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The Whole Thing Just Seemed Kind of Mystical: The Story of Rocket from the Crypt

By Dom Sinacola; photos courtesy of Vagrant Records and Nickelodeon; photo by Shigeo Kikuchi on May 28, 2013

 

The Whole Thing Just Seemed Kind of Mystical: The Story of Rocket from the Crypt

It’s tempting to add a taste of controversy to this band. Six dudes from a notoriously aggressive San Diego punk scene playing weird rock music and putting on insane live shows, touring incessantly for nearly two decades, remaining frustratingly forever on the fringes of popular consumption? Rocket from the Crypt seemed to have drama built into their DNA. And then there were the myths.

Like the one about how they recorded their second album, Circa: Now!, during the LA riots. Ordered by panicking law enforcement to stay within the studio, they soon realized, cloistered as they were, that their master tape was a lemon, which meant producer Donnell Cameron and saxophone player Apollo 9 (Paul O’Beirne) had to sneak out into the city’s fiery night to obtain a new one. Those four days of recording birthed the record that got Rocket signed to a major label. Theirs was infamy writ in danger.


Or the one where bandleader Speedo (John Reis) convinced Interscope to sign both Rocket and Drive Like Jehu, his band with friend Rick Froberg. Reis accomplished something unheard of: retaining artistic control while plundering the new trove of resources the major label had at its disposal. He took his cake and ate it too. Because it was his cake. Then he released some Rocket seven-inches with small-timers like Sympathy for the Record Industry and Merge. Because he could.


There’s the rumor the band told fans that a Rocket from the Crypt tattoo meant a lifetime of free entrance to all their shows; a simple image search bears fading Rocket tattoos like they are Legion. The WWE champ CM Punk and former MTV VJ Kennedy have both got one.


The reality of the cult of personality that surrounds Rocket from the Crypt is, of course, less mythical. “We’ve always known that we’ve been a band’s band, a musician’s band,” says Petey X (bassist Pete Reichert). “Back when we did the Warped Tour, we had more people on the side of the stage than in front.” Unsurprisingly, Metallica and Dave Grohl have vocalized their devotion; when longtime drummer Atom (Adam Willard) left the band in 1999, Superchunk’s Jon Wurster stepped in almost automatically.


They were an astoundingly hard-working outfit, known for 10-hour practices seven days a week, on top of marathon touring schedules and a prolific series of releases, from three odds-and-ends compilations, to a live album, a smattering of 10- and 7-inches and a laundry list of side projects. But what perhaps most earns them the “band’s band” honorific is the distinct breadth of their sound. 


Though they’ve certainly hacked through the morass of emo, garage and punk to define a unique hard rock legacy, their albums are each a testament to the disparate backgrounds and tastes of the many musicians who’ve made the rounds over the years. Circa: Now! seethes behind a barely discernible momentum, until it’s loud, suddenly, shaking. 1995’s Hot Charity and Scream, Dracula, Scream!, recorded concurrently, were records that pummeled expectations, expanding the band’s purview. There were strings, handclaps; was this still even punk? Later, final album Live From Camp X-Ray channeled Metallica, the Wipers, James Brown, Reel Big Fish and…Swans? “Too Many Balls” ends terrifyingly.


“We were always about celebrating our similarities as opposed to drawing these distinctions over subtle differences in terms of what we’re into,” Reis explains. It might be a lot to expect from a group of friends who first joined forces in 1990, but the recent announcement of five European reunion shows with the band’s original 1992 lineup—including Atom—is proof enough their modus operandi has served them well. 


The reunion, of course, has been greeted with glee by fans, but Rocket’s fans have always followed them to the ends of the earth. When they took a little break so Reis could finish up Drive Like Jehu; when they shifted labels yet again; when they replaced Atom with Mario Rubalcaba; when they announced an official hiatus in 2005: Rocket’s spirit of inclusiveness always provided a warm beacon to follow. 


Most importantly, fans can sense they still get along. That they still keep their stage names around like superhero alter egos. That Speedo, ND, Petey X, Apollo 9, JC 2000 and Atom are still in love with playing together.


