Last week, San Diego post-hardcore champions Drive Like Jehu made the surprise announcement that they will be reuniting for a free, all-ages concert in their fabled California city’s Balboa Park on August 31, marking the first time they’ve played together since 1995. Sitting in with the band is San Diego’s civic organist Dr. Carol Williams playing the giant outdoor pipe organ that graces the park’s Spreckels Pavillion.
Wondering Sound reached out to DLJ frontman Rick Froberg (now of Brooklyn garage-punk combo Obits) and founding guitarist John Reis — known mainly these days as leader of the Night Marchers as well as for his portrayal of “The Music Swami” on the hit children’s show Yo Gabba Gabba and his stint with recently-reconvened ’90s outfit Rocket From the Crypt — to talk about the events leading up to this reunion.
How did the idea for a Drive Like Jehu reunion come about?
John Reis: A friend of mine, his name is Dang [Nguyen], and myself co-own a bar with another friend and our wives called Bar Pink. Dang is really involved here in San Diego. He’s on a lot of different boards and committees, and he’s very active and concerned about things going on in the city. And in February, he got on the board of directors for the Spreckels Pavilion and the pipe organ in Balboa Park, which is our Central Park. The pavilion was erected during the Panama-California Exposition in 1914. I think it was to commemorate the Panama Canal or something like that. It was kind of like the World’s Fair, it was of that magnitude.
I was already way into the organ. It has this huge, huge sound and is in a beautiful setting. They have these free concerts on Sundays in the summer, and do these things where they would play silent movies, and on Halloween they hold a concert where they play a classic horror movie. So when Dang got on the board of directors, I asked him pretty much immediately about setting something up. He did what he could do to convince the powers-that-be that it would be a cool, weird way to get younger people into the organ. That was the angle that he took, because the majority of the people who support the organ are an older generation, and I don’t think the organ has done anything just yet to appeal to people outside of its core followers.
So the awareness of the organ to maintain its preservation was the motivating factor here.
John Reis: Yea, the thing needs money to run and to maintain and whatnot. Donations are the main part of what keeps the organ going, so it relies on the support of the community. The organ does well, it’s been there for a long time and has a lot of followers. But generally its followers expect a certain program, music you would expect to be played on a pipe organ. This is going to be something altogether different. I’m excited to see how it goes.
John, how did the idea go over with the other guys when you presented it to them?
John Reis: Once I knew that there was a possibility to do this concert, I approached everyone, and I think they could all sense how important this was to me. Plus, they were all in a place in their lives where it made sense for all of us to get back together again and to play, and doing something like this probably was just weird enough to make sense. It’s a free show for San Diego and it just seems like a cool thing to do. I can’t really speak for them, but they definitely share my enthusiasm and excitement.
Rick Froberg: Playing with the pipe organ sounded like a unique opportunity, but I had mixed feelings about a Jehu reunion. It was 20 years ago. That’s a while. I’m as nostalgic as the next guy, but things done for nostalgia’s sake usually kinda fall short. I don’t wanna do that for even five songs if it can be avoided. But people want to see the band and the window is closing.
Dr. Carol Williams is the only civic organist in the country, right?
Rick Froberg: I wasn’t aware that Dr. Williams was the country’s sole civic organist. This is apparently a more noble act on our part than I thought.
John Reis: Yea, isn’t that incredible? That’s just all part of it, you see. We are really lucky in San Diego to have a jewel like the organ. She plays about 90 percent of the concerts in the park. We do have touring organists that come play and some of them are quite good, but Carol has such a command of that specific instrument. She’s such a talent and we are really fortunate to have her, for sure. And, I love this city, but I can definitely criticize it on a lot of levels for its inability to support the arts. There’s a lot of really cool, creative stuff going on in the city, but we don’t have the street fairs and the block parties and the kind of events on a larger scale that are open to the community. Everything is related to commerce here, and when you want to do something for free, it’s very, very difficult to find support. I think this thing with Carol, and the idea of this city having a civic organist — it needs to be realized how special and unique it is and why it should be celebrated.
In setting this up with her, did you have her listen to the two Drive Like Jehu records?
John Reis: She didn’t know anything about the band until she was approached and I think she just thought this would be a cool thing to do as well. I haven’t even talked to her since I gave her the list of the songs that we might try to do. I braced her. I don’t know her that well, I only hung out with her like once. But I do have friends who have known a bunch of musicians who’ve worked with her over the years and they all say that she’s just really great. But she’s classically-trained, schooled musician. She’s a doctor.
It will be interesting to see how that organ will fit into the context of Drive Like Jehu.
John Reis: Totally. We are just as curious how it’s gonna work. It’s got potential to be amazing, but it also could be really bad [laughs].
Are you planning on recording or filming the show?
John Reis: I’m trying to figure that out. I definitely want there to be a document of it, if only for myself and the band. Right now, I’m more concerned that it sounds good in the moment.
This year marks the 20th anniversary of the release of Yank Crime. Did that play a role in this reunion at all?
John Reis: Definitely not. We had been working on this long before I had realized that. Bands don’t keep track of that stuff, though. They don’t care or know about those numbers. That stuff just makes you feel fucking old and depressed [laughs]. It’s not necessarily an accomplishment.
Rick Froberg: Twenty is a nice round number, but I think it’s purely coincidental.
What are your thoughts on how the music of DLJ has inspired/influenced this new generation of bands in the post-hardcore scene?
Rick Froberg: I’ve heard that we’ve inspired people, and that’s great. To clarify: I, personally, don’t think of DLJ as a post-hardcore group as the group itself was not inspired by hardcore. We had had it up to here with hardcore well before we started DLJ. That said, it’s nice to be the inspiration for just about anything. Provided it isn’t a murder or something.
If this show goes really well and the demand is there, would you guys consider doing more dates?
Rick Froberg: That remains to be seen.
John Reis: Its definitely not a warm up for anything. Everyone in the band is pretty busy. I’m not saying we’re not gonna do anything, but really, it’s about this one show. Rick has Obits, who are really busy and they travel a lot. And Mark, the drummer, just opened up his own donut shop in the L.A. area called Donut Friend. Mike is a career chemist and he has a great job that he can’t really leave for days on end. We’re just gonna do this thing and see what goes on from there.
Rick Froberg: Right now, I’m just happy to be working.