Rocket From the Crypt's John Reis: "The bumps in the road are what make the ride fun."
Rocket From the Crypt (due Saturday, February 1, at the Summit Music Hall) formed in 1989 after the split of Pitchfork, an act that featured John Reis, who was also a member of influential noise rock/experimental punk band Drive Like Jehu at the time. Rocket's playful spirit and its sound connected to the roots of rock and roll and early punk, which allowed it to be a more enduring project, thanks to wild stage antics and songs that somehow combined the aspect of a party band and something more confrontational.
See also: Photos: The bands of Riot Fest Denver
Rocket parted ways in 2005 following numerous releases and seven full length albums. In recent years, demand for the band, which never parted on acrimonious terms, inspired its members to get back together, and Rocket From the Crypt ended up reconvening in time to play at Riot Fest this past summer. We recently spoke with the friendly, cordial and thoughtful Reis about his connection with Wesley Willis, why Jehu and Rocket represented different yet concurrent musical interests and social connections and some of the craziest stuff that happened at Rocket shows over the years.
Westword: When you were growing up, how easy was it for you to find out about underground music and get into a band?
John Reis: It was pretty easy to get into a band because there were a lot of kids at my school who shared excitement for making lots of noise on instruments. But in terms of connecting with people who actually liked the kind of music that I liked, yeah, that was pretty difficult. There was pretty much just one record store in town, for the most part, that would carry the kind of music that I liked. And it was quite far away, so lots of long bus journeys to get there and whatnot. Even then, they weren't stocked full of all of the stuff that I wanted to hear.
A lot of the stuff I was getting into was stuff recorded in the late '70s. By 1984, most of it was already out of print and hard to find. So it was kind of hard to track down records, so swap meets kind of became a place to pick through stuff and find cool things and be exposed to cool, weird stuff. Also thrift stores, too. So a quest to find underground music or punk rock turned into an appreciation for thrift store culture.
What was the name of that one record store?
The name of the one that I liked to go to was called Off The Record. It was probably fifteen miles away from my house. What made it cool was not only that it had a small selection of punk records, but they also had a punker working there. People who liked that kind of music who would say, "Hey check this out, check that out." Other stores in San Diego at the time, and even the chains, would have a really small selection of punk records. The usual suspects you'd see over and over again.
When you were starting out playing bands, did you see or go to shows at places like Ché Café?
Oh yeah, we played the Ché Café. That was probably one of the first places I played. The Ché Café was the place you could go and see different kinds of bands; it was always very cheap. After the fallout that happened with punk and hardcore or whatever you want to call it -- the lack of emphasis on music and the appreciation of music and more the spectacle of man-on-man contact -- there was a group of people that recoiled and found themselves at the Ché Café. So, later on, it became a really cool place to play and a great meeting place, and there was definitely a sense of community there.
You started Rocket From The Crypt and Drive Like Jehu around the same time. Why did you have that division between the sounds of both bands rather than maybe combining those ideas into one band?
Drive Like Jehu was pretty much the trajectory that started with my first band, Pitchfork. That was a band I was in with four other guys. The original bass player left, and we found a replacement, and it was looking like our replacement bass player after a year or so was going to move on, and it just kind of seemed like it ran its course. Musically, I would say that Drive Like Jehu kind of continued on in, like I said, the musical trajectory that started with Pitchfork. It was a continuation of that with different people for sure, but for me and my input was the same train of thought, the same progression and the same types of inspirations.
With Rocket, that came more out of playing with people more in my immediate vicinity -- more or less neighbors. With Pitchfork and Drive Like Jehu, most of the band was twenty miles away, which isn't that far, but when you're eighteen, it seems pretty far. When most of your time is spent on a bike or a skateboard cruising around, your range is a bit smaller. It was for me at that time in my life. Rocket was more about being more specific, at least when we started, my surroundings, and it was meant to be, musically, a more emphasis on action, in terms of playing and playing parties, and hopefully there'd be more opportunities for performing.
I had wanted to surround myself with people who were very much into the idea of getting in a vehicle and driving and playing. Just leaving town and doing that. I was seeing a lot of bands come through San Diego who were kind of kids my same age, and they were doing it. They were living the life in bands touring the country. I thought, "Aw, man, I really want to do this." I felt like that opportunity was slipping away a little bit as I was getting older, and I didn't want to have regrets. Rocket started as more of a show band in that regard.
Why did you want to add a horn section after Paint As Fragrance came out?
