As the Snuggle Bear knows, nobody can resist soft sheets, blankets, and towels. But soft-ska? Who the heck thinks that’s a good idea? Apparently, the guys in the Santa Cruz, Calif., reggae-jam/ska-punk crew the Expendables. On their latest release, the cheekily titled Gone Soft, lead guitarist Raul Bianchi and the boys take a bunch of their old songs and give them a “More Than Words” makeover. Surprisingly, what could’ve been a fans-only release ends up being one of the band’s most interesting discs to date.
“We changed a bunch of different stuff so that it would take on a life of its own and become almost a different song,” Bianchi says.
What had initially been conceived as a quick-and-dirty recording session over a couple weekends quickly grew into something much larger. Before the Expendables knew it, three months had passed.
Bianchi says, “We thought of all these different extra things we could do, so it kind of became a little more complicated after that.”
Unplugging opened up the soundstage for a variety of more subtle flavors and effects, whether it was the cocktail-jazz swing of “Corporate Cafeteria” or the understated and delicate picking that amplifies the downcast vibe of the country ode “Minimum Wage.”
Perhaps the finest reimagining occurs on “Let Loose,” which finds a surprisingly wistful thread in the band’s carpe diem anthem (“Tomorrow morning’s going to hurt/ Hope I don’t wake up in the dirt”). The new track slowly and seamlessly builds to a cathartic, exultant orchestral froth that’s over before you know it.
“We thought this is something where you could have this great acoustic build-up at the end and have cellos and violins and add in all these instruments,” he says. “It was really well thought-out as far as which instruments came in at which point and how it builds to the crescendo.”
More of a live band than a studio act, the Expendables have built a career on touring and catering to their grassroots following. They hang their hat on their energetic performances and the good-time atmosphere of their shows, so there was some trepidation about an acoustic project. But everything worked out fine in the end, in part because of how it gives a fresh makeover to their hardened fans’ favorite songs.
“It’s a good way sometimes to make our set more diverse,” Bianchi says. “Being a high-energy live band, it’s hard for us to just say we’re going to play some acoustic now and not suck some of the energy out of the room. But we found that making these hybrid versions of these songs and doing some acoustic and some electric has worked really well live.”
It’s been a long ride for the quartet, which boasts the same lineup it started with 15 years ago. The story goes back further though. Bianchi has known drummer Adam Patterson since first grade, and singer/guitarist Geoff Weers since junior high. As they grew into teens they discovered musical instruments and began to jam together. Soon, they began playing anywhere that would have them, from their parents’ backyard parties to their friends’ basement blowouts.
“It worked for us only because we put all our eggs in one basket. We had nothing else going for us at the time. We were just out of high school. We didn’t have good jobs. We went to college for a while, but we quit and all focused on the band thing,” Bianchi says. “We realized if we were going to make some sort of success from this, this is our one chance to do it, so we dove in headfirst.”
It probably didn’t hurt that they wrote what they knew— surfing, skating, getting high — and were thereby quickly able to plug into the vibrant West Coast hippie-punk beach culture. For a while they even had their own radio show, Locals Only, on the Monterey, Calif., classic rock station, KMBY. Bianchi says. “Santa Cruz is definitely a bubble, and a quirky, unique town, but that surf/skate/stoner culture is what we grew up with. All throughout high school that’s kind of what we identified with.”
Not much has changed, really. The Expendables are still a group of laid-back fellas who love the burn. Possibly the only difference is that now they can get their pot from a dispensary. “It’s definitely affected a lot of our friends who used to make a living selling it,” Bianchi says. “Honestly, it’s been great for us. Our bass player [Ryan DeMars] just finished his last round of chemotherapy. He was fighting non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and he got his card.”
Meanwhile, work continues on a new electric album. But as they work on new music, Bianchi has noticed subtle changes in how they write. “We’re making more of a conscious effort to hear if a song might have a lull or breakdown or an acoustic bridge in the middle that would make it more powerful later on,” he says. “That’s definitely stuff we’re exploring.”
That’s the great thing about soft. It makes hard seem that much harder.