Music Interview: ¡Oh, Si, It’s Them Oh Sees!

Dwyer’s Evolving Rock Ritual

August March
7 min read
ÁOh, Si, ItÕs Them Oh Sees!
John Dwyer of Oh Sees (Mini Van Photography)
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If I tell you I dig John Dwyer’s 20-year trip as founder and high priest of a San Francisco psych-rock project variously called Orinoka Crash Suite, OCS, Thee Oh Sees—and lately just Oh Sees, or maybe back to OCS, as reported by Consequence of Sound on the Monday morning I transcribed this interview—maybe you will have some vague idea of the intricate layers of contradiction and rapidly blooming sonic proclamations that serve as part of his band’s zooming-in-every-direction-at-once aesthetic.

Or maybe not.

You might develop a better understanding on all things Dwyer by listening to this singular sound sensation on your own time, not while I’m trying to force punk-rock-addled propaganda upon unsuspecting audiences through the medium of print. In any case, start out with
Songs About Death & Dying Vol. 3 (where the spooky, rattling, lo-fi opener “If I Had a Reason” sets the spare, yet dreamlike tone of the recording) and continue with the 2006 release The Cool Death of Island Raiders (take your pick here, but I recommend closer “You Oughta Go Home” for its scary, yet somehow twee atmospherics). If you want to rock the fuck out, then how about the all-smashed-up glory of 2008’s The Master’s Bedroom Is Worth Spending a Night In? Each record that followed continued to breach time and space with casual aplomb.

There’s a new album too, called
ORC, wherein new levels of complexity and contradiction are explored; the addition of a string section is sometimes like the addition of a parallel dimension. And of course, for Dwyer, part of the creative process involves performance; a US tour with a stop in Dirt City is in the works.

Ahead of his appearance as something multi-limbed, multifaceted and multi-named—at
Sister (407 Central NW) on Saturday, Sept. 2—John Dwyer chatted with Weekly Alibi. Here’s a transcript of that temporally transformative talk.

Weekly Alibi: What are Oh Sees?

John Dwyer: Dude, it’s a band. And it’s our 20th anniversary; we’ve been through several different incarnations of the band. Right now we’re doing a double drummer, bass guitar, synthesizer outfit, it’s a punk-psych act. We’re pretty aggressive live. We got labeled as garage-rock initially. I think we’ve transcended that.

Yeah, I hear that “garage rock” term thrown around a lot. When I listen to your work though, I hear this heavy, scary psych-rock that evolves toward being esoteric, with proggy and hard rock inflections just blooming up all over the place. On the new record, references from opposing musical spaces and from divergent genres seem to flow together intricately … How did that happen?

You put it better than I ever could have. Basically, musically I’m pretty nerdy at heart, and I love a lot of stuff like that—Italian prog-rock, English prog-rock, English heavy metal invasion shit from the ‘80s—but also fantasy rock stuff. A few years of buying records and you start getting deeper and deeper into what you like. I’m always inspired by older stuff, especially early psych and European prog-rock. Having two drummers allows us to venture into that territory much easier because we can start doing polyrhythms. I sort of push myself to see if we can even scratch the surface of that kind of playing. We’ve starting to infuse jazz [into our performances], getting into fusion too.

What are some of those European prog-rock bands you speak of?

I was thinking of bands like Le Orme, they’ve had a huge influence on me. To me they sound like a prog-rock version of The Zombies. This guy has a real panty-melter voice, but they’ve also got string sections, very wide acoustic and instrumental capabilities. You should check out “Picture of Dawn,” that’s pretty banging. I’ve also really been getting into the Brain Records catalogue. As you know that’s an amazing place for German prog-rock and Krautrock. Almost everything on that label’s fantastic.

Given all these diverse influences, was there a lot of sharing of information and collaboration on the new record?

These days, I’m playing a lot more with the band, and that’s more collaborative. We improvise and practice for about two months, just jamming, and I’ll record everything, and we’ll go through it and mark the points that are interesting and expand on those. Sometimes those moments become songs. Other material comes from songs that I’ve already written, it’s good to have solidly written songs going into the studio. This one was pretty back and forth. Everybody worked together. We had players come in that we never had before, like violin players from the El Paso Philharmonic. The place we recorded at was really cool too.

Does the new recording translate well to live performance?

Yeah. Right now we’re doing three of the songs from the new album, there’s a forth in the works. Some of the new work is rather complicated, in-studio complicated … over the years I’ve learned my lesson. I can tell which songs will work well live without the audience staring at you blankly. We tend to keep it more up-momentum, songs that have a pop element, for the shows.

Rock and roll: dead or alive?

Times have changed. I grew up in the era of disco when rock and roll was on the outs. I think rock is a format that has some staying power, though. It has an extensive history. I’ve always leaned toward guitar, bass and drums. I dig electronic music too, but not standard, canned rave music. I just happen to be best at this, at rock and roll. It’s what I’ve chosen to do. I feel like we do okay, but I see that festivals are veering away from rock, turning mostly, in my opinion, to homogenized electro-pop music, really big acts that float on the surface of things, you know what I mean? I’ve danced to every kind of music; I’ve tasted everything I could, but rock is the format I do the best. I find for me, personally, electronic music is more of a solo venture; rock and roll and improvisation are things you can share with band mates.

How’s the tour prep going?

I’m in LA right now making 500 tie-dyed t-shirts in my backyard as we speak. We play our first show on the 31st. I’m getting the van ready. I love driving across the country, man. I’ve done the states so many times now, it’s definitely part of the ceremony, our tour ceremony. Right now, I’m sorta taking it easy, not trying to drink too much, getting my health up to snuff, trying to eat right, getting my body prepared for the road. When you do shows every night, it can be ass-kicking.

How does Albuquerque fit into all of that?

I love New Mexico. We love playing in Albuquerque because of the awesome shows, but beyond that, the main reason we always stop in Albuquerque is because of the Frontier Restaurant. It’s, like, all stoned high school kids and beautiful old-timers, it runs the gamut of everyone in Albuquerque. Plus you can get green chile stew with a honey-dipped tortilla. Now that’s rock and roll.

John Dwyer of Oh Sees

Mini Van Photography

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