By Rebecca Bulnes
By Laurie Charles
By Chuck Strouse
By Lee Zimmerman
By Laurie Charles
By Falyn Freyman
By Hans Morgenstern
"We play a lot. That's what we do."
Rocket From the Crypt head pilot John "Speedo" Reis is pragmatic about the San Diego punk group's nonstop touring schedule and prodigious output. In the five years they've been together, Rocket has cranked out a staggering amount of high-quality material for a host of labels both large and small: full-length albums and one-sided singles; ten-inch EPs and five-inch 45s; compilation cuts and Christmas songs; picture discs and records included in underground fanzines and sent out for free to members of the band's fan club. Last year alone, Rocket -- whose pseudonymous members, in addition to Speedo, include drummer Atom, guitarist N.D., bassist Petey X, and a horn section of Apollo 9 and J.C. 2000 -- released three singles, a six-song EP, and two full-length albums, and contributed a song to an Australian various-artists collection. And in his occasional spare moments, Reis moonlights in the bulldozing San Diego group Drive Like Jehu and puts out solo recordings under the name Back Off Cupids.
"We like to keep busy," explains Reis in understated fashion during a tour-stop phone interview from Pontiac, Michigan, his husky, croaking voice showing the wear and tear of the band's workaholic schedule. "It's just one of those things. We do what we do so we won't stagnate. Up until maybe a year ago, the band wasn't on any kind of real schedule and we were at home a lot more, so we practiced a whole bunch and were able to write and record a whole bunch of songs. Then all our friends put them out on their record labels."
The most recent catalogue additions for the critically acclaimed products of San Diego's highly touted music scene are the albums Hot Charity and Scream, Dracula, Scream. Both were released last fall about a month apart: the former on the Rocket-owned Perfect Sound label, the latter on Interscope, which signed the band in 1992 following the indie-label success of its first two albums, Paint as a Fragrance from 1991 and 1992's Circa: Now! Each of the new sets finds the band fine-tuning its ferocious attack and taking a few fresh whacks at the bedrock of their punk-based, metal-tinged sound -- a dense wall of noise made of roaring guitars, blaring horns, rollercoaster rhythms, and Reis's sandpaper wail. "Pushed," the instrumental vamp that opens Charity, grooves with a kind of greasy R&B swagger, while Dracula's "Used" is a stately doo-wop-kissed anthem of nearly Springsteenian proportions. More important, the band has finally figured out a way to successfully integrate the horn section of saxophonist Apollo and J.C., the trumpeter who joined the group in '94. Where once the horn lines merely echoed the guitar riffs laid down by Reis and N.D., new cuts such as "Born in '69," "Young Livers," and "My Arrow's Aim," feature horn charts that supplement and modify the band's blitzkrieg punk din.
Both Hot Charity and Scream, Dracula, Scream reveal a slightly different side of the band. Hot Charity sports the same rough, one-take feel of Rocket's best early singles ("Normal Carpet Ride," "The Paste That You Love," "Pigeon Eater," all of which were collected on the 1993 compilation All Systems Go!), as well as last year's howling EP The State of Art Is On Fire. Dracula, however, is a more detailed and intricately arranged construction. Interspersed throughout the stomping power chords and shouting call-and-response choruses are the kind of sonic flourishes associated with the Wall of Sound production of Reis's idol Phil Spector -- little touches such as glockenspiel, strings, and piano. Reis says the original version of the album was even more lavish, with interludes between each of the fourteen songs performed alternately by a percussion group, a choral group, and a string ensemble.
"We wanted to make a symphonic statement," Reis says of Dracula's first incarnation. "The thinking was, 'Why not? We can do whatever the fuck we want to do, so why not? If it doesn't work, we don't have to use it, but let's try it.' So we tried it, and it didn't work. It sounded cheesy and campy in a cool way, and the pieces worked great by themselves. But in the context with the music, they detracted from some of the songs, so we decided to scrap it." (Reis says the band is preparing a collection of the banished interludes for limited-edition release sometime in December.)
What the final version of Dracula may lack in symphonic grandeur it compensates for in the focus and clarity of Reis's writing. He's always had a gift for building great songs around oddball lines: "Rats eat their feces/Rats chase the meices" is just one of the tasty zingers from "Ratsize," and "Kill the Funk," a B-side from 1991, races to a climax with the repeated chant "Dad's gonna fight/Dad's gonna get his ass kicked." Few songwriters along the Amerindie landscape have turned such nonsensical rambles into such hook-laden and gloriously chaotic rock and roll. Despite his penchant for jibberish, Reis uses Dracula as a platform to offer up trenchant and pointed commentary on everything from suicide ("Used") to retro-hippy nostalgia ("Born in '69," with the snarky line "Your inspiration is a memory you never had"), as well as the general malaise of the band's midtwenties peers ("Young Livers" is a smart-assed slacker manifesto with the refrain "We're all right/We're just lazy").