March 28th, 2014 | Interviews

nathan morse

For approximately fifteen years, San Diego’s Rocket from the Crypt triumphantly strode the globe like a punk colossus. Helmed by consummate showman John ‘Speedo’ Reis, RFTC performed high energy rock ‘n’ roll with synchronized outfits and a brass section. Their blend of self-aware theatrics and absolutely 100 percent dead serious commitment to a big, pummeling rock sound earned them an enviably devoted fan base, many of whom sport the band’s iconic rocket tattoo. In 2005, RFTC disbanded after a farewell Halloween show and while individual members have gone on to other projects, the band has only sporadically played together in the intervening years despite the fan base remaining as devoted as ever. In December of 2012, an official RFTC reunion was announced and the band is currently in the midst of a limited US tour. John Reis speaks from RFTC’s physical and spiritual homeland, San Diego, about the band’s ethos, the freedom to be internationally silly in a pre-internet era and the impact of Snoopy vs. the Red Baron on musical development. This interview by Tom Child.

I read that Rocket from the Crypt hosted a German variety show. Is this true?
John Reis (vocals/guitar): Yeah, that is true. To tell you the truth, we did quite a few things in Germany and more than one of them was like a variety kind of show. We did one where it was the week before Oktoberfest and I came out on this giant—it wasn’t inflatable, I think it was fiberglass, but this sausage that was suspended in air with my guitar, just straddling it like you would a horse or something like that. Just riding this big phallic symbol and it dropped me down. I have to tell you, half the time—80 percent of the time—we didn’t know what the hell people were talking about. We couldn’t understand people but we just said yes to everything because we kind of looked at everything over in Europe—the UK included—as Monkey Island. It was like one of those situations where we would do stuff that we maybe wouldn’t do back home because we figured none of our friends would ever see it and it was just fun. It was like, ‘Yeah, there’s nothing to be embarrassed of because no one’s ever going to see this thing.’ It’s not like today where you do something and then it’s everywhere. There was another thing where we hosted some kind of competition that was like a pre-American Idol but a German version of it, mainly for kids. Do you know who Heino is? There was this one where there was like a 10-year old Heino. This kid who was almost an albino wearing this white wig and the sunglasses and singing one of his songs. We did one thing that was televised in France where we were announcing this huge motorcycle race with, like, 100,000 people. And it wasn’t because we were necessarily massively popular. I think it was just that we said yes to everything. We never opened supermarkets or anything over there but if they would have asked us, we would have.
Has it been easy to get back into the mindset of playing in Rocket From the Crypt?
Yeah—it’s taken some time and we’ve had to put some hours into it and practice and revisit songs and ideas that we had many years ago and learn some things, but it hasn’t been difficult per se. ‘Hard’ is, like, climbing a palm tree. That’s hard.
How would characterize your various personas? You have Speedo, Swami, Slasher … How is that different than when you just perform as John Reis, like in Hot Snakes?
It is a little bit different. With Rocket, I really like the show band aesthetic and presentation and I feel comfortable doing that. When I’m singing with the band, I am being myself but it’s kind of a different version of myself. It’s not like a mask or something that I’m hiding behind and it’s not always completely true as well. Sometimes it’s a bit fantastic, coming from fantasy. It’s just kind of everything. But that’s who we are as people too. We can live our lives however we want to. With Rocket, I kind of just put it all in there: truths and lies and everything in between. And if people enjoy that, they can decide what they want to do with it. As far as when I just play as myself, I always considered myself a guitar player first and foremost. Someone who plays guitar and writes albums on guitar. When I’m playing in Hot Snakes, it’s not like I’m wearing a different hat but the band is more about the immersion—for me, at least—into losing myself in the guitar. And since I’m not the singer I don’t feel the need to really engage the crowd vocally. I do it with my guitar. What I’m saying is there aren’t really characters. It’s me. But at the same time, if I want to be myself or be a character, I can. It gives me the freedom to be whatever I want to be.
