RULE NUMBER ONE: If you have the word "Rock" in the name of your band, you'd better fucking be able to. That was the second thing I said about Rocket from the Crypt when I first heard of the band back in '91. The first thing I thought - ironically enough - was why somebody would misappropriate the moniker from the first incarnation for Pere Ubu (which was called Rocket From The Tombs). But in very short order, my hang-ups were left aside as I was eating my words as I put Rocket's first LP Paint As A Fragrance (Cargo) on the turntable during my radio shift. My jaw dropped.
Since that introduction to the band almost ten years ago, I have become widely familiar with the works of the man behind Rocket - John Reis. In the 80's, John started off in any one of a number of different hardcore bands in his home of San Diego, later forming Pitchfork before going on to pull double duty in two bands - Rocket from the Crypt and Drive Like Jehu.
The original idea was for John to flip back and forth between the two bands which was done successfully until about 1994 when (from what I gather) John's interest in Rocket grew too big for Jehu to take a back seat or vice versa. Since then, Rocket has released countless records, toured constantly and - for a little while - almost entertained the notion of (at least in the UK) becoming the next Nirvana.
What is most infectious with John (aka Speedo) is his wide-eyed, almost childlike, love of rock music. A love which has spawned two notable records in recent months. First is the Back Off Cupids whose first (and probably only) full length CD has just seen the light of day on Drunken Fish, and can best be described as John's 4-track home recording project from '94. Second is the debut release by Hot Snakes (whose live incarnation features Rick from Jehu, Jason from the Delta 72 and Gar from Tanner) entitled Automatic Midnight on John's newly formed label Swami.
When I caught wind of Hot Snakes actually playing some shows, I bought a plane ticket and went to see them play in Philadelphia and DC this past April. Subsequently, I figured that it was about time for me to sit down with John and conduct the official Chunklet interview to find out answers to all of the questions I've always been curious to have him answer. I'm not entirely sure whether John's demeanor - warm, frank, talkative with a permanently joyful smirk on his face - comes across accurately in the following pages, but allow me to say that it would've been as easy to print another 20 pages of this interview, but was able to whittle it down to seven.
Are you a record collector?
No, definitely not...
Not at all?
Well, I think I have lots of records, but then I go to other people's houses, and their collections totally dwarf mine. I'm not a collector. I'm psyched to have something on cassette if I really want it. I don't necessarily have to have the original pressing on blue wax. I'm not like that at all. I buy lots of CDs to tell you the truth, because if you want to find the final version you have to find the original, which has probably been out of print for like twenty or thirty years. It's just finding that stuff is really hard. When you find it, it's cool, but if you find it, it's going to be expensive. A lot of times I just want the music, so I'm not a record collector, no. I love music, I'm always buying records, and stuff like that, but it's definitely not from a completest kind of mentality. It's more of just wanting to get cool stuff.
Has anything with any of your bands ever pandered to the record collector market?
Well, when we first started, like with any band, not a lot of people know who you are. Therefore, the amount of records that you press is reflective of the amount you think you can sell. Then when those are gone, you have a scenario where there's a demand for that out-of-print release. It's kind of weird. It's just what happens: you start a band, you make two to three thousand copies of a seven inch, you take a year to get rid of them all, but once they are gone, a year after that you see them sold for lots of money. I don't think we do anything for record collectors, but I think we do cool stuff with packaging. But that's not just for record collectors. It's fun to get records that have been constructed and put together creatively. It's more of a mentality of the way we make music and package our records. The whole presentation of Rocket is from a mind set where it's just like doing things the way we appreciate when other bands do it. Maybe we will end up selling a couple of extra copies because someone is going to buy two copies, one that they are going to cut and one that they are just going to file away. But that's not why it was done. That's pretty obvious it wasn't done for those reasons.
But then why does it seem like everything varies a little, like the singles compilations. It seems like there's different remixes, everything sounds just a hair different. Is that intentional?
