Earthquake! John Reis Talks Surf Rock And Drive Like Jehu
, January 20th, 2015 09:00
Tom Hall speaks to the punk & roll veteran about his reignited love for surf rock and the dignified reformation of Drive Like Jehu
If John Reis wasn't making a surf rock album, I would not be going anywhere near a surf rock album either. What even is surf music? To the uninitiated it appears to lie somewhere between the kitsch buzzsaw instrumentals of the 1960s and today's more "James Taylor for bros" style of campfire pop made by the likes of former pro-surfer Jack Johnson.
The genre needs a guide, a mystical seer of sorts, a swami, if you will, to point it towards shore. Enter Reis – also known as Speedo, Slasher and latterly Swami – San Diego's reluctant king of the beach, whose latest release Modern Surf Classics, a collaboration with Minneapolis garage-rock minimalists the Blind Shake, aims to bring the sound of surf back to something more becoming of the man-eating jaws of death that thundering 30ft waves should surely be.
And he is up to the job: Reis's 20 or so years in music have produced wave after wave of vital bands crashing the shores of Punk As Fuck Island (for want of a better analogy), that stretch from the lengthy post-hardcore-not-quite-post-rock sprawls of dissonant early-90s screamers Drive Like Jehu (formed with frequent collaborator, visual artist and Reis's future Hot Snakes foil Rick Froberg), to the 12-legged punk-soul revue of Rocket From The Crypt.
That latter band's live power is the stuff of legend – they vowed to never play a room with a stage although admittedly that noble sentiment went south pretty quickly – and famously the band's fans could also get into shows free for the small price of permanently inking its iconic rocket logo on their skin. Add to this Reis's other musical output such as the Nerves-esque beat pop of the Sultans, Back Off Cupids' spacey sonic experiments and the one-innuendo-fits-all good-time racket of the Night Marchers, and Modern Surf Classics has a formidable run of records to live up to. I recently phoned John Reis in San Diego to talk about surf rock, its history and his many other sounds, so that those who don't own a pair of boardshorts can now, at least, consider themselves briefed.
What attracted you to making a surf rock album?
John Reis: Living here in San Diego, the environment that I grew up in is very much "beachy", to say the least. I went to the beach pretty much every day in my childhood, which just seemed like endless summers – for years and years and years – and so obviously the environment itself kind of shaped my interests even down to my musical tastes. But beach culture is a bit of a double-edged sword to me because as a kid I liked it, but then when I got a little bit older and discovered punk rock music and I started to develop an identity within that subculture, I definitely distanced myself away from the whole beach aesthetic – completely – just completely.
JR: It was an "us against them" kind of thing. A lot of those people in school were what you'd consider as the jock-y dudes or whatever so I kind of removed myself from that and then I got into skating rather than surfing and that took over my life. But I always really admired the traditional surf music from afar – the instrumental sounds from the 60s. But the surf movies while I was growing up didn't use that kind of music: it was all this really cheesy, lame stuff. And even to this day most surf films have the worst music ever. It seems like surfers are very much into this castrated coffee-house folk-pop or something, you know? To me, when I look at the ocean and I see waves – even small waves – but big waves especially, and their power and the people who are riding them, the last thing that I think of musically is a guy on a stool with an acoustic guitar singing some cheesy melody; some post hippy thing. I just don't get that at all. I hear a more turbulent sound.
Do you surf?
JR: Not really anymore. I go to the ocean all the time but I'm really bad. I'm kind of more of a "hodad" [a non-surfer who spends time at beaches masquerading as a surfer]. I'm probably more in the frolicking stage of my life right now. But long story short, I always wanted to score a surf film. No one asked me so I decided to do a soundtrack myself without there being a movie and that was the concept of the record.
Now that I think about it, there's been hints of beach and island culture in a lot of your work, from the song 'Luau' by Drive Like Jehu to the Night Marchers being named after a Hawaiian legend – and is it true that your studio in San Diego is made out of Hawaiian lava?
JR: No! It is partly made out of lava. That part is true. But it's not made entirely out of Hawaiian lava. The reason why it's not made out of Hawaiian lava is because that would be considered, like, basically suicide (laughs) – in the sense that removing lava off the islands supposedly comes with this curse. So if you were to make a whole structure out of lava, you would be dooming yourself: the bad vibes would just be so prevalent. So yeah, there's two walls that are made out of lava – but it is more locally sourced.
Is that a conventional building material? Do people do that a lot?
JR: No. It's more just because it looks really cool.
How did you link up with the Blind Shake?
