SCV Interview with Matt Embree and Chris Tsagakis of RX Bandits
Sound Colour Vibration Interview
w/ Matt Embree and Chris Tsagakis of RX Bandits
Jun 29 – Austin, TX @ Emo’s
On the edge of an indefinite hiatus, Rx Bandits are wrapping up a consistent schedule of touring with a string of summer shows. They are completing their summer tour in the place that birthed the band, Southern California. Having crafted a sound with foundations in rock, reggae, punk, and ska, Rx has evolved with every album and influenced many others in the process. With a slew of side projects (i.e. Matt Embree’s Love You Moon, Chris Tsagakis’ Technology, Embree and Tsagakis both in The Sound of Animals Fighting, Steve Choi in Machines, etc.), the group is looking to stretch new musical limbs while giving others time to rest. I sat down with longtime friends and musical partners Matt Embree (Vocals/Guitar) and Chris Tsagakis (Drums) to talk about collaborations, labels, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. -Zack Lazar
This tour has been blown a bit out of proportion. You guys said you were going on a break, and people started saying, “they’re over, this is the farewell tour!”. But really, isn’t it more like an indefinate hiatus.
Matt Embree: That’s what it is, a hiatus. We’re not breaking up.
Chris Tsagakis: We’ve been pretty consistent with touring for a long time.
ME: We’re definitely not going to tour for a while, if ever. It’s not our last shows forever, if we were going to do that we’d like make it something really beautiful and elegant, not that we’re not. We’d do a last waltz type of thing you know, with film, and have all of our friends there.
CT: It’s hard to say that we would ever have a last show ever because none of us are going to go home and be like, “well, I’m going to break my drumsticks and sell my drums and never play.” This is our love and what we’re going to do for the rest of our lives anyways.
In any case, you guys are going to be taking a break. How does it feel right now, and how do you think that will change as you near the California shows?
ME: Already, it’s very flattering, the energy has been really great and positive, but already at shows multiple people are crying. I understand, it means a lot to me that our band… (shoulder shrug) we’re an underground band. We have amazing fans, if not the best fans I’ve ever seen. I’ve never seen a band, maybe Alkaline Trio, with more fans with tatoos. I’m not trying to sound conceited or bragging, I’m just very flattered and very honored. I write lyrics that I’m looking to connect with people, it’s just part of how I am, part of who I am. Chris and I both are introverts and I think that’s why we love music so much, because that’s part of how we connect socially. We have a small close group of friends, we’re not all social butterflies. To get back to your question, heavy. We’ve got people flying out from Japan, we have kids flying out from South America, we have kids flying down from Canada, we have kids flying from the west coast. We have kids that are following every show in California. There’s this kid outside from Guatamala, he just got his citizenship and saw us last night, and he’s going to like 10 shows. It’s like -I feel like we kind of are, even though we don’t sound like those hippy jam bands- we can fit with that in the way we play and jam. That’s why I think our fans are so amazing, they get it and they know every show is going to be different. They know it’s not supposed to just sound like the record. We feed off of them, fans are part of the show. They sing, they give us that energy and we feed off it. If the crowd is dead and weird, we’re going to be weird. They’re part of the band. It’s tough, but change is good and I embrace it. I love playing with these guys, they’re my bros. Chris and I started this when we barely had any pubes.
You’ve been a fixture in the California music and culture scene for quite some time. You guys have been together for almost two decades, what are the biggest changes that you’ve seen in the art and music scene?
ME: Wow. The way I look at it is that now, to be honest, it’s been about 11 years. Because before, Chris and I started the Pharmaceutical Bandits, and that’s something people don’t realize. Essentially we changed our sound, we knew we wanted to change our sound. What we didn’t want to do was just throw our fans away, so we decided “we’re going to start calling it RX bandits from now on.”
CT: It was about being more serious. At the beginning we were just kids who wanted to have fun and play music, it was our dream to do that. And at some point, it became like, WOW, we might be able to make a living off of this. It was like, let’s make a logo, pick a solid name, and start playing a little more serious music. The kind of music we had inside of ourselves. Not that we didn’t have ska inside of us
ME: We loved playing ska and reggae because it was really huge in our scene back home. We both were interested in dancing, and that’s something that kept in the band. Unfortunately people always seem to want to say ska, when they talk about us. Which is super bizarre because, there are these friends of ours and they have two or three ska songs but nobody ever says ska about them. Even Sublime, people didn’t so much call them ska as much as hip hop or whatever. It’s just because we came from that scene, but we’ve always kept that dance element. It was a great scene, that really helped us to mold the kind of show that’s safe and positive, and not gender specific. We have hard stuff, but we want women and men to be together and not for women to be afraid when they’re in the audience. If people want to dance rough, that’s fine. If I see women dancing rough and rocking out with them, then cool. As long as it’s not a situation where a bunch of dudes are running around and all the girls have to hang back because they’re afraid of getting hit. That’s not fair.
