Niall McGuirk talks punk, reunions and Top Of The Pops with John Reis, aka Rocket From The Crypt frontman Speedo. You’ve got to hand it to Umack. Timo has been involved in some really great gigs this year and this is continuing into the final month of 2013. San Diego punk rock’n’roll legends Rocket From The Crypt are making their way over on December 7th.
I saw them play in The Village if memory serves me right, and my record collection boasts vinyl from many bands that main Rocket protaganist, John ‘Speedo’ Reis, has played in. Pitchfork, Drive Like Jehu and Hot Snakes all have pride of place in there along with Rocket so I thought I give him a call in advance of the Dublin gig. First up I needed to check the waters as to who I was talking to. John may be his name to his kids, friends & parents, but on the records he is Speedo and is know in different circles as Swami and Boss Man…
So what should it be tonight, my friend – John, speedo or swami? John, Speedo, Boss Man or Swami, they all work.
Great to hear you’re coming back over to Ireland. Any memories from previous trips or do these cities all merge? We’ve been over a couple of times with Rocket From The Crypt. I have a specific memory of an old man throwing up on me in the street in Dublin. I remember all our Dublin shows, good times.
That’s some stereotypical image of Ireland. Not the first time that happened. I was in Munich and got barfed on by an old woman, only a couple of months before Ireland. I’m that guy that gets shit on by birds. If a waitress accidentally spills something I’m the one it gets spilt on. Things find me.
Can you go back to a young John Reis. What was San Diego like for a kid growing up back then? I was born in San Diego in 1969, it’s a great place to grow up and live. We have great beaches and lots of piers and a couple of nice big bays. Lots of sun, skateboarding. Being outside riding bikes, not wearing shoes for months on end.
What made you pick up guitar and then decide it’s ok to play your songs in public. I’d been writing songs before I even played guitar. I had ideas in my head. I would say Kiss and Alice Cooper made me wanna play music. And then after I got a guitar I could play along to Chuck Berry. Then later on the Ramones got pretty big and that made me wanna play music in a band. As much as I loved the Beatles that wasn’t the kind of music that made me feel like ‘I wanna do this, I can make records like this’. On hearing the Ramones it was like this is not not just something I want to do it’s something I can do.
Was Pitchfork your first band? They were the first band that recorded stuff. I was in a couple of garage hadcore bands before that. They were a lot of fun and felt as important as anything I’d done. It was the same kind of mentality but Pitchfork was the first to play shows and put out a record.
Did you find it hard to get gigs? It wasn’t really hard as most of it was parties, but the real shows, like when we opened for Fugazi a couple of times, were few and far between. We had a club called the Che Cafe which was an all ages venue close to the university campus. It was a place where kids could go and be freaks. The line-ups were diverse, they never had the same kind of bands playing with each other. We would play with a reggae band – being a progressive university meant they had to have a reggae act for some reason, and more experimental kind of music as well as straight ahead teenage rock bands. We were all thrown into this petri dish. I felt that’s where the scene that I felt part of happened. We met a lot of different people there.
Before that it was punk rock and hardcore shows where not only was it the same kind of music again and again but in San Diego there was a lot of violence. It came to the point where there was always fighting. It was almost like saying Che Cafe wasn’t going to be taken over by one kind of people. Musically if you didnt hear things that didn’t resonate with you you still met a lot of great people and realise that we have so much more in common than what seperates us. Rocket From The Crypt evolved out of that scene, and then later when we turned 21 we started playing The Casbah. That was the new place that was the rock’n’roll clubhouse where there was really like minded people.”
For Rocket Was it a conscious decision to have stage names? Rocket’s line up features names like ‘Speedo’, ‘ND’, ‘Apollo 9’, ‘JC 2000’. I’m sure none of these are on birth certificates. That came about when we did our first tour. When we started playing out of town no-one had a vehicle that was big enough to carry us all and our equipment. We had to resort to renting stuff and found it was impossible to rent anything for different reasons – not just age, but also because of things on our permanent record. We came up with these names and funnily enough they didn’t check then as they do now. It was the same with rehearsal spaces. We would even call our band different names all the time. We would go into a place and if we couldn’t afford to pay them we would run out of there, so we became recognisable as being unreliable and it was hard to find places to practice. It was also that we wanted to create our own reality. We wanted to do something different. Sometimes honesty and truth can be so boring. Let’s just do someting and give ourselves the licence and freedom to attack this as a new person.
