Hot Snakes began as a side project, but you could just as easily frame the band as John Reis getting back on his bullshit. Reis, a punk-rock lifer from San Diego, had experienced the greatest success of his career fronting the soulful, brass-blasted rock ‘n’ roll band Rocket From The Crypt throughout the ’90s. RFTC were relatively accessible as punk bands go; they weren’t poppy to a Green Day extent, but thanks to their loose, playful take on garage rock — and maybe especially thanks to that horn section — they were primed to blow up in a way none of this guy’s other bands ever have, especially once punk, ska, and swing went mainstream midway through the decade. At my middle school they were “opened for Foo Fighters” famous.
But Reis had a background in darker, more aggressive strains of punk. As a teenager in the ’80s he played in the post-hardcore band Pitchfork with singer Rick Froberg, putting a West Coast spin on melodic hardcore bands like Squirrel Bait and the dissonant experiments of Sonic Youth and Mission Of Burma. When that band ended in 1990, he simultaneously launched RFTC and Drive Like Jehu, a new collaboration with Froberg that kept pushing the old Pitchfork sound into gnarlier, rangier territory. In the early ’90s, Drive Like Jehu carved out an aesthetic that helped to define emo and math-rock but, in contrast to the daintiness sometimes connoted by those genre tags, never ceased to sound brutal. Although Reis got Jehu signed to Interscope along with Rocket For The Crypt for the release of 1994’s Yank Crime, the former band soon went by the wayside as the latter’s popularity exploded in the latter half of the decade.
Despite that surge, RFTC found themselves dropped by Interscope and on hiatus in 1999, at which point Reis decided to lean back into his nastier side. This impulse begat Hot Snakes, a reunion with Froberg that streamlined their old post-hardcore sound into something burlier and more direct, informed by ’60s garage rock like the Sonics and the sweeping punk epics of the Wipers. With Reis wrangling his guitar riffs into tight, jagged outbursts and Froberg angrily howling out front, the band debuted with 2000’s Automatic Midnight, the first release on Reis’ new label Swami Records. That’s a rad record, but Hot Snakes properly kicked into gear with their sophomore LP, released 20 years ago this Saturday.
Suicide Invoice is one of the hardest garage rock records you’ll ever encounter. It makes anger and cynicism sound like so much fun. It makes me want to start a fistfight in a mosh pit and then another fistfight with my ambulance driver. For just over half an hour, it makes aggro, workmanlike, minor-key guitar rock feel like not only the best music in the world but the only music in the world. It’s proof that even the most antisocial, abrasive, black-comedic songs can be fashioned into anthems. Hot Snakes were so hot at this time, in fact, that there’s hardly a track among these 12 that doesn’t feel anthemic. Behold the perfection of the form.
The band sets the tone right away with the pounding, discordant “I Hate The Kids,” a song so contagious in its contempt for younger generations that it has become a mainstay of this website’s comment section. “Nobody does anything wrong!” Froberg shouts in jest. “Nobody is a dilettante!” Hot Snakes turn the dark humor inward on “Gar Forgets His Insulin,” a fantasy about the downfall of bassist Gar Wood that put this group in step with the similarly scathing Mclusky, ragged forebears the Replacements, and, I guess, juvenile pranksters like blink-182, who Jehu drummer Mark Trombino famously produced as part of his career pivot to big-bucks mall-punk. From there, Froberg continues to fixate on morbid disgust and frustration, consistently transmuting irate yelling into hooks — and occasionally, as on penultimate stunner “Unlisted,” pivoting to actual melody without losing his bite.
That song is one of the many on which Reis and Froberg show out, weaving tangled webs of low-end guitar and resolving them into densely harmonic chord riffs. The spindly virtuoso playing on “Suicide Invoice” is less overtly poppy but no less magnetic, riffs crammed into every pocket of free space without ever sounding noodly or overbearing. They knew when to keep it simple, too, like the bluesy choogle on “Why Does It Hurt” that splits the difference between Black Flag and the Cramps. Behind all the guitar fireworks, drummer Jason Kourkounis, then of the Delta 72 and soon to depart for Burning Brides, thwacks the shit out of his toms and snare yet brings a nimble touch to tracks like the organ-infused “Paid In Cigarettes” when needed. Not that any of these songs stay reined in for long; the jet propulsion Froberg hollers about on “LAX” could just as easily refer to the way Hot Snakes achieve liftoff again and again.
The band cranked out one more album, 2004’s Audit In Progress, before breaking up as the members pursued another wave of projects like the Sultans (founded concurrently with Hot Snakes), Obits, and the Night Marchers. Hot Snakes got back together in 2011-2012 for some high-profile shows and again for a reunion album called Jericho Sirens in 2017-2018. Reis continues to form new bands to this day, most recently Plosivs with Pinback’s Rob Crow. He even released his first official solo album as Swami John Reis this year. The universe of related projects is vast. But for me, it all revolves around Suicide Invoice, the vicious, adrenalized, bitterly funny pinnacle of this crew’s career.