Rx Bandits/Portugal. The Man Profile

Source: HighBeamReview.com

Both bands lead similar paths, yet produce different results

Rich Balling - Rx Bandits

Chris Sheets, trombone RX Bandits photos: Adam Pfleider

New Orleans. A city, not unlike Chicago, that bleeds the blues and jazz veins and pulsates from the downtown clubs of the French Quarter to the streets that lead Uptown to the levees. For a band from Alaska to encapsulate that sound, and directly support a band on tour from the west coast, who lays claim to those soulful roots as well, New Orleans is not as far away from the home towns of Matt Embree and John Gourley.

Embree and Gourley don’t look the same at all. Embree hovers tall, with long curly hair past his shoulders and dresses in clothes that look like they’ve been worn since the release of his band’s breakthrough record Progress, released seven years ago. Gourley is midsized in stature, and looks even less tall hunched over his mic on stage, and he decks himself out in nice corduroy pants and a buttoned down shirt (sometimes even a suit and jacket).

To be politically incorrect, on the outside, the two men look like a well dressed Eskimo and a relaxed unproclaimed hippie. The two men think very similarly when it comes to their bands, past their outer shells.

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Four years ago, I sat across from Embree in an interview when they were not yet headlining. Now, we are sitting in the Green Room of the Parish at the House of Blues in New Orleans, and nothing seems to have changed for either of us, except that the Marquis now reads RX Bandits top billing.

“I’ve been doing this for ten years, and this is all I’ve ever wanted to do,” he says with a smile on his face, rag wrapped around his sweating head, dripping on the linoleum floor. There’s nothing but a gaping white smile across his face. “You’ll be doing [what you’re doing] too if you want to ten years from now too.”

Embree, and his band the RX Bandits, were formally on a label not well suited for them. At the time, Embree had started a label, Mash Down Babylon, and was releasing records from fellow artists around the southern California area. In October 2006, the band decided to release …And the Battle Begun on MDB with the help of their management through Sargent House. The album incorporated the live recording style found on The Resignation. It also possessed more jam elements that have been a large part of the band’s live shows throughout the years.

Matt Embree - Rx Bandits

Matt Embree, guitar/lead vocalist RX Bandits

RX Bandits’ music has always been hard to pigeon hold in any particular genre. There’s a ska part here, and a reggae part there. Some of the guitar solos and vocal lines are at the heart of the 50’s and 60’s blues movement. By Embree’s taste in music, which only rivals his love of sports (a self proclaimed Phoenix Suns fan), the roots of his band easily parallel their love of live recording.

“Some of my favorite records are Motown records,” he says. “The artists would just get in a room, or the Snake Pit, which is the Motown studio, and they would only have one or two microphones, and they would just go with it. If a guitar misses a line here or there but the vocal line was amazing, then the track stuck. We wanted to make a record that sounded like us as human beings.”

Embree is very about the moment, and says his band relies mainly on visual ideas when recording in the studio. “You put a record out because that’s a musical documentation at a certain time by specific individuals. We do things weird. At lot of times we write songs and we say, ‘this song is supposed to sound like a mountain that gradually climbs in steepness and at the top there is a storm of thunderclouds and pterodactyls swooping around and then on the other side of the mountain there’s a cliff we are all going to fall off.’”

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Gourley’s band, Portugal. The Man, departed from their former label following the release of its sophomore album last year, Church Mouth. Stripped of some of the mechanical effects laced throughout the band’s debut, Waiter: You Vultures!, Church Mouth sounded like it was recorded in a shack out in the swamp. Each riff sounded cut out the blues scale and then each tracks’ composition was formulated around it.

It’s only proper that the band’s next record, coming out September 16, through a partnership with Equal Vision Records and the band’s label and publishing company Approaching AIRBalloons, Censored Colors, is the next evolution in the blues timeline: jazz. Building on what sounds like David Bowie’s Aladdin Sane, Censored Colors, is cut into two parts. The first few tracks, Gourley says, are the colors, there’s an intermission track, and then there’s eight tracks that blend those “colors,” or ideas, together as a long twenty-five minute song. “It’s the closest thing to a concept record we’ve come close to,” he laughs.

From the harmonies and slow paced ragtime keys of the opening “Lay Me Back Down,” the jazz filled, and appropriately titled “New Orleans,” Gourley says the album didn’t even come out the way he planned it, but is very pleased with the outcome.

John Gourley, Alex Neighbors - Portugal. The Man

John Gourley, guitar/lead vocals, and Alex Neighbors, keys/vocals/various other instruments Portugal. The Man

Learning songs from a Beatles’ songbook months before recording, Gourley wanted to steer from the “riff based” back catalog his guitar antics are known for, and move into “chord progression” territory. Pressed for time, and only going into the studio with two songs, he sat and pinned the rest of the album with chords instead of repetitive finger movements. This is nothing new for the band.

