Whether you refer to him as “Swami,” “Speedo,” or “Slasher,” there’s no question that John Reis has been in a lot of celebrated bands over the years. From Pitchfork to Drive Like Jehu, and from Rocket From the Crypt to Hot Snakes, the San Diego–based musician and owner of Swami Records has created a distinctive post-punk sound that’s influenced countless acts for the past quarter century. Part of Reis’ inherent inventiveness is his wide range of influences which span from garage rock to proto-punk and surf music—however his first proper solo album under his own name, Ride the Wild Night, sees him stripping back the layers and focusing more on acoustic instrumentation, which allows his songwriting to truly shine.
We caught up with Reis at his home studio to discuss the making of Ride the Wild Night, the influence of acts like The Saints and Flamin’ Groovies on shaping his artistic world, and the time there was a SWAT raid at his neighbor's house involving helicopters, a tank-like vehicle, and clandestine cops. (We’re not kidding.)
The press release for your new album says it’s your first solo record, which really blew my mind.
Kind of. I did record under the name Back Off Cupids, and that was a solo record of sorts. It was a lot of songs that I’d kind of written not necessarily for Drive Like Jehu, but songs that were written at that time. We were inactive for a while and I was in between tours with Rocket From the Crypt, and I had recorded some stuff at [Hot Snakes bandmate] Gar Wood’s house in his garage.
It’s funny, calling it a “solo record” is not really accurate in the sense that I’m still calling upon the help of my friends just as much as I would in any other bands I’ve been in, you know? So it’s not “solo.” I don’t play every single instrument; I didn’t record it completely by myself. But everyone’s getting older, schedules are becoming more conflicting, and the windows to do things seem to be getting smaller. It’s just a way to continue this going with whoever is available at the time.
“It’s funny, calling it a ‘solo record’ is not really accurate in the sense that I’m still calling upon the help of my friends just as much as I would in any other bands I’ve been in.”
I spoke to you back in 2015 when Modern Surf Classics came out, and you brought up the Back Off Cupids album and said something to the effect that you didn’t care how it fit into your musical canon. Do you feel the same way about this record?
Yeah, I don’t think about that at all, that’s for sure. How it fits? I don’t think any real artist thinks about that. It seems kind of ridiculous to take a step back out of yourself and go, “How does this make sense?” It makes sense because you fucking made it. [Laughs.] I do try to remove myself from situations where I feel like I’ll know the result before I do it—like things that I’ve done a couple of times before where I’m like, “I kind of know how this will turn out.” It’s good to change things up in order to try to make something different. Try to move forward or move backward or move to the side; just movement in general.
How did Ride the Wild Night come together?
This record started a very long time ago. Part of the first inspiration was I bought an acoustic guitar and I started writing songs on it and listening to a lot of acoustic music. Dylan inspired a lot of the folk bands, but then a lot of the garage rock bands, they kind of considered themselves coming from a kind of Bob Dylan school—but they weren’t, because they didn’t really write as good of lyrics and couldn’t play as good and didn’t have great equipment and were teenagers in garages. They also wanted to be loud and obnoxious; so that kind of folk, kind of punk thing.
I like a lot of that music and never said I wanted to make something necessarily like that, but when I bought the acoustic guitar…I mean I’ve had a couple of acoustic guitars in the past, but this one just sounded great, played really well, and I loved the way that it was fairly easy to play. The ones I had in the past would always hurt my fingers so much. Playing acoustic guitar for three hours would just gnarl my fingers and hand pretty bad. So this was a guitar that was slight; it felt comfortable against my body, and the resonating felt good, and from that came the songs.
That happens a lot. With Hot Snakes I’ll get a new guitar or new amp and that will inspire a bunch of songs. This instrument opened a door and made me hear things a little differently. I know I wanted the bass to have more of an acoustic sound with the piano; I bought a piano and my friend Joey [Guevara], who’s a great piano player, helped me out. So that was kind of the inspiration: piano, acoustic guitar, and then drums that were just in that sonic school of big-beat, kick-and-snare, kind of blown out a bit.
“I do try to remove myself from situations where I feel like I’ll know the result before I do it—like things that I’ve done a couple of times before where I’m like, ‘I kind of know how this will turn out.’”
The press release for this album also mentions The Saints, Flamin’ Groovies…
The Flamin’ Groovies are one of my favorite bands of all time, so even in The Nightmarchers and Rocket [From the Crypt], you might not hear it but it’s one of those influences that’s always there.
Do you think there were some other references in this music that hadn’t come across in your music before?
Yeah, probably. That was kind of the thing even with Hot Snakes. I’ve been into the Wipers ever since the ’80s, but it took until 2000 when it started showing up in my music. So maybe there’s some of that in this record where there’s things I’ve loved for quite a while that are now starting to take more of a literal influence. I think the Flamin’ Groovies would be a good example of that. But I kind of name-check those other bands because they appeal to me not only on their own greatness, but also because they represent to me music and transition. They’re bridging the past and creating the future. Definitely The Flamin’ Groovies and The Kinks and The Saints kind of represent that to me. A band like The Saints, that sound didn’t really exist before them. That was kind of created in a vacuum, really. The band had some influences that were sort of proto-punk, but they took it somewhere else completely.
You have such a distinctive voice and guitar sound. Do you hear a new album you’ve made and go, “That’s me”?
I don’t think of it like that. I just think I can’t escape the thing that I do, nor do I want to escape it. I think on this record I wanted to give myself some different tools to work with. That doesn’t mean it was going to turn out tremendously different, but maybe sonically or texturally, I think the songs and the ideas are presented a bit differently. It’s a record I like a lot, I’m really stoked, I think it came out really great. It's more of an autobiographical record than I’ve done in the past. That isn’t to say there isn’t fantasy and whimsy abound. [Laughs.] But even the things that are kind of humorous are based on the fact that there’s a truth in there, whether it’s an observation or writing from another person’s perspective.
“It's more of an autobiographical record than I’ve done in the past. Even the things that are kind of humorous are based on the fact that there’s a truth in there, whether it’s an observation or writing from another person’s perspective.”
That makes me think of a song from this album called “I Hate My Neighbors in the Yellow House.” That title seems very specific.
Yeah, and the house is no longer yellow, they painted it. They were forced to move; there was a SWAT raid on their house. They were stealing people’s mail and there were a couple other federal crimes they were committing. This was a couple of years ago; there was a 4 a.m. raid on their house with flash grenades and there was…I want to call it a tank. It didn’t have treads—it had tires, but it was armored. There wasn’t a gun turret but a turret to kind of peep out the top…and helicopters. They got arrested, and obviously it wasn’t their first offense. I believe they were forced to sell the property. So now there’s new owners and they painted the house and fixed it up—and oddly enough now there’s a yellow house next door, but it’s not the yellow house I’m talking about in the song.
OK, great, in case the new neighbors are reading this, they should know it’s not their yellow house.
Right. I’m sure that yellow house hated the other yellow house. They were awful neighbors. [Laughs.] FL