On the one hand, Rishi Bahl is finishing his Ph.D. in business and communications, working on a dissertation that deals with phenomenology and pop music. On the other, he's part of a pop-punk trio that's been around since he and his bandmates were 18 — and that carries with it some of the baggage you might expect.
"I'm in a pop-punk band called The SpacePimps!" Bahl says with a laugh. "What can you do? You have to own it. But in a humble way. You can't be surprised when someone says, ‘You're in a band called The SpacePimps!' Of course we are!"
That's not to say he'd trade it for anything else. And he's got a certain self-awareness to go along with the job. Take, for example, the fact that the Pittsburgh-based trio's new record is called Eternal Boy. It is, for the most part, not really intellectual stuff — more like songs about girls, and a bit of nostalgia, with names like "Katie" and "Party Foul."
"Most of the time, pop punk equals immature and juvenile," Bahl says. "But we've sort of ascribed education as being really important." He notes that his two bandmates are still working on their advanced schooling as well, one in chiropractic practice and one in education. "I think it intertwines — I think it allows us to do things smartly."
You might say they're doing some things right: The SpacePimps — Bahl plays guitar and sings, with Joe Harbulak on bass and Jared Rosco on drums — recently returned from their second tour of China, something very few bands (even the ones that make it to Japan) can say they'll ever do. The story goes that the band, which came up in the local pop-punk scene playing shows with groups like Punchline, got a deal with Japanese label Kick Rock through the magic of Myspace in 2007, then were contacted by a Chinese label in 2011.
"We had the highs and lows of our career [in China]," Bahl explains. "We played in front of 20,000 people at a music festival, which might be the most people we ever play for. But we were dogging it, too. We don't have a bus, so we're flying domestically, we're taking trains domestically, and the transit system — it's China. It's high-tech, but it's completely poverty-stricken in every sense. You can't do a tour bus in China, because everything's too far apart."
That wasn't the only novelty.
"We did a press conference there — backdrop and everything, microphones and everything. It makes no sense to us. It's hard to even describe without sounding like you're lying about it."
Back home, the band has its followers, but not quite the same level of attention. To an extent, Bahl says, it's strategic: The SpacePimps don't play Pittsburgh every other week, because they'd prefer to play a few big shows a year. It's part of that business sense Bahl brings with him from school.
"If I'm a person who's going to come see a band, I'm not going to go see them if I know they're going to play the next month," he explains. "So we try to do three shows a year in Pittsburgh, and if we get support for a national, or a festival or whatever, we'll do that. That's completely intentional. From there, we branch out and try to do seven more markets.
"But Pittsburgh is always our home, and we always come back. When you come back and play for 300 to 500 people at home, it's better than anything — it's better than China."
Back in the U.S.A., The SpacePimps release their own music and work largely in a DIY fashion. "I attribute Punchline's work ethic with our entry into the scene," Bahl says. "We copied them verbatim. They made it normal for you to have to headline your hometown and bring 400 people."
Eternal Boy is The Spacepimps' fourth full-length. (There have been a few EPs and singles thrown in as well.) Some things might be a little different — "I used to write songs about girls," Bahl says; "Now I write more about getting old." But both the title and the classic, simple pop-punk tunes point to the band's overall goals — moving forward, but not forgetting what made yesterday good.
"My favorite bands are the bands that didn't abandon what they did before, but — I hate the word ‘maturing,' but they've added new elements, they re-invent why you liked them to begin with," says Bahl. "That's what we try to do. I'm never going to abandon pop punk, I think. I still listen to it every day of my life. I think that we hold it down, but — we added a string section on this new record, we added some synth parts. We try to add new elements, but I never want to abandon what might have made someone like us a year ago."