He goes by the names Speedo, Slasher, or The Swami. But regardless of what you're calling him, there is no question that John Reis is the fucking man. For nearly three decades has put on over-the-top live shows with his myriad of bands including Drive Like Jehu, Rocket From The Crypt, Pitchfork, Hot Snakes, Sultans, The Night Marchers and more (many of which are still active in some form or another).
For Reis' latest musical project—which comes out on January 27—he teamed up with the psychedelic punk act The Blind Shake to create Modern Surf Classics, 13 instrumental surf songs that encompass the various different eras of the genre as seen through Reis' unique musical lens. We caught up with him to discuss how this project came about, why he loves surf music, and what it was like recording on the beach. Aside from, you know, sandy.
Noisey: Are you a big surfer yourself?
John Reis: I love the ocean; I love to frolic in the waves and to swim. I'm not going to pretend to be a surfer even though many of my friends are. I'm approaching things from more of a musical standpoint, but I will say the ocean is a big inspiration for the music: Its power, its beauty, its vast kind of unknown that lurks beyond the shoreline. I think it really lends itself to limitless imagination and wonder. That sounds cheesy but it's true, I think it's an amazing force.
Do you think fans of Rocket From The Crypt or any of your other bands can get into this? How do you think it fits in with your previous work?
I did a record a long, long time ago called Back Off Cupids which was a mostly instrumental record that was kind of the soundtrack music to a film that never came out. So I look at this as very much similar to that record in terms of its inspiration, you know? I don't really think about how it fits in, to me it does. I don't really care, I guess. [Laughs.]
How did the idea for Modern Surf Classics specifically come about and how did the Blind Shake become involved?
I've always loved surf music. I saw the Blind Shake play a few years ago and they were backing up Michael Yonkers, who is one of my favorite guitar players of all time—and even though he's not a surf guitar player, he's heavily influenced by the surf music of the early 60s. I became aware of the Blind Shake that way and even though they aren't a surf band either, I heard a lot of things in their sound that I thought could lend itself to playing that kind of music. I had this idea already happening in the back of my head and when I heard them it was like, "This could be a good way to collaborate with people I don't know and make some music just for the sake of experimentation and for fun."
What was it like approaching these songs from a guitar playing perspective?
Because I consider myself first and foremost a guitar player, I was kind of looking at surf music in a lot of different ways, whether it be the more exploitive music of the 60s or the more novelty aspects that surround that kind of era. Then later on in the early 70s, surf music was more associated with the surf films and becoming more introspective. I kind of take that all in and regurgitate it all in the same breath by asking, "What do I like about this music? What do I like about these songs? What do I like about the way they're recorded?" I really wanted to be true to the convention and form—and then at the same time without being too grandiose, I did want to create something that could kind of take the DNA of what I consider surf music and bring it into today. I think a lot of times when people are inspired by the past sometimes it can be a little bit costume-y. It's trying too hard to be retro and they never get it right anyway so what's the point of that anyway? I wanted to be true to it but I also wanted it to be my own voice.
Do you think that as a genre, surf is easily written off as just sounding like "Wipe Out" or something?
Well, it's not for everybody. I'll be the first to admit that. For some people, a whole record of surf music is basically like ten songs of surf music too many, so you'll pull a song here or there. But like I said before, I kind of like the whole gamut of it; I think there's a lot to love and enjoy, so it probably doesn't get the respect it deserves but put that on a long list of things that I consider to not get as much respect as they deserve, you know? [Laughs.]
Rocket from the Crypt. Photo by Keith Marlowe.
I read in a press release that some of these songs were actually recorded in a van a couple of years ago?
We didn't record it in a van, we used a van that had recording equipment in it. I was really inspired by these George Greenough movies that came out in the early 70s and this band called The Farm that recorded the soundtrack for one of them. I really did some musical archeology because I loved the soundtrack so much and discovered a lot of the music for that film was recorded outside actually at the beach on eight-track—and I thought that was such a cool story and it made me enjoy the music even more, you know? Since this whole thing was about experimentation and fun I just wanted to try that out so we did that for a couple of songs. We recorded at two piers in San Diego that we went to because we needed some space and non-sandy land to lay out the equipment and everything. I don't think you can really tell [on the recording] but it was a fun thing to do.
Last time we talked a few years back, you spoke about struggling with Swami and it not being active. Do you think this release signifies things are picking up with the label as well?
Yeah. Swami first and foremost is a place for me to release my music and although I do put out records by other bands. Moving forward, I'm primarily going to be releasing my own music and music of San Diego bands, so just kind of keeping it more here at home. Since I'm making music and recordings records and producing records by other bands down here, I'll continue to put them out.
What else can we expect from you in 2015?
This has been in the works for a long time and just is finally coming out and I'm and going to be playing some shows in February as Swami John Reis & The Blind Shake, playing all across the country. After that, I'm just figuring out what's next. I don't have a lot of plans right now but between Rocket From The Crypt, Hot Snakes, and the Night Marchers and this, potentially I could be pretty busy this year.
Swami Jonah Bayer is on Twitter - @mynameisjonah