Duct-Taped Times with Thee Oh Sees

The band's DIY ethos provides lots of street cred, and minimal paper returns.

A bottle of Jameson, a case of beer, a bottle of wine, and the typical fruits and veggies and hummus and shit.” So reads the list of backstage requirements for Thee Oh Sees, a group masterminded by madman San Francisco guitarist John Dwyer.

“I’m all about that and just a free meal somewhere. They seem to always want to give us towels and Gummi Bears, I don’t know why. It’s weird I haven’t stolen all these towels and gotten fat from eating all these Gummi Bears for the last fifteen years.”

Anyone looking for an uncompromising yet successful DIY band in 2010 need look no further than Thee Oh Sees, who grace The Uptown nightclub’s third anniversary on November 6. It doesn’t make much money, its needs are few and boozy, but over the next few months it will play All Tomorrow’s Parties in England, tour Australia, and play a boat cruise to The Bahamas with The Black Lips. It also will release its twelfth LP, and record its fifteenth EP while on “vacation” in Sacramento in February. And with the profits? Band members will probably just get their equipment fixed again.

“It’s the dream, apparently,” quips Dwyer, stepping out from the quartet’s rehearsal space in SOMA. Tall, thin, tatted and blond, Dwyer talks in a hail of rapidly fired syllables that can be as hard to keep up with as his prolific output. “I haven’t had a real job in a long time, but my overhead’s always been really low.”

Dwyer just moved from a rent-controlled apartment on the Haight to a flat with two housemates in the Mission. But in exchange for sporadic income and shady urban living, Dwyer is in a position to make experiments in intoxicating, psychedelic, garage-pop like this year’s exemplary LP Warm Slime – recorded live at the SOMA dance spot Club 6IX. Components included: Dwyer’s twelve-string Burns electric guitar, (a gift from TV On The Radio‘s Dave Sitek), space echo, tape echo, amplifier reverb turned up to “10” and an open bar for friends and recording staff.

The final product runs just over thirty minutes long, and title track “Warm Slime” gobbles fourteen minutes of it. “Slime” ventures from proto-punk to psychedelic dirge. It’s the band’s own “Inna Godda Da Vida.” On the flip side, “I Was Denied” crashes in at barely three and half minutes of tarnished gold, conjuring a drunken Phil Spector careening madly through traffic in Malibu, waving a gun and repeating the chorus ‘la-la-la LA LA‘. Recorded by Chris Woodhouse on an analog eight-track Tascamm 388, Warm Slime bleeds all over itself. It’s the antithesis to modern studio production, which tends to ground itself in pristine, isolated tracks. There is no clear distinction between live and recorded sound in Thee Oh Sees’ music: It’s all just alive.

Clearly, Dwyer has come a long way from drumming in Coachwhips in 2002, arguably his most notable sideman gig atop a long list that includes Pink & Brown and Burmese. He started what would become Thee Oh Sees as a one-man side project as early as 2003. Once tinged with folk, Dwyer’ got much louder over time, bringing in three mercenaries whom he now considers indispensable.

There’s crack basher Mike Shoun, as incongruently handsome as he is precise. Whenever Dwyer comes in late on a tricky syncopation, Shoun’s there to smile and shake his head. “I knew he was a great drummer,” Dwyer says. “But I didn’t think he’d dig it, so when he told me he dug it, I immediately grabbed him.”

Dwyer roped another veteran from the San Francisco scene, Petey Dammit on guitar, along with vocalist/keyboardist/cutey Brigid Dawson, who is Dwyer’s former Haight Street coffee shop barista. “I went and saw her play with another band and she was just fantastic so I swooped in on her.”

Dwyer said the band’s newfound heights stem simply from years of constant releases and touring, plus some new booking help from Jay Reatard‘s former tour manager.

“We’ve just been doing it for a long time. Hopefully, if you’re doing it the right way, kids that come to the shows will tell their friends and their friends will dig it and come out. It’s not like we’ve been getting these huge paydays or anything, but the shows have been getting better as we go.”

For example, Thee Oh Sees opened for The Flaming Lips at Oakland’s Fox Theater, then got on a 6 a.m. flight out to the Scion Garage Rock festival in Kansas, helmed by The Gories, The Oblivians, and The Raveonettes. “I’m kind of ignorant of popular bands, but I saw [The Flaming Lips] play Jimmy Kimmel one night and I was all stoned and I was like, ‘Oh my god’. And so we got the offer to play with them and I said, ‘Well, I can’t fucking say “No” to that. They have thirty-foot rubber nurses on-stage and fire and confetti and a giant rubber ball.’ I’m into that kind of shit, even though we don’t do it.”

Instead, the band will personally haul its own gear to the influential All Tomorrow’s Parties with Deerhoof in England this December, followed by the Australia tour, and then a highly depraved February cruise. “They all seem to be vacations, but when you’re playing every night it’s hard to actually rest,” Dwyer said. His idea of a vacation will be heading up to Sacramento in February 2011, and recording at The Hangar, again with Woodhouse.

Yet, did all that hustle reap any proceeds? “It’s not like we’re going out and buying an Escalade,” Dwyer insisted. Equipment needs constant fixing. Playing a show at Bimbo’s 365 Club in San Francisco before The Flaming Lips date, Dwyer’s pickup fell out of the back of his Burns twelve-string in the middle of a song. Dwyer had just paid to get it “fixed” that week.

“That night our shit was like, ‘I don’t know if I want to do this.’ It’s like it has it’s own temperamental personality.”

No matter, Dwyer rapidly unplugged and kneeled next to his amp while the band kept pounding away.

“Nobody panicked. You’ll notice I was very calm and collected in that moment. ‘Cus when shit like that happens you just have to think ‘OK, I have duct tape. Aaaaaaaaaaand “fixed”.'”

Thee Oh Sees: held together by duct tape, still sounding badass. It’s an apt way to describe their sound, their ethos, and perhaps the source of their newfound success, coming as it is in these duct-taped times.


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