Did you find that being a rock band with a horn section during the third-wave ska revival in the 90s ever resulted in any confusion among people attending your shows? Or did people think you were a rockabilly band based on your haircuts?
At first it was cool in the sense that when we first started playing with the horns, not a lot of people were doing it, and nobody was really doing it with punk rock music or rock ‘n’ roll music or whatever you want to call it. But it’s true. We looked like greasers and we had horns and because of that, there were some definite pitfalls where we were just really bummed out with the association. I mean, do I like ska music and rockabilly music? Yes, I do—very much. But in terms of the revival that happened in the 90s? No, I don’t like any of that. But we liked that kind of music. We loved the music of Jamaica from the 60s and we loved the early American hillbilly rock ‘n’ roll of the 50s. We liked that stuff and it was actually stuff that we’d listen to. We’d blast it all the time. But no, we really did not like being aligned with the ska revival and the chain wallet, flaming-dice tattoo aspect of the 90s. We hated that stuff. We really did. Even though a lot of people who might have liked that stuff liked our music, I always felt like as far as a scene and as far as an aesthetic, it was just something to kind of make fun of. The ska thing … that was even worse because there was nothing remotely soulful or rhythmic about it, you know what I mean? It wasn’t really ska music—not that I would ever be someone who would be that passionate about it in the first place, but c’mon. It really did not resemble what supposedly it was supposed to be. It just sounded like Taco Bell commercials. You know, a lot of the rockabilly stuff, the chain wallet stuff—not all of it, but a lot of it reminded me of skinheads with longer greasy hair. It just seemed like that machismo made it the monster truck of underground rock. People compensating for something.
What made you want to play rock ‘n’ roll in the first place?
I remember I loved records—kids’ records, kind of like novelty records—when I was a kid. I didn’t know they were novelty records but there was this one record called Snoopy vs. the Red Baron. It was basically a lot of cover versions of bubblegum-ish pop songs. It wasn’t, like, a Schulz syndicated record. It had nothing to do with Snoopy at all. It was basically this cover art of the Red Baron. There was ‘Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport’ and ‘Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavor on the Bedpost Overnight?’ and ‘Mrs. Brown, You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter.’ I played that record out and I knew then—although I wouldn’t say that that was necessarily rock ‘n’ roll—but at a young age, that kind of started my being into records. The thrill that I got from that record made me … every time I’d go to the record store with my folks I’d be hoping to kind of get that same feeling. Later on, I think in probably fifth grade, it was Alice Cooper, KISS—that kind of stuff. Seeing stuff on TV and going, ‘What’s that?’ That was definitely what made me want to play guitar—but I have to say that those bands and those records made it seem like being in a band was really, really difficult. It wasn’t something the average, normal person could do. It wasn’t later, until maybe the summer between sixth and seventh grade, when a friend who had an older brother had some cassettes by the Ramones and rock ‘n’ roll stuff too, like oldies. Hearing the Ramones and Chuck Berry on the same cassette made it seem like they were both coming from the same place. I didn’t understand the gaps between those artists. I was getting them both on the same thing so I kind of thought it was all part of the same music and coming from the same place. That was really big. Once my own identity became more solidified, it was definitely about punk rock music, hardcore and the kind of youth rebellion music that was around when I was of that age. I aligned myself with that. That was really important in terms of informing me that it’s not what you have but what you do with it. The resourcefulness of punk rock and the ‘make something out of nothing.’ At least that’s what I got out of it.
I also had the same relationship with that record. I had this Califone record player next to my bed and my mom would put it on. It seems funny that that’s a common thread for so many people who would later go on to be fans of the maybe more ‘grown-up’ versions of that music.
Yeah, and you know what? I bought it—well, I picked it out because I couldn’t pay for it, I was just a little kid—but I picked it out the way I picked out a lot of records back then: 100 percent completely based on the front cover art. Something about the cover made me say, ‘Oh, I’m getting that.’
