Thee Oh Sees
Doing It Again
by Michael P. O’Shaughnessy

San Francisco’s Thee Oh Sees have built a formidible body of work in a relatively short amount of time. There’s a handful of 7-inches, a few long players, a DVD, collections of demos and hard to find singles, and plenty more stuff on the way. Their mix of amped-up modern garage hooks with hypnotic guy-and-girl vocal harmonies is some of the most consistently exciting music coming from the left coast as of late. The band tours plenty, and I talked with main man John Dwyer as he was just getting back to San Francisco after a short jaunt to New York for a few dates.

Let’s get this out of the way, Thee Oh Sees is the latest in a long line of bands you’ve been in. You want to lay them out for me?

John Dwyer: I don’t know if I could do that off the top of my head. Let’s see, since I’ve been in San Francisco... first was Pink and Brown, then I was in a band called Burmese, playing drums. Next was probably Coachwhips, at least a couple different versions. Then Yikes, then Hospitals, than a band called Revenge, a band called Sword and Sandals, a band called the Drums, OCS, Thee Oh Sees... that might be it, maybe.

Seems like everything you’re doing right now is with Thee Oh Sees?

JD: Once I’m done with something, I’m done with it. But I’m in a band called the Drums with a guy that was in a band called Easy Tiger, and we’re getting ready to record. But everything I’m doing outside of Thee Oh Sees is just for fun. I like playing drums, it’s fun, and of course, there’s like 20 other bands called the Drums.

Yeah, there’s an Ohio band called Drummer.

JD: I like that guy that plays in the Black Keys, Pat, with his high-hat in the middle of his drum kit.

Do you think there’s a San Francisco scene right now, like a tight knit scene going on?

JD: Yeah, there’s always been something here, which has always been underreported on, which maybe is a good thing. Right now it’s a really good crop of people. It’s kind of one of those places that’s not like a college town, but is in flux. Since I’ve moved here, I’ve been stoked on the scene. People I know come together and share ideas and shift off between their own bands.

And you’re running a label, Castle Face, right now, right?

JD: Yeah, I’m doing that with this guy from LA, Brian Lee Hughes. Ty Segall’s on it. He’s a fucking little maniac now. He’s in Sic Alps now and he sits in with the Fresh & Onlys occasionally. The split 7-inch of us covering one of his songs and him covering one of ours is already gone.

How do you feel about limited edition stuff? Do you feel like it’s pointless to do small runs? Do you want to just keep repressing stuff?

JD: Honestly, it’s more of a financial thing really. It’s slowly getting to the point where we can keep stuff in press, or have less of a delay between pressings, but Brian can only afford to do 500 at a time, you know? We just repressed Thee Oh Sees’ Sucks Blood, which was maybe a year or more between pressings. It’s selling better now.

I like the idea of limited pressings sometimes, but it’s hard to tell young people at shows that they can’t get records from us because we don’t have any. We usually try to do a collection at least after the fact.

I’ve been having this debate about ubiquity, for kids 10 years down the line to be able to pick the record up. Does this take away from the specialness of the actual original piece?

JD: I think it’s cool when everyone can own a record, especially with vinyl. But, I work with a few dudes who do really limited pressings, like this guy in Austria that will hand press like 50. But we have an agreement that we can put it out again later with a bigger pressing after he’s done with his handmade run. I like the collectible vibe, but at the same time I wouldn’t want to only put out 50. I like doing compilations of singles and stuff that nobody can find anymore. If it’s going to be limited, it might as well be handmade, really special.

Like The Hounds of Foggy Notion, the one with the DVD?

JD: Yeah, there should be a second pressing that just came out. There’s a thousand CD versions that Tomlab from Germany put out, then this guy who works at Permanent Records put out 500 on vinyl.

The video looks great and the record sounds great. Is the sound just straight from the video?