It was just the sounds. You have ideas in your head and you hear sounds in your head, and I wanted it to be real. I didn't want it to just be something that only existed in my imagination. I wanted to actually hear it. That's kind of where that started.
How did people react to that?
I don't know. I think people really liked it. I think they continue to like it. I think it's something that sets us apart from other people. That's not necessarily why we did it. But for us a lot of classic rock and roll records were much more horn and even piano-based as opposed to electric guitars, you know?
It was an opportunity to bring someone else into the fold and expand our sound and basically try something different. We had the sax, and later it was like he was kind of alone and he needed a friend. So in came JC 2000 on the trumpet to make it more a section, even though a small section, a section nonetheless.
The title of Scream, Dracula, Scream, came from a Wesley Willis song, "Verbal Assault." What did you like about him, and what about that lyric struck you enough to use it as the title of an album?
Our run-ins with Wesley were very random. We met him in front of a club, and he came up to us, and he immediately engaged us in a very cool, strange conversation. He was immediately interesting. And he was obviously something of a local celebrity at that point because all the people at the club knew him. He was a fixture; he was a part of the family of that club. I want to say it was Lounge Acts where we were playing.
He did have drawings, and he showed us those, and he started singing some songs. I don't think even at that point he was making music. He could have been, but I don't think he was. It was nothing that he mentioned other than singing along. He had these catch phrases that were really imaginative and magnetic. You found yourself repeating them and them becoming part of your vernacular. We were just really taken by him. We thought he was very funny, but also very sweet, a kind person, who had a very unique perspective.
I think we ended up running into him a couple of times after that over the years and then we heard about him playing music. He sent us, I don't know if it was a CD or a cassette, but someone in the band got a cassette, and said, "Oh yeah, you know, he has a song about you guys!" We were so psyched. You know, "Oh my god, he wrote a song! We have this special connection with this guy! He wrote a song about us!"
So we put in the tape and started listening to it. I think we had to get through, like, maybe twenty other songs about other bands before we got to ours. As it went on, they were all very, very funny and very cool, but it got to the point where it was like, "Maybe we didn't have that special a connection.
Or maybe everyone feels like they have this special connection with him." Which is, in a sense, is part of what made him such an amazing person. He brought out the best in people. Without a doubt, when he was around people you saw them at their best.
It was just getting into him and plugging into his world and getting off on that. We ended up doing some shows with Wesley, with the Fiasco, which was the rock band that he did, and yeah, really great times and really fond memories. If only we could still have opportunities like that now. It just seemed like those were just really amazing and special times.
He lived in Denver for a bit, too, and you would run into him at 15th St. Tavern, outside of Wax Trax, at Monkey Mania or the Lion's Lair or whatever..
Did you take away any lessons from your experience with independent and major labels in forming Swami Records?
I don't think anything I did with Swami had anything to do with that. I think maybe the inspiration was just to do things on my own. It wasn't really a reaction. Even before we did stuff with Interscope, I wanted to do my own thing but time was really limited. We were spending so much time on the road playing.
Of course funding was hard to come by, too. At the same time, once you see other people putting out records, the process is demystified, and you can see that it's just basically as simple as following some steps. You do this, then you do that, then you do this, and then you have a record. There's also that network of distribution.
In the '90s it was easy, for the most part, to get someone to take five hundred copies of pretty much any record, any 45 you'd put out. It was a cool time to be involved and have that kind of dialogue. I'm not saying doesn't still exist -- it does, it totally does -- but obviously, there's not the same amount of record shops or the same level of interest in buying records. People tend to want things so immediately. They want it on their own terms.
Whereas there was something appealing about not being to get whatever you wanted. Therefore when you got something you'd been looking for for a while, it felt special. I'm not saying it's better, I'm just saying that's what it was. I'm not making an argument for or against, I'm just saying now anyone can have whatever they want whenever they want it, for the most part.
I remember not even being able to find what is today considered very mainstream, easy-to-find records -- you couldn't find them at all. Aside from a Black Flag or Dead Kennedys record, you couldn't find anything else, really. Now people they hear about a record, and they want to hear it immediately and the band has something online where you can check it out or download it.
You can basically have something within minutes after it was done being recorded everywhere. That's pretty cool, that immediacy, which is pretty awesome. At the same time, it's easy to kind of look at it all as just this disposable heap of content that just keeps coming in and feeding the need for more.