CT: The thing that bums all of us, is that there used to be so many more independent venues. There used to be tons all over Califoria. Now it’s like if you want to play in any big city, there are few options. There’s the clear channel options, which for a lot of people are necessary evils.
ME: It’s like sometimes, you can’t play somewhere cool if you don’t play Livenation. There are certain cities that Livenation has a stranglehold over and there’s nothing you can do, but we try as hard as we can to never support that company.
CT: It used to be that we would literally have friends our age, or younger, who’d open up venues. We’d do it in a house or an old strip mall somewhere. It doesn’t seem like that really happens much anywhere. It’ll probably come back, it goes in waves.
ME: It was also legislation. There were all of those skinheads going around starting fights.
How did the Sound of Animals Fighting come together? How did it go from a random experiment to what it is now?
CT: Rich Balling has been behind turning it into the phenomenon you might say, maybe that’s too big of a word. I refered to it as an art project. We were just like, let’s throw some stuff down, let’s experiment with shifts, let’s just do something. Rich took it, ran with it, and before we knew it…
ME: Rich was essentially the label and the manager, and his contacts, like I had never seen Anthony [Green] but he was in a So Cal band, Saosin. Rich had an inkling that Anthony didn’t want to do hardcore stuff anymore, and he loved his voice. So literally I wasn’t even supposed to be in the project. It was just supposed to be kind of this superband sort of thing.
CT: in the beginning Rich had me come down and I played drums for like 5 hours, and he recorded it. At that point I don’t think he had any kind of plan in mind to tell me, it was just “play drums”, and later we’ll figure out the rest. I don’t think anyone had any kind of big plan in mind at all.
ME: We just thought it’d be cool. What happened was that Chris did these jump parts that were just insane. The other thing was the other guitar players we had in mind from some hardcore and screamo bands, none of them could play to it. None of them knew what to do, so they sent me the ProTools file, and I recorded all of the guitar parts in four days.
CT: We’ve always had this connection.
ME: This telepathic, bizarre…when you’ve played forever that’s how it is. From the first day I played with Chris, I felt a connection, I don’t know if he did. It was like this guy likes all of the same music as me.
CT: We just started playing and it was like, “it goes like this,” and I knew when you were going to change. The music kind of wrote itself.
ME: Rich told me, “Hey man you got four days.” So I just got in there. There are some parts that are just crazy, and it was like, ok if Chris wants to take it there I’ll take it there too. It was kind of rag tag, and it all just came together. On the last record, Ocean and the Sun, Chris and I just recorded it all live in a studio in my garage, and we over-dubbed all these other parts. Chris played keyboard and stuff.
CT: The actual first song, was a loop that I made from a jam that we did.
ME: Like in a real dirty room backstage somewhere.
CT: I threw some extra keyboards on, Anthony sang on it, and it turned out to be a cool song. There were a few other ones on there that were experimental stuff I did with drums and gave to [Matt], similar to first album. Like “Uzbekistan”, and that one that [Matt] sang on.
ME: Yeah, Rich was like, “Anthony didn’t sing on that one for some reason, can you sing on it?”.
You guys were really secretive about the project, and that was at least in part due to record company obligations. How was that a part of the creative process?
ME: It was to avoid preconceived notions. Because as lame as it is, rock music snobs are like, “Oh, it’s someone from Rx Bandits”, or some of these scenester-heads are like, “I’m not going to listen to that because it’s going to be lame”.
CT: We had more ska connotation attached to our name at that point.
ME:We had just barely done The Resignation.
This country has seen a lot of changes, both sociocultural and musically, as you’ve grown together. Given your music’s outspokenness regarding political issues, I’d assume your personal political dialogue has also evolved over time. Has it?
ME: Funny thing is, we don’t really talk about politics much. We all kind of agree with each other, so at practice sometimes we’ll say something like, “Did you hear about this shit”. But we’re all preaching to the choir. We all feel things that are liberal, we all think things that are conservative.
CT: Liberal is a word that has its own connotation, but it’s almost more like…futurism. At some point someone was like, ”Black people shouldn’t be slaves”, that person was thinking ahead of everybody else. I dont’ think that we necessarily feel that this is our opinion and it’s a political decision about this and that, it’s more like there are certain issues that are just going to go away eventually. Like, injustices and general wrongs in the world. It seems just like a “doy” idea.
ME: If we want to continue existing on this planet, there are specific things that we need to do. I think anyone can see that. We need to stop destroying our planet, because it gives us life. We need to stop treating other human beings like they’re not other human beings, because we’re all one collective culture.
CT: Everyone is so misinformed. Someone is saying that something is going to be good for you, or to people that are living in poverty, “If we take away health care and cut teachers in classes and cut funding for social programs, that that’s actually good for you and it’s going to make your life better.” People actually believe that. That not having an education doesn’t matter.
