Hot Snakes Interview: New intro by Kurt Morris, originally ran in Razorcake #25

Apr 22, 2013


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It’s fair to say that the individuals who comprise the Hot Snakes have a seemingly insatiable appetite for making music. Is there a band any of them have been in that wasn’t good? Whether it’s pre-Hot Snakes acts such as Drive Like Jehu and Tanner, post-Hot Snakes groups such as OFF! and The Night Marchers, or bands during their time with Hot Snakes like Rocket From The Crypt and Sultans, the members have shown they excel at their instruments. They could never be accused of phoning it in when it comes to writing music, performances, or commitment to punk rock.

Between their formation in 1999 and their initial disbanding in 2005, Hot Snakes released three full-length studio albums: Automatic Midnight (2000), Suicide Invoice (2002), and Audit in Progress (2004). The band also released an EP of songs titled Peel Sessions in 2005. (The last Peel Session ever recorded prior to John Peel’s death.) Their last album was a posthumous release in 2006 titled Thunder Down Under, a compilation of songs from their previously released albums recorded live at JJJ Studios in Australia. All the band’s albums were released on Swami Records (operated by guitarist John Reis).

As mentioned earlier, the members have gone on to play in a number of bands since their disbandment in 2005. Here is a partial roundup of their almost-constant activity. Operating out of New York City, guitarist and vocalist Rick Froberg formed the Obits in 2006. Guitarist John Reis has played in Rocket From The Crypt, The Night Marchers, and Sultans. Bassist Gar Wood has been in The Night Marchers and Beehive And The Barracudas. Jason Kourkounis, who played drums on the band’s first two albums, also played in Burning Brides, The Night Marchers, and Bardo Pond. Mario Rubalcaba, the drummer on Audit in Progress, has also played in Rocket From The Crypt, Sultans, and OFF!

Hot Snakes rose from the dead in 2011 to perform at All Tomorrow’s Parties “Nightmare Before Christmas” in England. The band also performed tour dates in the United States, Canada, and Australia. Their new lineup has alternated Kourkounis and Rubalcaba on drums. Future plans remain a mystery, but Reis has stated that the band doesn’t have any intention of writing or recording new material and will play as long as it’s fun.

–Kurt Morris, 2013

I bought the first Hot Snakes album, Automatic Midnight, on a whim the night before my senior exams started. From a scholastic standpoint, it was a bad move. It was edgy, angular, and much too addictive to waste my time doing stuff like studying or sleeping. But from a musical standpoint, sweet merciful Christ: raw, blasting punk rock that simultaneously shredded my speakers and dismantled much of what I thought about music at that point. A rock and roll spine to keep it focused. A nervous twitch to keep it interesting. Weirdness creeping in from all sides. Was arty music supposed to burn your eyebrows off? Was rock’n’roll supposed to get lyrically deeper than “Oh yeah, oh no, I’m a misanthrope”? How did this happen?

But the story gets better. A few years passed. Their sound congealed. They’re not so much a band as they are four interconnected brains and gnashing limbs. They’re a white-hot punk rock fungus seeping into your brain and gluing themselves to your record player.

Their pedigree is as confusing as it is impressive: John and Mario are in Rocket From The Crypt, John and Rick were in Pitchfork and Drive Like Jehu, Gar was in Fishwife and Tanner, and John also plays in the Sultans and runs Swami Records. The great thing about Hot Snakes, though, is that you can forget about all the details, the extra baggage of “ex-members of such and such.” Just listen to the pounding and feel your mind start to melt.

Original introduction and interview by Not Josh
Photos by Dan Monick

Originally ran in Razorcake #25, 2005

Rick—vocals, guitar

Josh: What’s kept you guys involved in underground music for so long?

John: As far as being into music, what’s kept me involved in music is that I like playing music. As far as underground music--a lot of the more exciting sounds that are being created usually don’t appeal to the large majority of people. I’ve found that most of the time, the most exciting stuff that’s happening is happening on a level that’s a bit more underground, neglected.

Josh: Before we started, you mentioned the Marked Men. What was the last record you heard that really excited you?

John: I hear exciting stuff everyday. Most of it isn’t new, although it is new to me. I really like the stuff that Honest Jon’s put out, like Candi Staton, Cedric IM Brooks and The Light of Saba, and the Calypso comp they did a couple years back. The new Michael Yonkers, It’s Only Yonkers, is surprisingly excellent. Black Time are a new band from London that have an LP out that really smokes. Mr. Airplane Man, Gris Gris, Lost Sounds, and obviously everything on Swami. There’s a lot of cool shit happening right now that makes it great to be breathing.