Because a lot of times I don't have the actual version that was used, or maybe I have a different mix that no one has heard. It's more or less just stuff that hasn't come out before; we've never been a band that does remixes or remixed stuff. That's never been anything that's really appealed to us, but it is neat to have different versions. We got a lot of material. We got a lot of songs. We write tons of songs that no one's even heard, and they're not all good, or even great, or even mediocre. Some of them are pretty bad, but a lot of them find their way somewhere just because it seems like we put out so much stuff. It's fun to record, it's fun to put out records. That's why I think that we tend to be characterized as prolific. Why are we prolific? Because we like to do this and we do it often? That's not prolific.
It seemed like Jehu wasn't that way...
Well, it took a lot longer to write Jehu songs. The second Jehu record took a long time to write. It took a lot of the fun out of it for everyone because it was completely doused in tedium just trying to get the songs together. The first record wasn't like that at all.
How would you characterize your leadership style in the bands? Would you say that you're like a benevolent dictator, or a kind of Robin Hood, all for one, one for all. You're the leader of the merry men...
I don't know. I think it's kind of changed over the years. I think if anything, things within Rocket have gotten more democratic over the years. All the things I wanted to achieve right off the bat were achieved. The initial goal was starting a band, going on tour, putting out a record. But that was happening quick, and after it was just like "oh shit, what are we going to do next?" That's a question you probably better ask somebody else, just because you aren't going to hear the truth out of me because I'm too close to the matter.
The only reason I say this is because there's always something in either the records or something that it always comes out that you're the mouthpiece for the band.
A lot of the guys don't feel comfortable doing that kind of stuff, because they don't feel very good at it or they don't have really anything to say or they like the way I say it better. A lot of times that happens, and I think a lot of the ideas are mine, and a lot of the initial bursts of enthusiasm seem to come from me throwing out a bunch of ideas. Everyone seems to go from there. But yeah, you'd probably be better off asking someone else. And sometimes when Rocket plays, I get really emotional over the stupid little fuck-ups. It's just weird. You have so much adrenaline running through you, and you have so many things running through your head and underneath it all. All I really want is just to be the best. I just want to be really fucking shit hot on fire. And everybody in the band wants that. But sometimes I just get too wrapped up in wanting things to be a certain way that I've had to take a step back. Because in a band, that's all about having fun. It's no fun having someone whipping you over the back because you flubbed a little part here or there. So I think within like the last year, year and a half, I've gotten a better grasp over what my role in the band is. The band has been around for ten years. Ten years!
That's an awesome feat. How would you characterize your time when you're not recording or on the road?
It's just writing songs, it's weird. Rocket from the Crypt takes up every fucking waking minute of my day. I think about it all the time, and I'm constantly being inspired by things that I want to bring into the band, trying to pull certain things into the mix. It's definitely a full-time endeavor. I shouldn't use the word "job," because it's not a job although sometimes it does pay enough to pay the rent. I think the reason why the band has been able to stay together this long is because we all realize that if being in a band is your job, and you're doing it for those reasons alone, then you're really not going to be able to do it for very long. You've got to just love to do it. I'm more blown away by bands like Dead Moon or The Lazy Cowgirls who are lifers. And that's the way I want to be seen as - just a life-long rock-n-roll guy, as someone who is just going to do it even if there's four people coming out, and has got to figure out ways to still be able to do it because I have to do it because that's what I do.
I'm going to come back to that in a second, but what was the flash point for you?
Like in wanting to be in specifically punk rock or music or...
Was it a record? Was it a moment in time at a club? Was it the first time you picked up a guitar?
