Rx Bandits’ Steve Choi
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Like it or not, death eventually gets a chance to wrap its bony little fingers around every living thing. Bands, however, are fortunate enough to have some wiggle room with their time of expiration. The current status of Rx Bandits exemplifies this idea. In April, the Seal Beach, California-based four-piece announced that it’d embark on its last tour this summer—but by all indicators, the group won’t actually be gone for good as much as it’ll exist in the blurry state of “indefinite hiatus.”
Still, this move does close the chapter on some 15 years of heavy touring and intriguing twists. Starting out as a rather innocuous ska/punk band, the Bandits gradually morphed into an inventive batch of prog-rock/reggae players, reveling in increasingly abstract imagery and eventually shelving the horns entirely. The band’s last album, 2009’s Mandala, took its name from a Sanskrit term representing the cycle of life—a choice emphasizing the band’s natural sonic progression. With the act on its way out (however temporarily), now’s the time to see Rx Bandits, as it stops at Theatre of the Living Arts on Sunday, July 10, with Maps & Atlases and Zechs Marquise. Before the band heads into the murky unknown, The A.V. Club caught up with guitarist-keyboardist Steve Choi to discuss spontaneity, boulders, and the question he’s never been asked.
The A.V. Club: In the past, you’ve spoken repeatedly about how the band hasn’t made any conscious decisions about its direction, instead letting things happen gradually. Why does the idea of evolution appeal to you so much, as opposed to carrying out an idea that’s already been decided?
Steve Choi: I feel like we try to base a lot of our creative philosophy on the natural laws of the world. In this case, we all trust in each other’s abilities and what we bring to the table. As songwriters, Matt [Embree] and I have the capabilities to make complete songs and dictate what everyone plays and that sort of thing, but I really feel like that wouldn’t be maximizing our potential. While there are cases here and there [of things] Matt and I have done completely on our own, it would be not maximizing the sound to not have that sort of spontaneous collaboration—because once you get into that territory, you’re dealing with the subconscious. When you deal with jamming and improvisation, you’re dealing with a different part of your brain. The ideas that come out of that, more often than not, work out to be really great for us. Our approach is to write a framework and create sounds, but within the boundaries of the song, utilize all the free space we have, metaphorically speaking, [by] exercising these spontaneous ideas and even turning mistakes into parts that in that realm aren’t really mistakes.
AVC: Can you think of any mistake in particular that was turned into something else?
SC: There are parts all over [Mandala]. One could argue that it’s inconsequential to the song in the end, but we notice it. Since we record our albums live, we’re doing live performances and whole takes of a song through. There are a lot of things we’ve written one way that—although the song itself won’t change—individually, the part that we play changes a little bit. There are other times that things we yell in the studio, or sounds that are made, or even mistakes [make it in]. There’s a song called “Breakfast Cat” on Mandala. Joe [Troy], on his bass part, goes to the wrong change, but it creates this other crazy chord.
AVC: Matt Embree has spoken before about how RX Bandits’ creative process relies on creating mental movies (like one involving “eagle-pterodactyls”) and relating them to the band so everyone can score them. Does that apply to you, too?
SC: Yeah, pretty much. I’m always thinking of things in terms of soundtracks. We [adopted] it as a band because it’s started to make sense to them. I would come in and be like, “Imagine a bunch of boulders—like a rockslide on the side of a mountain,” and we end up keeping the title sometimes. That’s how the song “Falling Down The Mountain” came about.
AVC: Both you and drummer Chris Tsagakis have mentioned being inspired more by visuals than music at this point. Why is that?
SC: I feel like that’s our creative process. I guess what we’re trying to do is something really unique and different. As much as it may not be, that’s our pursuit, so drawing influences from other mediums and other aspects, other than music, is leaving your influences out as much as possible.
AVC: You’ve also spoken before about the difficulties with creating Mandala—stuff that got to the point that you weren’t sure if the album would actually come out. Did it culminate in this breakup?
SC: No, totally unconnected. We’re just stopping touring. We’re moving into a different phase of our lives now. Some of us have families, children, so it’s totally unrelated. It’s not about going away or buckling, it’s just about focusing on something else.
AVC: How do you feel about the hiatus?
SC: The whole thing for all of us is about staying empowered—doing it on our own terms. For the most part, we feel good about it. Obviously, when you have to deal with any sentimental thing, it’s bittersweet for sure, but other than that, it’s all good.
AVC: Has it started to feel like a breakup yet, or will that come after the final shows?
SC: It doesn’t feel like it, because it’s not really. People rely on a regular touring schedule from us, and all we’re doing is taking a break from that. We’re not setting anything into stone. We are by no means breaking up [in the way that] there’s no way we’ll ever play together again.
AVC: So much has been written about Rx Bandits over the years in terms of interviews and reviews, but what’s the one thing that no one’s discussed or something that doesn’t get much attention that you’d like to get out there?
SC: That’s funny that you ask that. That’s the first anybody’s ever asked me that, out of all the years and all the interviews. I feel like people think that we as a band, and me in particular, are so much more serious than we are. It’s understandable in that in our younger years, at a time when our lives and music were intense and Matt was very vocal on his political and social views—we all were—we took on more serious topics and a more serious tone. But when people approach us a lot of the time, or the way they read us, or say what they think about us when we met, [they] always think we’re way more serious than we are. Although we have the capacity to be really serious, we’re pretty much all big goofballs. We’re always cracking jokes and being stupid. There’s so much about our music in addition to the serious emotion that is in it. There are so many parts that are there because they make us laugh or they make us smile. That’s one thing I feel like a lot of people might not get about us.