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John Reis's rock 'n' roll crown was all dinged up. It was Halloween 2005, and the 15-year reign of horny garage kings Rocket From the Crypt was ending. A few months earlier, the hotshot Hot Snakes—only three half-hour-long albums in—had folded up camp as well. Poof—two of music's premier riff-rockin' outfits gone, with a slew of recorded material and the memory of devastating, balls-out live shows all that remained. Reis, a/k/a Speedo, who first rose to power with the post-hardcore bands Pitchfork and Drive Like Jehu, retreated to play in the Sultans with his brother, but they disbanded in 2007. All he had left was the SWAMI label empire and an itchy strumming hand.
"Even with the dismantling of the bands, it was never because I didn't want to play music anymore," Reis says now from his home base in sunny San Diego. "It just was either not feasible or a matter of interest level. And some things that seemed important at the time don't seem as important now."
Shortly thereafter, he became father to a son, Tiger, helped open the club Bar Pink Elephant in San Diego, and built a recording studio/rehearsal room in his backyard. But Reis also found time to write songs on his five-watt Saint George amp. Soon enough, 20 or so tunes had materialized, and the germ of a new band had begun. "I didn't come up with the music with any purpose in mind," he says. "But I had hopes of playing them in front of people."
Enter the Night Marchers. Speedo asked Gar Wood to strap on a guitar, recruited drummer Jason Kourkonis (both from Hot Snakes, and the latter from Mule/Delta 72), and imported Tommy Kitsos (from Quebec/CPC Gangbangs) to play bass. A session was quickly arranged to record Reis's new songs, and the band's first LP, See You in Magic, was born. "There wasn't much to figure out with these guys," says Reis. "And it's fun for me to have a new foil in Gar."
Magic operates on a wider sound palette than the blistering jackhammer-orama of his previous bands. Melody and tunefulness creep into many of the songs, but faint echoes of Drive Like Jehu and Hot Snakes persist. Opener "Closed for Inventory" blisters, but there are nods to Cropper-style soul, the Bo Diddley beat, and some group crooning on "Who's Lady R U" and "You've Got Nerve." Most notably, space—almost anathema to Hot Snakes and RFTC—pervades some of the songs, giving Reis's battered wrists a break.
"My perspective is broader now," he says. "The identity of the band is not as easy to pinpoint, which is appealing to me. We can kind of do anything. We can play loose and unpracticed and cast-off Asian blues riffs if we want. The scope of music that we're playing from is broader than it's ever been. We've discovered more ground."
A ripping live show should be guaranteed: Reis excels like very few onstage, exuding geared-up charisma. (YouTube evidence of their early shows is promising.) In other good news, Speedo works in bursts of activity, driven by momentum and band energy, which explains how Hot Snakes did three records in three years, while RFTC managed two full-lengths and an EP in 1995 alone. It's not unreasonable to expect the Night Marchers to square up, hit the Reis backyard, and record a few more records in short succession.
Their frontman's dedication to recording and touring helps explain his appreciation of the rock 'n' roll lifestyle. Reis talks about why Diddley, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Little Richard have stayed in the game so long: "I think there's maybe a point where it's a paycheck, but rock 'n' roll is mostly a lifestyle. I see the beauty of how the lifestyle is raised to an artistic thing. There's something totally true about that, and I dig it. I think it is success defined."
The Night Marchers play the Mercury Lounge May 7, mercuryloungenyc.com