Photography by Philip Cosores
On a partly sunny Sunday afternoon, I’m led behind the main stage at the Treasure Island Music Festival in Oakland, California, to interview the four men that play together as Drive Like Jehu. After several wary security personnel stop us and demand credentials, we reach the band’s tent. For the duration of our time together, the tent’s metal frame will groan loudly in the increasing wind.
“They have a tracker on stage that tells you what the MPH is,” lead guitarist John Reis tells me. He sits on one of the spacious tent’s white leather couches casually strumming his guitar while we speak. “There are two levels: The first one means the PA has to be turned down, and the second means the show has to be stopped altogether.” Reis confides to Mike Kennedy, the band’s bassist, that he is legitimately concerned that the wind might hamper their set, which is scheduled to take place in three hours.
Along with Reis and Kennedy is drummer Mark Trombino, who in 2013 opened the popular pastry shop Donut Friend in Los Angeles. Many of the pastries available are named for bands Trombino likes, including the Fudgegazi, the Poppygandhi, and, of course, the Drive Like Jelly. While we wait to see if lead singer Rick Froberg will be able to join us, Trombino tells me about some of the donut shops he visited in the San Francisco Bay Area while he was mapping out the idea for Donut Friend.
Reis tells me to help myself to a beer from the cooler in the corner. “There’s nothing but Mexican beer and tequila in there,” Kennedy chimes in, although amidst the bright red cans of Tecate I spy a single tub of hummus nestled in the ice.
After about 15 minutes, Reis says that Froberg is unavailable and we should proceed. Midway through the interview, Froberg pops his head into the tent. When Reis motions for him to join the conversation, he gestures towards his cigarette and leaves again.
Drive Like Jehu is not a band that has done much press in the two decades since they last played together. Even when they were active in the first half of the 1990s, Froberg and company always seemed more interested in letting the music speak for itself. That music, noise rock with math sensibilities, was, as Ned Raggett of AllMusic proclaimed in his review of their 1991 self-titled debut, “a quantum leap forward” from Reis and Froberg’s former work together in the band Pitchfork.
The accolades continued with the 1994 release of Yank Crime, Drive Like Jehu’s second and final album. The band signed to Interscope as part of a double deal that brought Reis’ other outfit, Rocket from the Crypt, to the label as well. Despite being well-received by critics and fans, and perhaps spurred in part by the various band members’ disparate interests, Drive Like Jehu called it quits after touring behind Yank Crime in the US and Europe. Their impact, however, lived on. Cedric Bixler-Zavala of At the Drive-In told Spin in 2013 that “Hot Snakes and Drive Like Jehu were our strongest influences.” “I love Jehu,” Isaac Brock, lead singer of Modest Mouse, said to U-T San Diego in 2007. “One of my favorite all-time bands.”
Reis and Kennedy seem largely indifferent to the idea that their music influenced many notable acts in the years that followed the band’s heyday. “I was influenced by something, we were all influenced by things,” Kennedy says. “Whether it was us or any other band, it doesn’t really matter.”
Reis adds that it’s always nice when a really good band tells him that Drive Like Jehu is one of their influences, but that it “sometimes can be a bit of a backhanded compliment.” He goes on to tell a story about a fan that was telling him how much he loved the band before saying, “You guys are like my mom’s friend’s favorite band.” He says the incident “kinda felt like a diss.”
In the wake of Drive Like Jehu’s end, Reis continued on with Rocket from the Crypt, while Froberg perused his passion for the visual arts and Trombino found success as a record producer and engineer for bands like Blink-182 and Jimmy Eat World. Reis and Froberg came back together in 1999 to form Hot Snakes, their third band together after Pitchfork and Drive Like Jehu. However, it would take the allure of San Diego’s Spreckels Organ Pavillion to bring the whole group back together.
“I especially love the way the low-end sound on the organ is so massive,” Reis told the San Diego Tribune in August 2014, two weeks before Drive Like Jehu’s first performance together since 1995. “When I go see organ concerts in the park, I want to collaborate with that sound and with Carol. It’s not necessarily a ‘good idea,’ but it’s an idea I feel strongly about, and it’s such a San Diego thing. We’ll see how it goes, but to me it makes perfect sense. It doesn’t seem that weird, but you don’t know until you try it.”
Carol is Dr. Carol Williams, San Diego’s civic organist and the artistic director of the Spreckels Organ Society. An unlikely collaborator, Williams accompanied the band for an hour-long set that encompassed five songs, including fan favorites like “Do You Compute” and “Luau”. In a very positive review of the performance for Noisey, Lukas Hodge described the concert experience as “completely anti-reunion … just good music and pure class.”
When I ask three-fourths of Drive Like Jehu if they had plans beyond the San Diego organ show before they played it, Reis says that their future was undecided until the show actually took place. “I think we just had to do it once, just to see.”
“We needed to know that we could do it,” adds Kennedy.
“There weren’t any other plans at that point,” Reis confirms.
While there may not have been plans before the organ show, some certainly formed in its wake. Smaller shows at venues like The Casbah in San Diego and The Glass House in Pomona served as warm-ups for performances at both weekends of Coachella this past spring. The band has gone on to play Sled Island in Calgary, All Tomorrow’s Parties in Iceland, and Riot Fest dates in Denver, Chicago, and Toronto. Their performance at Treasure Island’s Music Festival is the penultimate date on their calendar, with only a slot at Fun Fun Fun Fest in Austin this month remaining.
I attempt to ask Reis a question about why the band chose to reunite with a free show when there was likely a lucrative offer on the table to reunite at a festival — in his review, Hodge notes that “there are plenty of rumors about DLJ rejecting reunion offers.” I don’t get the chance to finish my query.