JR: We have mutual friends; my friend Dave Gardner, who does the mastering for all the Swami Records stuff that I put out – he's done all the Hot Snakes records and the Night Marchers records and some of the Rocket From The Crypt stuff as well –he knows the Minneapolis scene where the Blind Shake are from. He was the one who turned me onto them. And there's this guitarist from Minneapolis, Michael Yonkers, who has been a massive influence on my guitar playing for probably the past 15 years or so. The Blind Shake were backing him up and making a new record as his band and I was actually lucky enough to be in Minneapolis for one of their performances and I just thought they did a great job. I really felt that they handled Michael Yonkers' music and ideas with sensitivity and in the right way. The Blind Shake is not a surf band but I could hear elements of their music that would translate well with surf music – and I also just liked the idea of collaborating with people that I didn't really know that well. To be thrown in a room together with three other guys that you don't really have much history with: it's a cool experiment.
One thing that surprised me a bit as I listened to the album was how lost the listener can get in surf rock's relentless momentum – it's a bit hypnotic. It actually reminded me a little bit of nodding along to a Krautrock record or something.
JR: A lot of, like, the German Kraut… the kind of German experimental music… I actually try not to use the word "Krautrock" because a German friend of mine said that's actually a very offensive term! [LAUGHS] But going off on a tangent – German experimental rock, it's such a wide genre of music. You can't really say that a band like Harmonia and a band like, I don't know, Krokodil, have a lot in common. They both speak German and that's about it.
Maybe I mean a specific kind of sound then. I'm thinking more like Neu!'s continuous beat thing, you know?
JR: Yeah, well I think of all of that music as being pretty cinematic, so I guess that was in my subconscious a little bit while making it. But for the most part I just really like the surf music from the 60s. A lot of that is very fun and there's this exploitation vibe that kind of surrounds it, too. It was this huge trend and people tried to capitalize on it, so you had these session musicians who were basically way overqualified to be playing the primitive music that they were playing. Bands got together and maybe did just one 45 – and some of it is terrible. But there's some really, really great stuff. Like Aki Aleong – he is one of the many uncredited geniuses of 1960s rock & roll – a hustler in the best sense of the word, who was behind one of the greatest 45s with Sheriff and the Ravels’ ‘Shombalor’ as well as countless writing and producing credits. He’s also an actor and, if memory serves, owned a popular hotdog hangout in Hollywood. His LP Come Surf With Me credited to Aki Aleong And The Nobles is probably my favourite surf long player: the apex of which being ‘Earthquake’. That song is an absolute killer with all my favourite elements coming together – I see flashes of underwater volcanic eruptions and the feeling of relief that although destruction is imminent, the creation of new terrain is inevitable. And as the 60s gave way to the 70s you had this more introspective thing going on in films. It became more about focusing on the beauty of the waves and Mother Nature; surf films for actual surfers as opposed to surf films just for cashing in. Musically the George Greenough movie, The Innermost Limits Of Pure Fun is really good. The Farm supposedly recorded much of that soundtrack outside on the beach. I thought that was a cool idea, so I tried it as well on this record. We did most of side 1 under two piers on two different recording attempts at Crystal Pier and the Ocean Beach Pier in San Diego with a Volkswagen van housing the limited amount of recording equipment we could bring. There always seems to be a point in making a record when you are no longer trying to recreate the sounds you have in your head but rather adjust to the reality of what you are hearing back on tape so sometimes I think it's healthy artistically to create obstacles and limitations by putting the band in an environment that will have a definite impact on the way they feel. It acknowledges and embraces the unexpected. It's also a different experience and something to have fun with. It defines the concept, those recordings and the time that the band spent together making the record. And Sea Of Joy also has a great soundtrack. I think those are two examples of music that I was influenced by that you wouldn't necessarily consider as surf music right away, but they are. They're definitely a far cry from Dick Dale but I'd still consider them in the genre. That's the weird thing I was trying to do with the record. It was like let's make something that's not completely camp and retro; and let's not do something that just like feels like a costume.
There are some impressive matching Hawaiian shirts on this record though. Do you ever worry the look might undermine the music?
JR: I just want to make something that's fun. And also we're talking about an instrumental band, so when we start playing shows I want it to look like we're actually a band. I don't want it to look like four guys who just stopped working on their car for a second to get up onstage and play some songs. I like things to have some consistency about them.
There's something pleasingly old-school and gang-like about dressing the same. Rocket From The Crypt always match, too.
