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Fang Busters

Hot Snakes Return From Limbo With a New Drummer and a Fierce New Album

Pinch Slither: Former pro skateboarder mario rubalcaba (left) reinvigorated hot snakes' rick froberg (second from left) and john reis (right) when he came aboard to play drums.

By Michael Alan Goldberg | Posted 10/6/2004

Hot Snakes play the Ottobar Oct. 8 with Mr. Airplane Man and Two Tears.

“I feel fuckin’ irritated all the time, that’s just how I am,” says Hot Snakes singer/guitarist Rick Froberg from the back of a van barreling toward Phoenix, where the quartet launches its first tour in more than two years. The singer/guitarist’s barks and snarls—spitting lyrics about frustration, hopelessness, stupidity, and general disdain for “The Man”—have grown even more prickly and combative on the band’s latest, Audit in Progress, on which the Snakes’ hardcore inclinations poke through in their brevity and urgency. With an average length of two-and-a-half minutes, each song comes out of the gate blazing. And rather than just crunch unrelentingly, the guitars also twang, slash, and chug, attacking and disengaging in slanting structures that reveal brains as much as brawn.

“I tend to feel that way more than I should, probably,” he continues. “But we’re all like any other white liberal guys from California, we’re irritated and upset about the way things are going in the world. So the music is definitely an expression of that. And anyways, it’s really good to get the energy going and just have the chance to explode—it’s a feeling and opportunity unlike any other you’re likely to come across in life.”

It’s a feeling the Snakes’ two San Diego-bred principles, Froberg and guitarist John Reis, have shared for nearly two decades, first with the late-’80s hardcore outfit Pitchfork and then with revered ’90s agit-punkers Drive Like Jehu before teaming up in Hot Snakes five years ago. But Hot Snakes 2004 is a beast quite altered from the one last heard on 2002’s Suicide Invoice.

At that point, the band was riding high on the buzz from the universally praised album; it was garnering a larger following, more press attention, and Suicide’s accompanying tour—the Snakes’ first national jaunt—was a major success. But logistics, combined with diverging commitments and interests, put the brakes on the momentum, and the foursome seemed content to relegate Hot Snakes to little more than a transient side project.

Reis and bassist Gar Wood were in San Diego; Reis was still fronting Rocket From the Crypt (which he considered his primary musical outlet), had formed the power-pop band the Sultans, and was busy running his label, Swami Records. Froberg was living 3,000 miles away in Brooklyn, N.Y., working as a graphic designer. And drummer Jason Kourkounis was based in Philadelphia, playing with his other band, Burning Brides.

Reis and Froberg got the itch to do another Hot Snakes disc late last year, but Kourkounis informed them that he was bowing out to dedicate all of his time to the Brides, who were working on their major-label debut album. Reis was unhappy with the turn of events—after all, it was he and Kourkounis who would get together for a week in San Diego to write and record new songs, then send them to Froberg, who would tack on his vocals (Wood was hardly part of that process, as the first two albums were essentially bassless). Without that essential core intact, the Snakes’ survival felt unlikely. But then San Diego friend, drummer, and one-time pro skateboarder Mario Rubalcaba—who’d been hitting the skins in the latest incarnation of Rocket—stepped into the picture, and everything changed practically overnight: the lineup, the music, and, most importantly, the attitude.

“I feel like this is a completely fresh start in a lot of ways, and we’re all really committed to this thing,” Reis says. “The whole thing feels different. The inspiration is still the same, but if you listen to this record you can definitely hear something very different about us. That’s because of Mario. The way he plays allowed us to mine territories we haven’t before. His style led to us deciding to have bass on every song, which made everything sound really good. And with all four of us in the room together doing everything at one point in time, things felt a lot more cohesive and just really, really fun. It definitely feels like a real band.”

“Mario joining was a big deal,” Froberg concurs. “It’s been a pretty major personnel change—our band is small, and so one person makes a big, big difference in the way we sound. He’s always been one of the best drummers I’ve ever seen, and I think we really rip now with him involved. It’s pretty fuckin’ awesome.”

For his part, the laid-back Rubalcaba says he’s thrilled but not exactly star-struck at getting to play with two of his musical idols. “My first real punk show was Pitchfork, and I was really into Jehu,” he says. “I mean, I never thought I would be in this position, but when the opportunity came up it felt like the natural thing to do. It hasn’t felt weird or strange, it’s just really cool that I’m actually getting to add fuel to the fire.”

Musically speaking, the Snakes have never lacked intensity, but Reis is right—listening to Audit in Progress, you can hear Rubalcaba’s propulsive thwacks pushing the interlocking, steel-wool riffs and throbbing bass beyond their breaking point like a vein-popping drill sergeant demanding 100 more push-ups from an already frazzled recruit. The band plans to take full advantage of this renewed opportunity and new lease on life over the next year—everyone’s other projects are on hold while they tour behind Audit and try to recapture some of that lost momentum.

“We’re pretty energized,” Reis says. “The absence, the not playing, the excitement about the new album, Mario and Gar being such a big part of this band now. We’re pretty eager to resume where we left off and see what happens.”

“We had some pretty serious holdups, a lot of things conspired to keep things from happening, but those things don’t exist anymore,” Froberg says. “We haven’t played anything, anywhere for two years—but now we’re gonna make up for lost time.”

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