There was a Rocket package – the names, the dress, the smart design on the records? We had a lot of fun creating fantasy and turning it into reality. We were very much influenced by a lot of underling bands of the 50’s and 60’s. Bands that were influenced by the greats but never had their day, put together their image and identity but for some reason had a different take on things that came out a bit wrong. Kind of like a ‘what the fuck’ kind of thing. We were really into The Music Machine, early garage misfits and a lot of really obscure 60’s soul bands that were influnced by James Brown but did it on a tight budget. Very homespun DIY take on that group showband aestethic, those were our influences.
Back in the early 90s with Drive Like Jehu or Rocket was there a sudden jump when it became easier for the band to get gigs? Did that coincide with signing to Interscope? I don’t think signing to Interscope had anything to do with it. We had a different label in the UK and Ireland. They did a really good job, they marketed the band really well. The sound kind of clicked over there. In the States people liked it and stuff but we didn’t really sell any records. It was one of those things where it was really niche, over here in the states we were kind of too much behind the times and too ahead of the times. We were inbetween movements in rock and roll.
In the 90’s things were cookie cutter. They were calling it punk but it didn’t sound like punk to me. It was very homogenised and nothing reckless about it at all, very stiff broomstick up the ass punk rock stuff. There hadn’t been the love of the 60s garage stuff that would happen a bit later. To Americans we were too American, and we were into a lot of 50’s American rock and roll stuff and people thought we looked like gas station attendants or something. It didn’t mean anything outside a dedicated tribe of rock’n’roll followers. So when we went over to the UK I think maybe we were so different to what was going on at the time, it seemed like to me that at that time there was this shift back to Britain championing their own music and talent in bands. A lot of stuff in the charts was local export stuff. And then we came and we were so different to that. We looked, to those people, as being over the top American – we weren’t waving American flags but we might as well have been.
Sometmes people from Europe can get lost in the folklore of Americana and it’s almost exotic in a way. There’s something about old America and the west that is exotic. That place is long gone, it doesn’t exist anymore but for those who are still nostalgic or wish they were there for some of that or whatever it might be, maybe we were seen as a glimpse in part of that thread. I think all over Europe you will find people who are more kind of record fans and know more about the stuff that they like and listen to. I think people saw in our band that there was a love for records and music. We were basically massive fans ourselves. We put out things in the spirit of a band that loved records and music. That endeared us to people.
You got into the UK charts, appeared on Top Of The Pops. Looking back on it it seemed like a great experience. Did it feel like that the time? It felt like a great thing at the time. We were like ‘Wow we can just be ourselves, make the rock’n’roll that we want and be led by our instincts and that people will like it if they get the opportunity to hear it. They will dig it.’ Unfortunately that feeling evaporated when we got there and found out we were playing after The Smurfs.
With Rocket it eventally slowed down? Is that a fair assumption? It did, we were a band from 1990 to 2005, a long time.
Did you break up or just stop? It definitely felt like we split up. We played a last show and people travelled from all over the world. I’m not gonna try and rewrite and make it sound like this was part of the plan. We did the band for a good while, it was fun. We achieved what we wanted to achieve and since we immersed ourselves in our rock’n’roll so completely it either had to stop or go on. There couldn’t be a lesser version of Rocket From The Crypt.
Obviously after the break up came the reunion. What led to that? Was everyone keen on it? Everyone was keen on it or otherwise it wouldn’t have happened. People were asking ‘Hey we want to see the band, other people are getting back together, you’re a band we really want to see’. We said no for a couple of years and then finally it felt it might be good to do a year of shows. The whole time we were in the band we wanted people to like us and now that they are expressing that they like the band and want to see us that old instinct of ‘Hey isn’t that we wanted all along?’ Now that people are asking it seemed kind of stupid to say no. I’m still playing in a couple of bands, I didn’t sell my amp or guitar or anything and i’m still putting out records. I will be honest with you, some of it is a little weird as some of the songs were written when I was really young and now I’m quite old. The body goes through changes, this boyish croak wasn’t always so perfect.
How are the preparations going for the upcoming gigs We did some gigs in Europe this year, we’ve been to Korea and Japan. We’ve played some festivals with the Replacements and Stooges which is nice because on a bill like that we are quite young!! We’ve been having fun and reconnecting with a lot of old friends. We are really excited about these upcoming six shows in UK and Ireland. For those people who are going to the shows we are doing this series of 45s which are in the spirit of the way we used to put out records. It’s a fun novelty thing. We are playing six shows so we said let’s bring out six 45s with a song by a band or artist that originates in the city we are paying in. I have to say Dublin was a tough one to find a band to cover. We kept coming back to Thin Lizzy but that would have been us coming back to another bad version of a great Thin Lizzy song so we were really at a loss. Who would you pick? Radiators From Space crossed our radar but it was really hard. Dublin does not have the same rich punk rock tradition as Belfast and maybe it just had to do with they had something more to scream about.
