Head Coach - An Interview with John Dwyer
Assaulting crowds with dirty distortion and sweaty yelps has kept San Francisco artist John Dwyer very busy over the past decade. Since relocating from Providence in 1997, the man has been a mainstay in the Bay Area underground with a variety of demented acts like Pink and Brown, Zeigenbock Kopf, Hospitals, Coachwhips, Yikes, and Dig That Body Up It's Alive. But juggling rowdy rock groups can take its toll, and Dwyer finally seems to have found a comfortable niche to thrive in with his project Thee Ohsees. What was originally an outlet for his own home-recordings has now morphed into a full-on four piece, featuring Brigid Dawson (vocals), Petey Dammit (guitar), and Mike Shoun (drums). But just because Dwyer has slowly reduced the number of eggs in his basket doesn't mean his recorded output has suffered. Thee Ohsees just released Sucks Blood - their fifth overall record on Dwyer's recently conceived Castle Face imprint – and have another full-length in the works, scheduled for a split release with Tomlab sometime early next year. Several recordings of Dwyer's earlier incarnations have also recently seen the light of day, with Kill Shaman records issuing a Yikes EP, Whoa Comas/Blood Bomb, recorded before the band broke up, and Austria's Rock Is Hell releasing a limited-pressing of Dig That Body Up It's Alive's full-length, A Corpse is Forever, in silk-screened vinyl format, along with a very-limited edition Ohsees Grave Blockers EP packaged as a 6" lathe-cut disc and a 3" CD-R.
I was able to chat with Dwyer about the new Ohsees lineup, the San Francisco scene and settling down via a coast-to-coast phone call on a sunny October Saturday. It was 4:00pm in Chapel Hill, making it 1:00pm in San Francisco, and Dwyer was fighting off a hangover acquired from a rowdy night at a bar with no name and no sign. He had just celebrated his birthday two days before, received a phone call from his Mom, made an apple pie with friends and watched Weekend at Bernie's to celebrate. He would like to tell his Mom "Hi" and thank her for the call...
Cole Goins: Congrats on the new releases, I recently got the Yikes EP that Kill Shaman just put out …
John Dwyer: Yeah that was the last thing we recorded. I was planning on putting it out myself, but never had enough money to do it, and then those guys from Kill Shaman – I met them and they’re really nice and they made an offer. It worked out really well – they do nice Digipacks and everything.
CG: So Castle Face is your new record label?
JD: Yeah, that’s going to be my stuff from now on. We just put out the Sucks Blood Ohsees record on that and hopefully we’ll be putting out a DVD we shot last year doing a bunch of generator shows around San Francisco, so that’ll be coming out soon. And the new record, which we’ve been working on for way too long. We just did a recording session in New York with Dave Sitek – the guy who recorded the Cool Death of Island Raiders record a while back. And we're gonna be recording with Chris Woodhouse out here, who did a bunch of Hospitals and Coachwhips stuff. He’s a magician, so I’m really excited to finish the record with him. So basically, we’re going through three sets of recordings for the record, so there will actually be a variety of them, instead of just staying in one consistent sound. It’s gonna be called “The Master’s Bedroom Is Worth Spending a Night In."
CG: What direction are you taking the band’s sound in this time?
JD: It’s pretty rock. It’ll still have a couple slow pieces, like demo ideas and stuff, but mostly I think it’ll be the most rocking one so far.
CG: With more distortion? The other records are pretty slow-paced, psychedelic and have been on the mellow side…
JD: It’s still trying to maintain the psychedelic edge. We have a new drummer now, this guy Mike Shoun, he has more of a Keith Moon vibe that I’m digging – he’s in a band around here called Caesura. He’s a pretty fantastic drummer, but he definitely brought it up to a more party thing. But we still keep the harmonies going and all. Brigid [Dawson] is there 100%, helping me write the more melodic end of it. And it’s definitely more guitar-heavy now that I got another guitar player. I’m actually pretty stoked on it, so it’s more fun. People aren’t yawning… (laughs)
CG: Well, Sucks Blood is one of my favorite records of the year so far …
JD: I was pretty happy with how it turned out. That one was a little bit of a hassle – not really a hassle, but it took a lot of work to get the sound we were looking for. But Kelley Stolz definitely brought it out. There was a lot of home brew kinda stuff, and the new one’s still going to be a little bit like that. It’ll be a little bit clearer, but I’m trying to keep it from being too clean. That was the problem with the New York session we just did, it was so clean that it sounds weird to me, compared to how it sounds live, which isn’t that clean, so I’m trying to find a happy medium there.
