Marching, onwards: Speedo on rock 'n' roll past and present
Somehow, I thought he’d be bigger.
As Speedo arrives I make a mistake: I don’t get up from my seat. I’ve been sat here, waiting, for something like forty minutes; I figure, why should I get up? The man’s kept me. Then again, it’s polite to do so, to meet a man’s gaze at a level, not an angle. Immediately I feel awful. Speedo steps into the bar to do whatever Speedo does when he’s in bars not ordering a drink and I shuffle in my seat. He could just blow me out, I think. He could. He doesn’t.
He, real name John Reis, settles beside me, thinner and more diminutive than I’d imagined from so many records, so many videos: Pitchfork, Rocket From The Crypt, Drive Like Jehu, Hot Snakes, and now The Night Marchers. He sparks up a cigar; seems odd given his external good health. What do I call you? “Speedo, John, Slasher… whatever is fine.” He inhales, deeply. Is this a treat? “A daily treat.” Smoke billows about the pair of us. He sips his drink. I get questioning.
Video: Rocket From The Crypt, 'On A Rope'
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What’s it been like playing these new Night Marchers songs to UK audiences?
It’s been fantastic – it’s awesome to be back over here. We’ve a lot of friends, and we’ve been reacquainting ourselves with people who we only get a chance to see every four, five or six years. Or whatever it is. Mostly, it feels so great to be alive again, to be playing.
You’ve rarely been without a band, it seems.
Yeah, and there will probably be others, still. I like to play with other people and do other things, but I’m very excited about the music of The Night Marchers – I really believe in it, and in our sound and chemistry. I believe in our ability to recreate these moods and sounds and feelings that we want to express.
Chemistry? Is there a natural cohesion, considering two of your three bandmates were also in Hot Snakes with you?
I guess what I mean by chemistry is… in the past I’ve been in different bands, often simultaneously, because I felt that this band can do this kind of material, and this one might be better suited to this sort of approach. With The Night Marchers I feel we can do anything we want to do. There’s no need to subdivide things, because of the chemistry between the people involved. There’s no need to aim specifically for a Night Marchers ‘sound’, because we can do whatever we want to, unlike some of the other bands I have been in. Some have been all about this specific kind of image.
About appealing to a certain audience, or demographic?
It’s not about appealing to a demographic, it’s about a comfort zone. It’s not about people, the reaction, playing for an audience; it’s more about having a level of comfort, and this band has a much broader comfort zone.
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The result of this comfort zone, as broad as it is, is See You In Magic, The Night Marchers’ debut album; it’s out now via Vagrant (review). It’s a record that can’t help but feel informed by Reis’ past, yet retains a breezy freshness that’s characterised some of his previous output – that no-frills rawness that translates live as a whole lot of sweaty fun. When DiS catches The Night Marchers at London’s 100 Club, this is exactly what we experience – this is a band that connects with its audience in a fantastic way, barriers down, palms open and upward. Join us, they offer. Join us, dance and be merry. Celebrate rock ‘n’ roll. Oh, and do buy our album, yeah?
How’d it feel to get See You In Magic in your hands, even after releasing so many records?
The new record? I was really psyched. We didn’t spend a whole lot of time recording it, and it’s the first thing I’ve ever recorded in this new studio I’ve erected, called The City Of Refuge, in San Diego. I shipped all of the walls – they’re made out of lava – from Hawaii. These are the outer walls.
Is lava any good as a building material? It doesn’t spring straight to mind, for sure.
It’s a good building material as long as you have a mason who knows how to work it, although it’s not known for being sound proof. It’s nothing to do with acoustics, but purely aesthetics. It looks cool, really cool. On the inside, I spent two years finding all of the same tiles they had on the floor at Chess, on the ceiling I’ve got tiles that were used at Stax. I bought all this old, dead-stock material, and most of it you can’t use anymore what with asbestos and whatnot, but I went out and got all the same wood panelling that they used at Sun Studios. I basically recreated all of my favourite studios and put them into one.
Sounds like a bit of a dream finally made a reality.
I’d always wanted to do it, and I could finally afford it. It was quite expensive – I sold everything. I sold all my guitars, I sold all my… well, everything.