Dublin punk rock tradition is a lot more underground. Our punk scene was small and didn’t get out of the country too much. Not helped by our national psyche. There wasn’t a label like Good Vibrations. We ended up doing a Boomtown Rats song. I didn’t know anything about it, it was added to an extended version to their first record. It said it was a demo from 1974, it is a great recording. It is very intense and electric. It is a punk song and seems more punk than anything else they’ve done. I wasn’t a really big fan, the first record was pretty cool so I was surprised with this song.
We have made 400 of each 7″. It is a novelty. It was also a chance for the band to get back and record some songs without any pressure. A chance to do it for the love and fun of doing it and who knows if it leads to more recordings down the line then so be it. If it doesn’t and if this is the last thing we do, then cool – it’s true to who we are and the way we do things.
Are mp3’s the 7″ of today? You spoke before about immediacy of records, recorded and out in a few weeks. Is that what mp3 does now? Now with the internet you get things changed at the click of a button. I don’t like change, I’m not capable of evolving beyond what I’ve become. I still prefer to do things this way. They are not the 7″ of today, this is not an argument about the pros and cons, I understand progress and I’m not here to wave a cane at these damn kids and their mp3’s. To me certain things sound better and feel better and are more consistent with they way I like to hear music. And also the way I like to present music to others, and mp3s are great and fine. They are here to stay until the mp6 or wherever it’s going. There’s a tehnologcal evolution going on that you can’t stop but we’re lucky enough right now to participate and put out music in a variety of different ways and I’m going to continue to do it in the manner that I enjoy and sounds best to me.
Are you still doing radio? I worked in radio for 3 or 4 years. I was a DJ on a couple of different radio stations here in San Diego between the time that Rocket split up. I put an end to it when I felt it was kind of going nowhere. Radio is really different, it’s a different landscape to playing music. On one hand it has the potential to be so great and so personal. You can really connect with people in ways that are usually not made. It’s so great, it plays into the human imagination of painting these pictures in your head, many times those pictures are so vivid and more interesting than anything you can actually see in front of you. I really respect the medium of radio… unfortunately it just felt bad. There was just such an emphasis on the competitiveness or the money that’s out there. It was not interesting or condusive to good music in my opinion.
How about you these days? Is there a family? A day job? Paying bills? I do have a family and a day job. My day is spent rehearsing music, recording music. I record other bands quite often. I play in a couple of different bands, as well as Rocket, who play shows and make records. I do an internet radio thing called Slacker Radio. I do the Swami Sound System on that. My wife and I are part owners of a bar here in San Diego. It’s a bit of a hustle, we have to keep a lot of pots simmering. That’s the way it’s gotta be in order to do what I wanna do and sustain a life doing music you got to hustle.
The label‘s not going great in terms of the amount of records that I’m selling. there’s been an obvious decline. I stopped doing the label when the band stopped playing. I put it away for 5, 6, 7 years. I started putting out records again with the beginning of the band called Night Marchers that I play in. It is now pretty much a way for me to release my own music. I have one other band on it, Mrs Magician who are so good. I really feel fortunate to be able to be involved and be a custodian of their music. They’re great and they have inspired me quite a bit musically. For most part the label is a one person operation.
Can you tell me a bit about Yo Gabba Gabba, I was asking my kids about it but they are age 12 and 14 they informed me it wasn’t for them. I have a 7 year old who doesn’t have much use for it but at one time he was a pretty big fan of the show. I have a small reccurring role as the Supermusic Swami, I am the MC or the announcer of the bands on the show. Rocket From The Crypt played on the show before we reunited and played a tune that they had written for us about a man who was a chef and they explained the different things that a chef does in order to make the food on your plate appear.
It’s a cool kids show and the people who do it are awesome and they are big fans of Rocket From The Crypt. Their interest in the band and their constant prodding to get us to perform on the show was the impetus to get us playing again.
The real question is though is it better than iCarly? Those shows are terrible, all thise kids are just assholes, privileged bratty assholes. Why do they make shows with these kids who are the worst people on earth. Fuck them, so privileged and so mean to each other, what the fuck is this?
Is that not typical of US family life? It will be. I’m not going to blame TV for peoples behaviour because all my life I’ve been fighting against that attitude, but at the same time gone unchecked the next generation are going to be some of the worst people imaginable if they use that show as a template for their behaviour. They are so mean and so lame.
Rocket from The Crypt play the Button Factory on Saturday December 7th. Tickets are available now from http://www.tickets.ie/umack