As Thee Oh Sees prepare to close the second headlining set of their two-night September residency at the Great American Music Hall, the band’s frontman, John Dwyer, explains how it’s going to go down. “We are going to do two more songs,” he tells the buzzing Thursday-night crowd. “One regular one and one long one. And that’s it.”
Dwyer and co. launch into their finale and the crowd explodes. Plastic drink cups go flying into the air as the floor undulates under hundreds of stomping feet. Dwyer lets out a few of his signature banshee yelps, made all the more potent by slap-back echo and the accompanying squeal of his guitar. One of the band’s dual drummers, Paul Quattrone -- also of Sacramento disco punk outfit !!! -- casts sidelong glances at Dwyer. His cheeks puff with each heavy breath as he hammers away at his kit in unison with co-drummer Daniel Rincon. His expression seems to say: “Are we almost done here, boss?”
Quattrone and Rincon, positioned next to one another at the front of the stage, are the thundering heart of the well-oiled machine that is Thee Oh Sees, and Dwyer is the wild-eyed conductor -- orchestrating the chaos with the kind of comfort and familiarity that only comes from years of experience. One of the hardest working men in garage rock is at the height of his powers: The full midweek crowd, the precision of the band, and the energy in the room are all a testament to Dwyer’s songwriting and showmanship.
About a month after the show, Dwyer is driving home from a hike with longtime collaborator Brigid Dawson. He calls to apologize for missing the appointed start of the interview, promising that he’ll reconnect on his landline shortly. When he rings again, the caller ID displays a 323 area code, not the 415 number that had heralded his cell-phone call.
Prior to his move to Los Angeles in 2014, Dwyer was a fixture on the San Francisco garage revival scene for 17 years. He created some of the weirdest and most compelling music to come out of the city during the mid-2000s while also promoting shows and championing bands on his label, Castle Face Records. The imprint has put out records by some of San Francisco’s best psychedelic and indie rock bands acts, including Kelley Stoltz, White Fence, Fresh & Onlys, and Ty Segall -- Dwyer’s contemporary and another luminary in the SF garage scene who once described the Oh Sees frontman as “the mayor of San Francisco.”
However, as housing costs continued to rise in the Bay Area, Dwyer moved south. “I couldn’t afford to live there anymore,” he says of San Francisco. “I didn’t really have a choice.”
When Dwyer first moved to San Francisco from Providence, Rhode Island, he says finding a place was a “cakewalk.” By the end of his stay, it had become untenable. He was looking at living in apartments with upwards of five roommates. Now, Dwyer owns a home where he can rehearse and record in Los Angeles’ Eagle Rock neighborhood.
Dwyer and Dawson are currently putting the finishing touches on a new album and rehearsing for a string of four shows, which will benefit homelessness charities in San Francisco and Los Angeles. The record, Memory of a Cut Off Head, is Dwyer’s 20th full-length Oh Sees release and the 100th pressing on Castle Face. It's due out on Nov. 17.
Memory is a departure from most of what Dwyer has been concocting of late. Instead of the rollicking, shrieking, acid frenzies of A Weird Exits, An Odd Entrances, and Orc -- all three released over the course of 2016 and 2017 -- the new album is a return to the very first, hushed bedroom recordings Dwyer made with Dawson in the early aughts. That was back when he lived in the Lower Haight, and when she worked at a now-closed coffee shop called Bean There on the corner of Waller and Steiner streets.
“It harkened back to just me and John sitting together -- him singing me a song and me making the harmonies,” Dawson says of the process of writing Memory. “It feels very familiar.”
Memory is far more polished than those first bedroom works, and not nearly as ramshackle as the droning, Velvet Underground and Nico-tinged tracks found on 2006's The Cool Death of Island Raiders.
Those well-versed in Dwyer’s work will find parallels to Memory in the meandering, lo-fi, freak-folk excursions of his second Oh Sees album, 2. When that record was released in 2004, the project was known simply as OCS, an acronym that originally stood for Orinoka Crash Suite. From there, the name went through a number of permutations, including The Oh Sees, Thee Oh Sees, and just plain Oh Sees. On the forthcoming Memory of a Cut Off Head, Dwyer has once again taken up the moniker OCS -- a nod to his earlier, mellower collections.
Featuring eight players in addition to Dwyer and Dawson, the record includes a menagerie of instruments: singing saws, honking horns, swelling strings, and warm, analog electronics. Dwyer says the album was initially supposed to just be a stripped down acoustic affair, before it evolved into something far more baroque -- a beautiful amalgamation of pop, psychedelia, folk, and indie rock. Call it Dwyer’s Sgt. Pepper’s.
Beyond the two local OCS shows and a pair of L.A. performances to benefit the food justice nonprofit L.A. Kitchen, Dwyer isn’t exactly sure what comes next. The only sure bet is that there will be more music. After dedicating the past two decades of his life to rock 'n' roll, it’s all he can really think to do.
“I don’t plan on doing anything else,” he says. “I don’t have a job or anything.”
For arts stories you won't read anywhere else, come to KQED's Arts and Culture desk.