The cool, dark confines of Bar Pink Elephant provide a welcome refuge from the heat on a scorching Friday afternoon in April. For John Reis—King Swinging Dick of San Diego rock 'n' roll and co-owner of this North Park hotspot—the escapist atmosphere is part of the bar's appeal.
“The concept was to bring that kind of dark cocktail lounge where you can get an expertly made, stiff cocktail and get lost into a black Naugahyde [booth],” he says, casually sipping a can of Tecate.
Reis and his wife are one of three couples who operate the bar, just another collaboration among friends in a long line of projects Reis has undertaken in his beloved hometown. And the aesthetics at Pink Elephant share the same feel of his other ventures—a balance between kitsch and legitimate cool, foreboding dimness punctuated with bright, flamboyant charm.
If you live here and listen to rock music, chances are you've heard of Reis' endeavors. Rocket from the Crypt, Drive Like Jehu, The Sultans, Hot Snakes and Pitchfork are familiar to any self-respecting local music fan. But Reis is too excited about the future to get wistful about the past.
“I like everything I've ever done,” he says. “Obviously I like them, because I've felt highly enough of them to share them with other people…. But I don't want to sit back and go, ‘Yeah, that was killer,' or whatever, because I'm still like this shark lunging toward fresh meat.”
It didn't take long for critics and fans to smell the blood in the water after Reis' latest band, The Night Marchers, made its live debut at Pink Elephant in February. Since then, they've played SXSW and a series of dates along the West Coast.
As would be expected, the band is white-hot, grounded by the primal rhythm section of bassist Tommy Kitsos (formerly of CPC Gangbangs) and drummer Jason Kourkounis (who joined Reis on the first two Hot Snakes records).
Along with second guitarist Gar Wood—another erstwhile Hot Snake—The Night Marchers are a veritable underground super-group whose live show proves that inspiration needn't die with age.
Then again, Reis has never lacked creative productivity. He's pushing 40, looks 30 and has the energy of a 20-year-old. Aside from The Night Marchers and Pink Elephant, Reis recently became a father and owns and operates Swami Records in addition to his role as a late-night DJ on FM 94.9. For the record, that's four jobs (five if you count family). And you thought you were busy.
“Being able to connect with people—it's important, because there's so much effort involved in being in a band, making a record and going around the country and sharing this sound with people,” Reis says. “It's almost like you're looking for converts for this rock 'n' roll religion, so you gotta find something that has more meaning to it.”
It's in this desire to connect with an audience that Reis seems to have found his fountain of youth. His radio show, The Swami Sound System, is a godsend to music fans looking for subterranean sounds. It also provides Reis with a platform to expose listeners to tracks that, more often than not, never got the attention they deserved.
“A lot of the stuff I play, I consider hit songs,” Reis says. “Hit songs that just really never found an audience because of the remoteness of the people that were making this music or just the means that they had to expose themselves to other people.”
His propensity toward the lost sounds of the past makes perfect sense in light of The Night Marchers' debut album, See You in Magic.
“I've always had this voracious appetite to kind of discover sounds that are new to me,” Reis says. “I always surround myself with noise but, because of playing records on the radio, it's kind of made me not necessarily look at music differently but kind of reach it on a different plane.”
See You in Magic seems to confirm that Reis' role as a DJ has affected his approach toward songwriting; the result is arguably the most stylistically diverse record he's made to date.
Nervous, reverberating guitar licks seductively rub up against big harmonies, while songs like “Panther in Crime” and “Jump in the Fire” are unabashed pop to the core. The former features a chiming Springsteen-esque chorus and sitars while the latter is reminiscent of The Byrds or Rain Parade.
But it wouldn't be a Reis record without the trademark all-or-nothing sense of desperation, snarling vocals and pissed-off energy. “Bad Bloods” is the most basic of rock 'n' roll beasts, with its lumbering, Neanderthal riff worthy of Bo Diddley. And the opening one-two punch of “Closed for Inventory” and “In Dead Sleep (I Snore Zzzzz)” match the aggression of Hot Snakes' stripped-down, angular take on classic punk rock.
Some 20 years after the start of his musical journey, Reis sounds as possessed by music as he's ever been. Could this tireless desire to express himself come from growing up in our “sleepy little fishing village,” as he refers to it?
“We are not musicians, per se; we are dudes,” Reis says. “And being dudes of San Diego, I think there's a certain attitude in not having a lot of arts [here], at least when we started. And culturally having a void kind of makes you create something for yourself.” The Night Marchers perform Saturday, April 26, with The Muslims and The Nightmares at The Casbah. www.myspace.com/thenightmarchers .
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