Josh: Can you think of any bands that you’ve seen come and go that didn’t really get their due?

John: There’s tons. I don’t think you’ve got enough pages in your magazine to talk about all the great bands that never got their due, and the bands that did probably didn’t get as much as they deserved, in some cases. There’s been a lot of great music that just doesn’t connect with people until after the band breaks up or years later, because they’re ahead of their time, they’re doing something that doesn’t really relate to people, but when people have distance from it, they can appreciate how awesome it was.

Josh: Why did you think it was important to reissue the Testors and Crime?

John: I think both records are very clear and obvious examples of some of the finest rock and roll ever made. Not only are they cherished artifacts from an irreplaceable punk past, but they tower over practically anything that has been muttered since. To be involved with music that has such a profound personal importance to me is the only reason why I put records out at all.

Josh: Are there any other bands that you’re trying to reissue?

John: I am currently working on a complete Nerves retrospective and a CD reissue of the Penetrators with their videos included.

Josh: Has it been expensive to buy back the rights to your old albums from Interscope?

John: No. They have been very cool about the whole thing.

Josh: It doesn’t seem like there was much of a precedent for what you guys started doing, with bands like Pitchfork and Fishwife. What was it that inspired you guys to make music that was kind of odd for its time?

John: I don’t think we thought of it as being odd. They were just our high school bands. For me, I guess it was seeing Battalion Of Saints from San Diego, since they were from our hometown, and seeing how they were better than most, if not all, the bands they would open for, the bands that were supposedly bigger bands from out of town, from England or L.A., and they would just smoke everybody. It started a feeling of, “Oh, wow, there’s something happening here.”

When I was young, I always thought the bands that would play parties were great, but they weren’t necessarily on the same tier as a touring band. This is when I was very young and basically stupid. Seeing Battalion Of Saints blow away everybody they played with was like, “These guys are from here and they’re better than anyone. I want to do something like that.” That was really inspiring.

Josh: Can you think of any records that aren’t specifically punk rock but would maybe heighten your appreciation for punk rock and music in general?

John: I got to a certain age where I stopped listening to punk rock because it was totally stale. I thought it was basically repeating itself. A lot of people who were getting into it were way macho, and what I noticed in San Diego was that it was becoming everything that I hated. There was a lot of violence in San Diego, too. It was pretty hideous. I got out of it for a couple of years because I thought it was pretty lame, but then a whole new wave of bands came along. As far as stuff that isn’t punk rock, I listen to a lot of Asian blues.

Josh: Asian blues? Tell me about that.

Mario: Psychedelic stuff.

John: Asian psychedelic blues. It was a big influence on this new record. Turkish, too.

Josh: Can you give me an example?

Mario: Basically, the big boom of music in the ‘60s and early ‘70s happened over there too, it just totally has their own kind of twist to it. A little more progressive for over there. Not progressive rock, but like Asian garage music and psychedelic music that has a weird take on it.

Josh: What’s a Rome plow and why did you write a song about it?

Rick: A Rome plow is what the U.S. military used, along with defoliants and stuff like that, to clear vast expanses of jungle in Vietnam to keep people from growing stuff there or living there or hiding out in the jungle and shooting at planes or whatever. It’s a dumb analogy, I guess. It was a long time ago. At that time, living in California, it was my frustration with development, and ugly development… Are you from California?

Josh: No.

Rick: Okay, well, California used to look differently to me when I was younger. It’s been sort of gradually, at an agonizingly slow pace, ruined by development. To me, at least. Just ugliness and shittiness and bad taste and I almost wish I had one of those fucking things so I could just plow the whole place under. I just didn’t like seeing it go to shit.

Josh: So, you guys are familiar with Larry from Genetic Disorder?

All: Oh, yeah.

Josh: How would you describe his willingness to drink beer, to party?

John: Novice? Intermediate at best. He cleans the public pool down at the YMCA in San Diego. He works hard, so when he gets out on the weekend, he has two or three beers—actually it was wine coolers the last time I saw him—and really cuts loose. He’s a party animal. I’ve seen him with the lampshade a couple of times. He stole a pizza from Thad (a friend of the band who was standing a few feet away).

Josh: You guys recorded the first album after two practices?