CG: Well that’s something that definitely pops up in your recordings a lot, trying to add a lo-fi grit to things …
JD: Yeah, we’re smashing it to tape for this one too, probably. A lot of that is all about finishing the recording and then crushing it onto tape again, and trying to get that really compressed tape sound. I want this one to sound older though, if I can help it. I think Sucks Blood was going in that direction – that more proper sound. Lo-fi, but not too bedroom, I guess.
CG: In terms of lo-fi as an aesthetic, what kind of dimension does that add to the band’s sound, and why is that something that you try to pursue?
JD: I hate to say it, because it sounds cliché, but I just can’t stand digital recording. I’ve tried it and it just doesn’t lend itself to what I’m doing, or maybe even that I don’t understand it. Something magical happens when you’re working with your friends, not in a studio setting so much, you know? Or if you can rent out a studio and work with someone you’re close with. Like Chris Woodhouse for instance, who we’ve been working with – he has an 8-track half-inch machine, it’s real simple. And it’s not so much just lo-fi, but trying to capture it live. When we did the digital recording, there was a lot of overdubbing, and I’m just not used to it – it sounds obvious to me, you know? So I just want to be able to put it live on tape. And record quickly too. I feel like the more time that you spend on something, the more likely it is to veer away from what it was really sounding like when you wrote it.
CG: Have you recorded digitally recently, or have they all been analog?
JD: The last one we did was digital, in New York. But to remedy it, when I got home, because I wasn’t too happy with the way it sounded, we turned around immediately with the digital recording and put it back on an analog machine and turned it up a bit. But I don’t know how much of that we’re going to use. What’s gonna determine this record is how the Woodhouse session turns out, which is all definitely analog.
CG: Ohsees started out as your home-recording project, but now that the group has solidified, do you write songs together or do you still come up with the material yourself?
JD: A lot of the songs that we put on the records I’ve done home versions of and occasionally I’ll use the demo version on the record or an EP, but most of the time it’s still me writing something and then I’ll bring it to the group. But now instead of me writing all the parts, I come in with a general idea, and Petey [Dammit] is really good at coming up with his own end of it, and everyone writes their own stuff but it’s based on an idea that I come up with.
CG: What’s the difference in the recording and songwriting between Ohsees and a band like Yikes and your other various incarnations?
JD: A lot of the time it lends itself to who’s there and what recording machines are available. If I have to use a four-track because that’s the only option then that’s fine. With Yikes we did the first one with Eric Park, who was playing guitar, and he worked at a radio station in Berkley and we just went in there in the middle of the night, snuck in there because they had a big studio room and we brought his 8-track down there and recorded. We went all night and in the morning this woman came in that worked there and she was really pissed, it was funny. It was like a sneaky situation just trying to find a nice-sounding room to record in. And it’s totally irrelevant, because we ended up doing such a shitty recording anyway (laughs). And the new record that just came out, Whoa Comas/Blood Bomb, is just an 8-track machine that a friend of ours had and he came to our practice space and recorded it. Our practice space smells like total garbage so to give it more of a room sound we threw a microphone down near the bathroom in the hallway, so in between things you can hear people walk by the mic to go the bathroom (laughs). It’s all about convenience really, if we have any money, that’s cool, if not we usually have to just do it ourselves.
CG: Is Yikes still a functioning unit?
JD: Yikes is actually not playing anymore, we’re done. We broke up like a year ago - the new record that just came out was the last recording that we put together. In fact, a couple songs on that are now Ohsees songs that we renovated and made more vocal-oriented. At least one song on that Yikes EP is going to be on the new Ohseess record but it’s almost unrecognizably different. But yeah, Yikes was a band I was doing right after Coachwhips broke up and I just wanted to do something really noisy and fun. But everyone else in the band had other projects going on, and it was definitely taking a backseat, so it never really took off. Mike [Donovan] had his Sic Alps project, Eric had Fuckwolf, and I had the Ohsees, so it just seemed like it was distracting us more than anything else. It was good, but definitely having that band helped me bring the Ohsees more in a direction closer to that kind of stuff.
CG: So you’re focusing all your energy on the Ohsees now?
