By Matt Siblo
Few figures within the punk rock spectrum provoke more intense fandom than John Reis, one of the key string-pullers behind Rocket from the Crypt, Drive like Jehu, Hot Snakes and Swami Records. While each of his bands have a distinct sound, they all sport an age-old swagger–a hybrid of greaser machismo and rock ‘n’ roll theatrics–that few underground acts have matched.
Reis’ latest project, The Night Marchers, finds him reinventing high-definition rock one again; this time with former Hot Snakes brethren (bassist Gar Wood, now ramping up the rhythm guitar; drummer Jason Kourkounis) and bassist Thomas Kitsos. Since the band’s delayed debut (See You in Magic, Vagrant/Swami) finally saw the light of day in late April, self-titled caught up with Reis to discuss the finer points of running a record label, the Turkish psychedelic scene of the 1970s and just how much money it would take to get him to reunite with his old bands. Consider our financial audit already in progress
self-titled: On the band’s MySpace page, I noticed that there is a new symbol for the Night Marchers. Is this another ploy for fans to get a John Reis-related tattoo?
No, not really : The name is not super long but long enough that it could use having some sort of abbreviated logo. In no way would I recommend or condone anyone emblazing into your flesh. But I can’t control what people do. I just like logos, I guess.
The band just played its first shows in February–is that right?
Yeah, that was the first time we played in front of people. All of the shows were good. We played at South by Southwest, which was the first time I had ever been out there. I had a pretty good idea of what to expect. It was okay.
How was that the first time you’d ever been out there?
Texas is quite large and pretty easy to avoid if you want to. I don’t know, dude. Getting people’s attention and making your way in the assembly line of the thousands of other bands with everyone vying for attention : that kind of thing has never really been a priority for me. The only real reason we were into doing it this year was because I knew a lot of people who were going to be out there, so I saw it as an opportunity to see a bunch of friends I wouldn’t normally all see at the same place. There was also a Swami show that I wanted to do so we could see and play with all of those bands the same night. Since The Night Marchers aren’t going to be touring a whole lot and the record is coming out pretty soon, we thought SxSW might be an easy way to connect with a lot of people in a short amount of time.
As someone that’s both in a band and running a record label, would you care to comment on the current state of the music industry?
The state of things can’t be described as any one thing, like â€œgreatâ€ or â€œgrim.â€ It really all depends on who you are and how you view things like the current changes in technology and the economy and how the creative forces of the time converge and affect you. As someone in a band, these developments haven’t changed much because I’m making music to sort of marinate in my own thing–just trying to make sound and noise that sounds exciting. As far as getting paid for doing that kind of thing, it is definitely getting increasingly difficult to do. That’s just the way that it is and it’s probably only going to get worse. It is a little bit of a bummer as far as putting out records because the way I see it there really is no need to put out records or CDs. There are some people who still buy vinyl which is cool and I don’t necessarily see that ever going away. But as far as a new band just starting out, I think people are less likely to take a chance on an LP or anything. Most likely they’ll just download it or burn it from a friend and that’s totally understandable. Maybe once that happens they’ll slap down some bread on buying a piece of music. But as far as doing a label, putting out records and putting together cool packaging : the art project of releasing music is kind of degraded because people really voted that stuff isn’t really important to them.
And as far as being geeky in terms of noise and working on a record, it’s tough trying to make music sound a certain way and then have it ultimately sound like this streamed data. Listen, I’m not a hi-fi wizard but I like what I like and I can definitely tell the difference between a bad sounding file and something that’s coming off tape or even something that once came off tape and now has a little bit more information. And that’s unfortunate because you want people to hear things the way that they were intended to be heard. I hear people saying that â€˜it’s better than ever’ and describing it like the Wild West and that this new thing is going to come and wash the scum off the streets while others say that things couldn’t be worse and record labels as we know it are coming to an end. And then there’s this talk of new management deals which will allow record companies to tie into artist’s ticket sales and all of that. These are dilemmas that aren’t necessarily mine even though I’m in a band and I put out records occasionally. I put out records not as a source of income but just because I like to do it. And as far as playing music, I definitely rely on it to sustain myself but as long as people come out to the shows and buy records off us when we play, we are happy to make a living by directly connecting to people. I find the whole topic of the music industry to be a very boring and uninteresting. Constantly engaging in these kinds of conversations makes me want to nod off! They have nothing to do about rock ‘n’ roll. It’s like going to go a cocktail party and people talking about the equity of their homes or something. I’d rather shoot myself.