JD: Yeah, the sound is just straight from the camera with one mic. When we recorded that live, we used a fancy shotgun mic that this dude was holding. Then I set up a four-track, which you can’t really see in the video, that’s behind everything. Each amp has a mic in the back of it, but the recording off the shotgun mic came out so much better than the four-track. We were going to try to mix everything together, but it was such a fucking hassle we just used the live stereo mic, and it sounds pretty good I think.

No, it sounds great, obviously record-worthy. Along with recording on the fly like that video, do you subscribe to the whole “lo-fi” buzz that the magazines are talking about around Psychedelic Horseshit or Times New Viking?

JD: I’m not, and I don’t think everyone is, too big on the whole “movement” vibe, because that tends to be real flash-in-the-pan type shit. I like all those bands, for sure—I’m not tripping on that. But the one thing that’s rad is—and everybody should know this anyway—is that you can record at home and you don’t have to go pay a fucking studio and you can do anything you want. The means are out there. I mean, we don’t have any money, you know? A girlfriend like 15 years ago bought me a four-track off a junkie and that’s how I started recording. I never had any aspiration to go into a studio, and the three or four times I’ve had a chance to go into a studio is if I knew someone and they were like, “Hey, lemme record you.” I’d be like, “Well, I don’t have any money,” and they’d say, “Oh, that’s cool.” It’s always fun, and it’s fun to fuck around with big tape machines and effects and stuff. I don’t think anyone lately is like, “I want to record at home as a statement!” I like a live sound, a raw vibe recording. I think a lot of bands are just doing that because that’s how they wrote the songs.

So, there’s no statement?

JD: No. I mean, it’s like the whole leather-plus-feather hippie folk vibe that everybody’s getting sick of or some hipster bullshit that you’re going to get sick of. It’s bad to chain yourself to anything. There’s nothing wrong with it. I’ve just been doing it this way, and I think a lot of bands have. Getting stoned with the people you like and recording with what you have at your house, then you have this thing and you’re proud of it like, “We made this from start to finish.” There’s something to be said for that, for sure.

So do you just write everything at home on your own, or is it a jam thing?

JD: Well, I just got an eight-track reel-to-reel at home, so I’ve been fucking around with that. I’m able to demo out stuff really seriously, and I bring a CDR copy to the band to listen to, then they rearrange their part or rewrite another part. We end up with two versions of every song. It’s really great—it’s like a whole different experience.

Like the Zork’s Tape Bruise record that just came out?

JD: Yeah, those are all the demos from Help and Master’s Bedroom and a bunch of shit that the band wasn’t equipped to pull off with the existing vibe or whatever—like with flute and stuff.

When you guys played in Columbus last time, it was a rock show—loud and noisy. But the Foggy Notion record, it’s quiet. And looking through some pictures on the internet, I see you guys playing in an art gallery with little kids around, or a kitchen, or someone’s living room. In the video, you guys are playing on the side of the freeway. Do you shoot to be able to morph into a room?

JD: Yeah, I mean, a lot of times we tour with our own PA, and if the sound guy is on the level, we can just do what we do as if we were in our kitchen. A lot of times people will shout out this or that acoustic song, but I don’t know how to play that song anymore. Although I’m kind of hoping, in the ideal situation and not burning out the band, we’d be able to learn two sets and be able to do a mellower set. But we can’t really because we haven’t had time to practice all those songs.

So, what’s next?

JD: I rented a hip-hop club in San Francisco, and I brought Chris Woodhouse up from Sacremento. We’re going to record our new record there. We’re going to use my (eight-track) machine. It’s just a big, nice sounding room, and we’re going to play all our songs live and record it. Mike Donovan from Sic Alps is going to sit in on it. We’re going to have a full bar, and just try to record the album straight in a few hours. That’ll be released on In The Red, and I have a few singles coming out. Just trying to stay busy, I’ve been writing a lot of songs lately, just trying to keep up with that.

A lot of songs? You already have a lot of songs!

JD: I know, it’s kind of stupid, and I apologize if people are getting fatigued. It’s really the only thing I know how to do at this point, besides ride a bike and eat food.