John: The first record? No, not really. It was a different band back then. We just recorded some stuff and sent the tapes out to Rick. He wrote some words for them and then came out to San Diego and sang them. We never thought we’d play live when we released that first record, and then after the first record, we thought, “Oh, let’s try to do this live. It’ll be fun to play some shows.” We kind of threw the band together after the fact. The new record (Audit in Progress) is the first time that, from the beginning, the whole thing was assembled as a group, whereas the first two were kind of ideas being sent back and forth on cassette.

Josh: And you played your first show after three practices?

John: That’s true. But we already had the songs, so it was basically trying to learn the songs we’d already recorded. It’s hard, because Rick lives in New York, I live in San Diego, and at the time, there was another guy in the band who lived in Philadelphia, so literally half the band was out there and half the band was out here on the West Coast and we couldn’t really practice. It wasn’t that we only wanted to practice three times; it was just that we only could practice three times.

Josh: What does Rick do in New York?

John: Rick’s an artist. He does his own personal stuff as well as commercial art.

Josh: Have you guys ever had any day jobs that were just so crappy that you couldn’t wait to get out on tour?

John: I was a painter and it was the lamest thing ever.

Josh: Like a house painter?

John: Yeah. It wasn’t so much the work, just the chemicals.

Josh: A friend of mine told me to ask you guys about the Mountain Dew “Slam it!” story.

John: Oh, that’s a Rocket From The Crypt thing. Mountain Dew asked Rocket From The Crypt if we would record a song for them and they offered us a lot of money, so we were like, okay. We were in the studio at that time anyway, so they gave us the Mel Torme song “I Get a Kick Out of You” and they wanted us to do a bastardized version of it. In the end, it was awesome. It couldn’t have turned out any better. We got paid a lot of money to do this commercial that they never used, so no one ever heard it. But it was funny because the very corporate marketing executives were at the recording session wanting to be really nit-picky about everything, so we locked them out of the studio. No big deal. It was funny. They were very upset.

One of the funniest things was that they had all these ideas, like, “We want you to say ‘Slam it! Slam a Dew!’” That was going to be their new slogan, and I was like, “Well, you know, there is kind of a drug connotation with ‘Slam a Dew.’” I kind of explained it to him, and he was really bummed, because it was obvious that “Slam a Dew” was the product of half a year’s worth of board meetings and discussions, so they were pretty bummed that I found flaws in their slogan.

Josh: Can you give me an example of a band that you really like endorsing something and it bummed you out? Like, Devo re-recorded “Whip It” for some floor cleaner commercial. Something like that.

John: Swiffer? Is that the one they did?

Josh: Yeah.

John: See, I use Swiffer. I think Swiffer’s one of the best inventions of the century.

Mario: They’re handy.

John: It’s a total lazy dude’s idea, so I’m into the Swiffer. If anything, that makes me like Devo even more, because they endorse a product that I actually use. There are things that you hear where you’re like, “That’s kinda cheesy,” like the Clash are being used in some car commercial, and you know if Joe Strummer were alive, it would have never happened.

If it were something really heinous, like nuclear bombs or the KKK, I’d probably be very miffed, but most of the music that I listen to isn’t used for commercials. You know, when I go to baseball games, they play the Ramones, and I actually like it. I think it’s cool. Nobody in the stadium probably knows who the band is because it’s all families and stuff, but it’s cool to hear them in that context. Let’s just be blatant about it. The Ramones are awesome. It’s pop music and it should be enjoyed by the world anyway. There’s no reason why it shouldn’t be played on the radio every day.

Josh: And it’s better than hearing “Who Let the Dogs Out?” at a baseball game.

Mario: Hearing the Clone Defects on a Mitsubishi car commercial was pretty surprising.

John: I just think, “Good for you. Get your perverted ideas out there.”

Mario: Nick Drake on a Volkswagen commercial.

John: Yeah, Nick Drake probably sold more records in the one week after that commercial aired than he did in his whole career.

Josh: Mario, what’s been the biggest adjustment you had to make going from Black Heart Procession to Hot Snakes and Rocket From The Crypt?

Mario: In Black Heart, it was very infrequent. I’d only play on maybe five songs in a whole set. Black Heart didn’t really start out with the intention of being a band in the same way that most bands do.

John: It started a lot like this band.

Mario: Yeah, you know? “Let’s make a record.” That was our first goal. I joined in on a couple of songs, and then before we knew it, we made a record, played some shows. Obviously, they’ve taken it further than that. I didn’t really stay in that band for too long. Playing in Hot Snakes is definitely more my style of how I like to play drums.