JR: Well yeah, it's a show and I like to entertain. When Rocket started dressing up and showing this kind of unity of the band – just in the way we looked and presented ourselves – I mean we obviously did not make that idea up (laughs). That was taken from hundreds of garage and soul bands from the 50s, 60s and 70s. But among our peers? We started in an era in the 1990s when bands were wearing flannel and torn denim: that's what punk rock had turned into. It had sort of become this post-punk situation – although you wouldn't musically call it that – but that's what it was. It was like American punk-rock music and hardcore had turned into more like a 1970s dirtbag aesthetic, you know? We looked at it and thought "that looks dumb". We knew that we didn't want anything to do with it because it didn't really represent who we were. So there was a bit of a contradiction in us being into punk-rock music and also being into rock & roll and wanting to entertain and put on a show. But for us it made perfect sense: you could not only be inspired by Black Flag but you could be inspired by James Brown as well.
I read that you tried to put orchestral passages between all the songs on Rocket From The Crypt's Scream Dracula Scream! album. Why did they never get heard?
JR: We completely went over the top when we recorded that album. I don't think there was any idea that wasn't pursued. So yeah, there was this connective tissue that ran through the entire record – a viola, two violins, one or two cellos and a bass and they play on some of the songs already. But, you know, the label didn't really like it. They would've let us use it – it wasn't like they were saying they weren't going to put it out. They were very interested in what we were doing – we were in their favour at that time – but I didn't fight the decision because I kind of thought that the label were right. Conceptually it was a great idea but I didn't really think it was working even though we put so much work into it: I was really bummed. But that was just the mode we were in at the time – let's make things the most difficult on ourselves as possible (laughs) – that was just the way we did things. There's also two or three songs on those reels that we didn't finish, that we didn't mix, so there's a couple of songs on there as well that never saw the light of day that I wish I could hear again. Even if it was just to make a couple of hundred records available or something, I would really love to put that stuff out today, but we don't have those tapes. Nobody at Universal can find them. I know they exist but who knows where they are?
It still sounds great though.
JR: Yeah, well we made it at Ocean Way, which is the old United Western Recorders studio in LA where they did a lot of the Beach Boys' recordings – one of the oldest and maybe most legendary LA studios. It was a Putnam room, named after Bill Putnam, who was this genius studio designer who revolutionised the way music is recorded. So we were in this older room but there were about four other studios in this one complex; AC/DC was recording in one of them with Rick Rubin at the same time, Fleetwood Mac were also right across the hallway.
What were Fleetwood Mac up to?
JR: I don't know what they were recording but it was definitely before Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham rejoined the band...
Maybe not a classic then.
JR: Yeah, 1994-5 Fleetwood Mac, whatever that record was. I guess they didn't have a lounge in their studio though because they kept using ours – always just Mick Fleetwood, he was the only one who would come over. But he would come and hang out for hours and he was a really, really nice guy with a bunch of great stories. I doubt our music interested him in the least but he was always very cool to hang out with. Rumours – my mom was always blasting that fucking record. I hated it as a kid. I heard it everyday for like four months.
They started out as a really different, bluesy sounding band, though, didn't they. I've heard you mention British blues – even bands like Status Quo – as an influence in the past, which I've always found a bit of an unusual choice because critically, at least, that kind of talk gets quite short shrift in the UK.
JR: Well I really love the British blues. And this will sound bad, maybe, it's not meant to, but the reason why I like it is because they kind of got it so wrong. And that made it kind of right, you know? Because they reduced it to a formula and then eventually they would end up completely rocking it out, like putting it on steroids. But I like a lot of that stuff. Like the Groundhogs – they backed up John Lee Hooker, they're one of my favourite bands. I think they're incredible. I like the way a lot of those records actually sound. Recordings during that era were just so great. I think at that point England was probably making some of the most exciting sounding records as far as rock & roll goes.
Your music seems split between that straight-up rock & roll, Quo-embracing side, and then there's these math-y, unconventional 10 minute songs you've done with bands like Drive Like Jehu and Back Off Cupids, which I feel have been quite influential on later post rock acts. Are you comfortable with Jehu getting interpreted that way – by miserable guys staring at the floor playing 20-minute dirges?
JR: Uh huh. Well, you know, let me explain firstly – I was always into everything all at once and I think it's hard for maybe someone who is a bit younger to understand that being able to find, say, a Neu! Record was a really hard thing to do in the past in San Diego. You didn't just go to the record store and buy that record. There was no reissues – nothing like that was happening. You'd find it on cassette and it'd be a fourth or fifth generation dub of it. So I think I was into so many different things because I just felt like it was all precious. When I got turned onto a new band it felt a bit more special because it was so hard to come by. Like, I had heard everything about Radio Birdman before I actually heard them. All these punk bands had talked about how they were a massive influence and finally through tape trading, someone traded me a cassette – it took forever – it was ridiculous. So to answer the question, in the case of differences in aesthetic and approach between Rocket From The Crypt and Drive Like Jehu – I mean, yeah, they're different. But to me it's all the same set of influences but just different ones coming to the forefront. It's all still there. It's not that I'm wearing different hats, per se.