I noticed a fair number of attendees at the 100 Club in Hot Snakes shirts…
And God bless them.
It must be great knowing you can come here and play, even before releasing the album, assured of an audience?
I think, y’know, that came from fifteen years of playing our asses off. Those people who come, they’re not just people at a show, they’re like our family. Whether we know them or not, these are people that we are connected to, people who like us, are like: “You know what? This makes us feel not alone in the world.” This makes us feel like part of something larger, and something important. I’m not saying that our music is important; I’m saying that the communion is, having that place where you can meet with likeminded people and rejoice, and celebrate something that has nothing to do with religion, or sports, or birthdays or holidays. It’s about holding this thing that you love high over your head, for all to see. And going, “Fuck yeah". And that’s the music of rock ‘n’ roll.
Video: The Night Marchers, 'You've Got Nerve' (live)
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So few bands making waves nowadays are open to embracing the elemental fabric of rock history, concerned more with the details littering the periphery of their output. Rock ‘n’ roll is in Reis’ blood, it’s been in every band he’s ever played in. Call Drive Like Jehu post-hardcore, sure, and Rocket paid their dues to the ska crowd, but both beat to the pulse of primal rock ‘n’ roll. It’s what comprises the backbone of See You In Magic, that swagger of the best of 1960s guitar rock. Few of Reis’ bands have ever kept pace with fleeting fashions; by playing on traditional tricks rather than datable designs they’ve resonated with a certain timelessness, and influenced many in the process; slight diversions, not major distractions.
Video: The Night Marchers, 'I Wanna Deadbeat You' (live)
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I’ve always thought your music isn’t as ‘tailored’ as certain peers, bands at the crest of hype waves.
Well, I think our music is tailored – it’s tailored to all my favourite things about the guitar. In my opinion there’s some of the drama of the Hot Snakes in The Night Marchers, but we don’t want to use it every fucking song. We use it sparingly, and in the context of these other things we like, bands like The Wipers and The Saints. They’re two of my favourite bands. With The Night Marchers, we really wanted to evoke the vibrating guitar rhythm of Bo Diddley – we really wanted to bring through what we liked about Bo Diddly. When most people think of Bo Diddley, they think of the Bo Diddley beat, which they should do as it’s his trademark. But what I really gravitate towards is his guitar playing, his sense of rhythm and braggadocio. And how bad-ass he is. So I wanted to bring that, but also have it collide with this conventional rock ‘n’ roll sound, from bands like The Flaming Groovies and The Nervous Eaters, bands that were informed by late ‘60s and early ‘70s rock ‘n’ roll, bands that were disciples of The Velvets and The Stooges, but took it somewhere else. Also, the music of the ‘60s that I like so much, even popular music of the ‘60s like The Zombies, The Byrds.
You almost don’t sell what’s unique about the band, but what’s uniform, instantaneous, universal.
People always make a big deal about differences, but things aren’t that fucking different, y’know? There are far more similarities from band to band than there are differences – the beauty, the thing that makes you feel alive, that one part that makes you need this, is a subtlety. It’s something in there that you have found, that you have unearthed. And it speaks to you. You look at a car race, you know, or a marathon, any race – the winner can win by a chin. It’s in the subtleties. I think rock ‘n’ roll, music in general… there are things that are bad, completely bad. They’re cancerous, stay away from them.
‘Pop’ – which there’s a lot of in a traditional sense in The Night Marchers – has something of a poor reputation.
I really like pop music, but for me that means bands like The Nerves, or The Beat – not the English Beat. You ever heard The Nerves? You need to check them out – they were a band from Los Angeles in the late ‘70s, a three-piece, and after they disbanded all the members went on to do more famous things (find them on MySpace - Ed). One of the guys formed The Plimsouls, another went on to join Blondie and actually wrote ‘Hanging On The Telephone’. That was a Nerves song, that Blondie had covered. Do check out The Nerves.
So what does punk mean to you, as you’re so into your particular pop?
