Despite signing a self-mocked major label deal in the post-grunge ‘90s, San Diego-based singer-guitarist John Reis has stubbornly maintained his cherished do-it-yourself integrity. A reluctant guiding light rebirthing ‘emotional hardcore’ from the ashes of ‘80s DC trailblazers Fugazi, Reis piloted seminal combo, Drive Like Jehu, while contemporaneously commencing increasingly accessible faux-soul aggro-garage legions, Rocket From The Crypt. Some time thereafter, he prudently struck up dazzling ancillary outfit, Hot Snakes, an arguably more consistently tight collective, while keeping unheralded troupe, The Sultans, inconspicuously pertinent ‘til the demise of all the above-mentioned acts. Hitherto, the 21-year-old entrepreneur had dissolved formative band, Pitchfork, during 1990.
Although childhood ‘70s idols included Alice Cooper and Kiss (faddishly phantasmal costumed acts whose stage shows ruled), Reis soon caught onto renowned British blues-rock cadres Led Zeppelin and Groundhogs through a friend’s brother.
Known best as Speedo in super-indie assemblage, Rocket From The Crypt, the prolific boss man also runs boutique label, Swami Records (homing indie staples Beehive & the Barracudas, Demolition Doll Rods, and Penetrators). Recently, he reconvened recording with versatile sundowners, the Night Marchers (pictured above).
“It’s been educational. Our local scene had camaraderie,” he affirms. “The environment in California’s lazy, not apathetic. We won’t leave our flip-flops ‘til we’re guaranteed a good time. So it’s semi-numb. But San Diego’s surprisingly conservative. You have ‘the man’ to contend with. Influential Mexican culture’s hidden. It’s the land of mini-malls and the government’s eager to cover up Mexican history not deemed culturally acceptable.”
While Rocket From the Crypt employed a raw “back-to-basics ethic,” recapturing the muscular mangled mayhem of Detroit legends, the MC5, and redirecting the savory melodic impulse of L.A. provocateurs, Social Distortion, Drive Like Jehu toiled in spellbindingly cataclysmic guitar fury. Their epochal self-titled ’91 debut indisputably flaunted skull-shattering intensity as Reis and mutual partner Rick Froberg’s arpeggio axe duels spun stratospherically out of control, flailing skyward above busily rudimentary rhythmic patterns bassist Mike Kennedy and drummer Mark Trombino unfurled. A certain lubricated spontaneity creeps into its dense sludgy grind and discordant catacombs. Bitterly, the disc itself reads ‘CD’s really fucking blow.’
Rebuking the cold, sterile sound carrier, Reis rails, “Compact discs are controversial in many ways. It was the future wave we were forced to buy into it, less sonically, visually, and economically feasible – reeking of labels making more money because they were cheaper to make than vinyl. Everyone swallowed the purple Kool-Aid.”
On gear-jamming ’94 set, Yank Crime, Drive Like Jehu’s unyielding emphatic urgency surges, resulting in crustier unbridled exhortations filled with wildly ululating banshee yelps, dissonantly roughhewn jolts, and distended extemporaneous mantras.
“We got into a fierce democracy by then. Everyone put two cents in. Dischord stuff was a big influence. I loved Teen Idles, Minor Threat,” Reis admits, before downplaying his role in prefiguring ‘emo’ bellwethers Jawbreaker, Samiam, and Promise Ring. “We were apart from them. We’d never tag ourselves as ‘emotional hardcore.’ Neither would those bands. We were part of a loose group of piers influencing each other. As our music progressed, we kept in touch with what was happening, liking Beefeater, Rites Of Spring, and Dag Nasty. Fugazi’s probably the best live band I’ve seen, always exciting to check out and draw inspiration from.”
Synchronously, Reis’ less combative brainchild, Rocket From The Crypt (pictured in black & white), began taking form, delivering unheralded entrée, Paint As A Fragrance (on defunct local label, Cargo), before mighty Interscope scooped ‘em up for ‘94s scorching breakthrough, Circa Now! Recorded, according to liner notes, during martial lockdown due to racially motivated Rodney King riots, its catchy post-hardcore delineation’s had toughened resolve similar to the underclass protesters threatening the L.A. studio they inhabited. Damning straight-up rocker, “Short Lip Fuser,” chanted pub-crawler waltz, “Ditch Digger,” and blues-grooved lure, “Hippy Dippy Do,” find solace amongst blistering Husker Du-like growler, “Dollar.” Sporting an apropos slick-back pompadour, Reis rendered his clamorous version of guileless pre-Beatles rock n’ roll regalia.
By compressing grittier arrangements, ‘95s ghoulishly vibrant celebration, Scream, Dracula, Scream!, raged forth with Apollo 9’s blaring sax protruding against assertively trad-minded guitarists Reis and Andy Stamets, bombastic bassist Pete Reichert, and kit batterer, Atom Willard. Panicked rampage, “On A Rope,” uncannily electrified the responsive second stanza of Al Hirt’s titillating instrumental “Java.” A harbinger for future Crypt kicking endeavors, infectious jubilee, “Used,” discharged swashbuckling carnivalesque froth redolent of Springsteen’s E Street Band.
“Scream has a loose vibe – prominent horns,” Reis recalls. “Our debut’s first batch of songs were written, recorded in a few days. That was cool fun. For the second, there was a time gap. We’d evolved threefold, toured a lot, and adapted our sound. We found new ways to express ourselves sonically. By Scream, we’d digested, regurgitated, and incorporated many things deemed cool. Ultimately, you wanna make people feel the way you feel creating music you like.”
