Hot Snakes' first two records (2000's Automatic Midnight and 2002's Suicide Invoice) feature Jason Kourkounis on drums, but the band's third release, 2004's Audit in Progress, was recorded with drummer Mario Rubalcaba, who became a permanent member for the group's final two years. So, when singer/guitarist Rick Froberg, guitarist John Reis and bassist Gar Wood decided to reunite in 2011, they had a decision to make.
Luckily for fans, the threesome opted to include both Kourkounis and Rubalcaba, allowing each drummer to perform the material he recorded. Taking a quick break mid-set to change skinsmen might sound odd, but it's not. In fact, it's fucking awesome not only because audiences get to see both versions of Hot Snakes but because Kourkounis and Rubalcaba are phenomenal drummers who deserve to be heard.
Still, having two drummers isn't the norm, which is why I spoke to Rubalcaba and Kourkounis in regards to their band's upcoming show at Alex's Bar in Long Beach on Sept. 18 to find out what they plan on doing when the other guy is on stage.
OC Weekly (Ryan Ritchie): What do you do when the other guy is playing?
Mario Rubalcaba: Probably stretching. If I had the whole set to do, then I probably wouldn't do that because you have more time to warm up as you play. I have a shorter amount of songs –I think I play seven songs total — and the first three are total bangers, so you got to be in shape for those first three. I definitely have to be ready for it.
Jason Kourkounis: I usually watch and have a drink. It depends. There have been times when I hang out on stage, off stage, in the crowd. Sometimes I go in the dressing room because I'm too tired.
Mario, do you watch when Jason is playing? Do you look at the crowd? Or are you in your own little world?
Rubalcaba: A little bit of both. Sometimes I'm not too aware of where they're at in the set list, so I kind of peek out. It depends on the crowd, too. Sometimes I'll be at the side of the stage the whole time.
Is there ever a sense of, “Damn, I wish I was playing more?”
Rubalcaba: Not really in that kind of mentality. I mean, it would be fun to play any of the songs and I have before when I was the drummer after Jason, but at this point it's just all about fun. There's a really good vibe between Jason and myself, so it's cool. What I like about it is we have two totally different styles and I think some of the fans pick up on that.
Kourkounis: Of course, but there are far bigger problems to have. I don't want to sound like, “Aw, man. I don't want to stop.”
Do you know of other bands that have both drummers play but not at the same time?
Kourkounis: Most bands would be like, “Why would we split up the money five ways when we could do it with four?” Both Mario and I have always understood that if the other dudes are like, “This is lame — one or the other,” then we'd be fine. It's been a good thing. Everyone enjoys it so we're willing to make a sacrifice. And it's kind of cool for people who like the band. If you have any interest in drumming, it's cool because you see both drummers.
Describe your style compared to the other guy.
Rubalcaba: I don't ever really think about my style much, but I guess if I had to try to separate the two…the first two Hot Snakes records had more of a direct Wipers influence where it was a little bit more straightforward. I'm a total idiot drummer. I don't pay attention to 4/4 or any of that kind of shit, but it's more in the groove. I think when we did our record, it wasn't adhering to that thing. We were just kind of doing whatever songs came up. There is definitely a different songwriting approach on that record.
Kourkounis: When John and I started doing it, we went in with the idea of having everything as stripped down as possible — just a driving, down-stroke freak-out. No frills, nothing too flashy or anything. When I'm watching Mario play, he's going off on all these cool fills. To me, that's the biggest difference.
Mario, was Audit in Progress written with you in mind?
Rubalcaba: I'm not sure. John and I would jam by ourselves sometimes and come up with some of those beats and riffs. With my background playing in Clickitat Ikatowi, I think that aspect came into a little bit more on the drums. I don't think that was super conscious, but we welcomed it. Audit in Progress was the first Hot Snakes record written as a band with all four members practicing and writing in a room together. It's also the first record to really feature bass playing with Gar playing bass because before it was keyboards and stuff. The first two records were…Jason would come out and learn the songs and Rick would come out or do vocals whenever he could. It wasn't a group effort. That was probably why the record sounds so different than the others.