“We usually have no plan in the studio, whatever we’re feeling at the time, it just comes out,” he says. “Alex [Neighbors] was more part of this record, and he brought in a lot of harmony and amazing keys. Zach [Carothers] sings more on this record as well.”

Gourley agrees with Embree on letting the music revolve around the moment. Gourley says he usually sits down on acoustic guitar with a song, and then each member builds on top of it.

Portugal. The Man seemed like more of a project in the beginning, Embree believes, where RX Bandits was a band from the start. But since Embree recorded most of the vocals and guitars on Progress – excluding harmonies from former member Rich Balling – Embree understands the position Gourley is in. But where Embree sees Portugal. The Man as Gourley’s project, he sees himself just another piece of the band as a whole. Even though Gourley says he still has the ideas, Portugal. The Man wouldn’t come together without the other members collaborating on top.

“From the beginning it was a band. The idea was I was going to be Portugal. The Man with the Approaching Air Balloons. Zach would be Sergeant Arms with the Approaching Air Balloons, and Wes [Hubbard] would be Dr. Helicopter with the Approaching Air Balloons,” he says. “The idea would be that these guys with solo projects coming together with their ideas. I’m constantly working on music, so its just more of a project I guess.”

Embree also says solo artists are nothing without key players on their records. Whether it was the back-up band for Aretha Franklin or John Brion’s production work with Fiona Apple, both men agree that there are major players contributing to a musical documentation, and both men have those players with them every night on stage and any time in the studio.

Embree said his first impression of Waiter: You Vultures! was quite pleasurable. He also enjoyed the approach Gourley took to recording the record. “When I asked [Gourley] about it, he told me he approached recording it like a hip-hop record.” Embree sounds as if his heart is into the dirt floor recordings, but has an understanding for production. Essentially though, Embree says autotune and ProTools, “puts a bad taste in my mouth.”

Embree and Gourley’s bands both use digital effects in their recording, but Gourley says, “We like to use those effects as a tool, not as a crutch.” Embree shakes his head in agreement, “exactly,” he says.

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Finishing up our talk, Embree is still sweating, and the green room door swings open. It’s a friend of Embree’s who hopped in the van for the long haul to help out. He’s brought a tour poster for Embree to sign for a fan. The fan, at the sold out room, got his nose busted open and glasses broken. Embree asks his friend where the kid is, and he wished to come talk to him. This is the relationship that Embree, and his band, keeps with their fans. Portugal. The Man is in front of the venue packing up. When I leave, they’re loading their equipment and talking to some of the fans from the show.

Embree doesn’t hold an absolute with who’s greater: someone with a large following and playing big shows, or someone with a DIY ethic and smaller club settings. He says some bands that are playing big arenas and headlining large tours never sacrificed their music, and they deserve every bit of fame. But he also feels he has connected more to everyone in the audience earlier in the night than when he played to 25,000 people at Bonaroo’s Music Festival last summer on one of the main stages.

Steve Choi, Matt Embree, Rich Balling - Rx Bandits

L t R: Steve Choi, guitar/keys, Chris Sheets, trombone, Matt Embree, guitar/lead vocals RX Bandits

“I can see the faces in the crowd and I feel attached to them,” he says. “That whole thing that went down on stage tonight was a large entity put together with the crowd. I don’t see how these huge radio bands can connect the same way. That doesn’t make me any better than them though.”

Last Fall when Portugal. The Man was in town, its show was bootlegged. Word of this to the band put a smile on their faces. Bassist Zach Carothers says he thinks the person who recorded it even sent him a copy. There are also tons of RX Bandits bootlegs across the Web. There’s even a fan site with a section dedicated to those live recordings.

With the economy moving the way it is, even Embree admits he’s not striking it big. Gourley says the same thing. Neither one of them are upset about this.

Portugal. The Man has put together Censored Colors on their own bill, and is only looking at partnerships with other record companies for record pressings and distribution.

“Music started out with bands touring and not making any money,” Gourley says with a smile under the mustache of his. “We’re just going to continue to back that mentality that we’ve already had, and run with it.”

Zach Carothers, John Gourley - Portugal. The Man

Zach Carothers, bass/vocals, John Gourley, guitar/lead vocals Portugal.The Man

When asked if Embree is still enjoying what he is doing since the last time I saw him, he laughs, looks up and says, “I think you know the answer to that. I wouldn’t be sitting here right now. I’ve been wanting to do this ever since I picked up a guitar when I was 9.”

On stage, Embree dedicated part of the set to the city’s musical history saying, “Here’s to Louis Armstrong.” For two and half hours that night, that musical mentality was felt from Portugal. The Man’s opener “AKA M80 the Wolf” to RX Bandits’ closing encore “Decrescendo.”

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