Chris Tsagakis: Gearing Up

(April 2011 Issue)

Chris Tsagakis ( RX Bandits drummer) photographed in Pomona at the Glass House for Modern Drummer on 04/23/10

More with RX Bandits’ remarkable sticksman—profiled in April’s Gearing Up column—who smoothly covers the broad ground between So-Cal ska and blazing prog rock.

by Corrado Rizzi

It’s safe to say that you will never see RX Bandits drummer Chris Tsagakis play a song live the same way twice. Some of his parts certainly remain constant—his integral grooves, his cues to shift into a different section of a song. But, as Tsagakis tells MD, “I could be in the middle of the tour and hear a drummer or record that I’ve never heard before, and it will influence me to try something new. I kind of leave it open, so that as I grow as a drummer I just change up the fills. Whatever feels good at the moment, you know”?

In the mid-’90s, Southern California was a breeding ground for ska and the bands that pushed the genre into the mainstream. Tsagakis and his band have moved far from their Orange County beginnings over the course of half a dozen full-length albums, including their latest masterwork, Mandala. “We were pretty ska at first,” Chris says, “and we played with a lot of ska bands when the ska scene was pretty big. As we grew we tried to get out of that; we wanted to move on and be something different—but at the same time we didn’t want to just leave all of our fans behind.”

Tsagakis admits RX Bandits struggled with climbing out of the scene that birthed them, while trying to keep their fans happy. “It was a slow struggle to satisfy our inner musicians but also give our fans what they wanted to hear,” he says. “It was kind of unconscious in that we didn’t necessarily plan for it to grow in the way that it did. But we definitely had a feeling inside of us that we wanted to be something different—you know, change it up.” Advertisement

RX Bandits are, in essence, a band full of drummers. This is perhaps the main reason why so many of their songs are rhythmically centered and incorporate a tribal feel in the drum parts. Tsagakis admits that he is fortunate to be in a band where the drums are placed on just as high a pedestal as the guitars and other instruments. “I’ve been pretty lucky to be in band that really wants the drums to be treated as importantly as the other instruments, and not just be a rhythm keeper,” he says. “I’m constantly coming up with new ideas, and everybody is always really open to anything that I come up with.”

Tsagakis and his guitar-playing brother learned the drums by playing along to Metallica and Megadeth tunes. Formal training didn’t stick with Tsagakis, even if his teacher happened to be a legend whose sons went on to be future drum stars. “I very much dropped the ball in high school,” Chris says. “Chuck Wackerman was our band teacher at La Salle High School, and he’s the father of Chad, Brooks, and John Wackerman, who’ve played with Suicidal Tendencies and Zappa and all that. He was a pretty amazing band teacher, but at the time I didn’t want to go for anything structured. Later I wished I’d taken some free lessons from a drumming master, like I could have.”

When Tsagakis first met up with RX Bandits around 1996, he auditioned to play trumpet. But the absence of the group’s original drummer at a practice led to his filling the throne—for good. (Proof that it helps to know more than one instrument!) Tsagakis has since developed an inimitable style. His warm, organic-sounding drum parts are always at the center of the action in RX Bandits songs, whether he’s playing a thunderous tribal rhythm on the toms or keeping a tight hi-hat/snare pattern during the band’s more ambient moments. “You can tweak a lot of other instruments,” Chris says, “but drums need to have that organic sound.” Advertisement

So where do the continually progressing Tsagakis and his band go from here? “The same direction we’ve been going,” the drummer says. “We just want to keep experimenting, doing different stuff, and coming up with different things.”