What kinds of bands were you going out to see before you started playing music?
As a teenager? There weren’t any kinds of all-ages clubs per se early on. It was all hall shows. So basically punk rock shows. Bands that would come through town were few and far between because San Diego had a reputation—and rightfully so—for being a really violent place. It wasn’t a real great place to grow up seeing bands. As much as I love it here, it wasn’t healthy. So what kind of bands? I don’t know. Any band. I remember going to see punk bands that I didn’t even like that much just because that was the show and that was the thing to do. I think I even went and saw the Exploited, a band that I hated, just because it’s like, well, there are two shows coming to town that month. And I’d go to both of them. Battalion of Saints was a local band that played not as often as I would have liked, but I saw them a handful of times. They were a San Diego punk band that was pretty influential—I think very influential, actually—elevating what a local band could be in terms of their stylistic approach and just being a kick-ass band. They were better than so many of the bands that they would open up for coming through town. I’m trying to think of the really early [shows I saw]. Obviously, Black Flag, the Dead Kennedys. San Diego also had really cool 60s revivalism going on. Bands like the Morlocks, Gravedigger V, the Tell-Tale Hearts. People called it psychedelic music although I don’t think it was always psychedelic-inspired—but before the garage appreciation started in the later 90s, this was just kind of different bands taking on the different styles of the 60s and kind of doing their own thing with it and that really became San Diego. That was pretty happening. It kind of was slim pickings for the most part. It was more just friends hanging out with each other and playing in garage bands. I mean, not really ‘garage music’ per se but bands that started and played in garages and parties and those kinds of things. That’s what had more of a lasting impact on probably all of us. Meeting different people throughout the city and finding out that you’re not so alone, that there are other people who have wanted to do this and are doing this. To this day, some of those people are some of my best friends—so I would look to that as more of a lasting impact during that era.
Can you talk just a little bit about how Rocket from the Crypt started as a band? What was the drive behind doing that?
Those kinds of punk shows I was talking about that were really violent and kind of lame—like, lots of fighting and you’d get punched in the head just for liking a band. The band kind of started as a reaction to that. We withdrew ourselves from that environment and tried to make something that was our own—that was more aligned with our perspective and our vision for rock ‘n’ roll music—and a lot of it was rooted in Tijuana, Mexico. We’d go down there and there was like a commune down there of … some of them were artists, some of them were political activists and some of them were just kind of drunkards who liked hanging on to the periphery of this underground scene. And we would go down there and play parties and did a lot to stretch out and reinvent ourselves as people with this new band. And when we came back to play in San Diego it was kind of a return to the rock ‘n’ roll music that we really had never known—in the sense that stylistically it was kind of a simplistic approach to the stuff we were maybe listening to at the time and the bands that we’d been in before and the kind of music we were trying to create before. It was more about, like, ‘OK, we’re going to do this thing.’ And we kind of had the identity before we even started it. It was going to be this rock ‘n’ roll band and it was going to play all over the country and the goal was to kind of … not necessarily ‘convert’ people, but to go out there and see how many friends we have in the world. That was really part of the goal from the beginning, just as much as the music. As soon as we were playing shows it was, like, ‘Let’s get out of town, rent a van and just see how far we can go.’
Was that initial vision realized immediately or did it take some time for the band to discover that?
Time moved slower then. It didn’t come immediately. It seemed like we started practicing and then a year later we were finally touring. In this day and age, time moves so much faster. I think it actually was pretty immediate but it didn’t feel like it. It seemed like one of those things where we did do a couple practices and then a month later we recorded some songs and then two months later we recorded a record and then a month after that we went out and started playing. Just going down the checklist and just scratching one thing off at a time and methodically doing all of the things we wanted to do.
Given that you brought up the speed at which things progress now, which way do you prefer?
