Rocket From the Crypt's John Reis: "The bumps in the road are what make the ride fun."
Rocket From the Crypt (due Saturday, February 1, at the Summit Music Hall) formed in 1989 after the split of Pitchfork, an act that featured John Reis, who was also a member of influential noise rock/experimental punk band Drive Like Jehu at the time. Rocket's playful spirit and its sound connected to the roots of rock and roll and early punk, which allowed it to be a more enduring project, thanks to wild stage antics and songs that somehow combined the aspect of a party band and something more confrontational.
See also: Photos: The bands of Riot Fest Denver
Rocket parted ways in 2005 following numerous releases and seven full length albums. In recent years, demand for the band, which never parted on acrimonious terms, inspired its members to get back together, and Rocket From the Crypt ended up reconvening in time to play at Riot Fest this past summer. We recently spoke with the friendly, cordial and thoughtful Reis about his connection with Wesley Willis, why Jehu and Rocket represented different yet concurrent musical interests and social connections and some of the craziest stuff that happened at Rocket shows over the years.
Westword: When you were growing up, how easy was it for you to find out about underground music and get into a band?
John Reis: It was pretty easy to get into a band because there were a lot of kids at my school who shared excitement for making lots of noise on instruments. But in terms of connecting with people who actually liked the kind of music that I liked, yeah, that was pretty difficult. There was pretty much just one record store in town, for the most part, that would carry the kind of music that I liked. And it was quite far away, so lots of long bus journeys to get there and whatnot. Even then, they weren't stocked full of all of the stuff that I wanted to hear.
A lot of the stuff I was getting into was stuff recorded in the late '70s. By 1984, most of it was already out of print and hard to find. So it was kind of hard to track down records, so swap meets kind of became a place to pick through stuff and find cool things and be exposed to cool, weird stuff. Also thrift stores, too. So a quest to find underground music or punk rock turned into an appreciation for thrift store culture.
What was the name of that one record store?
The name of the one that I liked to go to was called Off The Record. It was probably fifteen miles away from my house. What made it cool was not only that it had a small selection of punk records, but they also had a punker working there. People who liked that kind of music who would say, "Hey check this out, check that out." Other stores in San Diego at the time, and even the chains, would have a really small selection of punk records. The usual suspects you'd see over and over again.
When you were starting out playing bands, did you see or go to shows at places like Ché Café?
Oh yeah, we played the Ché Café. That was probably one of the first places I played. The Ché Café was the place you could go and see different kinds of bands; it was always very cheap. After the fallout that happened with punk and hardcore or whatever you want to call it -- the lack of emphasis on music and the appreciation of music and more the spectacle of man-on-man contact -- there was a group of people that recoiled and found themselves at the Ché Café. So, later on, it became a really cool place to play and a great meeting place, and there was definitely a sense of community there.
You started Rocket From The Crypt and Drive Like Jehu around the same time. Why did you have that division between the sounds of both bands rather than maybe combining those ideas into one band?
Drive Like Jehu was pretty much the trajectory that started with my first band, Pitchfork. That was a band I was in with four other guys. The original bass player left, and we found a replacement, and it was looking like our replacement bass player after a year or so was going to move on, and it just kind of seemed like it ran its course. Musically, I would say that Drive Like Jehu kind of continued on in, like I said, the musical trajectory that started with Pitchfork. It was a continuation of that with different people for sure, but for me and my input was the same train of thought, the same progression and the same types of inspirations.
With Rocket, that came more out of playing with people more in my immediate vicinity -- more or less neighbors. With Pitchfork and Drive Like Jehu, most of the band was twenty miles away, which isn't that far, but when you're eighteen, it seems pretty far. When most of your time is spent on a bike or a skateboard cruising around, your range is a bit smaller. It was for me at that time in my life. Rocket was more about being more specific, at least when we started, my surroundings, and it was meant to be, musically, a more emphasis on action, in terms of playing and playing parties, and hopefully there'd be more opportunities for performing.
I had wanted to surround myself with people who were very much into the idea of getting in a vehicle and driving and playing. Just leaving town and doing that. I was seeing a lot of bands come through San Diego who were kind of kids my same age, and they were doing it. They were living the life in bands touring the country. I thought, "Aw, man, I really want to do this." I felt like that opportunity was slipping away a little bit as I was getting older, and I didn't want to have regrets. Rocket started as more of a show band in that regard.
Why did you want to add a horn section after Paint As Fragrance came out?
It was just the sounds. You have ideas in your head and you hear sounds in your head, and I wanted it to be real. I didn't want it to just be something that only existed in my imagination. I wanted to actually hear it. That's kind of where that started.
