If you regularly tune into alt-rock radio, you've probably heard of The Swami. Every Saturday night for seven years, he hosted the Swami Sound System on FM 94/9, a showcase of underground hits and little-known gems that he'd unearthed from vast piles of vinyl and plastic. The Swami's obscure tastes and momentous monologues earned him a reputation as one of San Diego's most revolutionary radio DJs, a maverick the likes of which have become increasingly rare in the world of corporate-owned commercial radio.
Though he prefers to remain an enigma, most everybody knows The Swami's true identity: John Reis, an influential San Diego musician who runs Swami Records, co-owns Bar Pink and has played in indie-rock bands like Drive Like Jehu, Rocket from the Crypt and The Night Marchers, who plan to release a new record later this year. But in true Swami style, he recently decided to put an end to Swami Sound System, making the announcement two Saturdays ago without giving any warning or explanation of his reasoning.
Last Friday, The Swami emerged from a cloud of rock 'n' roll stage-fog to speak with CityBeat over the phone about his decision to end the show. In the hour-long interview, he offers some insight into his maverick radio methods, shares his fond memories of the show and also talks about Hot Snakes, a celebrated indie-rock band that recently reunited after disbanding in 2005.
But of all the tidbits he revealed, perhaps the most alarming (and least surprising) was the fact that he didn't record his final show for posterity. He didn't even save a copy of the playlist. "It was good," he said of his grand finale. "We’ll just leave it at that."
The main thing I’m curious about is why you decided to end Swami Sound System.
Well, there was a lot of factors involved in the decision. I’ve been doing it for a while. I had and continue to have a lot of fun doing it, but it takes so much time in preparation for the show. It’s more than just the three hours I’m on the air. It takes a lot of time. Maybe I’m not the most efficient with my time and maybe other DJs can do a much better job than I do and take a whole lot less time doing it. But for me, I never found a way to do that.
The show might feel like I’m just pulling shit out of my ass, but I put a lot of thought and a lot of effort in the music that I play. It’s all stuff that’s really close to my heart, stuff that I’m really passionate about. I love radio. It’s great. But ... I had a hard time maintaining that ability to kind of focus on it as much as I need to, to feel good about what I’m doing. I don’t want to do anything poorly.
Did you just get too busy to work on it?
It was never one thing that just happened and changed. There’s been just a series of things over the past couple years that kind of gradually made it harder for me to continually be there for the show. Obviously, playing some shows here and there, that’s always hard. But the station has always been very accommodating and allowed me to tape shows and bring them in and airing them in my absence. That never was too much of an effort, but there’s been changes at the station, there’s been changes in my life that made it a little bit harder to stay on top of certain things. But that wasn’t necessarily the only thing. It’s not like I have a new venture that I’m doing right now and now it makes it hard to have that time.
What kinds of changes?
With the Hot Snakes playing and with my kid getting older and kind of feeling like I’ve kind of gone as far as I can with the show—you know, I’m not a huge international megastar like I thought I would be from seven years of playing obscure underground rock ’n’ roll in the middle of the night. I kind of feel like, if this is as far as I can go with this thing, then that’s great, that’s cool, then maybe I need to focus on something else that might have a little bit more of a future for me.
Garett Michaels, program director at FM 94/9, told me that he was going to try to convince you to stay on the show after taking a break. So, I’m guessing he didn’t convince you?
I met with Garett today and I’m going to think about it. I really put a high premium on having fun, and the show was a lot of fun to do. It never was not fun. If I can figure out a way to continue doing it where maybe it takes up a little bit less time, and I can still do it, then cool.
I really liked doing the show, so I’d like to keep the door open—so if I somewhere down the line want to return and do the show somewhere else or do the show there or wherever, that the idea of the show can exist if I’m ready to return to it. Because the fact of the matter is, the Swami Sound System will exist for me every day of my life. Wherever I play music, that’s it.
I’m really curious why you decided to quit without telling anybody in advance, or telling anybody at the station in advance.
