After a long break from recording, Hot Snakes guitarist John Reis said it "literally took a minute" for the band to get reacquainted in the studio while working on their latest album.
"It wasn't exactly like riding a bike, but, c'mon. We've been doing this a long time," Reis says by phone. "We're super pros. We know what the fuck we're doing."
Based on early listens of Jericho Sirens — out March 16 on Sub Pop Records — he's not wrong. The band's fourth full-length — and first record since 2004's Audit in Progress — is hard charging, abrasive, anthemic, and unapologetically guitar-driven. The music sounds as refreshingly pissy and relevant as it did in the early-mid '00s.
Founded by the San Diego-based guitarist with drummer Jason Kourkounis in 1999, Hot Snakes also includes Rick Froberg — Reis' bandmate in influential and critically acclaimed '90s post-hardcore band Drive Like Jehu — on guitar and vocals and Gar Wood on bass. The band released three albums, including 2002 breakthrough Suicide Invoice, before breaking up in 2005. Reis later formed the Night Marchers with Wood and Kourkounis in California, and Froberg went on to start Obits in Brooklyn, N.Y. Hot Snakes reformed in 2011 and has been playing shows since, sometimes also featuring second drummer Mario Rubalcaba.
Reis, who has also gone by "Speedo," "Slasher," and "The Swami" in other projects, has also fronted high-energy party punks Rocket From the Crypt since 1989 and run his own label, Swami Records, since 2000. We talked with the busy guitarist about first meeting Froberg, the Detroit band that changed his life, and his stint on the once-popular, tripped-out kids show Yo Gabba Gabba.
Metro Times: This is the first Hot Snakes record in more than 13 years. What made this happen now, and what got it started?
John Reis: Thirteen years isn't as long as it sounds. It really isn't. That said, we made the decision: "Let's make a new record, and let's put time aside to be in the same place at the same time, and we're going to construct something and make some art together." It's just that.
MT: This doesn't feel like a watered-down, retread type of return record. Did you feel you had something to prove?
JR: Yeah, I mean, my life is a complete mess right now on a personal level. So, I pick up the guitar, and I just want to burn down villages and trample people by the magic.
MT: Anything you want to get into?
JR: Nah, it's not very interesting. Everyone's life is a mess at a certain point in time. I've never been the blues man. I've never been the guy who can try to figure out the pain of things that are troubling through art. Music isn't a distraction for me. It doesn't take me away from reality; it is reality. It was interesting to make this record. I don't like the catharsis, and the release, and all this stuff. I don't really buy into that.
MT: Let's talk about how the band started. I understand this was a side project while you were working on other things. Do you remember what your thought process was?
JR: I never looked at it as a side project. Everything I'm doing feels important if it's important enough to do in the first place. With Hot Snakes, there was a sound I had in my head, and Jason was a friend who I thought would be fun to play with, so the two of us recorded some songs and tried to translate that sound. I thought I was going to sing, and my voice sounded super shitty on it. So I said, "I wonder if Rick would be interested in singing on this?" He was into it, and bam. That was the band.
MT: When and how did you and Rick meet?
JS: I'm gonna guess it was '86 or '87. These anarchists put on this event, the Hardcore Picnic, which was basically calling out all the punkers across San Diego to meet at this park. There were no bands, just people hanging out. I met Rick there, and we talked, and the germ kind of started there. Here's this guy who was into a lot of the same stuff as I am, and he does this cool zine, he's a great artist, and he knows these people who could play instruments. We both liked the first Die Kreuzen LP, we were both really into hardcore, things that were a little severe sounding.
MT: You two have such a distinct guitar sound separately and also together. What's the "secret" to that sound and how does it fit together in your mind?
JR: I'm pretty busy in terms of my playing. It's pretty relentless. I'm attracted to turbulence, velocity, rhythm, and dissonance. I think Rick and I complement each other, because there's more geometry to what he does. It's kind of based on angles, like three- or four- or five-sided patterns that cycle. I think that's where we intersect, his geometry and my straight line.
MT: You're getting ready for a big U.S. tour, including a stop here in Detroit. How are things shaping up?
JR: We just toured the U.K. in January, so the band is super firing right now. It's definitely better than it's ever been. It's more kicking.
MT: Does Detroit have any weight or significance to you?
JR: Well, yeah. One of my favorite bands of all time are the Gories. Danny Doll Rod (Kroha) is one of the top 10 guitar players in my mind. I'm talking about someone that completely changed the way I think about music. The Gories were such a huge influence on Rocket From the Crypt and Drive Like Jehu. You might not hear it in the music, but that's one of my favorite bands of all time.
MT: My friend's kid is obsessed with Yo Gabba Gabba and the Rocket song from it, "He's a Chef." How did that connection come about for you?
JR: The creator of the show was a fan of Rocket From the Crypt and a friend of a friend was on set and was like, "You know what would be funny," to get me to come up there to do a short segment. Phone calls were made, and it was like, "Yeah!" At the time, my child was maybe 4. To be able to take him up there and film a season and let him see all the characters in costume and everything, that was more than reason enough to do it. Then when Rocket reunited, they were the first ones to say, "Will you please do something for the show?" They had that song written. They write all the songs and everything. It really is amazing to watch those people work.
MT: It's cool you were able to bring your son along.
JR: It blew his mind. It was way cooler to him than any band I could ever be in.
Hot Snakes perform with special guests Duchess Says and Meat Wave on Saturday, March 10 at El Club, 4114 W. Vernor Highway, Detroit; 313-279-7382; Doors at 8 p.m.; Tickets are $22+.