One thing that's consistent, though, is that the energy at all your shows is always pretty phenomenal. Why do you give guitars such a hard time onstage?
JR: You don't even know the half of it [LAUGHS]. I was born with the gift of, like, corrosive sweat – this high-saline content Portuguese man-sweat coming from every pore of my body. Maybe I have twice as many pores as the average person or something – I get really wet when I play – it's super gross, super nasty, and it all goes into this guitar that doesn't even rust: it just turns it into powder. It just corrodes it like acid (laughs). It's insane. And so more than beating the guitar up and throwing it and hammering on it and dropping it, just me holding it is probably causing it more damage than anything else.
You recently reformed Drive Like Jehu for its first show in 20 years. One thing I thought was cool about that was that it just seemed such a weird gig [an outdoor show at San Diego's Spreckels Organ Pavilion with the city's civic pipe-organist, Dr Carol Williams]. I'm sure there'll be more shows in future but that comeback just seemed to be the furthest thing from a cash-in reunion as possible. You don't often see that.
JR: We actually had to pay a lot of money to play that show. We had to cover the whole expense and put it on ourselves along with the sponsorship of Bar Pink, which is a bar in San Diego that I'm a partner in. But the money isn't important. It was a really good idea. Everybody in the band was like this is cool – weird enough to be fun and to not feel like an official reunion necessarily, you know, while sharing the attention with the organ. I think it's the second-largest outdoor pipe organ in the country or something and it relies on donations for upkeep. So we were able to align ourselves to that cause and do something that I thought was really creative. Who knew if it was going to work? There was no way of testing this out and no way of going through a practice run. I met with the organist a couple of times, went over some things and that time onstage was the first time she'd ever played with everybody. San Diego is not known for being super supportive of the arts, at least on a civic level. So I'm really happy that we were able to do it. It made me really proud and I felt it was one of those things that I'll look back on and it'll be probably one of the coolest things I've ever done in terms of putting on a show.
Yeah. This thing of bands reforming to play through specific albums in track order – I just find it so predictable and lacking in ideas – it seems to be the antithesis of why you'd want to go to a show: to not be surprised. So the Drive Like Jehu reunion was really refreshing.
JR: Yeah, I agree. I mean the nostalgia of hearing even a record that you really love in its entirety again, I just project myself into that possible situation and I can't see myself ever being interested in doing that. Every band I've ever been in has done records where at least a couple if not more songs ended up feeling like, "Fuck this, we're never gonna play this live – its a downer," you know.
Do you feel lucky to have Rick Froberg as a collaborator?
JR: I really do. It sounds kind of cheesy to say it – but I do. I feel really fortunate that I ended up finding a person to collaborate with who can complement what I do and make it better. Those people are a rarity.
Are there any future recordings coming from Hot Snakes?
JR: We've recorded a new song for this compilation of all San Diego bands that Swami Records is making called Hardcore Matinee. It's kind of a throwback to the compilations I grew up listening to, these budget collections on Mystic Records, which was a punk-rock label that would do around 40 bands on one LP. You didn't really ever know who was doing what – it was kind of a musical collage – but aesthetically I think there's something really cool about that. I'm using it as a jumping off point. Proceeds will benefit a local school music programme here in San Diego.
Does the song have a name?
JR: It's called 'Stay in School'.
JR: I'm de-archiving an old record that members of Rocket From The Crypt did with [1970s CBGBs acolyte and proto-punk singer] Sonny Vincent called Vintage Piss – it never got released – and we'll be touring it. That was a little bit of an excavation, finding those reels, baking them and getting them back to playability – but it was well worth it, I must say.
Did you just say "baking" them?
JR: Yeah, when moisture gets into old reels it makes them gummy and that can damage the tapes so you have to bake them in a converted food dehydrator to get all the humidity and moisture out – but sometimes there's no cure. The tape that they use these days isn't as good as the tape they used in the past such as in the 1970s when they used, like, oil from whales in them or something like that. But that was outlawed a long time ago – now the substitute for it just isn't as good.
I see. I don't think they're going to slaughter any more whales for rock & roll.
JR: Yeah, I might just have to deal with it. For the good of the whales.