With 14 years under its belt, Southern California’s Rx Bandits has been through its fair share of muck. The band cut its teeth during ska’s third revival (c. 1995), and though Rx Bandits quickly evolved beyond easy genre pegging, that specter of the past has haunted the group ever since. Of course, singer-songwriter Matt Embree doesn’t see it this way. If there’s a single idea that’s existed within the Bandits’ ranks since those early days, it’s evolution. If there’s a second, it’s a ferocity that follows the ensemble from its searing live show into the studio. Rx Bandits’ latest record, Mandala, is the first to find the group pared down to four members—with nary a horn between them—playing their unique amalgam of prog, punk, and transcontinental sounds. Thus, it makes good sense that Embree and his crew have signed with Sargent House, home to Rodriguez-Lopez Productions (the new imprint from The Mars Volta's Omar Rodriguez-Lopez). In advance of the Bandits’ shows Thursday night at the Fillmore and Friday night at Bowery Ballroom, Embree spoke with The A.V. Club about pigeonholing, eagle attacks, and the birdbrains at the band’s former label.
The A.V. Club: What inspired the sound of Mandala?
Matt Embree: Often we’ll have a visual idea, like, “This is where we get to a mountaintop and there are, like, eagle-pterodactyls trying to grab us while we’re running away to a happy, mellow meadow with a tranquil stream.” [Laughs.] That sounds like some Lord Of The Rings shit, but it’s true. As for the sound itself, we recorded to 2-inch tape on an extra-slow setting, which creates more tape character. We’re also all playing live in the room together. I love old Motown, and a lot of that was recorded with one mic in a room—it was more concert than album. We wanted that vibe that comes from an interaction that can be felt, if not heard.
AVC: Where did you record, and did the location inform the music?
ME: It totally did. We recorded in Altadena, which is northeast of L.A., at the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains. The studio is this dude’s house about a mile from the trails of Angeles National Forest, which is pretty wild. People live back there as if it was a hundred years ago, and we stayed at his house, only going home on weekends. We’d make breakfast in the morning, chill, play, then nosh again, and sleep under that roof beneath the trees.
AVC: What challenges did you face approaching a record not only without horns for the first time, but also down two members?
ME: It’s kind of brutal to say, but none really. Our writing process didn’t change. It was usually just the four of us with the horns added after the fact. We’d actually find ourselves catering to the horns, writing parts easier for trombone or sax to play over.
AVC: Critics could never seem to get past the horns, and certain fans still can’t let go of the band’s early ska roots. Are you partly relieved to be free of that albatross?
ME: If losing the horns will free us of that, I will definitely be pleased, but I don’t think it will. People just do that to bands. Even artists who are untouchable, like Björk, get hit with the indier-than-thou talk—you know, “Post was the only good album.” I started this band when I was 15, and I’m 28 now; it’s pretty impossible that I’d be into the same things today. I wouldn’t trade it for anything, but it’s a trip that people have seen that much of my life—that they’d talk to me about something I did when I was 16.
AVC: Have you ever felt like starting anew with the same players under a new name?
ME: Actually, yes, but I feel that’d be really insulting to the people who get it. I met a girl in Texas whose whole back was tattooed with the cover of [2006’s] And The Battle Begun. It’d be like saying, “We don’t care about you. We’re doing this for Rolling Stone and Spin.” The truth is, we don’t give a shit about those [publications], and it’s all music anyway. Stigma or no, I don’t regret playing any of it. I love reggae. I love punk rock. Without having our particular roots, we couldn’t make the weird albums that we do today.
AVC: Rx Bandits was one of Drive-Thru’s first bands. Why did you part ways with the label?
ME: Let me put it this way: I’m not allowed to tell you because I could be sued by Drive-Thru for pretty much all that I have. It’s in our contract that to get out of our contract, none of us can talk about them, so you can just imagine what sorts of terrible things happened and how much money they still owe us and the rest of the people on their label.
AVC: Your lyrics talk a lot about prompting personal responsibility, as well as independence from commercial interests and ideas that reinforce a male-dominated society. What keeps you “fighting the good fight”?
ME: Is that what I’m doing? [Laughs.] You know, I never think to myself, “Hey, I need to write about the fact that the way women have been treated for the last 1,000 years really bums me out.” That’s just the kind of society I live in. It’s all around us; anyone can see it. We don’t want to be viewed as a “political band,” but everything can be political. All four of us rent apartments, and that’s one of the oldest struggles in history: the land-owning bourgeois versus the working-class renters. If I move to Central America and exist off the land one day, I’m sure my lyrics will be different. I’ll have a beard down to my toes and write songs about the creatures living in it.