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John Reis

Since the early '90s, John Reis has been one of the busiest and most influential figures on the San Diego punk/indie rock scene as a founding member of the bands Rocket from the Crypt, Drive Like Jehu, Hot Snakes, and PLOSIVS, as well as running the indie label Swami Records and producing albums for the likes of Superchunk, the Swingin' Neckbreakers, and the Selby Tigers. The common thread in Reis' many projects is a love of the power of aggressive, straightforward rock & roll without a reliance on the cliches associated with individual genres, and a willingness to crossbreed punk with rhythm & blues (Rocket from the Crypt), arty indie rock (Drive Like Jehu), garage rock and vintage surf (Hot Snakes), and hard rock (the Night Marchers), with Reis offering up muscular guitar work and gritty, passionate vocals at every turn. As a solo artist, he indulged his passion for surf music on 2015's Modern Surf Classics and added some pop touches on 2022's Ride the Wild Night, though they also boasted the energy and melodic punch that always comes with his work. John Reis was born in 1969 in the Ocean Beach community of San Diego, and joined his first band when he was 15, a hardcore outfit called Conservative Itch. By 1986, Reis had moved on, joining forces with longtime friend Rick Froberg to form an eclectic post-punk band called Pitchfork. In 1990, Pitchfork broke up, and Reis began playing in not one but two new bands: with Froberg, he formed Drive Like Jehu, an artful but aggressive foursome built around their interwoven guitar work; and using the stage name Speedo, Reis led Rocket from the Crypt, a band that combined punk with first-generation rock & roll, complete with a horn section. Both bands released independent debut albums in 1991, and both earned enthusiastic reviews, while Rocket's over-the-top live shows made the band a potent live attraction. In 1992, Interscope Records offered to sign RFTC, and Reis agreed under the condition that Drive Like Jehu also be given a deal. Rocket's second album, Circa: Now!, was reissued by Interscope in 1993, while Drive Like Jehu's sophomore effort, Yank Crime, appeared in 1994. Drive Like Jehu quietly broke up in 1995, but RFTC remained busy through the rest of the decade, cutting two albums for Interscope, one for the indie Vagrant label, and a few small-label EPs. In 2000, Reis and Froberg reunited with a new band, Hot Snakes, who made their debut with the album Automatic Midnight. While Reis took a brief break from Rocket from the Crypt, he signed on as bassist with the trio the Sultans, adopting the stage name Slasher; they promptly released an EP and an LP before the end of 2000, both issued through Reis' new label, Swami Records, which released material from most of Reis' various projects as well as recordings by the Bronx, the Demolition Doll Rods, Dan Sartain, and Crime. The year 2000 also saw the release of an album by the Back Off Cupids, a studio project where Reis handled all the instruments himself. Reis recorded and performed regularly with Rocket from the Crypt, Hot Snakes, and the Sultans until 2005, when he announced that RFTC and Hot Snakes were breaking up, while in 2007, the Sultans went on hiatus after Reis and drummer Mario Rubalcaba both became fathers and parenthood dominated their time commitments. Reis continued to oversee his record label, hosted a radio show, became a semi-regular on the children's TV series Yo Gabba Gabba (as the Swami, one of his many nicknames), and became co-owner of Bar Pink in the North Park section of San Diego. Predictably, Reis couldn't go bandless for long, and in 2008 he formed yet another group, the Night Marchers, and released their debut album, See You in Magic, through Vagrant Records. Hot Snakes reunited for a handful of shows in 2011, and the following year Rocket from the Crypt followed suit; even Drive Like Jehu briefly re-formed in 2014 for a special show at San Diego's Spreckels Organ Pavilion, with house organist Dr. Carol Williams sitting in. In 2015, Reis teamed up with the Minneapolis garage punk combo the Blind Shake to release an album of surf-inspired instrumentals titled Modern Surf Classics, with Reis billed as Swami John Reis. 2015 also saw the release of Vintage Piss, drawn from recordings Rocket from the Crypt had made in 2003 with punk rock lifer Sonny Vincent following a joint tour. In 2018, Reis reconvened with Hot Snakes to release a new album, Jericho Sirens, issued by Sub Pop in March of that year. In 2021, he self-released a live album of the Night Marchers performing at his Bar Pink venue; the limited-edition effort was packaged in sleeves from hundreds of LPs rescued from thrift stores, with "Night Marchers Live at Bar Pink" emblazoned on the covers with spray paint and rubber stamps. That same year, Reis played shows with the all-star punk rock cover band Me First and the Gimme Gimmes, sitting in for guitarist Fat Mike of NOFX. In October 2020, Reis released a single, "Ride the Wild Night" b/w "I Hate My Neighbors in the Yellow House," which was billed as a preview of his soon-to-be-released solo album. Getting the album into the hands of fans took longer than expected, but in February 2022, Ride the Wild Night was released by Swami Records, and added some pop accents -- acoustic guitars, keyboards, and harmonies -- to his expected serving of punk-infused rock & roll. Just a month later came the debut album from PLOSIVS, a punk supergroup featuring Reis on guitar, Rob Crow of Pinback on guitar and vocals, Jordan Clark of Mrs. Magician on bass, and Atom Willard of Against Me! (and formerly RFTC) on drums.
© Mark Deming /TiVo
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