John Reis, the subject of the following Q&A as well as a May 1 Westword profile, is the leader of a new band called the Night Marchers – but the group is hardly his first. He made his initial ripple as part of Pitchfork back in the ‘80s, after which he’s served as a member in acts such as Drive Like Jehu, Hot Snakes, the Sultans and, most notably, Rocket From the Crypt, often simultaneously. However, he brought the last three groups to an end within recent years to concentrate on the Marchers, whose new CD, See You in Magic, recently materialized.
The conversation begins with Reis describing his decision to focus on one band. He then details the reasons he shut down Rocket, the Sultans and Hot Snakes; shares his musical philosophy, which emphasizes good times over angst; looks back on the Drive Like Jehu legacy; measures the benefits associated with major labels and their independent counterparts, including his own imprint, Swami; and admits to being a musical lifer.
That’s one sentence he’s eager to serve.
Westword (Michael Roberts): Over the past few years, you’ve gone through a lot of changes. You’ve ended three bands and started a fourth one. By my math, you’re too young for a midlife crisis – so what led to all the beginnings and endings?
John Reis: Well, depending on how long you live, I don’t think you’re ever too young for a midlife crisis. As far as wanting to do something new, each of the three bands that I was playing in, there were different reasons, different circumstances for wrapping things up. But ultimately, for me, I’ve been trying to focus all my musical energies into one thing. So it just made sense to streamline that – put all my efforts into just one rock-and-roll entity.
WW: Over the years, you’ve often had more than one musical project going. Over time, did it feel that you were dissipating your energy a bit by doing that?
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JR: Not really. It wasn’t so much dissipating the energy. But just with time being kind of a factor – with being preoccupied with other endeavors and other things going on in my life – I didn’t really have the opportunity to do a bunch of different bands. And then I started to think, why did I do a bunch of different bands in the first place? Well, it was getting to play with different people and to kind of approach things through a different attitude and be able to collaborate, come up with different variations on things that I’m interested in. But over time, I was like, I can just wrap everything I’m interested in into one band, one voice. That kind of appealed to me – having this more multi-faceted approach. And in the Night Marchers, we can do anything we want to do. Not that the other bands I’ve been in before weren’t able to do that. But some of them were totally streamlined to just hone in on this one particular niche of primitive rock and roll or whatever. Whereas with the Night Marchers, I think the palette and the perspective are a little bit more broad, basically, because we’re looking at things a couple of years down the line. Having an increased perspective.
WW: Now that Night Marchers is your main band, does that force you, in a way, to bring all of your musical interests to the table instead of thinking, I need to save this kind of song for this band and that kind of song for that band?
JR: It wasn’t even saving. It was more that things would just come when you were in a certain mindset. Each band had a different attitude and objective, and playing with different people – it wasn’t just myself. There were other people involved, and they’re going to really impact the way everything comes together and sounds. So with the Night Marchers, yeah, it forces us to be a little bit more resourceful in the sense that, you know, this is the only thing happening. But at the same time, that’s part of the reason for doing it in the first place – to leave no stone in the mind unturned.
WW: You mentioned that there were different circumstances for the other three bands coming to an end. Could we touch on those one at a time? What were the reasons Rocket stopped?
JR: Let me preface this by saying this is my opinion, my kind of take on it. It’s not necessarily everybody’s reasoning, and everybody might not feel the same. But for me, with Rocket, we were a band for fifteen, sixteen years. We’d kind of done everything we wanted to do. I couldn’t really imagine having any more success that we’d already had. We had tremendous amounts of fun, really did way more than we ever could have possibly dreamed of doing. But the band was really focused on ten-hour practices, seven days a week – honing our rock and roll chops and trying to perfect this loose, hybrid rock and roll that we were really so fond of. But as we got older, and the repetition of doing the same thing over and over again – not so much musically, but just in terms of playing the same places, going to the same cities, the process of putting records together – the process of the unknown was fleeting. And then, coupled with the fact that everybody was getting to the point in their lives where they were becoming preoccupied with more important issues than playing music, they couldn’t really do those strenuous, military-like practices and recording sessions. And part of the thing with Rocket From the Crypt, we approached it with so much confidence and dedication that we needed that. I don’t know. It was that excitement that we drew from. That was our eternal flame, and once that kind of went out, the idea of being a band that got together one day a week and practiced a couple of times before a show – it seemed like that wasn’t what we were about. It was no longer the same thing.