JD: Yeah, that’s pretty much the only thing I’m gonna be doing. I’m actually getting too old to have five bands these days, and I’m really happy with the lineup right now and the people I’m playing with. It’s possibly the easiest setup I’ve ever had, so I’m just gonna enjoy it while I have it and try to get as much done as we can and do a bit of touring. Basically we’re waiting for this record to come out before we hit the road again. The new record is gonna be a split between Castle Face and Tomlab records out of Germany so we can try to get over to Europe. I haven’t been over to Europe yet. I’ve been to the UK, Japan, Canada, and Mexico – I’ve played all these places but haven’t actually made it to Europe proper, so that’s exciting.
CG: Is there a release date scheduled for the new record, or is it still tentative?
JD: The only thing right now that we have loosely based is a touring thing that would be in March. We’re probably gonna do a West Coast trip and try to make it over to SXSW and play a few shows, and then hopefully the new record will be out. I’m not trying to get it out in the beginning of the New Year, I’m not gonna rush it, I want it to be really good.
CG: Have you been playing live shows lately?
JD: Yeah, we literally did seven shows last month. We just played with Daniel Johnston and Silver Apples, so it was an interesting couple months. They all went pretty well too, I don’t know how the fuck we pulled that off, but it happened.
CG: Well you’ve definitely spent a lot of time playing loud garage rock – how is the live approach different for Ohsees?
JD: It’s definitely not just a straight ahead live setup thing, like with Coachwhips. It takes more time to set it up. We can’t sing through just one amp anymore, because we have two sets of vocals and we need to be able to hear ourselves. Not that it ever really happens but we at least try to make it sound decent in the room we’re in.
CG: How have the crowds reacted to the shows?
JD: It varies, but it’s been pretty good. I think the new lineup is making people more stoked. In San Francisco, everybody seems excited about shows, then it ebbs a little bit, and comes back around – it depends. It seems like every couple years there’s like a funeral in your town, you just gotta deal with it and get through it and then some new bands appear and make everybody excited and it grows again. Right now it’s nice here, because none of the bands have the same sound for the first time, everyone’s doing their own thing – I think the scene’s getting older or something but there’s definitely more of a range, so it’s exciting. And that’s definitely reflected in the audience too.
CG: I read an interview you did with Artnoise in 2005 where you said you thought the San Fran scene couldn’t last much longer. Do you still feel that way? What’s the scene looking like these days?
JD: It actually seems more relaxed now. San Francisco is a weird place because it doesn’t have the hype machine of a place like New York behind it, so a lot of good shit can happen here. No one’s getting smoke blown up their ass, so there’s a bit more integrity here. And I’m getting more relaxed as I get older, so I’m pretty happy with it.
CG: As far as the future is concerned, do you see yourself sticking with the Ohsees project?
JD: I’m hoping to do it for a long time, actually. We don’t have any complications, it’s very drama-free, and everyone I’m working with seems to have a great outlook. I’m really looking forward for my drummer to get back so we can get this record done and keep moving forward. I don’t see myself getting sick of this anytime soon. The one nice thing about this band is that it’s able to slowly change over time enough so it never gets dull for me. Maybe it’ll end up being hip hop in a couple years, I don’t even know. I’ve got no flow though, so that’ll never happen … (laughs)
CG: Since the last time you were in Dusted was for a Listed feature in 2003, care to give a quick top 5 of what you’ve been listening to lately?
JD: I’ve gotta go with Sic Alps, they’re my favorite band in town and I pretty much make it to all their shows. We have like ten bands here in our circle of friends that play constantly together. And we just played with this band Eddy Current Suppression Ring from Australia, they were pretty fucking phenomenal - amazing actually. And their records really kick ass. They’re sort of an Aussie, weird rock band that sounds like the Homosexuals, or something like that - kind of straight, but a bit weird too, so I’ve been rocking that non-stop. I just got that Black Lips live record from Tijuana, and I’m fond of that. I’ve been listening to a lot of Neil Young lately. I’ve been getting big into old school stuff – I also picked up a bunch of Iron Maiden LPs that I used to have on cassette this week, so I’ve been listening to The Number of the Beast and Somewhere in Time over and over again and try to draw. Iron Maiden surprisingly gets into my drawings - I almost just want to start drawing Eddie and say “Fuck it…”
By Cole Goins