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 Ė 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 Ö
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 Ė I met them and theyíre really nice and they made an offer. It worked out really well Ė they do nice Digipacks and everything.
CG: So Castle Face is your new record label?
JD: Yeah, thatís going to be my stuff from now on. We just put out the Sucks Blood Ohsees record on that and hopefully weíll be putting out a DVD we shot last year doing a bunch of generator shows around San Francisco, so thatíll be coming out soon. And the new record, which weíve been working on for way too long. We just did a recording session in New York with Dave Sitek Ė 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. Heís a magician, so Iím really excited to finish the record with him. So basically, weíre 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. Itís gonna be called ďThe Masterís Bedroom Is Worth Spending a Night In."
CG: What direction are you taking the bandís sound in this time?
JD: Itís pretty rock. Itíll still have a couple slow pieces, like demo ideas and stuff, but mostly I think itíll 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 sideÖ
JD: Itís 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 Iím digging Ė heís in a band around here called Caesura. Heís 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 itís definitely more guitar-heavy now that I got another guitar player. Iím actually pretty stoked on it, so itís more fun. People arenít yawningÖ (laughs)
CG: Well, Sucks Blood is one of my favorite records of the year so far Ö
JD: I was pretty happy with how it turned out. That one was a little bit of a hassle Ė 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 oneís still going to be a little bit like that. Itíll be a little bit clearer, but Iím 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 isnít that clean, so Iím trying to find a happy medium there.
CG: Well thatís something that definitely pops up in your recordings a lot, trying to add a lo-fi grit to things Ö
JD: Yeah, weíre 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 Ė 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 bandís sound, and why is that something that you try to pursue?
JD: I hate to say it, because it sounds clichť, but I just canít stand digital recording. Iíve tried it and it just doesnít lend itself to what Iím doing, or maybe even that I donít understand it. Something magical happens when youíre 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 youíre close with. Like Chris Woodhouse for instance, who weíve been working with Ė he has an 8-track half-inch machine, itís real simple. And itís 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 Iím just not used to it Ė 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 wasnít 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 donít know how much of that weíre going to use. Whatís 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 Iíve done home versions of and occasionally Iíll use the demo version on the record or an EP, but most of the time itís still me writing something and then Iíll 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 itís based on an idea that I come up with.
CG: Whatís 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 whoís there and what recording machines are available. If I have to use a four-track because thatís the only option then thatís 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 itís 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). Itís all about convenience really, if we have any money, thatís 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, weíre 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 itís 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 youíre focusing all your energy on the Ohsees now?
JD: Yeah, thatís pretty much the only thing Iím gonna be doing. Iím actually getting too old to have five bands these days, and Iím really happy with the lineup right now and the people Iím playing with. Itís possibly the easiest setup Iíve ever had, so Iím 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 weíre 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 havenít been over to Europe yet. Iíve been to the UK, Japan, Canada, and Mexico Ė Iíve played all these places but havenít actually made it to Europe proper, so thatís 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. Weíre 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. Iím not trying to get it out in the beginning of the New Year, Iím 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 donít know how the fuck we pulled that off, but it happened.
CG: Well youíve definitely spent a lot of time playing loud garage rock Ė how is the live approach different for Ohsees?
JD: Itís definitely not just a straight ahead live setup thing, like with Coachwhips. It takes more time to set it up. We canít 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 weíre in.
CG: How have the crowds reacted to the shows?
JD: It varies, but itís 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 Ė it depends. It seems like every couple years thereís 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 itís nice here, because none of the bands have the same sound for the first time, everyoneís doing their own thing Ė I think the sceneís getting older or something but thereís definitely more of a range, so itís exciting. And thatís 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 couldnít last much longer. Do you still feel that way? Whatís the scene looking like these days?
JD: It actually seems more relaxed now. San Francisco is a weird place because it doesnít have the hype machine of a place like New York behind it, so a lot of good shit can happen here. No oneís getting smoke blown up their ass, so thereís a bit more integrity here. And Iím getting more relaxed as I get older, so Iím pretty happy with it.
CG: As far as the future is concerned, do you see yourself sticking with the Ohsees project?
JD: Iím hoping to do it for a long time, actually. We donít have any complications, itís very drama-free, and everyone Iím working with seems to have a great outlook. Iím really looking forward for my drummer to get back so we can get this record done and keep moving forward. I donít see myself getting sick of this anytime soon. The one nice thing about this band is that itís able to slowly change over time enough so it never gets dull for me. Maybe itíll end up being hip hop in a couple years, I donít even know. Iíve got no flow though, so thatíll never happen Ö (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 youíve been listening to lately?
JD: Iíve gotta go with Sic Alps, theyíre 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. Theyíre 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 Iíve been rocking that non-stop. I just got that Black Lips live record from Tijuana, and Iím fond of that. Iíve been listening to a lot of Neil Young lately. Iíve been getting big into old school stuff Ė I also picked up a bunch of Iron Maiden LPs that I used to have on cassette this week, so Iíve 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 ďFuck itÖĒ
By Cole Goins