WW: Was it also in some ways being an elite athlete who wants to go out at the top of his game instead of waiting for a decline to come along?
JR: No, it was more looking, time is not money. Time is more valuable than money. So if you’re going to be spending your time doing something, you want to do it to the best of your ability. It wasn’t like going out, because for me, at least, I’m not going out. I’m still playing music. I’m not hanging it up or anything. But if I’m going to be spending time doing something, I want it to be the best that it can be, and I think Rocket – like I said, we approached it with so much zeal that anything less than the way we approached it in the past meant it wasn’t the same band, pretty much.
WW: What about the Sultans?
JR: The Sultans was a party band I put together with my brother. We had a couple of different members. Andy [Stamets], who was in Rocket, played in the band, and this guy Tony Di Prima played drums. Yeah, it was something that was just kind of thrown together during that time when Rocket was becoming less of a fulltime thing. It was designed to go and be able to play anywhere, because we were really stripped down. Our equipment was small, and we embraced the ability to play in places that weren’t necessarily traditional venues: parties and bowling alleys. You know, outside the professional nightclub circuit or whatever you want to call it. But again, it was a band that was supposed to just be for fun and easy to do became increasingly difficult, because it was hard for me to approach it as, “Well, it’s just for fun. Who cares if it’s not really that great?” I can’t approach things like that. If I’m going to spend my time doing something, I’m going to immerse myself in it and be satisfied.
WW: And with Hot Snakes, you’ve got two members of that band in Night Marchers…
JR: With Hot Snakes, it was kind of weird. I really liked, I really enjoyed playing in the Hot Snakes and coming up with music and collaborating with Rick [Froberg] and Gar [Wood] and Jason [Kourkounis], and then later Mario [Rubalcaba], who played on the last record. It was a lot of fun, but with half of the band living on the other side of the country, it was really hard to get together and jam on a moment’s notice. It was impossible. And the first record started off as not really a band. It was more of an idea. We threw some ideas out there and Jason and I recorded some stuff. Gar didn’t even play on the first record, and Rick came and did the vocals after everything was pretty much put on tape. It was more of this, like, correspondence via the recording studio as opposed to e-mail or the phone. And the second album, it became more of a band, and the third record became more of a band, where we’d come up with the ideas all together. But the process was becoming more and more labor intensive, and for me, it was getting harder to have fun with something when we were forced to come up with everything in like four days to make a record. Whereas with the first record, it was like, these are some things, let’s just throw it out there. We became more of a typical band set-up, and that wasn’t as appealing to me. I liked the more free-flowing, anything can happen thing. I can spend a lot of time. I have my own studio and I spend a lot of time playing guitar, and I have ideas. It’s not necessarily that I didn’t want to wait on anything. But it’s just a bummer to watch the months go by and then only have four days to try to catch lightning in a bottle. But that was me. Gar had different reasons for not wanting to play anymore. In the end, I’m really proud of all the records. Well, “proud” might be a weird word, but I really like the records we made. I find them really listenable and I had a lot of fun making them, and I have a lot of fun listening to them in retrospect. I think they’re cool. I guess I don’t visit them often, but they’re cool when I do. Mostly, though, I’m still looking forward, I guess. I don’t want to be stationary for too long.
WW: I was going to ask you about that. You seem like the kind of performer who wants to focus on what’s ahead instead of lingering on what you’ve already done. Is that fair to say?
JR: Of course. I think most people would probably give you the same answer, because if you just keep focusing on what you’ve already done – that’s in the rearview mirror. It’s all there in the wake, and I’d rather look at the possibilities of what’s to come. The songs that have yet to be written and the sounds that have yet to be discovered. That’s exciting. That’s why I’ve always really enjoyed practicing and rehearsing and performing music more than maybe even recording it.
WW: You mentioned that you had fun making the Hot Snakes discs. That feeling definitely comes through on the Night Marchers album, too. Was it as much fun to make as it seems like it was to those of us listening?
JR: The Night Marchers record was very loose, very cool to make. We were surrounded by not just the people in the band, but also Dave Gardner, who recorded the record. So it was just like this group of friends smoking cigars, drinking tequila and rum and recording music for hours on end, and tweaking things and really being able to know that the clock wasn’t ticking, because we were just in my backyard, working in my studio. So that was cool. I put together this studio, and it was kind of the first thing where I was really able to utilize it.