Does that mean we can count out any 360 marketing plans for the Swami bands in the near future?
Nah, we’re just going to sell records and that’s it. It has to be comfortable for me to do this then it’s no longer fun and if it’s no longer fun than it’s not worth it. [Laughs] And honestly, I’m not putting out or selling that many records. That’s just the way it is.
The Night Marchers, “I Wanna Deadbeat You”
Your perspective on this is more noteworthy than most considering the length of time you’ve been involved with music.
The times are different than they were, even from 10 years ago. That’s true. My history of being very reluctant and cynical in terms of people saying that “this is the best thing” goes as far back to CDs with everyone claiming how much better they were going to sound. Even back then people were like saying that “these things are pieces of shit.” And now people are coming around and agreeing because you can make them yourself. It’s hard to sell a CD because they are so disposable and the ability to buy a blank one and burn something is so easy. The industry shot itself in the foot with that one. But technology is going to continue to come up with new ways to sell the same thing for more money and then sell it by convincing people that its convenience or quality trumps the old thing.
It’s easy for me to be totally cynical and say things like “fuck the world, let’s just start over again.” But if you keep thinking like that it’s hard to continue to make music. Why would you want to if you think that everything sucks? So I have to try and shield myself from that world the best that I can. I try to create other realities that exist between me and my friends and this small clan of primitive people that follow this primitive noise.
How did this project get started? Are you anxious to get back on the road?
I’m really excited to be in a band again and be able to continue the collaboration that I had with Gar and Jason. I think we’re all in cool places in our lives right now because I don’t think that we have anything necessarily to lose. Not that we ever really did, but that’s just a lot more apparent now. [Laughs] I think that our scope of reference is always growing so it’s exciting for me to look at this musical world and my scope and try to incorporate and filter new things in. The group of people that make up The Night Marchers are not necessarily shredders on our instruments but we are very resourceful. We’re not afraid to try a few things that might be outside of our comfort range for the sake of exploring something new to us. Not saying that what we are doing is groundbreaking but this band is really cool in that we’re up for basically anything or trying any idea. There’s a flexibility here that wasn’t as apparent with some of the other bands that I’ve been involved in. Those restraints have never been something that was said out-loud but it just would have been awkward to hear certain things being thrown in.
Can you talk about some of those new influences on the record?
The album started with about 20 songs. We tried to make an album out of those songs even though they didn’t necessarily have a dialogue with each other. As far as what we wanted to achieve, I love the electric guitar. I didn’t want to necessarily experiment but I wanted the guitar to be the focal point of the record which, I guess I always kind of do. But there was a bit of a toning back of the game in order to get the personality and character of the force that was pushing the pick. I wanted to capture the feeling of playing that has a feeling of digging. I find it to be really energizing and turbulent when you can actually hear this steel wire being hit repeatedly over and over again. This was kind of an idea that we had; we wanted this steely guitar sound that would ring something crystalline but not antiseptic sounding. A lot of the bands I’ve been listening to for years have become a more important part of my life. I’ve been really into conventional rock ‘n’ roll and rhythm & blues. I like the idea of almost knowing where the song is going as soon as it starts. But instead of that being perceived as a limitation, lately I’ve viewed it as a comforting–like having your favorite home-cooked meal made by mom.
Drive Like Jehu, “Do You Compute?”
I’ve heard a lot of Ramones-style pop-punk bands say similar things–that they take comfort in trying to perfect a certain type of song.
For me, it’s not the desire to try and perfect a song or style. But when you hear a band like The Flamin’ Groovies … the first time I heard that band I was in high-school and I didn’t really like them. It was just too boring and straight-ahead. I only checked them out because they were a band that some of my favorite bands were into. But then as I got older, I began to see the beauty and appreciate their brand of rock ‘n’ roll. For me in high school, it just sounded too classic because my scope of references was so limited. But as I listened to more and more music, I was able to put them up against other sounds I’d heard and their stock just began to rise. So when I hear a band like that or ’70s boogey rock or even something like Chuck Berry, it’s easy to say now that these aren’t breaking new ground because of everything that has come after. But if you have an affinity for sounds like that, it’s also easy for someone to put on something like that to and crank it to 10 and talk about how much it smokes anything that has come after. It’s just a matter of preference. It’s not like I have to work within a haiku form, but at the same time it is kind of neat to appreciate the simplicity of stuff and filter that into other things you’re into and bring them to a new place. [Laughs] I don’t have a formula.
