Myths have a tendency to orbit Drive Like Jehu. With only one album widely available, what evidence we can dig up of the San Diego quartet's greatness is scarce, so we use big stories to fill in the gaps. And there are plenty of gaps with Drive Like Jehu.
What we know for sure: In 1991, guitarist John "Speedo" Reis, vocalist-guitarist Rick Froberg, bassist Mike Kennedy and drummer Mark Trombino put out their self-titled debut on the now-defunct Cargo label, and a year later released a two-song single through Merge before signing to Interscope, gathering acclaim with 1994's Yank Crime. It's a heedlessly carnal LP, rapt with jarring shifts and meticulous riffs that writhe in and out of one another like sinewy bodies in a Bosch painting. It was a heralded success, but somehow tonally apart from its East Coast ilk.
Then, less than a year after Yank Crime's release, Drive Like Jehu simply stopped.
Reis left to focus on his other beloved SoCal outfit, Rocket From the Crypt, until he returned to the side of high-school friend Froberg to found Hot Snakes in 1999. Trombino, who engineered Jehu's first album, went on to produce records for the kinds of bands he undoubtedly influenced, like Blink-182 and Jimmy Eat World, while Kennedy became a chemist.
A lifetime later, in 2014, the members of Drive Like Jehu reunited in San Diego as simply as they dissolved, this time accompanied by organist Carol Williams, perhaps spurred on by Rocket From the Crypt's resurgence, or maybe just curious to see what would happen with an organ. Who knows?
No one really does, and the band predictably plays it coy. The music of Drive Like Jehu, what we have, is ecstatically good, but it's the iconic anecdotes that surround the band that make it great. Like how Reis apparently persuaded a newly minted Interscope Records to sign both of his bands, retaining unheard-of artistic control. Then there's the cultlike adulation for Yank Crime, which was not only revered by the likes of Modest Mouse and At the Drive-In, but established a West Coast hub for the innovative post-hardcore sound most folks assign to Washington, D.C., and the Dischord label. It could even be conjectured that Drive Like Jehu bridged post-punk and emo, branding their guitar-based ferocity with an uncompromising intellectualism and monolithic lyrics.
The truth, of course, isn't so epoch-shaking. In the early '90s, Interscope had money to risk on burgeoning scenes, and Reis and Froberg's cadre best represented the commercial refinement of a notoriously violent but increasingly popular San Diego sound. But if there's any myth still to be made of Drive Like Jehu, it's that their music—the kind of smart, brash rock that isn't made anymore without the weight of decades of progressive post-punk pulling down its pedigree—is as fabulously refreshing today as ever.
Three Essential Drive Like Jehu Songs
"Here Come the Rome Plows"
The opening track to Yank Crime is a microcosm of the album—of the band, even—as premature, precoital explosion. From its bone-chipped beginnings, pieces of speaker wire and gobs of spit flaking violently from a riff simultaneously sinister and playful, down to Froberg's unceasing apoplexy, this is the kind of song no band would ever dream of flopping up front. That it keeps going and going, with such unflagging energy, is a sign that everything to come (pun intended?) will be just as physical.
A sprawling 9½ minutes of electric shards, nihilistic feedback and soaring tangents, "Luau" is a bipolar free-for-all anchored, as many of Drive Like Jehu's songs are, to the weird word of its title. Repeated so often and so maniacally that it loses all meaning, the chorus—which Froberg shares with Pinback's Rob Crow—transforms the word into a koan whose paradox is only that its two vowel sounds shouldn't work so incestuously close to each other, but somehow do. Such is the magic of this band: Try not to sing along.
"Hand Over Fist"
Originally released through Merge in 1992 as a B-side to "Bullet Train to Vegas," "Hand Over Fist" represents a slightly more melodic bent to the band, one more concerned with traditional pop structures and less given to sonic diatribes. Froberg's abrasive vocals still punch holes through every available weak point, like he's playing chicken with a load-bearing wall in a poorly constructed condo. But "Hand Over Fist" bears witness to both where the band came from and, had they not suddenly screeched to a halt, where they could've gone—and now, maybe still can.
Drive Like Jehu plays Sunday at 5:55 pm.
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