WW: One of the things you’ve always talked about is that you want making music to be fun. And particularly back in the early ‘90s, when a lot of people first got to know you and your music, that wasn’t all that popular a mindset in the modern-rock world. There was a sort of tortured-artist mystique that a lot of people seemed to think was the way to go. Did you look on that approach with suspicion even back then? Did you think: Music is supposed to be fun, it’s not supposed to be painful, it’s not supposed to be work?
JR: Well, it isn’t supposed to be work. That’s not to say it can’t be your job, I guess. But for me, I just do what comes natural to me. I just figured, I’m going to be myself, and part of being myself is really not really being myself: creating this sort of idealized universe where I can be my own superhero and create the sounds that are my favorite sounds. It’s like there’s a void and I need to fill it with my own noise. And of course that’s fun. It’s fun to play music. It’s fun to play with people. That’s not to say the music can’t be dramatic and turbulent and tense. It’s not to say that there can’t be tension without necessarily having release in sight. It’s like life. It’s not all one thing. It’s not all fun, it’s not all gloom. It’s everything. But I think a lot of the philosophy for bands I’ve been in is, when you’re sharing music with people, to pretend that it’s the musical equivalent of oral surgery isn’t presenting us in a manner we’d like. And I also believe if you have fun and you like what you’re doing, the chances of other people being able to connect with that are going to be greater. So we just gravitate toward the sounds that we’re horny for: the good times, the celebrations that we need to make us feel so lucky to be alive. And from that, a small clan of people can emerge, and you can have this sense of community and this sense of connection with a band of primitive people to make you feel that you’re not necessarily alone in the world. Because we’re all taking our cues from the same place. And gravitate toward the same sounds or ideas. You can’t really pick fans, or pick the people you want to like you, but if you just put across things that you think are cool, hopefully it’ll attract a similar mindset.
WW: Have you found over the years that the people who gravitate toward your music are people you can imagine sitting down and having a beer with?
JR: Some if not all of my best friends are people I’ve met through playing music or playing in bands. So of course. That’s a no-brainer. But that doesn’t mean I want to meet everybody who likes my music – although it might only be twenty people. I have met some crazy people as well.
WW: Your first major project was Pitchfork. That’s when you teamed up with Rick, right?
JR: That was our high-school band, and right after high school. We were a garage band. We practiced in the garage, played other people’s garages. Played a couple of shows as well. Not a whole lot of shows, but we did play some shows as well.
WW: And from there, Rocket and Drive Like Jehu rose more or less simultaneously, right?
JR: Yeah. They started at pretty much the same time. Drive Like Jehu was a continuation of the ideas behind Pitchfork. That kind of guitar music. Whereas Rocket was a reaction to all of this talk of getting anything done, and it really had to do with me wanting to get out of San Diego – not permanently, but just getting out to see the world and use rock and roll as a vehicle to meet people and explore.
WW: Did the music in those bands feed each other? Or were they pretty much separate?
JR: Well, we were all friends, and still are friends, although we don’t see each other very often. The one thing they had in common was me as a member, so I never felt a sense of competition or whatever. In Drive Like Jehu, ideas didn’t come very freely. Our second record was the product of a year of writing music. There’d be practices and practices where nothing would happen. That’s just where it was at, the dynamic of that band. That’s not to take anything away from it. But in Rocket, it was a lot easier, because the music was not only more simplistic, but music was only part of the band. The band was just as much about playing shows and entertaining people and reveling in this rebellious, maverick kind of noise, but at the same time trying to connect with people. Whereas Drive Like Jehu was more about the universe created by the four people in the band. It was very much about playing to each other – obviously trying to make a lot of racket, but also trying to do things that weren’t so much about fun. Not fun like a stein in your hand over your head and sloshing around in the sun, but really getting into the noise you were making. So it was kind of a band that kind of had blinders on for me, in my people. For me, when we were playing, I was right by my amp, and it was cranked all the way up, louder than it probably needed to be, and I just rocked out with the drums. It was about that connection with my instrument. It wasn’t about connecting with people at all, really. If people liked it, cool, and if they didn’t like it, who cares.
WW: Did both of those bands sign with Interscope as kind of a package deal?
JR: I guess so. Well, not really. It wasn’t a package. There was a different deal for each band. They were interested in Drive Like Jehu, and then they became aware of Rocket later, and then they were like, “We want to do something with both bands.” And both bands had different reasons behind what they were doing, different ideas about what we wanted to do. But in the end, that’s all just ancient history. It’s not ancient, I guess, but not very exciting (laughs).
