John Reis has almost as many nicknames—Speedo, The Swami, Slasher—as he has bands, whether that’s Rocket From The Crypt, Hot Snakes, The Night Marchers, or Drive Like Jehu. Formed in 1990, the latter—completed by vocalist/guitarist Rick Froberg, bassist Mike Kennedy and drummer/donut czar Mark Trombino—released their second (and last) album, Yank Crime, in 1994, and kind of just stopped doing anything the following year. In 2014, however, the four-piece got back together to play a concert in San Diego accompanied by a giant pipe organ, and they’ve continued to play sporadic shows here and there, as and when they can. This year sees them playing a few more US shows as well as curating their own festival in—of all places—Wales. Yet despite this relative (for them) flurry of activity, not much else seems to be very different for the band. Somehow, as Reis explains, they are just as they were, partying like it’s 1994 all over again.
Noisey: The world has changed a lot since Drive Like Jehu stopped making music and getting together again. What impact has that had on the band, if any?
John Reis: I haven’t really thought about it, but I guess you could say that when we started and were putting out records, there was a feeling of alienation, in the sense that we were attracted to this music that this small group of people who were scattered out across the world but had like-minded tastes, and we were kind of connected by this sound that we really enjoyed and celebrated. And now it’s like we’re alienated for a completely different reason, because we really are no longer interested in trying to connect with people in the way that we used to. We don’t have new records, we don’t have new music. We did this thing years ago and now we’re doing it again, and we’re enjoying our company and playing together and making the noise and everything, but the world has changed and we’re not really trying to fit in it.
We’re not doing what you have to do in this day and age in order to get the word out and connect with people. What you have to do differently—we’re not really concerned with that. All of that just takes away from what this is about, which is that we’re playing some shows, we got the band back together, we’re hanging out, we’re having a great time playing the songs again, we’re having a really great time reconnecting with old friends as well as meeting some new ones on the way. It’s nice to celebrate our music and everything we were about, but we’re not really trying to reimagine it. It is what it is. With Drive Like Jehu, we never had world domination in our sights and now I’d say it’s even further out of our minds.
So what compelled you to get back together again? That must have been quite an incredible first reunion show.
It was kind of out of the blue. I mean, it wasn’t anything that we’d really discussed but we had an opportunity to play with the pipe organ in San Diego. San Diego has the largest outdoor pipe organ, I believe, in the world [note: actually second largest] and my friend was working with the committee of the pipe organ, which is owned by the city of San Diego, and he asked me if I could think of anything cool to do with the pipe organ, and the Jehu thing just came to my mind immediately. I didn’t know if the other guys would be into it, but I thought it’d just be so great. I thought if we were going to get in the same room together and learn some songs, playing with a free show with the pipe organ would be really consistent with what the band is about. So I just approached everyone and everyone was into doing it, and it seemed fun, as ambitious as it kind of was in terms of playing with this huge whale of an instrument after not playing for so long. The four of us were not all that in sync with each other at the time because it was the first time we’d played in 20 years or so. But it ended up being great and there was so much good will and it was just the perfect moment. And it was like, maybe it can’t be as good as this every time we play, but wouldn’t it be cool to keep doing this a little more? And it just grew out of that. And that’s it. There was never a plan—the timing had to be right and everyone had to be on the same page. But I think it’s also some closure. The band never broke up, it just kind of stopped, so I think when we stop doing this again there will be some closure.
How much nostalgia is involved? Jehu don’t seem like a nostalgic band at all, but there must be an element of that when you’re back together and playing these songs again.