It's really weird because I always thought I wanted to be a herpetologist, but I always played music. I used to like to sit with a chopstick looking at my wall blasting classical music when I was a little kid, pretending to conduct something. Music has always really completely been so important with everything I did. In the car as a kid blasting the fucking AM radio, everything just had to be loud, and intense. It seemed like I got a lot out of it at a really young age, and it was never a decision to play music. It was never: "I'm going to play music," it always seemed like something I should be doing. But specifically for the guitar? Guitar is rock and roll, and I want to play rock and roll. I should just play rock and roll. I got a Sears guitar for Christmas in the sixth grade and that was it. Didn't take any lessons for a long time and just kind of taught myself. Later I took some lessons, only to find out that the lessons were just bullshit. Just terrible. But I wish I could say that there's been moments that the whole like, wanting to start a band and play was definitely, like, I was already playing guitar, but having a band like the Batallion of Saints, that were from San Diego and seeing them play with whoever. And Negative Approach were in town and they played with them and the English bands like GBH and Discharge were really into Batallion of Saints. They would wear their shirts, and had stickers and were really respected within that more Brit punk thing, and they would play with all these bands and blow everyone off the stage. It was really cool to have this thing from San Diego. I was biased too, because these were the hometown heroes. They were better than everyone they played with. Seeing them was fully realizing that I wanted to be in a punk band. Same thing with Black Flag. It's just different for everybody, but seeing even the Dead Kennedys. They were the weirdest, most fucked-up thing I've ever heard and that was just so exciting. I don't mean to get nostalgic, but you know those tape recorders where the buttons are all on the side, and the speakers on that side? I would be playing Black Flag on one of those, and playing it quiet because I felt like if other people heard it, they'd like call the cops on me. That's how underground and taboo this stuff was. I always felt just like there was something mystical about it, yet liberating. It was like, man, I want to be crazy just like this guy.
Are you parents supportive of you?
Oh yeah, they are ridiculously supportive of me to the point where they probably shouldn'tbe so supportive of me. They bought me my first guitar.
What are they doing in San Diego?
My dad is a retired tuna fisherman who, after I was two or three, got into real estate. He does property management and real estate broker. My mom works with him in the business [and] does interior design as well.
Getting back to what I was talking about Rocket and the prodigiousness of the band. It seems like either there is a genuine love, or you just can't find enough people to play with. From my count I can think of four groups that you've either released or have been you for the most part. How do you explain it? Do you just have that many ideas that you need to commit?
I don't know. I don't think so. I just like to play. When I like popsicles, I eat a fucking bag of popsicles and buy another bag and eat 'em. And when I play music, I fucking stay up all night and write songs and record 'em and play 'em. And when I'm in a band, I go out and tour the fucking country 400 days a year. I just do things full-on. That's the way I am with everything. I just do things full-on. And I think that's why [Hot Snakes] even exists, because I was inspired to do something that I felt was different enough than Rocket. I wanted to play with Jason [Kourkounis from the Delta 72]. It was like, put this song on tape, and Rick [Froberg, Hot Snakes, formerly of Drive Like Jehu] came aboard and it was just like, let's do it. Let's fucking do it. Let's not have this thing be only in existence in cyberspace. It's not so much that I feel like everything I do is sacred, and needs to be put to tape and shared with the world. It's just that I like to do it, and I fucking go for it. If no one buys the fucking record, it's not going to break my heart. [pause] But it will break my heart if they compare anything I do with Korn.
[laughs] I remember the one show in Atlanta you actually singled out that anybody wearing a Korn t-shirt was a fucking asshole.
I don't know why I hate them so much, but they make me so mad.
Is it Korn as a band, or that entire asshole rock genre?
It's the Korn generation.
Why is that?
Because they look stupid, they like fucking lame music, and they are a bunch of fucking assholes. I don't like posing either, and they are posers. It's all macho bullshit. It's not heavy, it's not manly, it's all basically going on the set of some Western where all the buildings look neat, and you go behind them and there's nothing there.
This is entirely off the subject, but that's what top 40 radio is. It's just garbage. It's just a face, some beats, get a good A&R publicist shyster person behind them. That's just top 40 in general.
So? That doesn't mean that I can't hate it. That doesn't mean that I can't still despise that whole side of the music business. It's good for me to hate that. It makes me want to play good music. It keeps me in check.
Do you still find that you love new music?
Yeah, totally. I thought that band The Rapture the other night [who opened for Hot Snakes in Philadelphia] were amazing. I don't know if you dug them at all, but I thought they were great. Quintron, Blonde Redhead...I like 'em. That what I like I champion, and that what I don't like, I spit on and kick. I am very polar.
Not to sound dismal, but in say five, ten, twenty years, when the bones start to creak, and you can't rock anymore, what do you think you'll do?
I am who I am. What I will be then is something different than what I am now probably. So who knows?
Fugazi seems to be getting along pretty good. Bob Mould seems to be getting around pretty good.
Nah, I don't think so. We were just talking about Husker Du today. I will go on record saying that I really didn't think they were that great of a band, totally overrated. They kind of got shot down by a couple of the other people who thought Metal Circus was just a masterpiece. I was always more of a Replacements, Soul Asylum guy as far as Minneapolis went. I think Squirrel Bait blew all of them away.
