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Photo by Chris Woo / Swami RecordsPicture, thousand words—you know. In the case of(sort of) San Diego band Hot Snakes, they come courtesy pen-and-ink line drawings on their record covers—influenced in equal parts by Raymond Pettibon and Looney Toons, created by guitarist/singer Rick Froberg. The recent Audit in Progress features a cartoon cat sitting on a pirate's lap while a soccer ball with a face looks on.
Live, the band is an uncomplicated visual opposite of their record covers—nondescript, plain-looking guys. Mustachioed bassist Gar Wood—grinning throughout the set—takes his place behind flailing drummer Mario Rubalcaba. Guitarist John Reis plants himself stage left and offers next to nothing in the way of quips, contrasting with his gregarious Rocket From the Crypt "Speedo" persona. All ears are immediately drawn to Dana Carvey look-alike Froberg as he sings his stream-of-consciousness lyrics ("A suicide invoice in pen and ink/Brings you to my bedside in yellow, white and pink") with hollowed eyes glazing over. Maybe it's the usual mid-/late-30s feeling of discontent and restlessness Froberg is exorcising, or maybe it's a whole lot of nothing. Behind him are two guitars bouncing off one, a post-punk version of hyper riff-rock without a trace of wankery or lead-guitar ego-tripping. Rubalcaba and Wood's rhythm section is the mat on which Reis and Froberg wrestle.
The Hot Snakes story actually starts two and three bands back with Froberg and guitarist John Reis in a band called Pitchfork, and then the acclaimed Drive Like Jehu, oft described with words like "angular" and "post"-something-or-other. That they escaped adjectives like "mathy" and "emo"-something-else speaks well of the band's abrasive, intricate sound. Where Thin Lizzy was always about the intertwined dual lead guitars, Drive Like Jehu was the punk version, with overlapping power chords and guitar noise in front of a rhythm section that knew when to lay back and when to explode.
And Hot Snakes is the simplified descendant of the duo's earlier band. "We don't spend a lot of time together, so we use our instincts and move at a kind of accelerated pace," says Reis. "Inspiration is a bit more immediate."
The blueprint is the same post-punk quirk and murk—Portland's Wipers being an obvious influence—that Nirvana absorbed and reworked a decade and a half ago. It's just been simmered by 15 more years of disillusionment with life in general and the music climate in specific. "You just end up having to make your own music to satisfy what you want to listen to," says Reis.
The first clanging guitars of "If Credit's What Matters, I'll Take Credit" from the band's Automatic Midnight debut in 2000 immediately declared their purpose like an earthquake: unexpected and disorienting but short. This was the new, anthemic, thoughtful punk. Things grew a bit darker on the band's second, Suicide Invoice. With Audit in Progress, the band has decided to split the difference between the two albums, both sonically and tonally.
The band's name came from a phrase uttered by Reis while working in a pet store. "There's this wall behind the pet shop we graffitied because it's really important see how your name's going to look in spray paint," says Reis. "A couple of days later, someone wrote 'sucks' under it."
HOT SNAKES PERFORM WITH THE HEARTACHES AT ALEX'S BAR, 2913 E. ANAHEIM ST., LONG BEACH, (562) 434-8292. SAT., 8 P.M. $15. 21+.