Originally, when Rocket From the Crypt singer-guitarist John Reis and Delta 72 drummer Jason Kourkounis started the indie rock act Hot Snakes
together in 1999, Reis thought he’d be the singer. But when he and Kourkounis started working on demos, he realized his voice didn’t mesh well with the gritty garage-punk music the duo played.
“I wasn’t digging the way my voice meshed with the songs,” says Reis in a recent phone interview. Hot Snakes performs with Duchess Says and Meat Wave at 8:30 p.m. on Sunday at the Grog Shop
. “It wasn’t the sound in my head. Since I was already singing with Rocket From the Crypt, I wanted this to be an extension of my ability to express myself as a guitar player.”
Reis had played with singer-guitarist Rick Froberg (the two were in influential underground rock bands Pitchfork and Drive Like Jehu), who lived in New York at the moment, so Reis thought he’d make the perfect frontman even if that meant band members would be spread throughout the country (Reis lives in San Diego and Kourkounis lives in Philadephia).
“[Froberg] was the first person I thought of,” he explains. “We were friends, and we had the same ideas about music and were attracted to the same sounds in bands. He was down to do it. That was the band. I had never put a band together backwards before where we had a record and then put a band around it. It was a long-distance band, and that’s how it got pieced together.”
The band self-released its debut album, 2000’s Automatic Midnight
, and Reis quickly realized that what worked in the studio wouldn’t work on the stage.
“The first record doesn’t have any bass on it,” he explains. “There’s lots of organs and keyboards doing what the bass would be doing. I wasn’t interested in having that live. I played the organ parts on the record, and they’re all rudimentary and simple. I thought that would be boring live, especially since we wanted to do something manic with velocity and rhythm. Having a bass seemed to be something that would translate live.”
As a result, Reis recruited bassist Gar Wood, a San Diego musician he’d known for years, and the band began to play live as a four-piece. It would record two more albums before disbanding in 2005.
“I was going to have a kid,” says Reis when asked about why the group broke up. “There was an anxiety in that, and I didn’t know what to expect. I spent the ’90s and early 2000s touring the world constantly. I knew I didn’t want to do that anymore. I wanted to be a dad. I didn’t want to do Rocket either. We stopped that in the same year.”
Then, in 2010, the band reunited to play a show at the Casbah, the San Diego club that’s the epicenter of the city’s indie rock scene.
“It was great,” says Reis when asked about the gig. “When the band first started, there was immediately interest because of the bands we were in previously. We put out three records and that seemed to run its course in terms of the people who were excited about us. We saw it decline. We felt that there wasn’t that level of excitement there once was. When we came back, it was nice to be met with people who were interested and excited. It seemed like the music aged well. It still felt relevant. It felt like something natural, and I didn’t have to channel a Hot Snakes record. I just gravitated to the sounds that are interesting and inspiring.”
Reis says the band let the songs on the forthcoming Jericho Sirens
, “marinate”before recording them in the studio. The album’s single, the hard-driving “Six Wave Hold-Down” suggests the band hasn’t lost a step. A certain tension inflects both Froberg’s constipated vocals and the dynamic guitar interplay. Elsewhere, Froberg’s sneering vocals effectively turn “Death Camp Fantasy” into an ominous dirge.
“We didn’t ponder every movement, but we recorded in sessions,” says Reis. “We would record two to three to four songs in a session and just work on those. I liked doing that. It wasn’t the most cost-effective way to do it, but it was the funnest way to do it.”
Back in the ’90s, the fertile San Diego scene produced a good number of bands that went on to receive national (and even international attention). In fact, Hot
Snakes was one of the last bands to play a Peel Session with influential British DJ John Peel, who died in 2004.
Looking back on it, does Reis have some understanding of how and why San Diego became such a musical hotbed?
“San Diego was just the right place at the right time,” he says. “A lot of us had rejected what was happening with the violence of punk rock music. We decided to make our own thing. We wanted to remove ourselves from the scene and create a new one together. That happened in the ’80s. What happened in the ’90s was the fruit from that tree. I wasn’t around for Beatlemania, but it was kind of like that. We thought we were rebel music. We thought we were mavericks on the outside and the fringes, and that there was a disconnect between our rock ’n’ roll and the rock ’n’ roll that was on the radio. But it was a great time. We were all friends and supportive of each other. It was great to see everyone get the attention.”
Hot Snakes, Duchess Says, Meat Wave, 8:30 p.m. Sunday, March 11, Grog Shop, 2785 Euclid Heights Blvd., Cleveland Heights. Tickets: $23 ADV, $27 DOS, grogshop.gs.