All In: An Interview with Reed Bruemmer of Speedwolf and Poison Rites
When I moved to Denver last year, I expected to be up to my armpits in Speedwolf. They were the band I always associated with the city; Hell, they had a song called “Denver 666” with the lyrics, “Coors I drink/Broncos I love.” And anyway, 2011’s Ride With Death was one of the coolest albums I owned, the kind of record that I wanted to tell everyone about. But when I got to Denver and asked around, the general consensus was that Speedwolf was over. People seemed to think there was trouble in the band–fights between members, personal drama, problems with the law. I’d shown up about two years too late.
As I went about my life, I kept discovering the work of Speedwolf frontman Reed Bruemmer. One afternoon, I saw Reed’s creepy and frenetic art displayed at metal taproom Trve Brewing; it was so cool that I reached out and commissioned an original piece from him for an event I put on (the art was amazing, the event underattended). Later on, I began seeing shirts around that were created by Bruemmer–pot leaf shirts with phrases like ‘Stop Moving To Colorado’ printed over them, seemingly raging at Denver’s ongoing gentrification; and a Lemmy tribute shirt featuring young Kilmister in all his feral glory, complete with German medals on his lapels and a swastika dangling from his neck. When I put in a shirt order, I received a CD with it of Bruemmer’s new band, Poison Rites, a fast-and-loose garage rock band full of high-octane energy and kickass riffs. Between the art, the shirts, and the music, I decided that I needed to know what was going on with Bruemmer.
Below is our conversation, in which Bruemmer talks Speedwolf, Poison Rites, shirt design, rock and roll, and Lemmy. Poison Rites will play the Larimer Lounge tonight in support of Birdcloud. Go here for info and tickets.
What’s going on with Speedwolf?
Have you heard a lot of rumors?
Well, when I moved out here, Speedwolf was the Denver band, but it seems like you guys aren’t doing much lately.
Right. I thought pretty hard about how I wanted to answer this, because there’re a lot of personal issues, when bands break up, that aren’t for everyone to know. But so, we were doing really well. In 2013, we did Chaos En Tejas and MDF in the same tour. And for me, that was the height of my music career. The biggest punk fest and the biggest metal fest in the country in one trek—we were on cloud nine. People were loving it, too. Europe next year? Cool. But we came back and reality kind of hit. One of our members had some really tough times—death, a break-up, and the law coming down. So he was on probation, and that kept him from a lot of things. But it was also that his headspace was wrong. He was really depressed. ‘No’ was the only thing we heard from him a lot. We had to cancel about five tours—and I’m not talking shit down the street. Japan, Europe, South America. Once-in-a-lifetime shit, the reason we started a band. And, uh… basically, all that happened, and we all got discouraged. We tried to look for a replacement, and it just got weird. The other three guys in Speedwolf grew up together. They knew each other from when they were kids. So I’d be the outsider guy saying, Hey, what about this? And they’d say, You don’t understand. That’s the only excuse. Personal problems crept up on all of us, and it kind of separated us. I had a really shitty 2015. I had a health scare and a prison scare. It was pretty gnarly. All that hit at the same time. Really disappointed me, because we did all this cool shit together, just playing in a band that sounded like Motörhead, and now we can’t even talk to each other. So that’s what it is. We never really broke up, and we don’t hate each other. But I figured rather than sitting around feeling sorry about it, I’d start another band.
In your estimation—you can’t put a percentage on it, but is there a chance of Speedwolf getting back together, or is that distancing as time goes on?
It’s difficult to say. I mean, I’ve seen members of the band, and they’ve blurted shit out drunk at a bar and stuff, but that’s about as far as it’s gotten.
How far into that did Poison Rites come together?
So, Speedwolf was stagnant for, like…a year and a half, two years, I feel like? We had our European tour at the end of 2013, and that was the last thing we did. And I started Poison Rites in May of last year. We’ve been jamming about nine months.
Were you specifically trying to go in a garage rock direction, away from the metallic sound of Speedwolf?