John: Mario plays in a lot of great bands. He plays in this band called Earthless, a three-piece, mostly instrumental stoner psych rock band, and he plays guitar in this band called Mannequin Piss, a death punk kind of sound.

Mario: Early Black Flag or Motörhead…

John: But with a biker vibe. A BMX biker vibe.

Josh: What do you think Mario brings differently than the other drummer?

John: Turbulent rhythms, incessant hammering, relentless tom-tom attack, less cymbals, less sizzle, more of a chesty approach.

Gar: Colon-thundering low end.

Josh: Is it true that you got caught in a snowstorm in Minneapolis when you went to record the Selby Tigers?

John: Well, it seemed like it to me. I think they are pretty used to the arctic conditions from years of Viking training. Seeing as I spend most of my time nude or partially clothed, I was pretty numb.

Josh: Did they wear leisure suits in the studio when you were recording them?

John: A couple of them did.

Josh: So it wasn’t just a stage show?

John: No, they dress like that all the time.

Josh: Did you really hire studio musicians to play a Superchunk album?

John: They weren’t studio musicians, it was this band called Jughead’s Revenge. We hired them to do all the tracking. Superchunk wrote the songs, but these other guys played the music and Mac sang.

Josh: Jughead’s Revenge doesn’t sound anything like Superchunk, though.

John: I think that’s why they wanted to do it, just to do something different, because at that point they had already made three records or something.

Josh: Why did Drag Racist Studios close down?

John: Fire.

Josh: Do you want to talk about that?

Mario: It’s too painful.

John: It was like a lifetime of labor and building and passion up in smoke, but from the ashes, the phoenix will rise. There was this German tourist guy named Hans who was really into all the Swami stuff. He emailed me and said, “Hey, I’m coming out to San Diego and I want to start a studio like Drag Racist. Do you mind if I sit in and be a fly on the wall?” I foolishly said yes, and the guy ended up being the most annoying prick that we had ever met. He was there for the recording of the last four things we did there and he wouldn’t leave at all. It started off with me thinking I could get rid of him if I did this fake fire. Unfortunately, it backfired. After he ran out, it became too big for us to contain it.

Josh: Did anybody ever give you any grief about the name?

John: No, people liked the name. It’s taken from a Truman’s Water song. I like to drag race and I like to dress in drag and Mario’s a racist.

Josh: Did you really get your picture taken with GG Allin, like, fifteen years ago?

John: Yeah.

Josh: How did you go about doing that? Was there a meet-and-greet?

John: He was hanging out in his dressing room, and I cruised up and saw someone I recognized in there, which gave me the courage to go in there, too. When I went in there, he was a very personable character, down-to-earth, very willing to talk to people about his music and what he was doing, very self-promoting. He was so awesome, his… I don’t want to say rhetoric, but all that rock and roll outlaw stuff and his transformation from this dude who lived in Connecticut or something into that vision that he had of himself. Whether you like him or not, his life was his art, as opposed to just music or something visual. He would probably be bummed to be thought of as that, like that’s not dangerous enough. But people I know who knew him said that my encounter with him was really consistent with the way he was normally.

Josh: He didn’t throw poop at you or anything?

John: That was just the “show” part of it. He didn’t do that all the time, which is not to say that he didn’t do all kinds of other crazy shit. He obviously didn’t care what people thought of him, and if he did, he wanted people to think very lowly of him.

Josh: How did you get started doing Swami Radio?

John: I started doing the show about three years ago at a different station, and I just kind of begged them for a job, basically, and when that station went off the air, I begged this other station for a job.

Josh: What kind of stuff do you play?

John: Lascivious funk music, self-indulgent dub and reggae, mind-melting psychedelia, inept garage bashing, raw-tarded punk rock, and everything in between—exotic music from places like Cambodia and Africa. Basically, everything I play is very raw in nature and neglected, or at least I feel it’s neglected.

Josh: Why did you once say that Rocket would never play on a stage?

John: We were just playing parties and stuff at first.

Josh: How long did that last?

John: Three or four shows, four parties maybe. Yeah, that one went out the window pretty quick.

Josh: You once said, “I don’t believe the good press, because that means that you have to believe the bad press.” Do you think that helps you keep a level head after all this time?

John: I don’t really have a level head. I’m totally fueled by an over-inflated sense of self-worth. I just don’t do that because I don’t know how to read and it’s my way of covering up.