SAN DIEGO "I'm increasingly caring less and less about what other people think," Rocket From the Crypt frontman John "Speedo" Reis says.
He shifts in his booth seat, waiting for a hamburger at the 19th Hole, a greasy spoon smack in the middle of the San Diego Municipal Golf Course. Surrounded by middle-aged golfer stereotypes come to life, Reis is provided a bit of anonymity in his punk-rock band's hometown.
Anywhere else save for the U.K., where the band took off like, well, a rocket in the mid-'90s and he wouldn't have to worry about being recognized. But it wasn't supposed to be that way.
Rocket From the Crypt's bombastic mix of thunderous punk rock with a piercing horn section was supposed to shoot them straight to the top, but Stateside the band never graduated from college radio the way Interscope had wagered.
Without a trace of the bitterness one might expect, Reis said he no longer entertains thoughts of breaking big. "If it was gonna happen, it would've happened by now." Freed of weighty expectations and a contract the band fought to get out of, the group is ready to get back to the gritty punk rock that first inspired legions of fans to ink the band's logo on themselves.
Group Sounds, the band's sixth studio album, hits stores Tuesday on Vagrant Records. Noticeably absent on the new disc is the glitzy pop sheen that producer Kevin Shirley (Aerosmith, Black Crowes) put on 1998's RFTC. Instead the band chose to use the raw vibe of 1995's vinyl-only Hot Charity LP a favorite among longtime fans as a reference point. During one session, for example, the bandmembers played live in the studio, arranging themselves around a single mic to get the proper mix.
Rocket's recording approach, as well as the title Group Sounds, reflects a belief in the importance of the musicianship found in bands, Reis said.
"Lately, a lot of people are moving away from making music. They're kind of putting together sounds, and cutting and pasting these things, and there's this movement away from the sound of a band playing together. Records don't sound like bands, really, anymore. ... We really think this record sounds like a band playing together."
As if to prove the point, the album starts out with three seconds of an isolated guitar that gets obliterated by the sonic blast of all the band's members jumping in at once on "Straight American Slave," an indictment of Americans who accept certain people only in their entertainment but not in their neighborhoods.
"Say hello to my little friend/ ... Has a face that the world adores/ But lives a life that belongs in hell," Reis sings.
"A lot of it comes from my frustration with the fact that in this country you can have a gay person on TV, but usually only if he's played by a straight person," he said. "It's like you have these people who are religiously opposed to the advancement of the human race because they're living in medieval times, but yet they ... watch TV and laugh at it and rejoice in something they're flatly opposed to. 'Ha, ha, this is funny, this is fine, because it's not real.' I think that's really sad."
Another track, "Venom Venom," is built around a deep bass groove and repetitive, hypnotic lyrics. Middle Eastern-sounding flourishes showcase the band's horn section of sax player Apollo 9 (Paul O'Berine) and trumpet player JC 2000 (Jason Crane), who gradually build up to a sexy, snaky brass climax.
"A lot of people don't understand why we have horns. They say, 'How can you have horns if you're a punk band?' But to me there's no mystery to it. The first rock 'n' roll record ever recorded had horns on it," Reis said, referring to the 1951 Jackie Brenston single, "Rocket 88." "Power comes from the majesty of the horn section. I love the width it adds to the sound, the density."
Like a lot of the band's music, "Venom Venom" draws on some rather uncommon influences. "There's this amazing series of compilations put out called Ethiopiques, recorded in Ethiopia from the late '60s to '74. ... It's the most primitive, raw, crude, nasty-sounding soul music ever. The music sounds more Middle Eastern than African a lot of those Arabic scales and stuff like that, but it's infused with like a crude early James Brown kind of approach, and it's just amazing. Those records were really an inspiration for us in making that song."
The band's newest member helped inspire the band during writing of another Group Sounds track. Mario Rubalcaba, a.k.a. Ruby Mars, joined the band after drummer Adam "Atom" Willard left last year. (Because Rubalcaba was a late addition to the lineup, many of the new songs were recorded with Superchunk's Jon Wurster filling in.)
Former pro skateboarder Rubalcaba has been a perfect fit, Reis said, and his background as drummer for sullen Black Heart Procession helped the band craft the album's closing track, "Ghost Shark." That dreamy, ambling song is laced with tinkling piano and lyrics about a mysterious island ritual lines that are crooned rather than shouted.
"Mario can really slow it down pretty good, and I don't think that's something we could do as well in the past," Reis said. "So we had a little bit more confidence to try something like that, whereas maybe before we would've thought it was too ambitious."
The release of Group Sounds will coincide with a two-week club tour, accompanied by in-store appearances. The band whose lineup also includes bassist Pete "Petey X" Reichert and guitarist Andy "N.D." Stamets will follow that with an extensive North American road trip with openers the Explosion and (International) Noise Conspiracy, kicking off March 29 in Las Vegas. For a complete itinerary, visit www.rftc.com.