‘98s snazzy RFTC unveiled a vintage stripped-down dancehall assault, retaining an archetypal Fleshtones garage-soul exuberance highlighting snappy opener, “Eye On You,” raunchy horn-fueled R & B flank, “Break It Up” (where Reis’ garbled hurl is a dead ringer for Heat Treatment-era Graham Parker), and brassy makeup-applied sing-along, “Lipstick.” Trumpeter JC2000 makes his presence felt.
Assigned to bustling indie, Vagrant Records, ‘01s Group Sounds displayed Reis’ strongest lung bursting shouts and brought aboard drummer Ruby Mars. “Straight American Slave” charges out of the gate like a cyclone, setting the pace for the remainder and taking an unexpected sociopolitical stance.
“It’s a look at America’s mainstream acceptance of homosexuals being on television and seen as jesters – good to laugh at and entertaining to watch – but there’s still a contradictory homophobia,” Reis submits.
‘02s flashy departure, Live From Camp X-Ray, dispenses sarcastic deviancy, garnering tremendous high-energy neo-psych sendoff, “Too Many Balls,” and razor sharp frenzy, “Outsider,” a snarled fuckoff to trendy fiends.
Reis claims, “As a whole, we felt happy with what we did. X-Ray had a real dry ‘70s punk production – no frills, dead sounding. We weren’t flavor of the month, but wanted acceptance. We had to be who we were. Lyrically, we tried to stylize and mold ourselves to the Saints and Boys.”
Which brings us to R.I.P., an uplifting farewell capturing a great American band in their element at Westin Hotel Ballroom, Halloween ’05. Reis enters the stage in a coffin donning a blood-stained shirt as horns pipe out initiating licks to Screamin’ Jay Hawkins voodoo brood, “I Put A Spell On You.” The crazed “Get Down,” in particular, anxiously explodes full-throttle. Terse rockabilly boogies, camouflaged in studio interpretations, copiously benefit in this sweaty environment.
“I still get big incentive from (satirical Chicano Elvis impersonator) El Vez,” Reis avows. “The way he performs, his resourcefulness, and how he makes a shoestring budget look like a million bucks. He mixes fun with social relevance and is fulfilling on many levels – a super-cool guide dedicated to the art of putting on a show. When punk started, it was the reactionary antithesis to arena rock bullshit – the popes of rock people prayed to and bowed to with lighters raised and girls flashing tits. Punk was about everyone being part of the show on an approachable grassroots level. To have El Vez find medium-ground, elevate it, and not lose sincerity is awesome.”
Hot Snakes reunites Reis with Pitchfork/ Drive Like Jehu guitarist Rick Froberg, introducing thunderous drummer Jason Kourkounis (Delta 72/ Burning Brides) and adept bassist Gar Wood. DC hardcore bastions tenaciously inform ‘00s primal Automatic Midnight more so than ‘02s fiery follow-up Suicide Invoice, but both totally shred, evidenced by soaring whirligig “My Story Boy,” untamed yammering grumble “No Hands” and the latter’s jacked-up Wipers-ripped entirety.
“I do ape the down-stroke, cleaner textures, and a certain velocity from the Wipers,” Reis says of guru Greg Sage’s cult crew.
Meanwhile, super side project, the Sultans (with drummer Tony Di Prima and Reis’ younger brother, Dean, on bass), dropped overlooked relentless barrage, Shipwrecked, in ’04.
But Reis’ meritorious story doesn’t end there. Re-gathering Kourkounis and Wood while saddling ripened bassist Thomas Kitsos, he inaugurated the Night Marchers in 2007. Boasting well-rounded hard rock vehemence ascertained from Hot Snakes, See You In Magic (enkindling the Hawaiian phenomenon of ancient warriors reappearing as sacred spirits) unleashes scrappy blues scrums, recombinant psychobilly, and irascible cow-punk scamper, “Branded.” Steely-eyed sneer, “You’ve Got Nerve,” sung in a throaty whiskey-stained baritone, mannerly debunks a jilting ex.
“It’s a new band, new outlook, new things going on, but same guitar sound, fingers, vocal chords. Some things you can’t escape,” Reis smirks. “It sounds like all my bands rolled into one. In the past, they were compartmentalized with different casts who’d take songs and put trademark sounds together. Obviously, I’m only in one band now. We’re tackling material, realizing what can be done.”
At times, See You In Magic seems nostalgic. Scrabbled basher “In Dead Sleep” and rabid devotional pledge “I Wanna Deadbeat You” snatch syncopated riffs from Chuck Berry. Rousing prelude, “Closed For Inventory,” assuredly loots Dez Cadena’s hoarse Black Flag howl.
“Black Flag’s Damaged made a profound impact – half-joke, half-terrifying – made by criminally insane creeps. They were like a favorite horror movie,” he says.
Besides running Swami Records in spare time, Reis is fulltime part owner of San Diego joint, Baby Pink Elephant.
“It’s a classic dark lounge with strong cheap drinks served by capable bartenders. Get lubricated and lost in the dusky velvet booth,” remarks Reis.
So life goes on for the cocksure bard. “World domination is eminent. I’ll ride that to the bank. Night Marchers are decapitating people with fresh sounds.”