I don’t think one’s better and one’s worse. But I prefer things moving at a slower pace because I’m not one of those people who is super psyched by change. I don’t really get super stoked on the new whatever. I am a bit more slow-moving. I like things that take a while to grow on me and sometimes those things turn out to be my favorite things. I might not appreciate them immediately but there are different layers that present themselves with repeated listening. Just being able to marinate on it and take a sound with you in your daily life and then having that reverberation of, ‘OK, cool—now this means something more to me because I have this other understanding of it, my own understanding of it.’ And it might not have even been the intention. I like that better when it comes to music. I think it’s great having all the information out there. I think that’s a really great thing because it not only inspires and empowers people, but access to information shouldn’t be monetized. When I was a kid, certain records that you might now take for granted as being something you can just kind of click on a button and get … certain records back then were very, very hard to find and very expensive even if you could find them. But there was something cool about that in the sense that if you pined for something for a long time and you finally got that piece of music that you’d wanted to hear, it did make it feel pretty special, you know? It wasn’t just a matter of absorbing this and then moving on to the next thing. You really just sat with it because there wasn’t necessarily a next thing right around the corner. I like both but I tend to think that when you actually got a record and it was released in the way that the band wanted it presented to you—as opposed to getting something in different order, without the artwork and this and that—I mean, I could just go on and on. But as far as music being information and just getting that, I think it’s cool to be able to get that stuff now. It really has made bands a lot more varied overall. A lot more stuff to pull from. It’s not only just new but ideas that go back quite old. You can find stuff. There’s niches for pretty much everything. It really amazes me sometimes. You know, you get this 45 that might have been this very obscure thing that was released, let’s say, in the 50s. A rhythm and blues record. And it wasn’t so much about not being able to pay for it—it was just one of those things where you would never have even seen this thing. You might not have even known it existed. And now you can just pull up all that music. I’ve got to say that more than anything, I think it’s more good than bad. To be able to have music have a second or third life and to have it now be presented out of the context in which it was made and find a new audience now—that’s pretty great.
Can you think of an example of something that you thought was horrible on an initial listen but that you came to appreciate in a new way by virtue of it being one of the only things available?
Never anything that I thought was terrible, but I did have records that I heard once and went, ‘Oh, I guess that’s pretty cool’ that ended up becoming some of my favorite records. I remember going to the swap meet and buying records based on their covers and maybe getting five or six records on a Sunday—coming home and putting them on and not really giving them a lot of time because I would put it on just to hear it. But I’d have these records for the next month and all I had were these records to listen to over and over again, so I’d find certain things. To tell you the truth, Black Sabbath was kind of like that for me. I didn’t get in to Black Sabbath because they were a heavy band that the kids at school liked and said, ‘You got to check these guys out.’ That’s the first record I got at a thrift store and I put it on and I remember thinking it was kind of hokey. After a while, it was like, ‘Oh, this is actually really cool. These guys are pretty good.’ A lot of 60s records. The Doors. I remember thinking, ‘Oh, this guy just sounds kind of like Robert Goulet.’ And then a month later, like. ‘Oh, OK!’ A lot of times it’s one song. One song will kind of turn you around. When you buy records at thrift stores, you can’t go, ‘Where’s your punk section?’ You just buy what’s there. You end up buying Martin Denny records and Pérez Prado and all this stuff the thrift store culture had. The usual suspects in the 80s. Now you go to the thrift store to buy a record and all you find are a hundred copies of … I don’t know, records that they made millions of in the 80s. Kenny Loggins and stuff like that.
What was the reason for simultaneously starting Drive Like Jehu and Rocket From the Crypt? How was your mindset different with each band? Or when you played with Hot Snakes or the Night Marchers or the Sultans? How are each of these projects differentiated in your mind?
