March 27, 2018 |by Ryan Bray
For seven years, the prospect of a new Hot Snakes record seemed possible, if uncertain. The ferocious garage-punk outfit quietly disbanded in 2005, much to the chagrin of its fervent legion of rock ‘n’ roll loyalists. But when the band reunited in 2011, and began touring playing out again with some regularity in 2012, it was enough to at least give fans some fleeting hope the second coming might bear new musical riches.
The chances of such often felt slim to none. Hot Snakes is one of three bands that guitarist John Reis has resuscitated back to life in recent years, alongside horn-driven punk ‘n’ rollers Rocket from the Crypt and the influential math-core act Drive Like Jehu. But apart from a novelty track Rocket cut for the Nickelodeon kids show Yo Gabba Gabba in 2012, Reis seemed committed to not bringing his reunited acts back into the studio. So the arrival of Jericho Sirens, Hot Snakes’ first collection of new material in 14 years, feels extra special considering how many fans had learned to lower their expectations. The new 10-song set, which was released through Sub Pop on March 16, sounds and feels less like a reunion record and more like a call to arms. It’s an angry, iron-fisted rebuke of the tired claim that punk is dead, even if Reis and his bandmates would never define the group or what it does in such narrow terms.
Pinning down and defining the Hot Snakes sound is hard, but it’s also part of what makes them one of the most unique underground American rock bands of the last 20 years. Fans and critics have hurled every label under the sun at the group, be it punk, post-punk, garage, or garage punk. In reality it’s a little bit of all of the above, but nothing that neatly fits any one genre. Today, just as they did then, Hot Snakes sound like, well, Hot Snakes.
“We knew that there didn’t need to be any process of rechanneling something,” Reis, calling in ahead of a recent show in Chicago, said of making the new record. “We didn’t feel like we had to put ourselves back into a different pair of shoes that we wore 14 years ago. We never would have made a record if we thought we had to do that. We wouldn’t have wanted to. Why would you want to go back? We just got some guitars and amps and got in the same room together, and we knew it was going to sound like us.”
If there is a label that could appropriately be placed on what his band does, Reis often tosses out the phrase “downstroke warlords.” The term can be attributed to Reis’ penchant for overstatement and showmanship, but it’s nonetheless a pretty perfect summation of what Hot Snakes are. But even that was something the band had to grow into. When Reis and Delta 72 drummer Jason Kourkounis began experimenting in 1999 with what would eventually be Hot Snakes, their only mandate was to make a record without any rules. Splitting their time between Kourkounis’ home in Philadelphia and Reis’ native San Diego, the two blasted out in quick order the core of what would be the band’s first record, Automatic Midnight, which Reis released on his own Swami Records imprint in 2000.
“I loved the way Jason played, and I was a big fan of Delta 72,” Reis recalled of the band’s formation. “I just thought ‘Man, it would kind of be cool to do something.'” We like a lot of the same music and just really hit it off. We just decided to get together and do something. I think he came out once for like a day or two and then he came out again for four days. I think we practiced for two of them, then spent two days in the studio and recorded 20 songs. That became the first record and I think about 40 percent of the second record.”
Automatic Midnight might have been an experiment in large part, but it effectively laid the blueprint for what Hot Snakes would become. Whereas Jehu lost itself in sonic complexity and Rocket long-established itself as an outsized punk rock party band, Hot Snakes bow to the church of primal, urgent rock ‘n’ roll. The record is a ground-zero guitar assault, driven first and foremost by Reis’ tense, rhythmic guitar playing. Tracks like “No Hands,” “10th Planet,” and “If Credit’s What Matters I’ll Take Credit” hit listeners on a guttural level. Elsewhere such as on “Our Work Fills the Pews,” more experimental influences such as Suicide filter through to the surface.
Reis initially tried his hand at bringing vocals to the tracks, but unimpressed with the results, he opted instead to bring Rick Froberg, his longtime friend and musical co-conspirator with Drive Like Jehu and Pitchfork, into the fold. “I didn’t want to be the singer,” Reis said. “I sing with my guitar more than anything. I wanted it to be that. I thought of Rick right away, and the sound of the band kind of started to take shape from there.”