WW: Not to belabor the point, but did the culture of a major label play any part on Drive Like Jehu ending?
JR: I don’t think so. For me, I wanted to be in a band that toured and played shows. I wanted to play rock and roll every night, and Drive Like Jehu had a harder time doing that. I don’t think there was a desire to do that at all. Maybe some people did, but as a collective, I don’t think there was a desire to go out and do what you usually do when you’re in a band. That’s where I come from. If you’re in a band, you play, you play shows, and that’s what you do. You do it over and over again, because you really enjoy it. Anything less is being a hobbyist. That doesn’t take away from the music, it doesn’t take away the importance of the music or the importance of the band or anything. But I wasn’t looking to be in a hobby band. I wanted to be in something that lived and breathed on a daily basis, and since I was in two bands, it was pretty much impossible. It wasn’t really feasible for both bands to play together or tour at the same time. I don’t know. We did a couple of tours, and it just didn’t seem like the excitement of touring and playing shows was there. So it was easier to go, I’m going to do this other band, because these guys are totally into playing. They just want to play and have fun.
WW: After the Interscope deal ended for Rocket, you’ve been on independent labels since then, and even formed your own label, Swami. What are the best and worst things about running your own label?
JR: The best things are not having to explain to people why you want to do something. You just do it, because you like doing it. The worst things are – and this is really prevalent now – it’s being exposed to all of the heinous marketing and non-musical kind of things that you have to do in order to attempt to sell a CD or an LP in this day and age. Everybody’s feeling this kind of clampdown about not being able to sell records like they once were. And for a really massive label that was used to selling millions and now they’re selling half a million or a quarter million is one thing. But for me, who only sold a couple thousand of whatever I did to be selling a couple of hundred – it makes it like, what are you going to do to make people care about this? How are you going to get this into people’s hands? And the answer to that is: nothing. Because I’m not interested in doing that. I approached the label like I approach making music: I do it because it’s fun. Therefore, with every release, it’s kind of like an art project, and I look at it that way. I don’t look at it as something I need to do for survival. It’s not my business, and the label really isn’t a business, or else I wouldn’t be putting out the kind of music that I did. As much I believe in the potential, as much as I believe in all the bands on Swami, that they should be household names, I think the fact is – and it’s been proven time and time again – a band’s merit isn’t in their ability to sell records.
WW: For you, then, the last thing you’d think about when deciding whether a recording was a success would be to look at how many copies of it sold. You’d be more interested in how it makes you feel, or how it makes other people feel when they hear it…
JR: Well, people make music and record it because they want the document. They want a snapshot that they can show, so they can share it with other people. Whether they really relish making records and putting together this cohesive body of music, or whether it’s something they do in an afternoon – press “play” and “record” on the eight-track – that doesn’t really matter. If it’s good, it’s good. And just like the bands I’ve been in, the bands on Swami have that same ability to connect with people who really immerse themselves in exciting music. Sounds that are wild, sounds that may operate within the convention of rock and roll music or punk rock, but they offer something of substance and have the power to change your life. Maybe if only for a minute, but still change it. I don’t want to say success isn’t gauged by sales, because you can gauge success as a label by the amount of people you turn on to someone’s music and your ability to distribute it and your ability to get it into somebody’s hands. You can totally use sales as a barometer. But I guess what I was trying to say is, if you look at what’s selling lots and lots of records, well, none of that has any use in my life. None of that is for me. It is the musical equivalent of a Hollywood blockbuster movie or something. It’s built on the same principles as one of those Western town facades. There’s nothing behind it. And it’s just not for me. Even if being your most positive, you’ve got to say, “It doesn’t appeal to me. It’s just not my thing. It doesn’t apply.” That’s the nicest thing I can say about mainstream music.
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WW: There are certain musicians you can imagine stopping and doing other things – but you don’t seem like that type of person to me. Are you a lifer when it comes to music?
JR: I guess so. I am now (laughs).
WW: You’re committed at this point.
JR: Yeah. I don’t really look at it like getting back on the horse and trying it again. It’s more like, I’ve got some songs and I’ve got some friends and we want to play them together, so let’s go do it. And I have some friends scattered across the world who’ll come out and check us out. It’s not something that I look at with each new band like, “Is this going to be the last?” And I see people still playing who are quite a bit older than me and still kick a lot of ass, and I must admit that there’s something really appealing about that.