It wasn’t really like I was getting away from anything. I just wanted to try something new. It was music that I always knew growing up, and listened to as a kid. There would be Speedwolf interviews where people would ask about my favorite singer, and I’d say, “Eric from the New Bomb Turks. Well, that and Iggy Pop. Those dudes rule!” I’ve always loved that stuff, so it’s a new approach. I met some other guys who I’ve known forever from other bands, and we all agreed on the same thing. We thought, ‘Yeah, let’s do this.’ And I’m playing guitar too, which is different.
You’re doing guitar and vocals on it? There’s a very different vocal sound on Poison than there is on Speedwolf.
I was telling those guys—I guess I have a deep voice naturally, and it’s easy to sing loud when you play fast. But I told them, it’s so nice not to have my Adam’s apple escaping my body as I’m singing. ‘Cause I can do that fine forever, but I wanted to stop straining as much.
Speedwolf was never a metal metal band. Did you ever feel you guys got pushed into the metal category?
Well, not to just reference Motörhead, but it’s like how Motörhead always got pushed into that category. They were these big dudes and their fans all had long hair, but Lemmy was always like, ‘We’re rock and roll.’ We all loved that stuff growing up—punk, heavy metal, rock and roll—and we wanted to make music where we could play any show with any band. That’s something that’s important to me, because I grew up listening to different kinds of music. I like bands that can ride in the middle, a little… then again, I also love bands who are like, ‘We’re 100% black metal!’
I always liked that Speedwolf got to the heart of metal. It was like a reduction, you know? You cooked it down.
When you’re a kid, and I’m sure you went through this, you would find a record and think, ‘Cool, this looks rebellious, this looks gnarly and shocking.’ And as you get older, you mature, and then you go further back and find the roots of it all. You buy a G.G. Allen record, and you think, ‘Cool, now what inspired this? What inspired this anti-rock and roll movement?’ And if you go further back, you find the root of it all, and people enjoy that the most. In every rock and roll song, there’s a bit of Chuck Berry, and he’s the fucking man! He made every girl dance, and wrote riffs that still make people move.
What’s the plan with Poison Rites? Have you sent out stuff to labels?
We’ve only played three shows, but we’ve been jamming for a while. I’m not the type of person who can do anything half-assed. I have to put my whole heart into it. So we took our time before we played out. Even then, I’d be saying, ‘We’re still not good enough.’ I’m really hard on us. But that being said, we’re playing SXSW this year. I called up a lot of old friends of mine, and said, ‘I played in Speedwolf, and I have a new band.’ And they just said, ‘Cool!’ That name…it’s corny, but it works, thanks to how hard we worked at building Speedwolf. I always think it’s funny, when you like a band and they break up, and you follow where the members go, and the one guy shows his ego by being like, ‘This is where I always wanted to be!’ Talking shit about his old band. We wanted to put out a couple of 45 singles, but all the record pressing plants in American are backed up five or six months. I’m passionate about it, but I’m not trying to reject anything I did. It’s more, ‘If you like that style of music, this sounds as timeless as the other shit does.’
I love that Poison Rites still keeps that sleazy classic aesthetic, with all the ‘60s and ‘70s pulp artwork.
It’s funny, before you got here I was using Photoshop, coming up with new flyers. So much a part of a new band these days is your aesthetic. We’re not so much selling an image to people, but people identify whatever you present to them. With Speedwolf, people would tell me, ‘You’re really good at branding!’ I’d say, ‘…branding?’ I never thought about that shit. We just liked old metal bands, and they always had this classic black-and-white thing going on. Same with Poison Rites. I was going through old punk records, and thinking, ‘Yeah, all this lack of color, some shitty drawing of a skull—let’s do that!’ So I think about how many people identify with that image and that sound. I want these to sound like your favorite records.
I love bands like that, like Motörhead or Celtic Frost, who have an aesthetic. These days, I think bands are worried having an image means you’re image-conscious.
Absolutely. It’s the full package. As a fan, buying those records and opening them up, I thought, ‘These dudes look like fucking maniacs. This is awesome!’ I think people, and especially younger generations of kids who are into death metal, can download specific genres and become experts on the topic. Things are so accessible now, it’s funny to see how the lines are drawn between musical styles and identities.
There was a twisted kind of nostalgia to pulling out that Poison Rites demo CD. No promotional link! No stream!