How did people react to that?
I don't know. I think people really liked it. I think they continue to like it. I think it's something that sets us apart from other people. That's not necessarily why we did it. But for us a lot of classic rock and roll records were much more horn and even piano-based as opposed to electric guitars, you know?
It was an opportunity to bring someone else into the fold and expand our sound and basically try something different. We had the sax, and later it was like he was kind of alone and he needed a friend. So in came JC 2000 on the trumpet to make it more a section, even though a small section, a section nonetheless.
The title of Scream, Dracula, Scream, came from a Wesley Willis song, "Verbal Assault." What did you like about him, and what about that lyric struck you enough to use it as the title of an album?
Our run-ins with Wesley were very random. We met him in front of a club, and he came up to us, and he immediately engaged us in a very cool, strange conversation. He was immediately interesting. And he was obviously something of a local celebrity at that point because all the people at the club knew him. He was a fixture; he was a part of the family of that club. I want to say it was Lounge Acts where we were playing.
He did have drawings, and he showed us those, and he started singing some songs. I don't think even at that point he was making music. He could have been, but I don't think he was. It was nothing that he mentioned other than singing along. He had these catch phrases that were really imaginative and magnetic. You found yourself repeating them and them becoming part of your vernacular. We were just really taken by him. We thought he was very funny, but also very sweet, a kind person, who had a very unique perspective.
I think we ended up running into him a couple of times after that over the years and then we heard about him playing music. He sent us, I don't know if it was a CD or a cassette, but someone in the band got a cassette, and said, "Oh yeah, you know, he has a song about you guys!" We were so psyched. You know, "Oh my god, he wrote a song! We have this special connection with this guy! He wrote a song about us!"
So we put in the tape and started listening to it. I think we had to get through, like, maybe twenty other songs about other bands before we got to ours. As it went on, they were all very, very funny and very cool, but it got to the point where it was like, "Maybe we didn't have that special a connection.
Or maybe everyone feels like they have this special connection with him." Which is, in a sense, is part of what made him such an amazing person. He brought out the best in people. Without a doubt, when he was around people you saw them at their best.
It was just getting into him and plugging into his world and getting off on that. We ended up doing some shows with Wesley, with the Fiasco, which was the rock band that he did, and yeah, really great times and really fond memories. If only we could still have opportunities like that now. It just seemed like those were just really amazing and special times.
He lived in Denver for a bit, too, and you would run into him at 15th St. Tavern, outside of Wax Trax, at Monkey Mania or the Lion's Lair or whatever..
Did you take away any lessons from your experience with independent and major labels in forming Swami Records?
I don't think anything I did with Swami had anything to do with that. I think maybe the inspiration was just to do things on my own. It wasn't really a reaction. Even before we did stuff with Interscope, I wanted to do my own thing but time was really limited. We were spending so much time on the road playing.
Of course funding was hard to come by, too. At the same time, once you see other people putting out records, the process is demystified, and you can see that it's just basically as simple as following some steps. You do this, then you do that, then you do this, and then you have a record. There's also that network of distribution.
In the '90s it was easy, for the most part, to get someone to take five hundred copies of pretty much any record, any 45 you'd put out. It was a cool time to be involved and have that kind of dialogue. I'm not saying doesn't still exist -- it does, it totally does -- but obviously, there's not the same amount of record shops or the same level of interest in buying records. People tend to want things so immediately. They want it on their own terms.
Whereas there was something appealing about not being to get whatever you wanted. Therefore when you got something you'd been looking for for a while, it felt special. I'm not saying it's better, I'm just saying that's what it was. I'm not making an argument for or against, I'm just saying now anyone can have whatever they want whenever they want it, for the most part.
I remember not even being able to find what is today considered very mainstream, easy-to-find records -- you couldn't find them at all. Aside from a Black Flag or Dead Kennedys record, you couldn't find anything else, really. Now people they hear about a record, and they want to hear it immediately and the band has something online where you can check it out or download it.
You can basically have something within minutes after it was done being recorded everywhere. That's pretty cool, that immediacy, which is pretty awesome. At the same time, it's easy to kind of look at it all as just this disposable heap of content that just keeps coming in and feeding the need for more.
When you were touring in the mid-90s you had several fun show gimmicks and theatrics. Do you still do that sort of thing today?
Maybe a little bit. We're a show band and we like to play rock and roll in front of people and give them a bit of a show. There's definitely not pyrotechnics or anything like that, but we definitely have fun with it.