Here’s the thing – you can’t listen to a punk rock band now. Punk rock doesn’t exist. There are bands like us that are into punk, and that are informed by it, but it was a phenomenon that came and happened, and what you have now is the aftershocks, bands that feel the same feelings, but punk was about a place and a time. I’m not saying that punk is dead, but it was a phenomenon that happened. You can say it was complete bullshit, and that people like Jerry Lee Lewis and Mozart before him were punk, y’know, by definition, because they had this maverick, creative spirit. But I’m talking more about a Webster’s definition at this point – it was something that came and went, so when you listen to something new… you can’t recreate that. You can’t even recreate those recordings. You can’t make a record like that. I reissued a band called Crime, one of my favourite bands ever, but you can’t make records like that nowadays. You can try. You can’t make a record that sounds like The Sonics, but people try, they try all the time. They might even come close. But you can’t recreate that. It was something that existed. It becomes a genuine article, and that’s why old music to me is so appealing. You can appreciate it in a historical context, whatever, but if it moves me, and I like it, and I feel it’s never been bettered… this is something that not only has historical value, but it’s something that you can’t make anymore. You cannot do it.
If you can’t do it, what keeps you making the music you do?
Because you try to do it! But you can’t! It’s not even about ripping things off, it’s about trying to give people the same feeling I got when I heard a certain song. It’s the feeling of it; it’s not about bridging an A-minor to a D, I want people to feel.
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Successfully, given turnouts to shows past by both Rocket and Hot Snakes, the two of Reis’ bands to firmly make an impression on the UK’s gig-goers. Both amassed legions of admirers, and to this day are regarded as hugely inspiring acts of our generation. Both are missed greatly – farewell shows the stuff of legend – so it’s no surprise that The Night Marchers are likely to come under scrutiny, and quickly. See You In Magic makes good on the on-paper potential, delivering instantaneous hits one by one, memorable of lyric and licks. It’s typical fare of a kind, granted, but if it ain’t broke…
What’s inspiring you? What’s your muse?
All the time, every day, I’m playing the guitar. It’s who I am, and it’s what I do. My muse is my electric guitar, and it always will be. It’s my first love. I just love to play my guitar. That dictates my life, more than screaming and sweating in front of people.
This is a long-term relationship of yours?
I always liked the guitar from worshipping rock bands like KISS and Alice Cooper, when I was in elementary school – these guys were deities on stage.
And what made you pick it up? What was the spark, when was the moment you went: “This is for me, this is what I’m gonna do”?
The thing that made me want to play music, actually want to be in a band… I saw Black Flag in ’84. People were already saying they were shit then, but this was my first show, and I was 14 or 15, however old I was. This was my experience. I was really into it, but there was a local band from San Diego called the Battalion of Saints (MySpace), and they were a very violent, metallic hardcore band. By violent I don’t mean that they were advocating violence, I mean their sound was very confrontational. It sounded like broken glass, it was really bad-ass. This band was from San Diego, and they’d play with all these other bands; bands from England, like Discharge and Broken Bones, would come over and always say they wanted to play with Battalion of Saints, because they were doing something different at the time. They were the best band happening, they were better than everybody. They had a completely original sound, and that’s what made me want to play, because these guys were from my city, and they were totally better than everybody.
Is San Diego an influence, as your immediate environment?
San Diego, because of its proximity to Mexico, must have some influence on what we’re doing. I’ve lived there my whole life, and I’m 39 years old.
And now you’ve left your mark, with the studio. Do you hope someone will take it on when you’re done with it?
Yeah. Someone will use it as a garage!
I’m sure they won’t.
Finally, given it’s all you’ve known, so it seems – can you imagine yourself growing tired of rock ‘n’ roll?
I can see me getting tired of rock ‘n’ roll, maybe. Maybe. Not of music, though. It depends on where my head goes from here, because I don’t only listen to rock ‘n’ roll music. I listen to very little of it, but the shit I do listen to is the best, and makes me feel amazing. The first two Saints records, you know – everyone needs to have those records. Punk rock will never get better than that. But who knows – maybe a Korean blues record is right around the corner?
Video: Hot Snakes, 'Braintrust'
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Smoke clears, time up. The Night Marchers’ See You In Magic is out now via Vagrant. Find the band on MySpace here. See them live stateside before they return to the UK in the autumn:
17 Solana Beach, California Belly Up
20 Los Angeles Download Festival @ Gibson Amphitheatre
13 Morrison Monolith Festival
18 Austin Emo’s