By Jacob Katel
By Laurie Charles
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Abel Folgar
By Kat Bein
By Jacob Katel
"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").
Reis claims that Scream, Dracula, Scream, when taken in with Hot Charity and The State of Art is on Fire, represents Rocket's attempt to grapple as well with the concepts of fame, underground notoriety, and the expectations and tastes of their steadily increasing audience. "There was a lot of disbelief we were feeling when we were writing the songs for the last three records," Reis explains. "Things about what people were considering to be good music and how people were neglecting what I thought was good music and timeless rock and roll. Not only were these people comfortable doing that, but they seemed eager to throw away things in order to get to something else that was just as crappy, if not even worse, than what they were listening to before. I guess it was just the frustration of trying to relate to a group of people and not really being able to."
Cynical thinking, sure, but somewhat justified, for Reis was on hand back in the early Nineties when the music press converged on San Diego to hype the burgeoning underground music scene there as the next Seattle, thanks to the success of Rocket, Trumans Water, and Drive Like Jehu. Major record labels sent talent scouts to the area, and Rocket wound up with a high-dollar contract with Interscope, which re-released the band's second album Circa: Now! in 1993. In spite of the deal, Reis regards the media hubbub with contempt.
"I'm so grateful that all that has died down," he says bitterly. "That kind of shit has no weight to it, and you can't take it seriously. It makes you look like a fool because people automatically think it's the bands going around championing their cause and all their friends' bands. I just don't have any pride in it. I love it [in San Diego] and there are some great bands here, and I really do think it's the best place to live in the world. I'm satisfied here and I'm happy here. But I'm not going around waving a flag about it. It sucks that someone says they want to write a story on you and it turns into San Diego Scene this and that and you wind up being made a stooge of. People are always interested in regionalism, but it just doesn't excite me that much."
Besides, Reis continues, he would rather work at honing Rocket's greatest strength -- namely, white-hot live shows that work both visually (the band is partial to matching bowling shirts of a sequined, glittery variety) and sonically (good as their records are, the band has never fully captured the crunching power and raw-nerve urgency of their on-stage attack). Rocket is currently on the road with the Warped Tour, a minipalooza package that is putting the group in front of some of its largest audiences yet. Some may know the band from its pair of videos (for "Ditch Digger" and "Born in '69"), which MTV shows on blue-moon evenings, and nearly every stop attracts at least a few hard-core fans. Mostly, according to Reis, people aren't sure what to make of 'em. "Every night we go out it's something different," he says of the Warped crowds. "Sometimes we find that a lot of people have bothered to come out and see us play and a lot of other times there are people who just don't understand what we're doing. Yesterday, we played to a couple thousand people and I bet not more than a handful of them had even heard of us before. They just were not getting it. But the day before, everyone knew our stuff and were singing along and dancing and having a good time. Which is good because we weren't expecting anything positive to come of this Warped thing. We're just doing it to keep busy."
Rocket From the Crypt is just one of a slew of bands performing Wednesday, August 7, during the Warped Tour at Bayfront Park Amphitheatre, 301 Biscayne Blvd; 358-7550. Doors open at 2:00. Tickets cost $18.50.