Drive Like Jehu was kind of this musical trajectory that came from myself and Rick [Froberg], who was the singer of Pitchfork, which is the band we were doing before Drive Like Jehu. He was the singer and I played guitar. When that band dissolved and certain members went off to school or what not, I still knew I wanted to play with Rick. I knew there was music I could do with Rick that I really couldn’t do with anyone else in San Diego and it was a good thing and I wanted to keep doing it. We started writing songs that were kind of along the same path as the band we were doing previously. They didn’t sound the same but they felt like they were coming from the same place. We just decided that we wanted to continue doing that and Rick picked up a guitar because he wanted to play guitar in the band as well as sing. There was this other band in San Diego called Night Soil Man that was pretty much recognized by everyone in town as having the best rhythm section in San Diego—just really incredible, thunderous and repetitive and really great. We were like, ‘We gotta play with those dudes.’ That was how that started. As far as doing other bands, they come from an inspiration that feels different. Let’s say with Rocket: it has this identity and the band is what it is. It’s the sum of its parts. So let’s say I have a song and it’s a Rocket song. That feels very clear to me. It’s coming from this thread, this place, the Rocket place or whatever. It’s never been really hard to kind of go from one band to the other. Usually these things will happen in spurts. With the Sultans it was like, ‘OK, yeah, I’m hanging with a couple people, I want to do this thing, let’s do this thing.’ And then bam, it just becomes this thing that’s happening right now. And a couple weeks later there it is, coming from this spurt, coming from this well. And then it’s gone and you move on to the next thing. Hot Snakes is really similar to Drive Like Jehu in the sense that—again, not sounding anything like Drive Like Jehu, but it’s coming from that place where that band came from. I’m not going to say that Drive Like Jehu would have sounded like Hot Snakes if we’d continued necessarily … but that’s probably what it would have been like. At least what I’m doing would have been like that because that’s what I’m doing, you know?
How did Jim Dickinson end up playing piano on ‘Ghost Shark’?
Jim had worked with a band Claw Hammer that we were really good friends with. He produced their record and we came to know him through that association and being just massive fans of Memphis music and its history and importance, we had his number and we called him up and said, ‘Hey, we’re recording in New York. Wanna come up here and play on a record?’ So he came out to New York and played on the RFTC record and then a couple years later, when we were recording at Easley, we invited him to come to that, which was weird because he actually had never been inside that studio before with him being an Ardent dude and I guess Easley kind of being, you know—I guess you would say maybe the competition or something like that? I don’t know. But yeah, he came there and played with us there. Recording with Jim was something you’d look forward to. When he was coming in the next day you couldn’t even really get to sleep that night, you were so excited. It was partially because of the great stories and his perspective and just hearing all of his different clarifications about certain things that might have happened. More than that, just when he started playing the piano … Oh man, he would just sit down behind the piano and you’d be like, ‘Man, that’s him. There he is.’ He was very talented and just really a treasure, musically and as a person. Just a really, really cool dude. We didn’t hang out with him a whole lot but the times that we did, we look back and consider how fortunate and lucky we were to have done that.
How did you feel after that final Halloween show? Was there any part of you that thought you might re-form one day or was that going to be it?
No—I thought that was it and I never wanted to play those fucking songs ever again. I was done.
So why are you re-forming now?
When we were playing, our popularity was waning but we were sticking to our guns and we liked what we were doing. We still wanted to find out how many friends we had out there in the world. After a while it just gets to the point where it feels that it’s time to wrap things up. We weren’t getting any younger and the band was so all-consuming that we really couldn’t pursue anything else as long as we were doing this band. So when that end came, there was a finality to it and we went our different ways. But the band will always be a large part of who we are and with time and some distance away from it, as well as people saying, ‘We want this, we want to see you play, come do this please’ … it got to the point where it felt stupid to say no because we always wanted people to like us and here are people saying they want to see us play. To say no just seemed ridiculous. That was basically it in a nutshell.
Is there any talk of continuing this on or is this an official last hurrah?
There’s talk, but at the same time that’s all there is. This could end after these shows or it could go on. We’re very much in the moment now. We don’t have these lofty aspirations of controlling the universe like we used to—so we just take it one show at a time.