't call it a comeback, because technically, Rx Bandits only broke up for a year. But about three years ago, it sounded like the Long Beach ska/punk-turned-prog outfit were calling it quits for good: The guys announced that they would stop touring back after a 36-date summer excursion across North America in 2011.
With that announcement, it seemed like at the very least the band would be on extended hiatus, even though guitarist Steve Choi did caveat at the time that it wasn't a breakup per se. Still, for a lot of medium-level national acts 16 years into their career, that might have been it. And lot of people thought the band might be donezo, both inside and outside the organization.
"There was a lot of angst and frustration," Choi says. "Strife that was expressed through our music." He says the break could have been "six months or eight years," or forever–nobody really knew.
It wound up being a little over a year. The band would reassemble in spring of 2013 and do exactly what it said it was absolutely through with doing, embarking on a summer tour in celebration of the 10th anniversary of it's most popular album The Resignation, playing the album front to back across the US and UK.
"For us, personally, it felt like a really long time," Choi says about the time apart. "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, some of us were figuring out where we stood in our creative journeys."
It was bassist Joe Troy who checked himself into rehab–"he just decided to go in and take control of his life," notes Choi. "That's very much the future of Rx–once upon a time we were a group of 20-somethings 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 the paradigm 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 the new album titled Gemini, Her Majesty, due out July 22, reveals that it can be confirmed that Rx Bandits are, without a doubt, jelling at a higher level. Rx are proggier than ever, which shouldn't be a surprise to anyone following the band over the past decade. Singer/songwriter'guitarist Matt Embree began pushing the boundaries of the Bandits' ska-punk origins on the aptly-named record Progress in 2001. Up until this point the Bandits squarely situated themselves as purveyors of the third wave ska movement alongside the likes of Reel Big Fish and Save Ferris.
Then, with Progess, you started to hear the band projecting skank-chopped rhythm guitar against unconventional meters–the song "Consequential Apathy" provides a nice reference point for when the band took its beeline towards prog-rock–and when Choi joined the band 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 maintaining that organic, earthy appeal.
By Mandala, the remaining hints of ska were buried behind weaving and interlocking guitar and bass arpeggios and counter-melodies, as if 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, this record ultimately telegraphs the band's current direction. To get an idea of where Gemini is going, check out the 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. Lets add whatever we want; let's go as big as we want to go."
And it's big. The first single that the band pre-released on its socials and to music blogs, called "Meow! Meow! Space Tiger," 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; there's a catchy vocal melody over the top of it. Upbeat, but relatively mellow next to songs like "Ruby Cumulous" with its glitchy intro and Tool-like stutter-time riffing; or "Stargazer" with its Battles-y bass and guitar counterline and pacey tempo; or "Fire To The Ocean" where 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.
As tight as everything sounds, it seems hard to believe they 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."
Insofar as the elements that inspired their turn towards the proggier side of rock spectrum, the guitarist 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 hearkening back to something earlier in the conversation about musical self-discovery during the hiatus, the fact that he had been jamming with bassist Ed Breckenridge (Thrice), and guitarist Sergie Loobkoff (Samiam, Solea, Knapsack) undeniably shines through in this latest effort.
At the moment, the band is gearing up for a four week co-headlining tour with The Dear Hunter, and putting the finishing touches on the live versions of the 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 the Bandits have going at the moment.
"We're closer now than we ever have been–I know that sounds cliche and cheesy–but the truth is that's how it's going for us right now."