Maybe there’s something legendary about that after all.



THE UNINTERESTING MYTH
A CONVERSATION WITH JOHN REIS


John Reis is Speedo, Rocket from the Crypt’s lead singer, songwriter and ersatz producer. He splits his time with plenty of other projects, from the defunct Drive Like Jehu to the recently reunited Hot Snakes. He also runs a label, Swami, with Long Gone John; hosts a radio show in San Diego; and makes the occasional appearance on 
Yo Gabba Gabba! as, you guessed it, the Super Music Swami. In fact, the Rocket reunion was effectively kicked off by the band performing a song, “He’s a Chef,” on the kids’ TV show last year.


In 1990, you assemble Rocket from the Crypt and release Paint as a Fragrance on Cargo. What was San Diego like then?


A couple of other bands in San Diego were doing stuff at the same time, and it seemed like there was a really cool competition going on. It was probably a similar scenario in a lot of places, where everybody’s friends go to a show, and 50 percent of people there are in other bands, and friends were just helping friends any way they could. It was something bigger than any of our bands. It wasn’t just about friendship, it was about belonging to something.


Did you outgrow Cargo after you released Circa: Now!?


We were indebted to them for a couple more records. With Interscope, we didn’t see dollar signs; we saw a way out. I don’t feel the need to, like, correct the Uninteresting Myth of Rocket from the Crypt and Drive Like Jehu Signing To Interscope, but Drive Like Jehu was never the bastard stepchild of Rocket. Interscope was primarily interested in Jehu. They didn’t know about Rocket until they started doing some homework; then they kind of came to us and said that if we were interested they’d like to have both bands.


I’m not flagging Cargo, but we had to beg and plead for the money to finish our second record. We ended up arguing over $1,000, something like that. I understand it’s a business, but in the end they made so much money off of the bands…and I still haven’t seen any of it.


When you left Interscope, was that a mutual decision?


You know what that time was like: every band was getting signed, labels were spending a lot of money and they were losing that money on most of these bands trying to find the next whomever…Nirvana, say. And here’s the thing: while these labels were supposedly losing money, they weren’t. They were making so much—not only in the way that everything from manufacturing to distribution to packaging was consolidated under one roof, but they were making a shitload of money on CDs. CDs meant that every fucking Meatloaf record, every Platinum record they had—dating back to the earliest days of the label—became Platinum again. Because everyone had to go out and buy those albums again...which cost 20 cents to make and they’re buying them for 15 bucks!


When the dream, or whatever they were smoking, settled, they realized they had to change things up again. This was before the download craze was happening where they were starting to feel that crunch; they just felt the need to tighten up because those bands weren’t making the kind of profits the labels needed.


So they wanted to see some hits, some sales and radio traction. Most of the records we put out we did our way, and so [with 1998’s RFTC] we figured we’d do it their way for once, we’ll listen to their ideas. And their ideas were so bogus, so stupid. All these people who say they know why things sell, they don’t know anything. They throw shit at the wall and see what sticks.


In 2005, Rocket from the Crypt played their final show in San Diego. It seemed to many like a strange way to slow down. How do you see it?


The band slowed down before we broke up, really. That’s kind of why we stopped playing: we did everything we wanted to do. Really. For me, I just wanted to do something else. As simple as that. We got along as great as you could for being so close with a large group of people for a long time. There really weren’t any problems, besides the usual stuff: trying to scrape by, hustle, make ends meet in a big band that plays niche rock music.


It’s not giving up. Nothing lasts forever. And I had a kid, too; I didn’t want to be gone all the time. Now that he’s a bit older I can be more of a hobbyist about it. But I can never go back to the way it was.


What’s the motivation behind a reunion? Do you feel like this is what people want?


I don’t know why now, why not later, why not before and why not never. With age, certain things that seemed so difficult in the past don’t seem as difficult anymore. For me, playing with the Hot Snakes again, it’s been way easier the second time than it was the first. Partly because: people really want to see the band. Whereas before, you kind of feel like you’re a door-to-door salesman.