Bassist Gar Wood joined the band shortly after Automatic Midnight, setting the table for the newly-minted foursome’s first full band effort that followed in 2002. Suicide Invoice is arguably the most exploratory and moody of Hot Snakes’ original trio of records, making more deliberate use of angular guitars, dissonant sounds, and additional instrumentation than on any of their other efforts. Froberg also made his mark on the band’s second effort, stamping songs like “I Hate the Kids,” “Who Died,” and “Why Does It Hurt” with some added lyrical angst.
The addition of Froberg and Wood to the recording process gave the band “a larger palette” to work off of musically, in Reis’ words. It was also the first record recorded in the guitarist’s own Drag Racist Studio, which he converted from the band’s practice space (The studio would be destroyed in a fire the following year).
“It truly was a trial by jizz,” Reis said. “There were just so many fucking problems and so many things we didn’t think through, just really not knowing what we were doing. We were just trying to do this thing that we thought was really important, but not having the proper experience to ensure that we could execute it. But that said, the end result was great.”
Kourkounis departed in 2003, but the band didn’t have to reach too far outside of its extended family to find his replacement. Mario Rubalcaba assumed drumming duties for Rocket from the Crypt in 2000, and he was quickly tapped to join the Snakes’ ranks in time for 2004’s Audit In Progress. By its third record, Hot Snakes had reached the zenith of its ugly gunk punk powers, and the end result is what is widely regarded as the band’s finest hour. “I mean, it probably did influence the songwriting to a certain degree,” Reis said of Rubalcaba’s addition. “I don’t know exactly how, but I knew it would be totally within his wheelhouse, this very rhythmic thing.”
Reis looks back on Audit In Progress as an exercise in “deconstructed rock ‘n’ roll,” and it’s a fully realized effort. This is the Hot Snakes with all hands on deck, bullying listeners’ eardrums with primitive abandon one minute (“Braintrust”), fucking with tempos and time signatures the next (“Retrofit”), and even throwing in some of their most melodic and tuneful songs to boot (Despite the band’s feral reputation, “Plenty for All” remains one of the band’s all-around best songs).
“I still really dug rock ‘n’ roll music,” Reis recalled of his creative mind-frame at the time. “I just liked the dissonance and the way that certain notes can run up against each other in the wrong way. I like there to be momentum and velocity in the rhythm of the music. I’m just drawn to that.”
The band was also in the rare position to tour extensively around Audit In Progress, something that had previously proven difficult given its members’ schedules and residences in different cities. But just as everything seemed to be congealing perfectly for the group, Hot Snakes nonetheless disbanded following a tour of Australia in 2005 (the four-song live in-studio EP Thunder Down Under was culled from a performance on Australian radio). For the first time in his career, Reis not only wasn’t bearing the responsibility of juggling multiple projects, but was taking a break from performing altogether to both run his label and raise a family (he would eventually resurface with both The Sultans and The Night Marchers). Froberg, meanwhile, went back to work with a new band, Obits, Wood stayed active with Beehive and the Barracudas, and Rubalcaba manned (and continues to man) the kit for bands including Earthless and OFF.
But reports of the band’s demise ultimately proved premature. An unbilled reunion at The Casbah in San Diego in 2010 put to wheels in motion for a full-fledged reunion and, ultimately, a new record, even if it was still years in coming. It would have been easy, and perhaps understandable, for Jericho Sirens to fall a few rungs short of the near-flawless trio of records that preceded it. Then again, it’s no less a surprise that it holds its weight and then some against the band’s mighty back catalog.
“Ultimately I can’t really care that much about how people react to it, because I believe that it’s good,” Reis said. “I can’t take it personal or care that much about it. It’s like someone coming up to you and saying that you’re ugly, you know? You can’t really help it. I just can’t care because I really dig it. I just think it’s cool.”