A truly ironic sensibility always contains, at its core, some degree of sincerity. So while Rocket from the Crypt frontman John "Speedo" Reis' sarcasm may border on arrogance, he and his bandmates perform with an urgency and authenticity that can only stem from a genuine love for their influences.
When the six musicians appeared on the Late Late Show back in 2003, host Craig Kilborn introduced them as "the best live band in the solar system." That claim was no less true at last summer's Riot Fest, where the San Diego band's horn-fueled, post-punk celebration blew away the festival's headliners.
While Rocket from the Crypt hasn't released a new studio album in more than a decade — during which time Reis has helmed lesser-known outfits like Hot Snakes and the Night Marchers — last year's European reunion tour found the band picking up right where it left off, tearing through RFTC classics like "On a Rope" and "Ditch Digger" with tight arrangements that never waste a single note.
For its British dates, the band also recorded six one-sided, limited-edition 7-inch singles, each covering an artist who hailed from whatever city they were playing. Songs ranged from the Buzzcocks' relatively obscure "Love is Lies" to Gerry Rafferty's ubiquitous "Baker Street." (More on the latter in just a bit.)
"It was just kind of a fun idea in the spirit of how we used to do things," says Reis of the singles, which will soon be released as a box set. "I thought it was a chance for us to get back in the studio and record some stuff with little or no expectations."
In the following interview, Reis talks about today's wannabe bohemian bands, San Diego's early music scene, and the parallel universes that await his resurrected Rocket From the Crypt.
Having seen the band perform through the years, it's always interested me how you come across as both sarcastic and good-hearted at the same time, even when you're singing about "jacking off on Baker Street." Do you think your fans recognize that more than people who don't know the band as well? And would you say that's a reflection of your own personality?
I haven't really thought about it that much. I guess Speedo is a persona that I created, but the persona is basically just a magnified version of myself. It might not be all my best traits that are magnified, but you know, that's just what it is. There's always been a lot of contradiction in what we do, and we've never shied away from that contradiction. At the same time, there's also some parts of it that are sincere, and are very much reflective of what we're about as people.
Obviously I appreciate bands that take themselves seriously and whose creativity is expressed well in their music. But I think that sometimes taking yourself too seriously can be a hindrance, you know? The humanity is lost sometimes. But that's just the way I look at things.
Humor can also be more subversive.
I always hated funny bands, though, the ones where everything is just a fart joke or whatever. But, you know, you can laugh at that as well. Laugh at how it's not funny.
A lot of articles mention how, early on, you were pegged as "the next Nirvana." What was the San Diego music scene like in those days, and did record companies really think it would become the next Seattle?
I don't think that it was that big of a deal, because it was happening in every city in the country. There was definitely something going on in San Diego — the bands that I was friends with were all getting some attention — but then something happened somewhere else and it just kind of moved around.
I never felt like we were poised to be the next anything, though. You know, I was totally aware of the fact that we were getting attention, along with thousands of other bands, because Nirvana had had massive success, and these labels were trying to come and duplicate that. But I always thought that we were out of step. We were a little bit too far ahead and a little bit too far behind what was happening.
While bands like Hunters and Collectors and the Contortions combined horns with elements of punk, it doesn't seem like there have been all that many since. Why do you think that is? Is it just hard to do?
Well, based on what I saw last summer playing festivals, there are a lot of banjos and acoustic guitars and bowed instruments like cellos and violins. As far as why not horns, I don't know. Maybe it's a little bit too brash for the pseudo-pastoral kind of wannabe bohemian aesthetic that a lot of the new music has.
But you know, when we started getting some steam in the mid-'90s, there was what people were referring to as this third-wave or fourth-wave ska revival, you know, that we weren't really a part of at all. But because we had horns, we kind of got lumped in with it sometimes. And of course that was frustrating, because we didn't really like any of those bands, or feel a connection to any of them. So there were a lot of bands with horns for a while there.
I'd forgotten about the whole ska revival thing having horns.
Well, that's good that you did, because it really didn't do anything to elevate the genre. Don't get me wrong, I think the music of Jamaica from the late '50s to the mid-'70s — you know, that 20-year span — some of the most interesting recordings and best musicians came out of that scene. But I can't really say that anyone who's built upon that DNA has added anything to it to make it better.
As a live band, it seems like you could continue to draw upon all the songs you already have and still sound fresh for decades. But I've read that you're recording a new album. Is that true?
No, we're just taking things as they come. You know, it's hard to even schedule practices, just because everyone's so busy. Some guys in the band are playing in three other bands that are quite busy, and other people have school. And then there's just life: family, work, all that stuff. So I don't see a new record happening anytime soon.
I'm not gonna say that it won't happen, but really, there are no plans, there's not even a single song. But you know, things change rapidly. As slow-moving as we are, all it really takes is just for the wind to change direction. And then all of a sudden, you know, something could be imminent. Or we could stop playing. [Laughs.] You know, it could really just go either way.