When you were touring in the mid-90s you had several fun show gimmicks and theatrics. Do you still do that sort of thing today?
Maybe a little bit. We're a show band and we like to play rock and roll in front of people and give them a bit of a show. There's definitely not pyrotechnics or anything like that, but we definitely have fun with it.
What were some of the funniest moments with that sort of thing did you have in the past. Famously you had the game show wheel that determined the set list.
We did that, The Wheel of Torture, which was pretty much every song we'd ever written on a giant wheel, and we'd spin it and it would land on a song, and we'd play it. If it landed on the same song twice within a set, we would play it twice. That was fun, that was cool. That was something we hadn't seen, but we'd heard that Elvis Costello had done that before.
It wasn't an original idea. It just became a project, too, and now we're constructing a wheel and everyone's putting in their two cents in regarding if we can cut a good enough circle, can we paint it and what can we us. It becomes this kind of art project that was consistent with everything Rocket From The Crypt has done throughout out our existence.
I remember early on when Scuds were everywhere on the news. We made a scud out of cardboard. It was very Spinal Tap-esque. Of course it backfired, and it didn't open. There were firework shows on stage where we caught each other on fire rather than the club or anything. We were attacked by dogs on stage. It's funny now but it wasn't funny then. We had a thing where we were playing a festival at one of those things they call "sheds." The venue is one of those things where the stage is covered and all the seats were outside.
There was this thing in Missouri we were doing. We were on the Warped Tour we were doing, and it was a side show outside of that on the day off. The shed had been built over or had been inhabited in the off season by water moccasins, which are a poisonous snake. I remember there were three or four of them in the crowd and people were freaking out. We had to make an announcement about snakes and the show was canceled.
We did a show at Red Rocks on that same tour, and someone had thrown a can of tuna. It was opened with the tuna still in it, and its kind of crusty, rusty, fish slimy, sharp edged of the lid still attached to the can. It fucking missed Apollo 9. We were going on right after Pennywise on many of those shows. A band for whom part of their artistic presentation involved telling people to "fuck this shit up" and throw stuff on stage during their last number, which basically preceded our first number by mere minutes because it was a split stage. You know, one band would end and the next band would start pretty much immediately.
Yeah, having all those great, wonderful, free compilation CDs handed out by upstart, wannabe punk rock labels -- these pop punk compilations -- being thrown at you from Red Rocks? You can be at the back row, and it's at such an angle that you can throw very lightly and still have it hit the stage. It's like having someone drop something down on your head. That was really fucked up. I didn't really like that one.
In Japan there was a guy who came to the show and fired a gun inside the club. Which would be super crazy here in the United States. But in Japan it's even more absurd because you're not allowed to have guns, and you can't get them. For the most part, it's much more peaceful, and there's much more respect and people have much more composure.
As a matter of fact, the first time we played over there, people didn't even clap or do anything in between songs. They waited until the very end of the set and went crazy at the very end once everything was over. They didn't clap at all between songs because they thought it was rude. It's not like that there now. Times after, we played there it got more Westernized in that regard. There's lots of things, always. That's part of the fun, you know? Without that it becomes a bit redundant. The bumps in the road are what make the ride fun.
How did John Wurster come to join Rocket From the Crypt for the recording of most of Group Sounds?
Superchunk were a band we really liked a lot. Still, to this day, we think the world of them, as people and as a band. We did some shows with them, and they would bring us on the road. We thought it was a great bill because they're both guitar bands and not that different really in the presentation and the attitude. One band was kind of a foil for the other; we were able to balance a little bit. It was some of the best times of my life, I've got to say. So we were already friends with John and really admired his drumming. He really made that band a lot better.
It was one of those things when we didn't have a drummer,and the first thing was to think of the people that we knew who we liked the way that they played. He was the first person we all thought of. He really plays drums with a songwriter's ear. He doesn't piss on stuff, but at the same time, he's not a mere metronome either.
It was great hanging out with him and everything and bringing him out to Memphis and doing those songs was really great. With that record, we didn't just record in one chunk. We did a couple of different sessions. We actually found a drummer in that timeframe in Ruby Mars, who played on a couple of songs on the record which ended up being the best songs on the record.
Why did you have Long Gone John write the liner notes for Live From Camp X-Ray?
He's just an old friend. He's a great writer. He's really, really funny. He had written a couple of things about us in the past. He wrote a travelogue of our first Japanese tour--he went over there with us. He's very well read, he's very funny and he's a good writer. We wanted to have someone close to the band. We never had liner notes before and we wanted to try that out. To this day he's someone I think the world of and he really influenced and inspired me quite a bit in the way that I look at things and my excitement for music.