“In a time when many defunct music acts are offered gobs of money to reunite at music festivals, you guys chose…”
“Define gobs of money,” Reis interjects. “What is that? What would be gobs?” His demeanor is playful, but there’s more than a touch of tension in his voice. The wind continues to batter the walls of the tent protecting us.
“I would say more money than one would think is necessary to get people who like playing together back together,” I reply.
“But, like, in a dollar amount,” he continues. “As a journalist, what would that be?”
I cite the rumors of Coachella offering The Smiths $5,000,000 to reunite.
“How much are we getting paid?”
I’m so taken aback by the question that I ask him to repeat it. He does.
“I mean, as a journalist, it seems like poor form to guess,” I eventually say.
“Just guess, though,” Reis insists. “Just guess.” Kennedy laughs before echoing Reis’ words. Reis says that he’s not going to tell me the right answer, and furthermore, he doesn’t even know it. Eager to avoid the situation escalating any further, I offer a guess: $15,000.
Later, a fellow music journalist will scoff at this number and tell me that Drive Like Jehu was assuredly paid no less than $100,000. Reis doesn’t correct me.
“$15,000? I don’t know. It’s like you said: If you already like playing together, and you enjoy playing, and you’re practiced, you’re ready to go, and you’re in a band that’s doing stuff, then maybe the rumors sound a bit extreme in terms of what the bands are offered, but I tend to look at the whole thing. We weren’t a band, we weren’t playing, and obviously we did the organ show, which was a free show…”
“…which is what I was wondering about,” I interject, “since you guys didn’t even sell tickets to your first show; you made it free and open. I know the organ was a huge reason why you chose to get back together, but it’s different from most of the band reunion stories you’re going to hear about.”
Reis states that they are indeed playing festivals now, which is apparent given where we’re sitting.
“Do you think we’re worth getting paid $15,000?”
Yes, I absolutely do think that.
“But for real, when you leave, you won’t say something different? You really do think we’re worth $15,000?”
Yes, I think they are worth being paid $15,000 to play a festival.
“Would you pay us $15,000 to play?” he persists.
I tell Reis that I have no idea what the budget of a festival like Treasure Island is (that information is extremely proprietary and never publicly shared) and have no business making hypothetical decisions about whether I would pay his band a certain amount of money to play.
“Let’s say your band is offered $15,000 to get back together,” says Reis. “You figure you’ve got to practice for a while, then you’ve got to get wherever the show is, you have to get there — transportation, rent gear — and then if you have a booking agent, they take 10%, and if you have a manager, there’s another 10%. So really, if you figure it all out, you’d make more money at McDonald’s than playing in a band. $15,000 split four ways, plus taxes and such, you would probably make more in the time it took you to put the show together working at McDonald’s.”
“It would be way less satisfying, I assume.”
“Maybe you like working at McDonald’s,” he snaps back. “Maybe McDonald’s is your rock ‘n’ roll.”
“Well, if you like working at McDonald’s, the good news is that there are plenty of openings,” I say.
“You have to pay us way more money to do something like [play a festival] because this just isn’t as fun as playing a show,” he says. “So you’re like, well, the money’s really good, and we can just come and do one show, and then come back and play a nightclub at a later date.”
It’s fully understandable that Drive Like Jehu would be uncomfortable in a festival setting. During their initial time together as a band, they toured small clubs, playing to intimate, sweat-soaked crowds in dimly lit venues: the perfect atmosphere for their brand of post-hardcore intensity. I ask Reis how the transition to playing at festivals has affected the band.
“When this band started, I don’t think we ever really once remotely took into consideration [that we’d be] playing these songs during the day, outside, in a field in front of a group of people who don’t know who the fuck we are.”
Jehu’s songs, often clocking in at six to eight minutes in length, don’t naturally lend themselves to the shorter set times employed at festivals like Treasure Island. Reis tells me the band will play a total of three songs in the course of their 40-minute set.
“It’s just a different deal, different vibe, different experience,” he adds, exasperated.
Later in the day, a rabid crowd of fans will await the band when they take the Tunnel stage, playing a set met with plenty of applause and excitement, even when Froberg screams, “Fuck you!” at the fans. With an intensity matched perhaps only by Viet Cong, who played earlier in the day, Drive Like Jehu cease to be Reis, the fast food philosopher, Froberg, the absent lead singer, Trombino, the silent baker, and Kennedy, who during our interview is markedly the most enthusiastic of the bunch. Instead, they are a storm of sound, a deliberate chaos. Even the wind, which only hours earlier threatened to derail the band’s set, settles down and lets the spectacle unfurl.
Watching the band play, it’s hard to imagine they’ll again call it quits after their show in Austin. As our time draws near its end, I ask Reis about the future.
He says that they’ve all discussed doing more together, and that while there are no definitive plans, there’s definitely interest in continuing on as a band. (It’ll later be announced that Drive Like Jehu will curate and headline next spring’s All Tomorrow’s Parties festival, to be held in Prestatyn, Wales.) He is likewise vague but generally optimistic when I ask if new music might be a part of those plans.
“I think the interest is definitely there,” I offer. “People are excited to be able to come and see you guys again. I’m sure they’d love to get some new songs after all this time.”
“I think if it did happen,” he says, careful to emphasize the “if,” “other people being interested in it would not be a deciding factor in whether we chose to do something.”
While those other people may be the critics who championed their albums, musicians who cite Drive Like Jehu as influences, and fans who spend their money on the band’s records and concerts, it will always be Reis, Froberg, Kennedy, and Trombino that call the shots. If a giant organ is reason enough to get back together after 20 years, who knows what will or won’t inspire them to move into another chapter?