John Reis is the quintessential rock ‘n’ roll ambassador. For nearly 30 years, the guitar-obsessed bandleader has tirelessly represented San Diego music through his bands (Pitchfork, RFTC, Drive Like Jehu, Hot Snakes, Night Marchers, etc.), record label (Swami Records), and radio show (Swami Sound System).
But with his latest album, Swami John Reis and The Blind Shake’s “Modern Surf Classics,” he’s putting a new spin on a classic genre.
“I’m not interested in defining surf music,” Reis recently told DiscoverSD. “I’m not interested in something that’s completely in the tradition or anything that sounds like we’re wearing costumes. I’m inspired by the DNA of surf music and think it’s OK to embrace the fact that we live in 2015. I definitely wanted to make something that was in my own voice.”
The project was first conceived years ago, when Reis was asked to DJ a record-release party thrown by legendary Minneapolis guitarist Michael Yonkers. Minnesota punk trio The Blind Shake was also on the bill, and Reis made plans to record them. It never happened, but Reis ended up asking the threesome to join him on “Modern Surf Classics.”
“They have such a cool sound,” he said. “It’s this blaring barrage of baritone that sounds like way more than three people playing. And it just brings another freak factor to the whole thing. Here are three guys who I’ve never hung out with or played with before. Why not sit in a room together and see what happens? I liked the experimentation of playing with people who were basically strangers.”
While it may seem ironic for a nonsurfing Californian and a band from a landlocked state to make a surf-rock record (although Reis is quick to point out that surf-rock pioneers The Trashmen were also from Minneapolis), it’s doubtful that many know more about the subject.
“I love surf music,” Reis said. “I love the stuff that was made by pimply-faced teens who didn’t know how to play their instruments. I love the music made by studio musicians who didn’t even know what surfing was when they capitalized on the trend. I love the groundbreakers and mavericks like Dick Dale and The Ventures. Without these people pushing what their guitars and amplifiers could do, we wouldn’t have a lot of the gear we have today. I’m into the entire gamut of it.”
Reis even went so far as to record some of the album on the beach. Inspired by the soundtrack to innovative surfer George Greenough’s 1970 film, “The Innermost Limits of Pure Fun,” the band, including local sax player Gabriel Sunday and engineer Ben Moore, recorded four of the album’s tracks in the sand.
“We got some weird stares,” Reis said, “but it all worked out.”
With so many other projects still active, it’s undetermined whether this collaboration will be a one-off for Reis. But don’t be surprised to see his name in the credits of a movie soundtrack someday.
“My dream was always for someone to ask me to score a surf film,” Reis said. “But my phone never rang. It’s amazing what people are capable of doing on a wave these days, but it’s hard for me to watch these movies when they essentially have coffee house music in them. It has nothing to do with the turbulence I see on film. There’s no intensity. So I just made a record instead.”
John Reis and The Blind Shake play The Casbah on Feb. 15.
Scott McDonald is a writer, on-air personality and consultant with 15 years of experience in the San Diego music scene. He has interviewed hundreds of artists, from the legendary to the underground, for print and television. Follow McDonald and his melodic musings on Twitter @eight24_ or Instagram @scotteight24. Send your music musts to firstname.lastname@example.org.