Rx Bandits Were Trying Way Too Hard in High School

The ska-band-turned-prog-rockers have come a long way from their cringeworthy beginnings.

Jul 25 2014, 4:00pm

Born in Southern California during the strange and wonderful 1990s moment when ska was marketable, Rx Bandits came onto the scene as teenagers with a third-wave sound that got them signed by Drive-Thru Records. That initial phase was short-lived, though: by 2001’s Progress, the Bandits had already begun mixing progressive-rock influences into their songs—resulting in some of the decade’s more interesting rock-with-horns albums.

The band’s new record, Gemini, Her Majesty—which came out this Tuesday—abounds with spacey keyboards, shredding guitars, and shifting time signatures. But the outfit, now a hornless four-piece, remains frustrated by a segment of the population for whom they’ll always be frozen in time as purveyors of the tried-and-true chaka-chaka, hup-hup, pick-it-up style.

Still, as Rx Bandits prepared to play in New York City on the LP’s release night, the Best Buy Theater’s pre-show playlist included the likes of Reel Big Fish, Less Than Jake, and Catch 22. Was it possible that the band had retained a soft spot for the music of its youth?

In a word: no.

In the green room, guitarist and singer Matt Embree turned to his manager. “Can you do something about the music?” he asked. “It’s killing me.”

The tunes that were killing Embree were made partially by bands he’d toured with not so long ago—but these days, he says, “it’s not what [he’s] into.” Having dispatched with that issue, Embree was ready to settle in and discuss such subjects as his quartet’s ongoing evolution, his stance on violent audience members, and the meaning of “Penguin Marlon Brando.”

Noisey: You actively discourage crowd-surfing and violent moshing at your shows. Why is that important to you?
Matt Embree:I think it’s just basic respect for each other. I love when people dance. If someone were to look at the way a crowd moves, they might just lump it all in as moshing—but you can definitely tell when it’s, like, three douchebags just smashing into each other and pushing people in the back, or when it’s a group effort where people are dancing with each other.

The bottom line is, I would never want someone to get hurt at our show. Not only that, but I’m also not interested in just showing up, singing to a bunch of heads, getting paid, and leaving. I want to have a legitimate connection and experience with those people as other humans.

That’s one thing that has always bugged me, is when bands let that kind of shit happen in the crowd. It’s all good. To each their own. It’s their show; they can do whatever they want. But I feel like they’re ignoring the fact that they’re up there and they have a say. It’s like the bystander kind of thing of someone getting their ass kicked in the street, and people just stand there or shoot [video] on their phone. It’s the same sort of thing for me. If I see something going on, people getting hurt in the crowd, I can’t [ignore it].

You’ve toured in South America, and the region seems to be an important influence on you. How has that come through in your music?
Venezuela is a place we’ve been multiple times, and I don’t think I would have gone there had it not been to play music. I learned a lot about different Latin rhythms there. I went down and played solo shows with all local guys. It was pretty cool, because two of the dudes didn’t speak any English—and my Spanish isn’t that good, but it was good enough. It was the drummer and the bass player, the rhythm section of the band. There was a naturally different feel because of the way they were raised and taught music, and I think I just internalized that. I mean, we played the same chords, and I sang the same lyrics, but it sounded completely different.

Where can we hear that influence on the album?
There are definitely a lot of Latin moments, I would say. It’s more moments [than one song], because RxB likes to mash up genres in general.

Speaking of mashing up genres: Gemini, Her Majesty is your proggiest album. The first song, “Ruby Cumulous,” starts out with low, jittery keyboards. You have all kinds of different influences—and yet, even though your ska roots have been something of a burden from your perspective, there are still moments where the offbeat comes in and you can hear that it’s a part of what you’re doing.

So even if you’ve grown past ska, it’s something that you connect with in some way.
Yes, dude. I appreciate that you’ve legitimately listened to the music. How do I explain? I feel like ska—third-wave ska and stuff—has its merits, like all music has its merits in certain ways.

I love reggae music, and I love some ska, still. I think what captures people about those genres is the dancing element. Especially for young people, if it’s danceable, you’re pretty hyped on it. That and drugs are a huge part of the EDM craze. There’s obviously no third-wave ska undercurrent [on the new album]. But as far as a reggae feel, I still absolutely love reggae. I’m just not interested in playing a style of music that’s someone else’s anymore, which is why we like to mash things up. We make our own style of music, so the things we love are still going to be undercurrents throughout. There are a lot of elements that we outgrew. Depending on what era of the band you listen to, we sound like different bands.

RX Bandits, in their early days.

To that point, you’ve grown up in front of your fans. Is there anything out there from your past that makes you cringe?
Fortunately, our demos are not really available.

You can still get the first album, Those Damn Bandits, on iTunes.
Ugh. That’s brutal. But you know what? Part of that album, I’m proud of, man. There are some good three-part harmonies and shit. And I was 15, you know? Right on.

What’s one thing you hate from that era?
Probably the sound of my voice—but the thing I love the most is the vocal arrangements. It’s weird and contradictory, I know. I feel like I was trying too hard. But weren’t we all trying too hard in high school?

Drug addiction has been a recurring theme in your lyrics. What compels you about that subject?
Ever since I was really young, I was curious about drugs because so many of my favorite musicians were drug addicts. Starting from when I got really into jazz as a young teenager, I always wanted to know: why did John Coltrane need heroin? Why Charlie Parker?

I’m the type of person who’s willing to try anything once. There have been times where I probably went a little overboard.

What’s one of the moments when you feel you went too far?
There were numerous times. I feel like I create an incredible wealth of music in those times. I think, to some extent, experimenting with drugs can change your whole paradigm or focus, and it kind of opens up this whole other realm. But also what it does is, eventually, narrows that focus to just drugs, and it’s not as much about music.

I have recurring anxiety. When we were recording And The Battle Begun…, an ex-girlfriend of one of the guys in the band gave me something that she said was for anxiety. It turned out to be something crazy, like 100 milligrams of morphine. I basically was awake all night throwing up and just spinning. It was terrible. I was at my ex-girlfriend’s mom’s house, and she was hearing me throw up all night.

The next day, I was pretty much sick all day. But when the sun set, I began to kind of even out. My whole body was still buzzing. It was warm, fuzzy. And then we recorded the song “Apparition.” So even though I had to go through the whole experience of puking and spinning and all that, the good part that came out of it was we got the best take of “Apparition.” We played the guitar, bass, Rhodes keyboard, and drums all live, and the take was kind of morphined-out.

You’re 34 now. Have you settled down at all?

How has that manifested itself?
I play sports a lot more. Soccer, basketball. We play soccer almost every day on tour now. Before, I would have been recovering most of the morning. I realized I needed to slow down because I was really messing up my voice. I got close to needing surgery on my vocal cords, because I had nodules. I’m pretty sure I have permanent scar tissue.

I stopped smoking cigarettes. Obviously, I stopped snorting things up my nose. And that makes a big difference. It’s funny how you see those dudes in [Alcoholics Anonymous] and [Narcotics Anonymous]—they’re just jacked. Because they go off of one drug and they need that other thing—so that other thing becomes the adrenaline of getting buff.

You’ve got some out-there song titles. Why “Penguin Marlon Brando?”
[Laughs] After we finished writing that song, we just felt like that’s what it sounded like. If that song were to be a person, it would be Penguin Marlon Brando. Like old, fat Marlon Brando. People-throwing-McDonald’s-bags-over-his-fence-and-he-scurries-outside-to-grab-them Marlon Brando. But as a penguin.

Jonathan Zeller's drug of choice is third-wave ska.

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