Banditos' 2015 self-titled debut album, released on Bloodshot Records, was a hell of a lot of fun. With over 12 tracks produced by Andrija Tokic (Alabama Shakes), the sextet rocks like the best Friday night bar band ever ("Can't Get Away"), lays out greasy roadhouse riffs like a grizzled juke joint outfit ("The Breeze"), moans like heartbroken honky-tonkers ("Blue Mosey #2"), and testifies like a '60s soul revue ("No Good"). And singer Mary Beth Richardson's voice was a stunning revelation on the record; reverberating with passion, heartache, and pure power, she was more like a force of nature than a vocalist.
Banditos is incredibly accomplished for a debut album, and perhaps part of the reason for that is that the band recorded it twice. "The first time around, we recorded the album on our own," says Richardson, who shares lead vocals with guitarist Corey Parsons and banjo player Stephen Pierce. "Then we got signed to Bloodshot and went back into the studio and re-recorded it, added some new songs, and then released it. So it was pretty curated for it to be people's first look at us."
On the back of heavy touring and critical praise from Paste magazine, the A.V. Club, Chicago Tribune, and others, the band generated enough attention to justify the hard work, and they moved forward with plans for their second album. The only question was, with a year jam-packed with tour dates, how were they going to write and record it?
Turns out that's what days off are for.
"Any time we had off, we just kind of buckled down," Richardson says. "We'd spend three days in a row writing, because that was kind of the limit between being excited and being burned out after eight to 12 hours of sitting in a room writing together. Whatever ideas we had, we'd run them through again and again, and if they didn't work we'd just come back later and look at them; it was a good way to do it."
Essentially, over the course of the last two years, Banditos have been creating Visionland, their new album, in bits and pieces. "It was a lot of work in a little bit of time, spread out over a long period of time," she says. "It was difficult trying to have a cohesive effort when it's spread out over that long."
But Visionland is in fact cohesive, in many ways more than their debut. The stylistic sprawl of the first album has expanded to include a new sense of experimentation and a decidedly darker, more menacing propulsion. The opening track, "Fine Fine Day," opens with a swirl of distorted guitar rumblings before the band settles into a locomotive sense of velocity and control that's both irresistible and ominous.
It's the tightest and most confident the Banditos have ever sounded, and the rest of the album dips into dreamy mid-temp rock ("Strange Heart"), pure psychedelia (the title track), and stripped-down R&B balladry ("Healin' Slow") without a misstep.
And whether or not it gets the same reaction their debut did, above all, Richardson says it's an album the band would want to listen to.
"The sophomore album is make-or-break for a lot of bands," she says. "There's a lot of pressure. But what we did was try to make it sound as much like how we felt at the moment as possible. We decided 'Fuck it all; if nobody likes it, we're still going to like it.' We're not trying to cater to anyone; we want to make an album we can play and not get tired of it."
The band made the decision early on that they wanted to work with a different producer on their second record, and Israel Nash fit the bill when he approached them one night after a show with an offer they couldn't refuse.
"Israel told us he'd just built a new studio and asked if we wanted to record in it," Richardson says. "And we said, 'Actually, we're fishing for studios to record our next album right now.' We adored working with Andrija, but we wanted to change it up. There's a stark difference between the two albums and we wanted that. We wanted it to be a new thing."
And in fact Visionland was such a new thing that some of the songs didn't exist when they went into the studio. "It goes from songs we've been playing for years to songs that were composed and laid down in the last two days of recording," Richardson says with a laugh. "I don't know if I should tell you which is which or if I should let people guess."
The album has already drawn critical praise from sites like American Songwriter and Popmatters, but Richardson says she tries not to pay attention to the accolades. "I love that the fans accept it, but I'm always learning and expanding and trying to do something better than the last time," she says. "I don't want to be like, 'I'm the best shit ever,' because I don't want to repeat myself for the rest of my career."