I have a really simple answer for that: How many radio shows have you heard, or radio DJs have you heard, ever have a last show on the air? It doesn’t happen. And me, again, not being the career radio guy and not really knowing how things work, just always assumed that once you say you’re not going to work somewhere anymore, then that’s it. You’re off the air.
I didn’t want to have to put Garett or anyone in that position. I knew that whatever I do would be appreciative and respectful for the time and airwaves that I had been permitted access to, to do my kinky things. I’m appreciative of that. It was important for me to say thank you to the people who liked the show and people who liked the music and have everything be very positive. And not for it just to kind of disappear in the middle of the night and no one ever noticed or know what happened. Perhaps it was nave on my behalf, or maybe it wasn’t. I don’t know. But I always did the show on my terms and I figure if I wasn’t going to do it anymore, I would do it on my terms.
I noticed on your Facebook, when you made your announcement, there were like 200 comments.
I had a lot of really wild times on the radio station, things that, well—things I’ll never forget. I mean, my kid was born. I was not necessarily on air, but my wife went into labor while I was on air. I had to leave the show five minutes early to take her to the hospital. The show became much more than a show for me. It became all these things in my life, these important events that intersected through the show or had something to do with it. People calling in suicidal. It happened a few times and, like, they are talking to me! I’m not, like, the worst person I could talk to, but definitely I had to be one of the most unqualified people you could talk to, you know?
Do you have any favorite moments?
I have quite a few. There’s this somewhat obscure proto-punk band from Detroit [note: The Dogs] who relocated to L.A. in the early '80s. And they cut a highly influential live record at the Mandalay Garden in San Francisco, it came out in ’79 or ’78. It was a band that kind of influenced me, and some of my guitar playing has come from the riffs and the kind of guitar attack. And someone listened to the show, knew I was a big fan. They went and saw a reformed version of the group somewhere in Los Angeles where the station signal still reached, and went up on stage after they were done … and put the phone up to the singer and I kind of interviewed the singer for, like, 45 minutes while he’s putting away his gear and his guitar. And it was just so cool, because I never really tried to have a persona on air, but definitely one kind of came accidentally. But whatever persona I had went out the window because I sounded like a 12 year old kid meeting his favorite baseball player.
Every show was recorded live, right?
Pretty much all of them were, with the exception of when I went on tour. I worked on Christmas Eves and New Year’s Eves and all that stuff. I would tape on occasion, but most of what you heard was all me there.
One thing I really liked was when you had those really long speeches, where you would go on these long, spectacular monologues. Were those prewritten or were they ad-libbed?
I never really planned anything that I was saying. And again, that could have been my inexperience as a DJ. I would open my mouth and not really know where things were going to go, which isn’t really a good thing, and it’s not a skill you would be proud of [if you were] someone who gets behind a microphone. It would just kind of happen.
I’m very influenced by Peter Ivers, who’s in New Wave Theatre. I think he was not only a great host but I liked where he was coming from and it really influenced me at a young and impressionable age. He was introducing me to these amazing bands while putting out this amazing metaphysical punk beat poetry stuff that, even if I didn’t know what he was talking about, I knew I liked it. And Wolfman Jack, although I wasn’t around when he really had the influence that he had in the ’50s. So much of radio people are encouraged to speak like you are speaking to someone in the room, like I am talking to you right now. But I liked the fact that he was a personality that was kind of otherworldly and also felt like he was dictating to legions of rock and roll teenagers hell-bent on rebellion, on rock 'n' roll rebellion. I liked that. That was really cool. I just kind of drew from those people.
In the time you did the show, did you kind of do things differently? Did it change or did you evolve it at all?
Well, the music changed. I always had a ravenous appetite for new sounds and justified that energy I spent on unearthing things in the name of finding new stuff for the show. The music changed as my taste changed. But I think the spirit was always the same, it just got a bit more refined and a little bit more clear.
What were some of the songs you played on your last show? I wish I would’ve listened to it, but I missed it.
