Things looked good in 2017 for local garage-psych-rock band the Redlight District. They had relentlessly toured up and down the West Coast, and even headlined the local stage at the Santa Cruz Music Festival. Then, in September, after a string of EPs, they put out their excellent debut full-length Blackmail.
They booked a few shows after its release, but weren’t prepared to call any of them their official Blackmail release show. One was at the Church House. It was packed. During the show, lead singer Stephan Sams climbed the walls, stood on the top of a fridge and dove into the crowd.
“It was a chaotic show. We were known for that generally,” Sams says. “I remember going off on a tangent in the middle of a song. I would be somewhat incoherent in those days. And just people shouting that they agreed and were ‘the son of a black hole and apocalypse’ or something.”
Not long after, the group unceremoniously broke up. But four years later, the Redlight District is preparing to play again. Though the members currently live in Oregon, Hawaii, Santa Cruz and Salinas, they see this show at Moe’s on Nov. 24 as a new beginning for the group. They hope many more Redlight District shows follow.
Things were not easy for Sams when he initially broke up the band. During that time period, he recalls becoming manic and delusional. He would lash out at band members. He attempted suicide, but was fortunately found by a housemate in time.
“I was unpredictable to most around me,” Sams says. “I think to some degree I received positive reinforcement for my negative attributes as people thought I should be privately as I was onstage. I can’t blame that all on everyone else. I had ignored my own agency over my reality. Years of reading philosophy books, dropping acid, they all kind of just gave me more questions.”
For a while, Sams stopped playing music, and then started playing solo shows. He got medication and therapy for anxiety and depression, and made amends with people he’d hurt.
“I began to realize just how much I contributed to my toxic environment,” Sams says.
He got involved in some other projects, like a blues rock duo with Kage O’ Malley called Oedipus & the Motherfuckers, an experimental band called Microclouds, and he even got back into musical theater, landing his dream role of Frank-N-Furter in The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
Even with different projects going on, Sams felt something was missing without Redlight District. People cared about the group, and the band’s songs had something to say. Over the past four years, he thought a lot about the lyrics on Blackmail. A lot of the songs had started as apocalyptic visions from his dreams, which terrified him. He talked about a rise in riots, protests, manipulations by the media and misinformation.
“I think it was obvious where the country was heading,” Sams says. “I wrote a lot of the songs, strangely, when Barack Obama was president, the end of his first term or the beginning of the second term. I remember thinking, ‘The cultural pendulum is going to swing really hard the other way. People are not going to take this lying down, you know, that we have our first president of color.’ I knew it was coming.”
Last year, he met up with keyboardist Dan Leitner at the Red Room and discussed putting the band back together. Leitner agreed, and the other members were on board, too.
Sams’ attitude about music and Redlight District has changed. He wants the group to contribute something positive to the world, bring joy and have people think constructively about how to fix society—not wallow in doom and gloom. Also, they still haven’t officially held their Blackmail release show, which is long overdue. Sams says it will hopefully come sometime soon.
“I just wanted to contribute to awareness, to contribute to healing, as opposed to contribute to destruction, because I was very mad. I wrote a lot about destruction. But at this point, I want it to be constructive,” Sams says, adding that he is very grateful to be able to be doing Redlight District again. “I cried when I saw Bohemian Rhapsody at the thought of having another chance. And now it’s here.”
Redlight District will play at 8:30pm on Wednesday, Nov. 24, at Moe’s Alley, 1535 Commercial Way, Santa Cruz. $12/adv, $15/door. (831) 479-1854.