They were a pretty singular moment for me, too.
Yeah, I put on Skag Heaven, and it puts me right back in high school. I remember we were talking once about Honor Role and how you used to write Pen [Rollings, Honor Role guitarist, later went on to form Butterglove and Breadwinner] and had a correspondence with him.
Did you ever do that with Squirrel Bait?
No, I never wrote them a letter.
What were other bands you did that with?
Dag Nasty. I wrote Brian Baker [Dag Nasty guitarist] a letter because I wanted to buy a guitar amp and I didn't have very much money. I didn't want to make a wrong purchase, and I really like the sounds on their first record. I wanted to get something like that. I wrote him a letter, enclosed a pencil and a self-addressed stamp envelope and mailed the letter and he wrote me back in like a month. He invited me to the show and let me play on his gear before the show and it was completely cool. He gave me a bunch of suggestions. You always hear all these stories about what a dick he is and everything, and he very well may be, but he was very nice to me and totally pointed me in the right direction. He was really nice to do that. I went out and got a Marshall the next week. Before then, I was playing on a Randall [which was] not a good choice on my behalf. There should be something for punkers out there who want to buy gear, because you get ripped off when you're a kid because you don't know what you're doing. You bust your ass for a paper route or delivering pizzas, and you just drop down what you can afford instead of saving a couple hundred more bucks and getting something you aren't going to hate in a week.
What's it like recording other bands that aren't yours?
I fully control it. I'm not a control freak, but I just think I always know the best. I always feel that my tastes are better than other people's. So when I'm recording a band, and I have ideas, I sometimes take an old-school approach to production, where it's like "you should put this part in" or "don't do the bridge there, go do the verse again and tag the bridge after the second chorus." Maybe I start suggesting things that bands aren't comfortable with because they're like "hey, can't you just press play and record and get good punchy-warm sounds for me?" I'm like "Fuck the sounds, let's get a good song!" That's where I'm coming from. Who cares if its heavy? Heavy isn't shit if you don't got a good song. Some of my favorite songs are just the most crudely recorded things. So I like to work with bands that are totally into that or collaborating on that level. The last thing I did was this band called the Cowpers [from Japan], and that was really fun because that was one of those times where I was totally responsible for a lot of things, and they said "go ahead, go for it." But a lot of other stuff I've done, when you have three days to do a record, it doesn't matter what kind of producer approach you take, three days ain't shit. You just go in, and basically do what you can do. It's not enough time to really leave any kind of imprint when you are working on the punk rock budget. You are just trying to do it as cheap as possible, and you take more of a straight-ahead approach: "Let's just do the songs and then we'll go from there." I really dig a lot of bands that are being known as using the studio as another instrument. Royal Trux immediately comes to mind. I think their records are just so fun to listen to, but it all comes back to the fact that they have good songs. They have really great songs. I like a lot of stuff that might be similar to that, but a lot of times recording becomes an indulgence. People record and they are so amazed by their own devices that they become trapped in them, and that they never do anything beyond that. For instance, a band that has a string arrangement. They are so psyched that they have this string arrangement that they figure they have to use it and make the part really long, and be very obvious about stuff and the focus becomes the recording as opposed to the song. I really do believe it's about the song, about what's best for the song. I admit [that] I've gone overboard in the past, but you have to go to the point of no return in order to know what your limitations are.
What would be an example of you going overboard?
I think having an orchestra do interludes between every song on Scream, Dracula, Scream! and then not using it. I was 25 at the time with no comprehension of musical theory or orchestration or arrangements and telling these seasoned veterans "do this" or "do that," and kind of orchestrating this thing. It came out pretty good, but the fact that we didn't use it tells you something. Probably could have saved a couple of thousand bucks by not doing that.
And this leaves me my final question - Swami. Why did you start the record label?