I really don’t think there’s much nostalgia. I think for the audience, for some people, maybe there is now, but nostalgia runs thick everywhere. All these festivals that we’re playing—we’re not the only band from the 90s who stopped playing and who have reformed! It’s very normal and I think a lot of that is because of nostalgia—people just want something that was part of their lives in what they probably consider a better time in their lives. But for us, there’s not a whole lot. We don’t have a whole lot of “Oh, remember when we used to this?” or “Remember how great this was?” because the band didn’t really have a whole lot of fun back in the day. That’s not to say we were opposed to fun, but we were young and things were intense, and the music was intense, and there were times when it just seemed difficult to exist and to play. We had great, great shows and we also had some shows that weren’t very good. There was a lot of disconnect. A lot of people like the band now, but it wasn’t like that back then. I’m not going to say we were booed and people threw hot pennies at us and eggs and cabbages, but there was indifference. But it didn’t really matter, because there was the three or four people who really dug the band if we showed up in a town and that was really more than we could expect anyway, so it felt like we were doing something good. At the same time, it isn’t like it is now. It’s definitely a lot more fun now. Personally, I care about a lot less now. Certain things that would maybe bother me then I don’t give a fuck about now. That’s not unique to me, it just comes with age.
Presumably that’s why it’s more fun now—because you don’t give a fuck and you don’t attach yourself too much to it emotionally.
Right. The only thing I care about is the show when we’re playing somewhere. I just want the show to sound really good and I want to play as good as we can. I just want to play as good as we can because I know chances are we won’t be circling back to the same place twice. At the same time, I don’t put a lot of pressure on it. I just try to live in that moment and enjoy it for what it is, because it is great. Playing rock ’n’ roll music is the best. I love it.
Do you feel you’re capable of recapturing the energy and the spirit that you had 20 years ago? Or has that been difficult, being older now?
It’s kind of weird because you’d have to define what that was back then, and I don’t know if I can really define what it was back then. I don’t think we were incredibly unique and original. I think we had our own sound, definitely, but at the same time I listen to our records and I hear all those songs and bands that I liked so much in our music. I don’t know. I want to say yes. But it’s more about the context. I think that’s the thing. It’s not so much the spirit, it’s the context in which you experience it. There’s no way playing a basement to 40 people who are kind losing their shit can compare to playing a festival stage where you’re suspended 40 feet in the air to a crowd of thousands where maybe there’s only those same 40 people who really know what you’re doing and what the band is about. Yeah, the spirit might be the same, but you can’t say that the show is the same, or the spirit of the show is the same. But we play these festivals because we get to get on a plane and go to some place and play a couple shows, and for a couple guys in the band they can get back to their careers after the weekend. It’s trying to find those moments and places where we can be a bit more ourselves and present the band and play places that are more consistent with what we’re all about spiritually. It’s hard to find those things because we don’t have a whole lot of time. Everyone’s busy doing other things.
You’ve always been busy doing other things. How do you juggle it all? You’re curating ATP as well, which must be a challenge, because you’re playing in two other bands during that festival. How do you find time to divide yourself up?
Well, it’s pretty simple, in the sense that in all the bands I play in, everybody has lives outside of these bands, where people are working and have families. When you’re playing with four other people and scheduling and whatnot, and then you times that by—well, I’m playing in three or different groups right now—it’s hard to find a period of time where everyone’s available to dedicate time to that one thing. It’s never really felt like juggling, but I think ATP is going to be the first time it kind of feels like that, because I’ll be playing in three bands who will all be playing that same weekend. But I’m really looking forward to it. We’ve never done anything like that before. We’ve always tended to avoid it because you want to give each band their own time, but at the same time there’s going to be so many friends there it’s really going to feel like a party. I think it really does show what the band is about, because all these other artists are playing, and these are our favorite artists in the world playing our favorite music in the world—bands that really influenced us and some bands who weren’t around back then but they’re the bands who are influencing us now.
Going back a bit, you talked about other bands reforming too. Are you aware that you’re now doing this as elder statesmen of the genre, and does that add any extra pressure to how you approach it?
It definitely adds no pressure to the way we approach it. I don’t think anyone gives a flying fuck about any of that stuff. We’re far too self-consumed to even take our heads out of our asses long enough to look up and even see where we are. The band has always looked inward and I really don’t think anyone cares. We didn’t care if anyone liked us 25 years ago! You think we’re going to care more about that now? No! It’s gotten more curmudgeonly, if anything!