ME: That to me seems, like Chris said, very “doy.” Let’s be honest, if we were all created equal we need to all have the same opportunities. America is obviously an economic superpower, but if we don’t make some serious changes we won’t be. Part of it is that we don’t seem to have any respect for jobs, we throw the American dollar around… I don’t want to get into the whole thing about it. It’s like Socialism, like that movie Bulworth, “Socialism, say that dirty word”. If you look at the rest of the first world, like Japan and Europe, they’re a socialist democracy, but they’re capitalist. The only other thing I’ll say is life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is in our constitution. I believe that means no one should have to pay for healthcare. That’s the most nickel and dimming business in the world, like, you pay if you get sick. Un-fucking-believeable, deplorable, that should be illegal. We have the knowledge and the ability and the power to heal people but, we don’t if they don’t have money? It’s insane. Access to education, all people should have access to education. I’m not saying colleges shouldn’t make money, but there should be a way that every person is able to get whatever information for free, period.
CT: It’s funny because it’s one of the oldest of tricks in the book for anyone that wants keep power. For thousands of years, keep people stupid and you can do whatever you want. How are we still making that mistake?
ME: Fundamentalist Islam is the perfect example, the lack of education keeps these people angry and focused on violence.
CT: Fighting each other, and not those that they’re oppressed by.
ME: Exactly, fighting the other oppressed. And the pursuit of happiness along with life and liberty is, to me, no one should starve. If you live in a first world country, your government makes tons of money from taxes, and no one needs to starve. I think America does a pretty good job of that. I think it’s all social.
CT: I think the thing is that we obviously are politically minded, but we’re not doing it to try to engage in an argument. The more you say this stuff, the more people come back and try to argue with you. We’re not trying to force people to think our way.
ME: If anything, we just want people to think for themselves. Shit, don’t agree with me. Go out and live your life, go and have adventures, go and meet people, go and see what you think is right.
With such consistent touring and so many other projects on you guys’ plates, you have to be recording on the road. What recording equipment do you guys bring along on tour?
CT: We can’t bring a lot.
ME: I bring my ProTools rig, both of us bring keyboards, midi controllers.
ME: My iPhone has a bunch of recording programs on it for samples, I love field recordings.
Matt, you’ve done colab work with both Zach Hill and Lisa Papineau. Can you talk a little about the process of working with these musicians?
ME: With Zach we just decided to jam for a few days. With Lisa, I flew out to France, and I recorded part of one song at her flat in Paris which is in the Bastille district which is beautiful. She lived above this sports bar when France was in the World Cup and they were playing Mexico. It was the most beautiful apartment. Then her friend’s Uncle Raymond passed, we house sat the house, and were basically living in this 500-year old farm house in the middle of an old Roman village. It was in the middle of wheat fields, rapeseed, peas as far as the eye can see, like an ocean. Her friend, Matthieu, his grandfather was also named Raymond. In fact the living room where we listened to the dailies everyday, Raymond, who was a famous jazz musician played with Coltrane, Miles, all these cats, Dexter Gordon. They all jammed in that room. We recorded on Raymond’s piano, so that’s how the album came to be known as Chez Raymond. It’s to commemorate his death, but also where we were at. It’s amazing in a lot of the songs the ideas came from these dreams that I had. It was an old house, and in these dreams I felt like there was a ghost around, and they were just, it was strange. These sounds would just show up on tracks unexplained. I don’t know how to explain it, but we used them, we used them in loops. I don’t know if it was the spirit of Ray, but it was pretty cool. Then we finished out in East LA at her house. Even stranger, it’s owned by a guy named Ray who she’s good friends with. There were tons of dogs. There were like 5 dogs in her house in East LA. It was great.
Do you think you’ll work with her again?
You guys have been with a couple labels. In this time of record labels collapsing and the industry having to completely reconfigure itself, how does Sargent House stack up?
CT: It’s working out with them. Sargent House is pretty DIY and Cathy, she does everything herself.
ME: She’s really hands on. There are employees, Chase, Mark, and Brittany, they all do a really great job. Half of them toured with us, half of them cut their teeth by being on tour with us. Cathy is very passionate about music, and Sargent House has done a lot to help us in our career.
CT: It is very personal. We were on another label at one point, and they were owned by MCA. So, there have been points where we were connected to labels and you meet random people. You don’t really know anyone. There’s no actual hands on…
ME: They don’t know anything about it, they don’t know about music, and they don’t care about it. There were so many people at Universal Music Group that didn’t know anything about music. I don’t think I met a single person who even knew how to play an instrument. It was like, why would I even want to associate with someone who didn’t know even a little about rock music?
CT: It’s definitely nice in that regard. It’s small and personal. Whatever we’re doing we can always talk to Cathy or somebody else there. And they’re all like friends.
Tim Stedman (former vice-president and creative director of MCA records) did the art direction for Progress. He took the “forget this” path, and stepped out of the record industry. How was he to work with as a large-label rep?
ME: He was actually one of the guys that I liked a lot. He was one of my favorite people there.
CT: Those are the kind of people that end up changing the corporate labels.
ME: Or just end up going somewhere else.
CT: If the record labels survive, it will be because people like that change it.