Bring that to now: it wasn’t until we got together to do the song for Yo Gabba Gabba!—which is a kid’s show, and I’m actually on the show as a small character—doing something just because it was a kooky idea, that got us talking again. We mulled it over and it seemed like: this could be a lot of fun. It could even be better than the first time around.



When you say a lot of people are asking you to play, do you ever think, or are you aware of, the idea that you guys carry a big influence?


What we do, though, is…derivative and inspired by what I consider classic rock. Therefore, I don’t think that what we’re doing is anything new. I dunno; I’m stoked. I don’t know about the importance, I just hope people can connect to it. I’ll just put it this way: our music didn’t change the course of history. 


HAIL TO THE CRYPT
A ROCKET FROM THE CRYPT DISCOGRAPHY WITH COMMENTARY BY JOHN REIS



 1. Paint as a Fragrance

(Cargo/Headhunter; 1991)

 

 

 

 

 

 


 2. Circa: Now!

(Cargo, Interscope, Swami; 1992, 1993, 2004)


We put out our first record with Cargo, but within a year we hit a wall. We just weren’t able to do much on that label. In retrospect, we probably should’ve been putting out our records on our own all along, but the whole thing just seemed kind of mystical, like flying a plane, or being a surgeon. So I started working at Cargo and saw that we could totally do it, and if we were doing it ourselves then we could finally have the money to do the things that we wanted to do. When we signed to Interscope, it wasn’t like we made it. If anything, it was just the beginning of the days when we could really dedicate ourselves.


 3. All Systems Go

(Toy’s Factory, Sympathy for the Record Industry; 1993, 1998)

 

 

 

 

 


 4. All Systems Go 2

(Swami; 1999)

 

 

 

 

 

 


 5. All Systems Go 3

(Vagrant; 2008)


They’re odds and ends, loose pieces. We’ve become friends with a lot of the people who come to our shows, and there is a different kind of conversation you have with your friends compared to strangers. Those records are like those conversations for our friends. Your friends have seen you when you’re at your best and they’ve seen you when you’re at your worst. These records aren’t really for people who’ve never heard the band before.


 6. Hot Charity

(Perfect Sound; 1995)

 

 

 

 

 

 


 7. Scream, Dracula, Scream!

(Interscope/Atlantic; 1995)

 

 

 

 

 

 


 8. The State of Art Is On Fire EP

(Sympathy For the Record Industry; 1996)


Scream was a really fun record to make. Although, there were a lot of ideas we had that were not only ambitious, but ludicrous; it was just nice to afford the luxury of trying them out. That period of time, when we recorded [the EP] and then we recorded Hot Charity and then we recorded Scream, all three of those records sound pretty different but they were done back-to-back-to-back, no break. They were all part of this same canon of thought.


 9. RFTC

(Interscope; 1998)

 

 

 

 

 

 


 10. Cut Carefully and Play Loud EP

(Flapping Jet; 1999)


We knew we were never going to be the band [Interscope] thought they heard in us. So, we made a record we thought they wanted to hear within the context of us still really liking it a lot. It was written on the road—we were touring so much—during soundchecks around the world, just working on different motifs and trying to expand upon our sound. Whatever. Whether someone likes the record or doesn’t, it and the 10-inch were the best we could do at the time.


 11. Group Sounds

(Vagrant; 2001)

 

 

 

 

 

 


 12. Live from Camp X-Ray

(Vagrant/TVT; 2002)

 

 

 

 

 

 


 13. R.I.P [live album]

(Vagrant; 2008)


Group Sounds is not necessarily our best record, but there was a sense of rebirth. The band had hit a wall and ended up climbing over to the other side. We felt rejuvenated; that was a great time for the band. And Vagrant, when they heard we were off Interscope, they were just really horny to do something with us. They were fans; it was pretty clear that if we were going to do anything with anyone, these were the right people. They were just happy to have the band on the label and they were excited about whatever we wanted to do.  F


The history continues...featuring contributions from Petey X, Apollo 9, 
Long Gone John, Pelle Almqvist of The Hives, CM Punk and Laura Ballance of Superchunk/Merge Records.