As the ashes from the Seattle music-scene explosion settle, record company executives and journalists are clawing through the debris in search of the next hotbed of underground music. So far, Chicago, Portland and Chapel Hill, North Carolina, have all been considered potential usurpers to the throne. And now, thanks in large part to the punk-rock chieftains in Rocket From the Crypt, San Diego is undergoing some pretty heavy scrutiny--scrutiny that Crypt vocalist/guitarist/frontman John Reis (aka "Speedo") says he could easily do without.
"There are a lot of good bands here," he says. "But there are a lot of good bands everywhere. As far as the San Diego scene goes, I'm completely, 100 percent biased. Of course I love these bands, but it's definitely not `the next big thing.' I mean, bands like the Nephews and Truman's Water are really good. They're weird. They're creative. They're doing their own thing. But there's nothing about them that's commercially viable."
The same cannot be said about Rocket From the Crypt. The band makes infectious hardcore that's packed with taut, musclebound melodies, high-octane rhythms and Reis's patented stoner lyrics. This combination has already caught the attention of Interscope Records, which signed the group early last year, and MTV's 120 Minutes, which is putting Crypt material in regular rotation. These are impressive credentials, but Reis is reticent to discuss the possibility that he and his fellow players are on the cusp of becoming rock stars. "I think that writers and the media in general are pressed to find the `new thing,' or whatever," he notes. "They tend to blow things out of proportion just to make it more interesting. We're still playing the same places that we played the first time we went on tour, when nobody knew who we were. The only difference this time around is that instead of there being five people in attendance, there's a hundred and five. I mean, we're far from becoming anything of great international concern."
Rocket From the Crypt first took off just over three years ago, after Reis parted ways with his previous band, the now-defunct Pitchfork: "It was growing too stuffy and serious," he says. He subsequently formed Crypt with bassist Petey X, guitarist ND (given name: Andy Stamets), drummer Sean and backup vocalist Elaina. This lineup recorded its first full-length disc, Paint as a Fragrance, in February 1991, for a mere $1,000. In spite of this relatively miniscule expenditure, however, the 28-minute LP--featuring classic Crypt titles such as "Evil Party," "Jiggy Jig" and "Weak Superhero" --served as an impressive, although scattered, sampler of the band's distinctive punk/pop sound. Reis accurately describes Fragrance as "a poor man's punk-rock Beatles record. We used lots of different instrumentation on that record--not for the sake of being eclectic, but just because it was there and it kind of fit. It was a real nonserious thing, and we wanted to try all different kinds of stuff."
In spite of Fragrance's quality, it was the Crypt's sophomore effort, 1992's Circa: Now, that pricked industry moguls' ears. Polished to the point of perfection, the album--featuring Reis, Petey X, ND and newly appointed Rocketeers Apollo 9 (saxophone) and Atom (drums)--oozed with the brand of musical appeal that previously had been the purview of the Seattle crowd. From the elegant punk-rock blasts of "Short Lip Fuser" and "Killy Kill" to the punchy-power balladry of "Hairball Alley," Circa:Now, like Nirvana's Nevermind, was biting, abrasive rock and roll that could also be enjoyed by Mom and Dad.
"I think we approached that record the only way we could at the time," Reis says. "It was the kind of thing where we were stuck between making a record that sounded all clean and slick and at the same time using up our entire budget, or making a record that sounded shitty and keeping the rest of the money. We wanted to do both, but we really couldn't afford to record two different albums, so we opted to pick the songs that lent themselves to the production thing a little more."
Not long after Circa:Now hit stores, droves of A&R scouts came calling on the band. After careful reflection and a dozen or so power lunches, Reis and company decided to accept an offer from producer Jimmy Iovine's Interscope label, the home of Helmet, Primus and Doctor Dre. Reis is hardly starry-eyed about this deal, though. He says the best thing about signing with a major label was having an excuse to quit his day job.
"I had my own little painting company at the time, which was basically just me and Andy painting apartments all day long," he explains. "And we both totally hated it. We'd call in, quit work early and go to the movies or whatever, because we really can't stand work. So when all these labels wanted to meet with us, it was a good excuse for us not to work."
Reis presently is keeping busy both with the Crypt and Drive Like Jehu, a more experimental band that was also snatched up by Interscope last year. Although Jehu (formed by Reis and ex-Pitchfork vocalist Rick Fork in 1991) is generally portrayed as his "other" band, Reis is quick to belie this perception. "Rick is like the best singer I could ever find," he declares. "I love playing with him, and I didn't want to throw that away. I mean, both bands have their downfalls, and both definitely have their good points as well. I would never want to just do one of these bands, because that would mean having to sacrifice a little bit of what I'm about."
Another side of Reis's creativity can be heard on All Systems Go, an anthology of the Crypt's indie singles, issued on the Headhunter imprint. Recorded over a three-year span, the nineteen numbers on Systems are as spontaneous as Circa:Now is glossy, thereby proving that the Crypt doesn't have to be a spit-and-polish outfit. The album reveals a different and more dangerous side of the Crypt, but there remains a playful edge: For example, the phrase "Garth Brooks is a Dick" is physically emblazoned on the disc. "Boychucker," a nasty dose of punning rockabilly, and the anthemic "Normal Carpet Ride," once available only from the Sub-Pop label, are especially lethal tracks, while a previously unreleased sendup of Adam and the Ants' "Press Darlings" finds the group willing to offer an obligatory post-punk cover.
Considered as a whole, the songs on All Systems Go are more indicative of the group's frenetic live shows than of some of its other recordings. On stage the Crypt's nightly repertoire is marked by quick jolts of chaotic feedback, improvisational walls-of-sound and instrument-shredding performed with the grace of bull elephants on a rampage. Adding a touch of surrealism to the mix are the players' uniforms: two-tone bowling shirts that leave the band looking like an Eddie Cochran tribute group on Methedrine.
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Reis insists that neither these outfits nor the Crypt's stage antics indicate an unhealthy fascination with preening-rock-star ideology. "We're getting shirts made for this tour," he admits, "but they really have very little to do with what we're all about. It's just kind of a fun thing to do. When you grow up with Alice Cooper, or Kiss, or even James Brown for that matter, it's kind of hard to get away from the arena-rock thing. I mean, it's like, `Okay, arena rock is stupid, and blah, blah, blah.' But it's still kind of cool to put on a show, too--as long as everyone realizes that it's not meant to be taken seriously, and there's no real worshiping going on."
Rocket From the Crypt's goal, Reis adds, is actually quite simple: "Just playing some burning punk-rock and roll."
Rocket From the Crypt, with 68 Comeback and Grimace. 8 p.m. Tuesday, February 15, Fox Theatre, 1135 13th Street, Boulder, $7.35 in advance/$8.40 day of show, 290-