The label started because it's something I wanted to do for ten or fifteen years. I always had the opportunity, but never really had the time or the resources to do it. With Swami, it's myself and Long Gone John [from Sympathy for the Record Industry]. Having him a partner enables me to learn the ropes without making the mistakes, along with the resources of very good distribution and really cool people who know what I do makes sense and I can then get it into the right places. So, I don't have to start from scratch in that regard. Long Gone John has a very unique outlook on the way he puts out records. He really has this very, very romantic idealistic regard for bands and their music. He truly is a patron of the arts. He is just one of those rare individuals who gets a lot of joy out of music and art, but also contributes and does what he can. He has totally created this monument of a label and a personality. The guy is larger than life, and he's gone to different ways of expressing himself by using other people's music. It's a really cool thing, and he is a music fiend. We are doing this new thing called the Sultans, and he has all these really cool ideas about how to market it, and how we are going to try and get it in stores. We are going to try to do a CD single and sell it for like a buck, and do this really cool Swami cut-out that will be on all the store's counters, almost like a bubble-gum kind of thing. It's just really funny because he's a pop fan. He might not like current pop music, but a lot of his stuff is like 50's, 60's, even 70's pop. So it is really fun working with someone like that because I am a really big pop fan, but when it comes to the actual presentation of it, I really don't give a fuck because once it's done, and once I'm excited by the final product, I really don't care how many people hear it. As long as my friends kind of get copies, that's what's important to me. Putting out the Hot Snakes record, but didn't really go for college radio, and it's like "oh well." I don't really have to answer to anyone, but the three other people and myself. Because I've done so many records, I feel I have a grasp of what it takes to sell records. I think the most valuable thing you could ever have is people telling other people to go buy it. Word of mouth. In the end, I think that's what's sold the majority of anything I've ever played on. Not sucking dick at college radio, not slipping people $100 bills in envelopes to radio programmers, or whatever kind of seedy tactics tried by Interscope. Not even playing shows for the most part. The majority is just that network of friends that talk to each other and say "Hey this is cool, check it out." Nothing works better than that.
And that's what you're hoping for with Swami? That people get in tune with it?
Eventually. I'm going to have to answer to bands, and I'm going to have bands on the label that I don't want to go elsewhere, so I'm going to have to cater to their wants and needs in order to make them feel loved.
But it's not meant to be a vanity label? You want to commit to these bands?
Yeah, definitely. There's this band Tourets LaTrec that I'm going to be doing a record with, and they are a band that will definitely be going on the road and playing. I want to do the bands right, but my limitations are obvious, and everything's right up front on the table. No contracts, no anything. I know I might seem naive,but if [contracts are] the kind of thing I have to do, I rather not do it at all. If that's what it takes to run a label, screwing your friends over, then count me out. I know what it's like to be in a band, and now I'm finding out what it's like running a label, and all my criticisms of people putting out a record in the past are completely valid because its not brain surgery. It's easy; it takes money and time. That's it. Whereas making good music takes a lot more than money and time. It takes the unknown element - creativity. I'm not saying running a label isn't a creative thing. It is. You can be very creative, but it's not like writing music or being in a band. It's a completely different thing. It's so stupid that any label would ever take a stance that they are above their bands. No matter what label it is, they are nothing without the bands that are on them. Consider yourself lucky to be able to work with bands that you like. That's my attitude. I consider myself completely lucky that I can do a record with who I consider to be the most important rock and roll bands playing right now. I consider myself totally lucky, and I think that's what the label should be. If you are lucky enough that a decent band wants to work with you, consider yourself lucky.
Would you say that you looked at the two labels that you have dealt with - Cargo and Interscope - on how to know right from wrong?
They both have something very much in common, and that is their root inherent problems. They're run by people who know nothing about good music. That's basically where the problems start right from the get-go.
The only reason I brought that up is because the labels are on different scales; one is independent and one is massively corporate.
But they are both businesses. They're both run like a business, and they're both run by business men. They are not run by musical fanatics. I have nothing bad to say about Cargo. I have nothing bad to say about Interscope.
On the record...
No, I mean, I really don't. I'm just better off doing something different. It's so easy to come off as bitter like the world owes you something. But it's like, fuck that stuff. Get back up on the horse. Rock and Roll, shut up. Get up there and play, you know what I'm saying? Who wants to hear your problems? People don't pay money to hear your problems. People don't buy a magazine just to read about how you've been dicked over. My story is similar to a lot of people's stories.