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With skeletal fingers tapping the glass display counter inside the Library coffee shop in his native Long Beach, bearded Rx Bandits vocalist/guitarist Matt Embree breaks from squinting hopelessly at the illegible, chalk-scrawled menu hanging behind the cash register. Something snags his attention. It's a flyer for an upcoming open-mike night, a chance to play in front of complete strangers.
"It's good, because it's like starting back at square one," he says. "You're just playing your songs for a bunch of people who don't know you."
Considering his band, progressive-rock alchemists Rx Bandits (whose members are spread across Southern California, from Long Beach to Seal Beach to Santa Rosa), has spent more than ten years releasing records, live performances and side projects to its fans, that would be a welcome change. If only the Bandits weren't back to the rock-star routine in a couple of weeks.
Less than four months after recording and mixing their latest album, Mandala (out July 21), the Bandits are touring in support of the mature, slightly Latin-infused followup to 2006's ...And the Battle Begun. What emerges is a sound stained by life experiences, dusty hitchhiking trips through Central America, and introspective grappling with success and failure on the road to the members' 30s.
One thing that hasn't changed with time and travel is the Bandits' resolve to break new artistic ground on their own terms. For Embree and guitarist/keyboardist Steve Choi, part of that process is finally releasing their caged ideas for human consumption.
"Conceptually, the record has existed for us for well more than a year," says Choi. "So to finally free ourselves of that was just huge. It wasn't even all just happiness; it was just a slurry of emotion."
Recording live to two-inch tape as a four-piece — trombonist Chris Sheets left the band due to personal health issues — Embree, Choi, bassist Joseph Troy and drummer Christopher Tsagakis locked into a roller coaster of complex time signatures and authentic soul, punctuated by punk outbursts. It may sound complicated, but it's not — at least for them.
"Now that's it's just a four-piece, it [doesn't] feel much different, but I just think our chemistry [is] better," Embree says. "And once we got our communication all straightened out, everything came easily."
This past February, the band began recording (and temporarily living) in Altadena, an unincorporated area near Pasadena (California), settling into the Mouse House recording studio owned by Rich Mouser. The Bandits tapped producer Chris Fudurich, who worked with them on 2001's Progress.
Fudurich has collaborated with such diverse names as Nada Surf and Britney Spears, approaching each artist as an entirely new project. "He knows a broad enough spectrum of music to understand what might have been our influences, what kind of styles of music we're trying to take," Choi says.
With nearly every scrap of the album recorded live (the band's habit since 2003's The Resignation), Fudurich captures everything, from the unabashed shredding on songs such as "Breakfast Cat" to the percussive down-tempo tenderness of "White Lies." Listeners receive the intangible energy of four guys jamming in a room, highlighted by off-mike screams and minor imperfections; the album's only Spanish-speaking track, "Mientras La Veo Soñar," is pregnant with raw energy and Latin polyrhythms.
This brings back memories of Central America for Embree, who has traveled there twice since the Bandits' last album.
"A lot of times when we'd hear the music, we'd be hitchhiking in people's cars, and they'd have the radio on," says Embree, who allowed two months' worth of samba, cumbia, merengue, even some reggaeton to seep into his rhythm index — though he's still not exactly a Daddy Yankee fan.
One of the biggest motivators for Mandala was the members' reflections on trials and triumphs of friends, even themselves, struggling to find a place in life while in their late 20s — a sentiment you might even find someone singing about at a coffeehouse open-mike night. But when you're Rx Bandits, that inspiration provides the energy for a much bigger stage.
"It's really put things into perspective for us and made us appreciate what we have going for us," says Choi, "and everything that we still have yet to attain for ourselves."
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