I wanted to ask why you didn’t decide to end the album with â€œAnd I Keep Holding On.â€ It seems like it’s a quintessential closer.
You know, I don’t know why. We came up with a whole bunch of sequences and I think there was one where we ended on that. Ultimately we decided to close out the record with something that was just a little bit lighter in the loafers and kept the drama sandwiched between things a bit more sunny. But yeah, I like that song a lot too. I don’t think we really nailed it though. We all listen to a lot of Middle Eastern ’60s and early ’70s music so we were trying to throw the sink in. We tried to bring in those kinds of sounds but also the exploitation of the sitar with the glam rock bands in the ’70s who were playing Middle Eastern music. It was trying to capture both spectrums: the legitimate and the camp. That song was a bit of a nod to bands that came from the Turkish scene of that era. It’s pretty well documented as far as reissues are concerned : a lot of people are rediscovering that stuff. I really like a lot of that exotic garage music.
Hot Snakes, “Braintrust”
Rocket from the Crypt and Hot Snakes both called it a day in 2005. Was this just happenstance or a conscious decision?
They were two different situations that came to a head at the same time. Rocket was a band who had been together for 16 years, toured the world countless times and pretty much achieved everything we could have hoped to do, plus more. We were a really tight unit and best friends so it was hard to sustain that drive over such a long period of time. Also it’s difficult when a band that is synonymous with confidence and commitment starts to lose some it or become a lesser version of what it once was. Time was beginning to be tight and people were getting older and starting to transition into the next stage of their lives. The band just couldn’t operate at that same level and for us, we had to practice so much to be as good as we were. And we weren’t even that good! All of those songs with mistakes and out of tune notes and bad singing was the product of practicing every day for 8 hours a day. You can imagine what we would have sounded like without that. So that was what happened with Rocket, it was something that was building up for quite some time and wasn’t necessarily my decision. There were some members of the band who felt that while things weren’t quite the same they’d rather keep playing because it’s still so much fun which is totally valid. But some members felt that although it still is fun, if they were going to invest so much time and energy into it, they’d want it to be at its best.
With the Hot Snakes, it really had to do with how difficult it was to get the band together. Recording the first record was so easy because it was just a couple people who had an idea and got together a few friends to make it. It then became this thing that was much different. By the time we started playing shows after Automatic Midnight, it became more or less of what you’d consider a band. With the second record, we used some of the songs that didn’t make the first one and combined it with some new material but at that point it became a lot harder. Four people who live all over the country needing to convene for a short amount of time trying to capture lightning in a bottle is a difficult and tedious process. By the time Audit in Progress came along, making a record wasn’t really fun for anyone considering the amount of time we had to complete the album. It’s a shame, too, because I thought that was some of the best stuff we did. It was becoming difficult to the point where it wasn’t really worth it in the end. Like right now with all of the distance I have from it, it seems totally worth it. Like why don’t we make another record out there? We could make a killer record! But when you’re in it, things are so hard. The difficulty outweighs the benefits. We had already replaced the drummer and, again, some people were going into a different phase of their lives and this band was going to take up a decent amount of time and not necessarily have much to show for it. In both cases, I had the same kind of attitude where I’ve been in a lot of bands and I’ll be in new bands so it didn’t seem so cryptic. Bands come and go, that’s music.
Not long ago, a concert promoter offered Morrissey $75 million dollars to get the Smiths to reunite. How much would it take to get a package deal on Hot Snakes, Rocket and Drive like Jehu?
Well, I don’t know! It’s hard to put a dollar amount on something like this. If someone offered us a whole bunch of money, that’d have to be something I’d have to think about. I don’t want to say something and low ball myself. I’d probably do it for $75 million, that’s for sure. I’d probably put Rocket at around $150,000, Hot Snakes at $75,000. Drive like Jehu–that’s going to take more practice and time so I’d something along the lines of $250,000. Just so we’re clear : those numbers are just my cut. You’d have to work out you’re the arrangements with those other guys separately.