Dude, I burned those CDs because I’m still in that mindset of how you used to do things, which isn’t that long ago. Here’s a sign of the times: the second show we played at the Hi-Dive, I walked around passing them out. And people were saying, ‘I don’t even have a CD drive.’ Like, what year is it? Did I miss the boat on this? It’s like, ‘I thought you guys were music fans!’ I got, ‘If it’s not on my iPhone, I don’t listen to it.’ If you’re a music person, you have to be dedicated to any format you can, you know? And not cut yourself off from anything. The people cramming their phones full of free music are the same ones complaining about paying five dollars to see a band. They don’t want to have that participation. To be a part of anything is a sacrifice. It’s like any relationship. It’s not gonna be cheap, it’s not always going to be fun, and it’s definitely not going to be free. But what’s funny is that I used an iPhone to record it! Ha! Thank you, technology!
You’ve gotten a lot of attention for the shirts you’ve printed—the ones against moving to Colorado, the Lemmy one. Is that something you’re doing full time?
It’s something I was doing on the side for extra cash. Better than selling drugs. In Speedwolf, all that merch and stuff, that was my doing. So I got really used to going to the post office every day. They all know me by name. I still send out a little button or sticker or two, still to this day. So I had a knack for doing that, and I was already giving myself time to do it. So I do it for a little extra cash (emphasis on little). The Lemmy shirts are for [the Ronnie James Dio Stand Up And Shout! Cancer Fund], and I’ve been pursuing more charitable work of late. I’ve had people ask me if I’d be interested in graphic design or starting my own clothing or webstore. Maybe. But no master plan.
When you put out the weed shirts, I saw articles written about it. So many people were amazed you were questioning the gentrification of Denver and all that.
Good, it got people talking! Westword wrote an article about me, and they called me a “T-shirt genius!” I always liked art, and I always liked being a smartass. When they wrote that article about me—man, you should’ve heard this chick on the phone. She was trying to boost my ego. She was like, “I just think what you’re doing is so incredible, a critique on Denver. Can you send us a photo of you wearing a shirt?” I was like, “Oh, I’ll send you a photo all right!” It’s me in a weed farm with a cowboy hat on and a Satanic flag! They didn’t know what to think. Art isn’t always to shock people, or ruffle feathers, but to get people thinking differently.
Was there a desire to just keep Poison Rites local? Keep it a Denver band?
I mean, no one really should start playing music and expect to gain any instant fame. Favorite compliments, favorite things I’ve heard about the music are old friends saying, ‘You’re doing it right.’ They’re like, ‘Aw, I listen to Turbonegro and Hellacopters, and it’s like that.’ I think, ‘Yes!’ As far as keeping it small and working from the ground up… I’m all in. I’m all in with music. I was all in with Speedwolf. It stopped, and I didn’t know what to fuckin’ do with myself. Probably the most depressed I’ve ever been in my life. Maybe with those guys it was too. It’s like, all right, I’ve built everything in my life to play in a band—why would I stop?
I’m that way, too. You gotta put your guts into it.
Yeah, man. All the people I looked up to growing up, who were making music or riding Harleys or riding skateboards, they were dedicating their lives to it. Like Lemmy. I put this thing out when he died. I’m not a big Facebook dude, but I put up this long explanation. I decided to tell some people something about Motörhead they might not know, in honor of his death. Lemmy started Motörhead when he was thirty years old—a lot of people don’t know that. He’d already been in a lot of bands. And Motörhead broke up about ten years later. Motörhead started in 1975, and they broke up in, like, late ’84, early ’85. Phil Taylor had left the band. “Fast” Eddie Clark had left the band. It was all for stupid reasons. They’d put out four classic records, Overkill, Bomber, Iron Fist, and Ace of Spades. So, Lemmy was forty years old, and all he’d ever done was play rock and roll. He was living in squats. And instead of rolling over, and dying, and getting a real job, he got two new guitarists, and a new drummer, and put together a four-piece Motörhead who put out four killer records from ’85 to ’90. And I wrote that story on Facebook, saying, remember him for that. Not because he drank every day, and did a lot of drugs, and wore swastikas. He was so dedicated to rock and roll, and we don’t have people that dedicated these days, who are dedicated to anything like he was. Who show that much determination and perseverance. It was really inspiring. I thought really hard about that. I’m miles away from making the mark that guy did. But I signed up.