All Systems Go
Speedo. Petey X. Atom. Apollo 9. N.D. J.C. 2000. Who are these impressive, vaguely dangerous-sounding men?
Gang members? Comic-book heroes? Members of one of the greatest rock bands of all time? Well, if you picked the last, then you should feel pretty clever.
I'm talking about the mighty Rocket From the Crypt. Hailing from San Diego, and under the leadership of Speedo (a.k.a. John Reis), the band's lead singer/songwriter/guitarist/producer, this mighty rock 'n' roll machine has been churning out punk rock since 1991. Its catalogue includes four albums, two EPs, and about a zillion singles.
These recordings are usually found in the punk-rock section of your record store, but that's not really fair or expansive enough. Though Rocket does have the raw power and ferocity of a punk band (not to mention the massive guitar assault), this six-piece contingent (two guitars, bass, drums, trumpet and sax) is all about the songs--well-crafted, melodic masterpieces that could possibly be described as rock 'n' roll symphonies.
Unlike with ska bands (which Rocket definitely is not), the horns don't play the main hooks but are part of the big rock landscape, adding texture and depth and, ultimately, a wide symphonic quality.
Against this, you've got Speedo and N.D.'s dual guitar blast (usually the loudest instruments on each album) and, of course, Speedo's impassioned vocals--part punk, part blues, all attitude. This is take-no-prisoners music. These guys are not messing around here; they mean business. But odds are, you won't notice any of that stuff on the first listen.
Speedo's attempt to combine complex instrumentation with punk fury is a subversive one. The main mission here is to rock, and to get the audience moving, but as far as Speedo's concerned, there's no reason for rock music to be brainless.
"I think that people are ready to appreciate something that's a little more complete," says Reis, calling from a stop on the band's current tour with the Foo Fighters. "And I think in saying that, I'm kind of admitting that I think, yeah, it's Rocket From the Crypt's time. Whether it's our time to be popular or whatever, I have no idea and I don't care. But I think it's our time as far as being heard and as far as being given that chance to be heard. That's it. Just to be given that opportunity to be heard. If we get that opportunity and then people say, 'Hey, we don't want it,' then that's fine."
Enter the new album. RFTC, which hit record stores on June 2, pushes that musical mishmash a few steps further, putting unhinged punk anthems such as "Panic Scam" and "Back in the State" together with downright pretty and soulful Motownesque ballads like "Let's Get Busy," and straightahead bar-rock tunes like "Break It Up." There are even female backing vocals, as well as a female lead part on the album opener, "Eye on You."
The key to this album is diversity. While the group's 1995 Hot Charity EP (released simultaneously with Rocket's full-length major-label debut Scream, Dracula, Scream) was the first Rocket recording to show more than one side of the band's sonic countenance, the new album takes these recently displayed sides and perfects them. There are still plenty of songs primarily designed to kick your ass, but there's also the candy-coated '60s-pop appeal of "Lipstick," as well as the creepy, near rockabilly of "Your Touch." Then there are the songs that are seemingly just exercises in attitude, whose primary functions are simply to get people moving--like the aptly titled "You Gotta Move" and "Dick on a Dog," not necessarily crafted to kick your booty so much as get it shakin'.
Speaking of attitude, there's the live Rocket show. The band plays punk the way it was never meant to be played: as a production. As Reis explains in the Rocket press kit, "It's an attempt to balance something totally elaborate with something completely trashy and lowest common denominator. To bring elements of, you know, showmanship, a rock 'n' roll revue, a punk-rock extravaganza, put on a show which is basically a no-no in the kind of music we grew up listening to." From its expansive stage setup (sometimes having a keyboardist and additional percussionists onstage with the regular lineup) to its matching costumes (the 1996 Warped Tour saw the band members in silver-sequined suits, but I saw them last fall in silken black and maroon suits) to Reis' smooth stage banter (during a tuning break: "Just want to make sure that our instruments sound every bit as pretty as all of you out there look tonight"), Rocket doesn't act like a punk-rock band, that's for sure.
But then, Rocket hasn't really sounded like a straightahead punk band in a while. In fact, it has always been somewhat of a schizophrenic band. Throughout the years, its relentless output of singles (usually the most bombastic and punk material in its catalogue) has contrasted slightly with its albums. Its first two albums, 1991's Paint As a Fragrance and 1993's Circa: Now! (both released on indie Cargo/Headhunter), were of a slightly more singular vision, offering solid punk blasts of fury covered in shimmering guitar, while the singles were ragged and maniacal shots of adrenaline complete with distorted vocals and screaming, dissonant guitars.
"I think everything was pretty much kind of compartmentalized with our band up until Dracula and Hot Charity," says Reis. "Circa: Now! was like the cleaner material that we were doing at the time, so we recorded it in that fashion, and the stuff like the 'Boychucker' seven-inch and stuff like that we wanted to be a lot more tweaked, so we recorded it like that. That kind of thing. We tended to do all one kind of songs one way, then record the other kind of songs in another manner, put them out in a different way.