But you must be aware that you’re one of those influential bands that people really look up to…
You know, when people say something like that, I’m definitely flattered. It’s great to hear that. You can say that you don’t care what people think—which is true—but in the end you do want people to like your music. You do want to connect with people. We don’t fly halfway across the world to play a show just to bum people out. We can bum people out here. We do like to connect with people and we do like to play the rock ’n’ roll music for people who like that kind of music, and it’s great. But in the end, it’s one of those things where it doesn’t really matter that much—it seems like such a cliché, but if you’re not enjoying it and if it’s not connecting with you, then why bother? I mean, this isn’t a job. This isn’t our occupation. This isn’t the musical equivalent of working a desk job. This is more like making a sandcastle—building something with some friends and doing something that you think is fun and putting yourself into it and then having it be gone, and there it goes. I am flattered to hear people say “I like your band,” although I think the more common compliment is “My dad really likes you guys.”
The sandcastle analogy seems kind of apt. Here’s something you built up, then you flattened it, went away for a long time and now you’re rebuilding it. It’s an impermanent moment of joy as opposed to something that you’re going to keep doing.
Right. And then you just realize that nothing is permanent anyways, so to even pretend like it is is a myth. It’s just a lie, so embrace the fact that everything is temporary and celebrate that. It doesn’t have to be a harbinger of doom to say that—it’s just what it is.
Photo: David Brendan Hall
So presumably you have no intention of writing new material with Drive Like Jehu?
Well, I can’t say that we don’t have any intention, just because there was a time when we said we would never even play again, and I wasn’t able to hold true to my word on that. We did talk about maybe doing something, but what would that be? I don’t know. We talk about a lot of stuff—baseball and donuts and science and a lot of things. If it happens, great. Right now, part of living in the moment is just that we come together, rehearse, and play a show. We don’t all live in the same city, with Rick in New York for the most part and Mark in Los Angeles and with Mike and I here in San Diego. In order for us to do something, it would take all of us being in the same place for a while so that we can do things the way we used to things, which is everybody in a room bouncing things off each other.
That’s one of the things that has changed since you were first together—plenty of bands do now live in different cities, or even different countries, and they write over email by sending MP3s around or whatever. You’d have no intention of doing it that way?
That just isn’t what the band is, you know? Even when we lived in the same city, everything was dissected and torn down and built back up and then rearranged and turned inside out and fucked with and fucked with over and over again. Even when we made the records and recorded the songs, when we first got back together I had to remember how I played certain things, because evolution was always happening, at least in the way I was playing guitar and re-interpreting the songs. It was always a work-in-progress and recording was just a snapshot of that time that I played it. That’s what it is: a photograph. There needs to be a push and a pull in the music. You have to go someplace for a while to marinate on a certain part or feeling in order for there to be an appropriate release in effect, and that really comes from just playing with each other. You have to look at somebody’s fingers while they’re playing, see a drummer in a room. It really is push and pull, and even when we’re all going for it, that really is the sound of the band, the four of us playing together at the same time in the same room.
Which, maybe, is why the two albums still sound so relevant and fresh. Yank Crime sounds like it could have been made today.
Thanks! I think the second record holds up pretty well, I think because we recorded it the way that we did and we spent so much time working on that record and thinking about it. For me, the wince quotient is really low in comparison to all the other records that I made during that time. There’s always going to be something that doesn’t sit with you well and you don’t have to wait 20 years for those things to happen either. Sometimes it’s literally the day or the week after, like Why did I do that?! There’s always those moments, but listening to Yank Crime again in preparation for getting the band back together and playing those songs again, I was really surprised. I was like, “Man, this sounds really great” and I’m really looking forward to doing this again.
Drive Like Jehu is playing ATP in April with Rocket from the Crypt, Hot Snakes, and more. Info and tickets available here.