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Hot Snakes' Siren Song

"Swami" John Reis talks Hot Snakes' revival, the band's new Sub Pop album -- and his favorite SD spots

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    Hot Snakes' Siren Song
    Hot Snakes headline the Observatory North Park on May 11. (Courtesy Sub Pop)

    If there's a figure more fused with the identity of San Diego rock than "Swami" John Reis, I don't know 'em. You could make a case that the local icon -- world renowned for either fronting and/or playing guitar in bands such as Pitchfork, Drive Like Jehu, Rocket From the Crypt, and Hot Snakes -- has done more to put San Diego music on the map than anyone else in the last 30 years. Guy's almost more myth than man at this point around here.

    He's also been working at a near-breakneck pace the past few years. What started as a RFTC revival around 2011, turned into a Drive Like Jehu reunion (earmarked by that unforgettable show in 2014 at Balboa Park's Spreckels Organ Pavilion) -- and most recently, the re-emergence of the raging beast that is Hot Snakes.

    Don't call it a comeback though: On "Jericho Sirens," the post-hardcore group's first studio full-length in 14 years (out now via Sub Pop), Reis and his snakey brethren (vocalist/guitarist Rick Froberg, drummer Jason Kourkounis, bassist Gar Wood, and drummer Mario Rubalcaba) are somehow picking up right where they left off after 2004's "Audit in Progress."

    So what's the first thing I did when I got Reis on the phone recently? Well, naturally I asked about his go-to spots in town, of course. (I mean, wouldn't you be curious, too?)

    "Cotijas dot com," Reis replied when I asked about his favorite taco shop. "It's just called Cotijas but they've got a sign when you leave that says 'Please visit cotijas.com' and if you go to cotijas.com, it's not even a site. It's weird, it looks like their site at first but if you click on stuff, it takes you to all sorts of weird spammy sites. But I go to Cotijas because it's close to my house. I prefer to do the drive-thru for my bean and cheese burrito with rice and guac. The only drawback with Cotijas is that sometimes they don't have hot carrots, which is one of my favorite things about going to taco shops ... But there's lots of favorites: there's this one off Morena Boulevard over by Brick By Brick, what's that one called in that little strip mall? [JV's Taco Shop] That one's pretty good 'cause they have a full hot carrot tray where you can get as many as you want."

    Does the Swami have a favorite local beer?

    "You know, beer nowadays is all pretty good for the most part. I love Fall [Brewing], I'm all about their beers for sure. I think everything they make is great. I really like that Ballast Point Grunion -- see, I'm pretty late to craft beer, I was pretty anti-craft beer for a while. I still look at it with a bit of skepticism but Grunion was the beer that converted me, for sure. To this day, I think that's just a great beer, that and [AleSmith Brewing's] .394 -- those slightly hoppy pale ales -- that's what I think are pretty good. They're strong enough but they're not too strong, you know? You can drink more than two."

    How about his No. 1 record shop?

    "I love Folk Arts [Rare Records, in North Park]. It's close to my house and they're always getting in new stuff -- crazy, new, used stuff. I like all the record stores I've been to in San Diego. I think they're all great. Vinyl Junkies is a new one, it just opened up right down the street from my house, I just walk down there. That's cool. I just like records, you know? I don't buy a whole lot of new releases per se, mostly used stuff or old stuff or 45s, too. I buy a lot of 45s. Not a lot of record stores stock those. Well, Folk Arts does, which is maybe why I like that shop so much. But I like 'em all. I think they're all cool."

    With my hard-hitting investigative journalism out of the way, we dove into a conversation about the reason we were on the phone: Hot Snakes. For as long as it's been since the band's last studio album (their original run spanned 1999-2005 with a few reunion shows since 2011), they're still charging just as hard with the same type of intensity they pummeled fans with nearly two decades ago. The new record is, in true Hot Snakes fashion, equal parts dissonant and monstrous -- and they still sound like no one else.

    "When we were around the first time, we weren't really a part of any thing," Reis told me. "We were known more, when we first came out, from the Drive Like Jehu and Rocket From the Crypt connection. That's why people were inclined to check us out. Our influences, we wear them on our sleeves at times, but for the most part, I don't think anyone at the time was really doing much like that. I'm not saying we were entirely unique, I just didn't hear things that were really, really similar. And to this day, I still don't hear things that are similar exactly. I think we're pulling from different places and you can't really lump us in with a movement that's going on in underground music right now. We just kind of stick out by ourselves."

    Hot Snakes are one of those outlier bands that you hold onto like a well-guarded secret. Almost like they're staging a rock n' roll coup and you're invited to join them to tear the whole thing down. Is the first rule of Hot Snakes that you don't talk about Hot Snakes? Maybe. Even so, I asked Reis how, after all these years, they could just pick it back up again so easily.

    "I think the musical style is a bit more timeless. It feel like it still fits right now. We weren't really a band of the '90s per se, I know that was when we were making music but we were at the tail end -- actually 2000 is when our first record came out -- so we already knew what we wanted to do stylistically. We came to that point and we're still there now. I don't think I've really moved on from that person that wrote that music. I mean, I have -- I'm always listening to new things or getting interested in different ideas -- but it's part of the same story as opposed to something that is no longer representative of what I'm about."

    Reis also talked about coming out of the gate with a statement on "Jericho Sirens." After all, you only get one chance at your second first impression.

    "It was something we thought about quite a bit," he said. "You don't have any control over what people think about your music, but I knew what I wanted to present thematically. And what I mean by thematically, I mean musical themes ... At the front [of the album], I just wanted it to be more about the dissonance and that kind of tension with no release. Then as the record opens up, it becomes a bit more varied."

    It turns out that the album's leadoff track, "I Need a Doctor," was the most logical choice, too.

    "The first song we learned and recorded is the first song on the record. That was another thing for me, it felt symbolic to open the new record with that song. With Hot Snakes, when we were playing the old songs, there wasn't a lot of rust. Making the new music -- that was the one area where we just really didn't know what it was going to be like. There were no guarantees, you know? But there was a lot of confidence. Nobody was really worried about it. We all had the attitude that we were going to record a couple songs and if they sucked, no one had to f---in' hear 'em. And then we'd record a couple more, and keep doing it until we felt like we hit something. But we hit something pretty much right away."

    With the new record now out and the band busy playing shows, Swami said that they aren't planning on slowing down anytime soon.

    "We're working on a new record already. We're not working on it 24/7 but we're already working on it. We'll continue to play even more songs from the new record live and we're having a really good time playing. It's great. It's been a lot of fun to have that new life in the band -- there's only so many times you can play the old songs before you feel like [sigh] 'I wouldn't mind doing something different' -- so it's great, we're just gonna continue with that and work on the new record and hopefullly have something out next year at some point. We have a split 7-inch coming out with Mudhoney on the way, we just got that mastered yesterday, and we've talked about doing some collaboration stuff with a couple other people -- but I don't want to say anything because I don't want to jinx it."

    Hey, the first rule of Hot Snakes is...

    Hot Snakes headline the Observatory North Park on Friday, May 11. Tickets are available here.

    Dustin Lothspeich books The Merrow and runs the music equipment-worshipping blog Gear and Loathing in San Diego. Follow his updates on Twitter or contact him directly.