Do you still play a Telecaster these days? What do you like about those guitars?
I didn't really play the Telecaster too much in Rocket. I have a Telecaster I used in Hot Snakes early on and I use it in Night Marchers--it's definitely my primary guitar that I play in that. I have to say without a doubt it's my best-sounding guitar. It's a very special guitar to me. It once belonged to Max who gave it to Pen Rollings, who is my favorite guitar player in the world.
He didn't really give up the guitar, but he's a very non-materialistic person, and he was playing drums, and the guitar didn't really interest him in the way that it used to, so he gave it to me. Out of all my instruments, it kind of means the most to me. It's something I never take for granted. It's not only a badass instrument, but I consider it to have a kind of soul of its own.
Pen was in one of my favorite bands of all time called Honor Role, which was a huge influence on Pitchfork and Drive Like Jehu. He was also in a band called Breadwinner, and he played that guitar quite a bit in Breadwinner. He was more of an SG guy when he was in Honor Role. Now he's in a new band called Bowl Ethereal. You have to kind of know Pen to appreciate the gravity of a name like that. Like "Bowl of Cereal." Very bad.
What do you generally play in Rocket From the Crypt?
I haven't played just one kind of guitar throughout this band but pretty much ninety percent of the time it's been Les Pauls. Several Les Pauls. It was the same in Pitchfork and Drive Like Jehu. The guitar has a neck that I find very, very comfortable in my hand. I'm not crazy about the weight of the guitar and there was a time in my life where it didn't bother me but at this stage in my life it's become one of those things where I find it very annoying and uncomfortable.
I think they sound very good and I really like the way Gibson's play in general. It's kind of cheesy to say but the Les Paul has always felt a bit like a Cadillac in the sense that the suspension is always a little bit spongy and the guitar has an action that's a little bit spongy but at the same time the response is a little bit forgiving to reckless playing.
Obviously, not all guitars are created equal, and there are variations, but the ones that I really like seem to have a body to them I find appealing. But the top end is generally not too shrill. More than anything I find them very comfortable to play and I'm used to them. I can't be too objective because it's something I'm so used to now that they're a bit second nature.
Even to this day, I pick up the Telecaster, and it's fun to play because it's a little bit foreign to me, and I find it keeping me on my toes a little bit more. It's a way more of an articulate guitar and has more of a metallic top end and tinny sounding, but I like that. It's funny, I love guitars but it's just one of those things where no matter what I play, they all sound a little bit similar. There's really no night and day, for the most part. We're talking about subtleties when you're talking about the variables out there.
That factor making a bit of that sound is that you're playing it and the way you play it shapes the sound, obviously.
Yeah, just the way that the pick or the finger strikes the string and the position. All that stuff. There's just so many variables and there's this misconception like if you want to sound like John Bonham and you get the same drums and same sizes and the same drum heads and cymbals and all that stuff? You're still not going to sound like him because you're not him. There's that element to it that cannot be overrated. That's the all-important variable right there.
What brings you back to doing Rocket From the Crypt? Is there anything you've learned to appreciate or re-appreciate about that band?
When we were a band we had this one track mind in terms of doing what we wanted to do and recreate the noises and music we had in our head. At the same time, we really wanted people to like the band and embrace what we were doing. We wanted them to like us on our own terms. For better or worse we had a great run and it kind of played itself out. There was no sense of defeat in anyone. We had the best times ever.
When we went away, we all went into different phases of our lives, different interests and whatnot, and over time people started asking for the band again. I didn't ever get the feeling that we would be a band that would necessarily reunite. There were occasions when I definitely ruled it out. Then when we started getting so much interest and offers that were actually really fun. We got to see certain parts of the world that we only got to visit through rock and roll music.
Those opportunities came again, and it seemed ridiculous to say no. We all liked each other still and were into the music, and now that people are saying they want to see us play, it seemed stupid to say no because that's what we wanted all along. So we got back together and played some shows last year, and we have a couple of things planned this year, and we're going to see how it goes.
From here on it could be anything. It could be that after our last show, which is scheduled for June, that could be the end of it. Or we could end up making a double record of all new songs and tour the world for the next year. It could be anything. Just take one thing at a time and still pursue other things as well as give this the attention and love that it needs in order for it to be as kick ass as it ever was.