"I don't think it was until Hot Charity where we just didn't really care and just mixed all the stuff together on the same record."
Interview described Scream, Dracula, Scream as "a glorious Phil Spector wall of sound for the '90s." There was no question that this was a very different Rocket From the Crypt recording. Some fans were amazed at the shift in the band's sound. "We had taken some time off between Circa: Now! and Scream, Dracula, Scream when Drive Like Jehu [another San Diego band for which Reis plays guitar] was playing, and we seemed like we were a different band when we got back together," Reis says. "Seemed like we were just totally into different stuff, and we wanted to express that."
Which is exactly what the band did. Dracula was the most diverse Rocket recording yet, combining the signature Rocket songs with a bigger, more densely layered sound, as well as with some different instrumentation, including strings and church bells, glockenspiels and keyboards.
"Scream, Dracula, Scream was my ideal as far as all the layers of overdubs and the arrangements; that's something that I've always liked," Reis says. But it also took an agonizingly long time to put together.
"It just was a lot of hard work. That record took a long time to make, and you know, it wasn't the funnest record to make. It started off being really fun, but then we kind of obsessed on it a little bit too hard, and it took a lot of the spontaneity out of the music--it was just really stressful, to the point where everything we did we just sort of doubted. You know, doubt every move. We kind of recorded the confidence right out of what we were doing. Which was stupid, and that's what we wanted to totally change on this new record. We wanted to have a good time, just record it and have the songs be captured in kind of a similar fashion as they were when we were playing live."
The new release is the first Rocket album not produced by Reis. This time, the band decided to bring in someone from the outside to wear the producer's hat.
"As far as the label goes, they were kind of eager for us to go in and record another record on our own and not use anybody, because they really liked the way that Dracula sounded, and they thought that we should make a similar record," Reis explains. "But the band was like, 'We want to have some fun,' and we wanted to get someone to alleviate all of the intricacies of the technical aspects of the recording. Have someone do everything, and someone we can trust and someone who understood completely about what we were as a band.
"We really lucked out that we found someone, because when you start going looking for people, entering the realm of the rock 'n' roll producer, you're going to run into a lot of guys that are going to be really old school in their approach and really old-fashioned and really not have a grip on what a band like us might be about. We were lucky enough going into it that we knew we had found the perfect person."
That perfect person was Kevin Shirley, who had produced last year's Aerosmith Nine Lives album. Among other things, Shirley brought a renewed sense of fun to the hardworking band, as well as a fresh perspective. "He was like, 'Listen, you guys just gotta cut all the crap, and just kick it out like you do live, because that's what will make these songs work the best. You guys are a fun band. I don't think you've really made a fun record yet. You guys gotta have a fun time when you're making this record, or else it's gonna show in the music.' So we trusted him, and I couldn't have been happier with the results."
The result was Reis abandoning all of his usual ideas of layering and overdubs. "We just went in and did it live--we were all hanging out in the same room, the horns were there, the drums were there, the guitars were there," he says. "We were all just kind of looking at each other and playing it. We didn't spend any time on a drum sound or a guitar sound; we just kind of set up all our own equipment--we were just in this room playing, and we got great sounds."
In fact, it created a big, natural sound for a band whose recordings had consistently been criticized for not doing its live show justice. While no recording could quite capture the ferocity of a Rocket show, this is as good a representation as anyone could ask for.
"I think the one thing you'll find, whether it be the guitars, bass, drums, horns or the vocals, is that everybody has their finest moments on this record," Reis says. "No one has sounded better. You can finally almost tell that Atom hits his drums hard. It wasn't like there was any tricks or gimmicks or anything--we used all of our own stuff, and there's not a lot of effects on anything--there's not any effects on the drums, or guitars, and there's barely any on the vocals."
RFTC's wide-ranging diversity should not slap longtime Rocket fans in the collective face. "If you look back at what we've done in the past, you can see that there has been a logical kind of path that has led us to this record," Reis explains. "I think there are certain things that have influenced the band in the past, and I think they're just more realized on this record. Rocket From the Crypt is always about changing and evolving into the band that we want to be, although where we're going next is not always certain. It definitely isn't figured out."
But Reis is happy with where Rocket is right now. He says the new album is "the best one so far," but adds, "There will be others. It's not like this is our last one, so if people don't like it, that's too bad, but in no way is this the Rocket From the Crypt of the future--it's like this is the Rocket From the Crypt of today, and we'll see what it's going to be like tomorrow."
Rocket From the Crypt is scheduled to perform on Friday, June 5, at Jackson Hole, with Los Cincos. Showtime is 8 p.m.
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