Catching Up With Hot Snakes' John Reis

Hot Snakes guitarist John Reis has been reconnecting with a lot of old friends lately. This includes, of course, the rest of Hot Snakes, the fiery post-punk project he helped form in the late '90s— they release Jericho Sirens,  their first full-length in fourteen years, this week through Sub Pop.  The band are prepping for a performance in Chicago when ION catches Reis on his cell phone, but the punk lifer explains he also managed to sneak in a smoke break earlier in the day with Phil Ledbetter, the owner of the Windy City's Up Down Cigar.

"I try to visit when I'm here in town. It's an amazing cigar shop," Reis praises, noting he enjoyed palling around and lighting up a couple of freshly acquired Cubans before walking out with a stack of smokables.  When asked if, as Up Down's website proclaims, it is indeed "the greatest tobacco store on earth," Reis reports:   "I haven't been to every one. It's definitely got to be one of the best. I mean, you  would get sued for libel if it wasn't, right?"

What's certain is that the lengthy layover between Hot Snakes albums hasn't diffused the band's red hot, tube-bursting fury. Like the trio of albums the outfit delivered during their initial six-year run — 2000's Automatic Midnight, 2002's Suicide Invoice, and 2004's Audit in Progress Jericho Sirens is packed with rabbit punch rhythms, stylish-but-snarling six-string hooks, and guitarist/vocalist Rick Froberg's iconic, raspy yelp. But despite the nervous tension capriciously coiled into the collection, the songwriting sessions between Reis, Froberg, bassist Gar Wood and drummers Jason Kourkounis and Mario Rubalcaba were reasonably relaxed.  

Talk of crafting new tunes first came up when the act started playing reunion dates in 2011, but it wasn't until last year that they collectively had enough downtime to make it work. With the outfit split between San Diego, Philadelphia, and New York — "We have to use planes in order to have a band practice," Reis points out— Hot Snakes opted to take on "digestible" spurts of togetherness over hunkering down long-term to crank out an LP. The guitarist adds, "This way, we were able to be more spontaneous and have more fun, too. There wasn't pressure; If we didn't have anything after the three days, then so be it."

Despite clocking in at just over a half-an-hour, there's plenty to sink your teeth into on Jericho Sirens. "I Need a Doctor" opens the LP with a feverish pace and sinister, surfy leads; jagged chord work and paranoid drum fills collide on "Candid Cameras"; "Six Wave Hold Down" is sea foam-shooting punk salvo with downstrokes for days. Across the board, it presents a group so fully in their element.  But even across a songwriting partnership between Reis and Froberg that dates back 30 years—beginning with  Pitchfork in the '80s, through to post-hardcore legends Drive Like Jehu in the 90s, to their ongoing work as Hot Snakes—the guitarist was surprised at just how savagely his longtime collaborator attacked the mic this time around.

"I'm not talking for Rick, but for me it's the part that feels the most like work. There's not a whole lot of fun, it's long days of screaming," he says, while noting incredulously of Froberg's raw performance in the studio,  "The more cigarettes he smoked, the more he screamed, the better his voice got."

Missing from Jericho Sirens, however, are the surreal and cartoony illustrations Froberg affixed to the layouts of previous Hot Snakes LPs. Instead, the album cover presents a photo of bassist Wood on his surfboard, ferociously carving up a Fiji's famous Cloudbreak, one of the most challenging waves in the world.

"We all agree that it's such a bad-ass photo, it's so cool. For me, it makes sense because it really acknowledges who we are, where we're from, and what we're about," Reis, an avid waverider who issued his own set of Ventures-style instrumentals in 2015, says, doubling down with gusto, "I don't think there's a whole lot of bands who could put a photo of someone in the band [surfing on the cover]. The Beach Boys couldn't do that! [And] they were the ultimate beach band."

Leave a comment

ION Magazine 170-422 Richards Street Vancouver BC Canada V6B 2Z4
© Copyright ION Publishing Group 2013