I don’t know. I mean, I do know, I just can’t say off the top of my head. It wasn’t like a special last show, playlist filled with music of prophecy and deep meaning and the best songs of the past seven years. It was just a show of the stuff I’d been listening to. I played a lot of the same stuff week to week because I figured the only time that people would have the opportunity to hear something that I was really excited about, things I really believed in, would be on my show. So, playing it once and then letting it slip back through the elephant size crack of mainstream consciousness seemed a bit unjust. If you like something, you add it to your playlist. I played maybe like 20 percent of the same songs week to week.
Just kind of trying to slip it into the unconscious?
Some of the songs I played just got such a reaction. It’s like, ‘Wow everyone is calling up and asking who this is.’ And it’s a total hit song.
Definitely Dawn Penn, “No No No.” Whenever I played that song, the phone lines would always light up. Always. Definitely “Cherokee Dance” by Bob "Froggy" Landers with Willie Joe and his Unitar. Every time I play that, phone lines light up. Definitely “Boo Boo Song” by King Coleman. That’s a song people hear and they always freak out. Definitely, as far as punk stuff, “Nobody Can Tell Us” by Pack, a ’70s German band. So many songs.
I really feel that a lot of what I play are kind of like bona fide hit songs. Yeah, they might not be hit Top 40 songs, but now with the world being what it is, and people’s tastes being so varied because they’re exposed to so many different things… I still believe it’s not unthinkable to think that music can still make the world a better place. Make people happy, make people react, and inspire people to make either their own noise or expand their palette of what they’re already used to hearing.
Do you have any upcoming plans for Hot Snakes?
Yes, we’ll be announcing some West Coast dates on Friday [on Feb. 3].
Have you guys been writing any new material or anything?
No, we have not. But I will say that learning the old songs has been like learning new songs. [laughs]
Why did you guys decide to get the band back together?
Basically, it’s just as simple as some friends of Rick [Froberg, guitarist/vocalist in Obits and Hot Snakes], this band Les Savy Fav, were kind of curating a festival that was taking place over in England [note: he’s referring to All Tomorrow’s Parties Nightmare Before Xmas in Minehead]. The festival’s based around having a band headline and then that band curates the event and picks the rest of the music. And so they asked Rick if we wanted to get back together and play. I guess part of it was just that we were kind of flattered that some people wanted to “curate” us. [laughs] We weren’t playing a show—we were being curated!
It ended up being a lot of fun, revisiting these songs. I mean, it wasn’t that long ago, but in some respects it does seem quite a bit longer than it was, because we’ve all kind of done a lot since then, either with changes with our families or playing in new bands or, you know, just being in different places in our lives now. It does seem a bit like a different era. But it’s good, it’s fun. And, you know, there isn’t any revisionism. It just kind of focused [on] what the band was about, the sound that we have.
Does it feel any different playing these songs now than it felt back in the day, in the early ’00s?
I’ll tell you what does feel different. They seem a lot easier to play now than they did back then. Perhaps just because all the time being in the band and playing so many times over and over again, perhaps it’s some muscle-memory. Or maybe it’s just that singing and playing guitar in The Night Marchers is a bit more difficult. It’s purely just playing guitar. Obits and Night Marchers did a short little West Coast tour together and at the end of the San Diego show, Rick got up and we played three songs off the first Hot Snakes record together. It was kind of a cool thing to do. Perhaps that planted the seed. But I think I was very surprised. ‘These songs, they used to seem so difficult to play...’ Now, I find them to be just easier. I think I sweat more now than I did then, but that could just be like a old man thing.
How do you feel about the San Diego music scene these days?
I mean, you would know more than me. If anything, it seems better than ever. It seems like there are more places to play than there ever was when I was starting to play in bands. There used to be one place, and then there was two, and then, for the longest time, there was three and only three, and then there was four. And now, there’s like 10 places in North Park alone you can play. So, there are a lot of opportunities to play and places to make noise and tons of people playing that you can play with.
I don’t know if there is a San Diego sound, per se, like there used to be. But that was back when there was 15-20 bands and now there are hundreds.
My only regret is not being able to get out enough and check shit out. Maybe now that I have Saturdays free, you might see me out a lot more. Probably not, though. [laughs]
Interview conducted and edited by Peter Holslin. Transcribed by Andrew Scoggins and Peter Holslin.