The Daily Heavy: A conversation with Oh Sees' John Dwyer
In 1997, from the steep hills in San Francisco, a force was rumbling. A sound not to be reckoned with. It was the birth of the now Oh Sees, fronted by powerhouse John Dwyer, one of the most respected figures in garage rock. Dwyer, who had been playing in Coachwhips, Pink and Brown and The Hospitals before, created the new project originally as an outlet for his experimental home recording. Flash forward to 2019 and Oh Sees are quite possibly the greatest live band in existence. Actually, fuck that, they are the greatest live band in existence. My friend found out that I hadn’t seen Oh Sees live till just over a year ago, to which he responded, “Dude, I honestly live to see Oh Sees live.”
Oh Sees currently have twenty-two LPs under various names all closely based around “Thee Oh Sees”, though by the time you’re reading this they’ve probably dropped yet another face melting full length. From floor shows in tiny rooms (which they some time still play), to recently playing a sold out Troxy theatre in London, Oh Sees simply have not stopped since their formation, and I’m hoping they won’t stop till they’ve dropped at least another twenty-two records.
Back in Los Angeles, now where Dwyer resides, we caught up with the man who created it all on what must have been one of his very few off days.
Hello John. How did you take your coffee this morning?
I had PG tips tea. I can’t drink coffee in the morning, unless I’m needing to be all hands on deck and insufferable to others.
Can you tell us about the last dream you remember having?
I’ve been having some stress dreams where I’m hanging out with people i don’t really hang out with in our reality and doing inane things slowly and poorly. But as of late, hardly any dreams, just cold dark sleep.
Oh Sees have a lot of titles to their name now. Though it’s easy to hear that each record is unique and different to the last, do you ever worry about how releasing so much might affect the integrity of your releases?
Not at all. If people don’t like it, they don’t have to buy it or come to shows. There’s plenty of shit that is nothing like us for them so who cares? Thats one nice thing about over population, we have no shortage of people or opinions.
Oh Sees always comes back to a pretty high paced, in-your-face sound. What is it about creating and playing such intense music that really gets you going?
That’s just what I was raised on. That’s what my mom played and if it was good enough for her in her hardcore band then dammit, its good enough for me!
Oh Sees have really paved the way for a lot of younger bands. People seem to be playing quicker and more ferociously than ever. Did you ever expect Oh Sees to become such a significant band in contemporary psych?
I’m not sure if that’s true, but i wouldn’t say we set out to be anything.
Outside of the city’s music scene, was there anything else in San Francisco that you found yourself being inspired by?
I haven’t lived in San Francisco for many years now but it is any easy city to love. It’s very small and beautiful and has a wonderful disparity between the haves and the have nots. Now that makes it extra charming… This is a joke…
Why the move to Los Angeles?
My girl moved here and I had finally been owner-move-in-evicted from four places and the last house had terrible neighbours in a neighbourhood I didn’t want to live in. Also the guy that had the lease was an asshole.
With your roots firmly set in DIY culture, I want to know what DIY means to you.
Nobody was banging down our door when we did noisy bands back in the day. You had to do it yourself to make anything happen. Cassettes and booking your own tours, making t-shirts, sleeping on floors. We were not popular enough to get paid.
What was the ethos around the creation of Castle Face Records?
That a label shouldn’t own your music, which is the shit precedent set by lots of labels. I own all my music and so does each band on Castle Face.
Do you remember the first show you saw and thought, “fuck yeah, this is it”?
It’s never happened. You can always do better.
Oh Sees has gone through multiple names, though all of them fairly similar to each other. Do you think this has helped with the creative flow of releasing records?
I have no idea, really. Everybody does ask that though, so I should probably look into it.
Your latest record, Face Stabber, is described as “a far flung nemesis of contemporary country and flaccid algorithmic pop-barf.” It sure is a contrast to what may be deemed as commercial or “popular” music these days. I want to know, if you turned on a mainstream radio station right now, what are the first thoughts that run through your head?
Why the fuck am I in this Uber and god, what is that smell?
Oh Sees has gone through a few various members, you’ve also collaborated with some incredible musicians. Do you think collaborating is good for musical growth?
Totally. Improvisation and collaboration is the only way to grow and it’s the calming balm for my life.
If Face Stabber was the soundtrack to a film, what film would it be?
Children of the Corn.
The last track on Face Stabber is a good 21 minutes long. Do you find yourself being lost in songwriting a lot, and is it something you find therapeutic? Is writing a similar feeling to what you get live? The live shows are just as ferocious, if not more than on record.
I love long songs and unthreading a riff. Anyone that disagrees probably spent that much time with a blank look on their face today staring at their phones with mouth ajar… It’s fun.
I’ve read an interview in which you said every now and then you enjoy going back to the basement/floor shows. After a sold out show at London’s Troxy, how does it feel going back to a 200 cap room?
Small shows are kind of the same, but the Troxy is an exception. The people are still close enough that it feels a bit homey, in a weird way. I love a small show, though.
For such a complex record, I’ve read that your recording set ups are often not so complex. Talk to us a bit about the details of how Face Stabber was recorded.
We do almost everything live in the same room, just these days vocals are usually scratched then we go in and do the stuff we don’t have enough hands for, like tambourine or horns.
I’d imagine your collection of records is fairly large now. Are you using any streaming apps also? How do you feel about the digital age of music consumption?
I pretty much just listen to LPs and digital stuff that I have downloaded. I’m not a fan of streaming myself as i find it unreliable. I will do it it if i have to, but i will be a bitch about it.
What’s spinning on John Dwyer’s turn table these days?
Right this second it’s “Prince - Originals”. Pretty fucking great.
Tell us, what’s next for Oh Sees?
More of the same and something different.
You can try keep up to date with Oh Sees via Castle Face Records, who you can find online here. No doubt Oh Sees will be in your town soon, and if you haven’t seen them then I implore you to stop everything you’re doing and grab a ticket now. I can really agree with my friend now, I live to see Oh Sees.
by Nathan McLaren-Stewart