What are your thoughts on the records now?
Rubalcaba: I think it's a pretty good record. I'm proud of it. I think the recording stands up. I still like it. I'm glad it doesn't have '80s reverb on gated snares or all that kind of crap.
Kourkounis: Looking back, I never like what I recorded on the drumming end because I think I could have done something differently. Especially with Hot Snakes because the first time John and I played together we did 20 songs. I came back a couple weeks later and we ended up recording 24 songs. We got that first batch together in three or four days. Then we recorded the rest in (another) three or four days. So it was never anything like, “Let's record in and then revisit it.” We didn't over-think it. Or think it. We just did it. That said, those songs are so fucking great and I don't give a fuck about the drums. As long as the drums haven't ruined any of the songs…
Do you learn anything by having two drummers in the same band?
Rubalcaba: I pick up little things from him. Jason's a ninja warrior. He's super tight and very succinct in what we chooses to do and not do. It's really fun to watch and really fun to hang out with him because I don't think we're typical drummer types.
Kourkounis: Totally. There are some patterns I would play on the kick drum, but he plays on the floor tom. That kind of stuff. That's how I learned how to play drums — watching others. I never took any lessons. I just went to shows.
Are there any issues in sharing a drum kit?
Rubalcaba: It'd be one thing if he was playing a big china crash or a splash, but we have really similar set ups. What we use is really basic. He has things a little bit lower — I'm taller than him, so I raise the cymbals higher and that's about it. We want to make it as easy as possible so we can switch over as quick as possible and not disrupt the flow of the show.
Kourkounis: Not much. We try to find a pretty happy medium. There ends up being a little re-set for a couple of minutes, but nothing too major. I don't think it's been too awkward. It's mostly that his arms are like nine feet long and I'm a fucking midget. He'll set the cymbals up over my head and I can't reach them. When I set them down, they're like where his snare drum would be.
Mario, are you a fan of the stuff you don't play on?
Yeah. Definitely. I only got to see them once before I joined, but I saw the recording of Suicide Invoice. I'd seen Pitchfork play, so I'd seen all those bands come up. It was cool to see the Hot Snakes thing come out of nowhere.
When you got the call to reunite, did it strike you as odd that you'd be playing with two drummers?
Rubalcaba: At first, they didn't really know how that was going to get decided. It wasn't like, “Jason's going to do it and you're not” or “I'm going to do it and you're not.” I think I was on tour with Off! and I saw Jason. We were talking about the possibilities. I knew he really wanted to do it and deservedly so. Then we came up with, “Why don't we try this and see how it works?” I've been touring a lot, so we said we'd try it this way and if I can't make it, he can keep doing it. Or however it works out. As long as it's fun for everyone and people dig it — that's what we're going for.
Kourkounis: I don't think it was ever going to be more than a show, so I think Rick thought it would be cool to have both people – which I agree.
What about moving forward? Do you want to write new songs? If so, who would play what and what's holding it up?
Rubalcaba: Probably schedules. I would never turn down doing new songs with Hot Snakes. Rick tours with Obits, Jason lives in Philly, I've been touring with Off! and Earthless and Rocket has been doing stuff for the past year and a half or so. I'm sure you heard about the Drive Like Jehu show. There's a lot of activity going on with people. Two of us are dads as well. I've thought about it for awhile and I think it would be cool if it was like a 10-inch or a 7-inch split. He can do one or two songs and I can do one or two songs. I think that's kind of the coolest thing to do. But looking at my personal schedule for the upcoming year, it looks like he might just be doing it.
Kourkounis: I don't know. We've got a few days between Long Beach and the Riot Fest dates, which will be the first time we've had time together to maybe work on something. I would like to.
Mario, you play in four bands. How do you remember all those songs?
Oddly enough, that's the easiest part of this whole thing. It's more the muscle memory, like maybe my body's not used to doing these certain moves. Like, if you don't skate for a couple months, you're going to feel these parts of your body that you don't ever use letting you know you're hurting right now.