Rocket fuel

Onstage, Rocket from the Crypt is a spectacle of sound — a blur of drumsticks, a flash of brass and a lead singer with the expressive face of Louis Prima and the charisma of Elvis himself.

Sitting on a tour bus making its way across the country for a six-week tour, front man and facial contortionist John Reis (Rocket name: Speedo) talks by phone about the significance of the San Diego band’s legendary live performances. “We like to elevate the ordinary rock show to a sense of occasion, to make it feel important and special, and to give people their money’s worth.”

In fact, it’s a good bet that two songs into the set, fans will have forgotten all about the ticket price as they watch Reis scream his ass off with sweat-drenched abandon, backed by an expert lineup totaling two guitars, bass, drums, trumpet and saxophone.

In the past, the tour bus has also included a trunkful of stage costumes: matching shirts decorated with glittery stripes or the image of a striking snake. It wasn’t a gimmick, just one more way to create unified presence onstage, but the guys are disappointed when writers pick up on the shirts, or the matching tattoos, or the secret-spy band aliases as defining characteristics of the band. So the costumes probably won’t make an appearance this tour.

“Yeah, we’re kind of stripping it down a bit as far as the clothes,” Reis says in his deep, growly voice. “You don’t want to be known as someone who’s only capable of living in the realm of shtick.”

Because the music is what really fuels the performance. It’s an unlikely blend of raw energy and musical sophistication. Rocket plays what might be called a punk-rock symphony, with a multi-layered sound not found in your usual three-chord anthem. The guitars take their own pathways around the fast-paced melodies, while the staccato horns build to a wild crescendo. Behind it all, the drums pound with fearless glee, tambourines crash, background voices chant in unison, and Speedo’s vocals roar, until it all races and rises with the power of jet propulsion to an inevitable furious finish.

The group’s 10th full-length record, Group Sounds, has just been released by LA-based Vagrant Records. It’s feel-good music with devilishly dark undertones — songs about voodoo and betrayal and hellfire damnation with strong personalities: “Venom Venom” has a slinky, Middle-Eastern vibe, and “Ghost Shark” is a melancholy, haiku dirge.

Group Sounds caps off a discography which numbers in the triple digits and includes several boxfuls of soundtracks, compilations, 7-inch singles, picture discs and other limited-edition vinyl rarities. But after a decade of high-octane output, there’s still no sign of burnout — or sellout.

Maybe it has something to do with the band members’ freedom to pursue seemingly unlimited side projects. (Last year, Reis released two non-Rocket records: the Hot Snakes’ Automatic Midnight on Sympathy for the Record Industry, and the Back Off Cupids’ self-titled CD on Drunken Fish.)

Or maybe there’s been a renewed vitality since the band’s quiet parting with mega-label Interscope a couple of years ago. In some form or another, Reis and the other Rocketeers have already contributed to many of the country’s most respected indie-rock imprints, and RFTC has released works on a few smaller labels since leaving Interscope.

But Reis admits, “The whole independent credibility thing is something we’ve never given a shit about. I think people know that we are completely propelled by the music, and any decisions we make, business or otherwise, have nothing to do with anything except for the task at hand, which is to try to make the most exciting music that we can. That’s all we’re really trying to do.”

Rocket from the Crypt
w/The Explosion and International Noise Conspiracy
Friday, April 20
St. Andrew’s Hall, 431 E. Congress, Detroit
Doors 6 p.m.,
$12 — all ages.
Call 313-961-6358 for more info.

Karen Fisher is the Metro Times Web coordinator, and was a RFTC groupie when she lived in San Diego. E-mail her at [email protected]
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