Thee Oh Sees: Interview
“With all the recent music, I think kids are turning against what is popular and going back to all of its most basic forms.”
Even by their standards, seminal San Francisco band Thee Oh Sees were active this year. The band released TMT favorite Castlemania, a garage-rock number that effectively juxtaposed itself between jangly, bouncy rock and dark themes. Six months pass, and they already have a new album, the cerebral and drawn-out Carrion Crawler/The Dream. Both albums display the versatility of the band as a unit, playing around with different aspects of group dynamics and collaboration.
I recently sat down with Brigid Dawson (vocalist and keyboardist) and Petey Dammit! (guitarist) at a San Francisco café, discussing the year’s developments and their quick recording process. Along the way, we talked about recording studio family dinners, whether rock ‘n’ roll needs to die, and the role of women in garage rock.
We got an early copy of Carrion Crawler/The Dream, and I have some questions involving that. What brought it about? If I recall this correctly, you did a week-long session in Sacramento. What was the goal in mind when you guys went into recording?
PD: … Part of the goal was to have a lot of fun, and that’s why we invited Lars from The Intelligence to play with us. Throw something new into the mix, and have a good time, because he is a good friend of ours and always fun to play with.
BD: It was a lovely place, and we stayed longer than we have ever done. We had, what, five days there to record?
BD: And we’ve never had that much time to record before. Plus, we cooked and made big old family dinners. [laughs] It was nice.
What kind of dinners?
BD: Clay-pot chicken, kale salad…
PD: It was amazing.
One thing I noted when listening to this record was, in comparison to Castlemania, there was far more intensity to it; songs are a bit more drawn out. Could you describe what sets that apart?
BD: It’s a really simple answer: Castlemania was really John [Dwyer, frontman] doing a bunch of home recordings, and then taking them into a studio and really layering it. He took some time over it. Carrion Crawler/The Dream was five days and it was the full band. And therein lies the difference, I think.
PD: It was completely recorded live. 1, 2, 3, press record, go.
And there’s a lot more instrumentality to it as well. Was that just mere layering, or was that something you had in mind going into it?
BD: Well, because it was very much John’s baby, he really wanted to try out a bunch of different stuff and see what he could do. Especially with that… what was it, TASCAM 16-track? Anyway, he had more tracks available.
What was the significance of having two names to the album?
BD: They’re the name to two songs, of course. Carrion Crawler itself actually comes from an old monster from Dungeons and Dragons. You can find it in the Fiend Folio! [laughs]
PD: I think, originally, the album was going to be focused on The Dream. When we went into the studio, we kind of wrote this on the fly, and improvised Carrion Crawler. Maybe [John] liked that better and couldn’t choose.
Now, as you said, you did this all in one week. Could you describe the feelings going into this, especially given the spontaneity of the recording?
PD: Scary? [laughs] Especially because we record live. So if there is a 10-minute song, and you mess up in the first two minutes, everyone has to stop and restart it. It’s very stressful, actually.
“I would never think that, “Oh, this band’s ripping us off.” We’re ripping other people off! We’re certainly not the first people to do what we’re doing.”
In terms of lyrical themes, there seems to be this constant theme of death in Castlemania. Would you care to elaborate on that? Was there any sort of trigger to it?
BD: We’ve had a few friends pass away. I know that a couple of those were people that John really cared about. If you’re hearing about death in there, then it could probably have something to do with that. Am I wrong?
PD: That could very well be it. It’s also possible that it’s just more romantic to write about than girls or cars or something. [laughs]
In the latter part of Castlemania, there are a couple covers, The Creation’s “If I Stay Too Long,” and West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band’s “I Won’t Hurt You.” What brought that about?
PD: It’s just songs we really love.
In that essence, how do you feel about late-60s garage rock in general, and how does that play a role in your music?
BD: I think when you’re listening to music or you’ve fallen in love with music, it just naturally comes out in the music that you’re writing. John totally loves that stuff, we all do.
PD: We’re all a product of our influences.
BD: It’s bound to come out in the music that we make.
Besides those two bands, what other bands from that period are you fans of?
PD: I have to say The Troggs. It’s kind of a staple of what we listen to on tour and the rest of the time. The Sonics, obviously.
I have an interesting question for you, Brigid. One thing I’ve noted about 60s garage and psychedelic, is that psychedelic had a definitive female presence and influence, especially when you listen to United States of America or anything Grace Slick has done. In garage rock, however, that was not so much the case. Now that we are seeing a sort of resurgence of garage rock, especially here in San Francisco, do you think that women should play a bigger role [in that genre]?
BD: I sure hope so. I would love to see more women playing every single kind of instrument, singing, and every other role they could fit into with a band. But I think it’s a thing that will happen over time. Honestly, I don’t think women get quite as encouraged as men do. Of course, I’m older, and I think the younger generation has a totally different perspective on that. I see more and more women playing music. So I sure hope so.
Is there anyone from the younger generation that stands out in your mind?
BD: People that I really admire would be Emily Rose and Danae, who are playing with Ty Segall, because they don’t have to be a woman first. They just go out and play the music. I totally admire that. Almost all the bands we played with in Australia had young women in them, and again they are free from being oversexualized as women. They’re just rad girls who play in bands. They’re not women first, they’re musicians. I think that would be great if that happens more often. Instead of it being all, “What’s it like to be the chick singer?” it should be “how’s it feel to be a musician?”
Going onward, ever since you started out, you have been on a relentless clip, putting out an album per year. This year, you put out two. What’s the mentality to that?
BD: Everyone’s asking me that. I never thought it was that strange. But it’s literally just, we record as we write, and it’s fresh and we put it out. For us, that’s the pace we go at.
I say that because, the general thing with a lot of bands is, it takes a lot of effort just to get to the recording studio, among other things.
BD: It must be because we record live, maybe, and it’s just a quicker recording process. Maybe it’s that. I do know that other bands will go into the studio for months and labor over it. That’s not to say that what they make isn’t great. That can be marvelous as well. But it’s just not how we do it. So I guess we make more records because we record quicker.
Thee Oh Sees started out as a solo project for John. But certainly, in these past seven years, the band has grown quite a bit. What can you say about your roles now?
BD: I certainly think that if you took any one of us away it would change the band. But I do think that people come to see John, because that’s just how it is. He’s the fire in the band. But if you took one of us away, it would be totally different. It would never be the same again.
In the past five or six years, there definitely seems to be a serious revival of 60s garage rock in the West Coast, especially here and in San Diego. What can you say about that, especially in the context of standard garage-rock revival?
PD: I think it’s just a natural thing because it’s such basic music. It’s something that happens every 10 to 20 years. I mean, back in the early 90s San Francisco had a massive garage rock revival going on, so I’m sure artists then were asked the same questions. I know that in the early 90s, when that revival happened, it was a backlash against all the commercial music that was being released then, especially grunge rock and all this highly produced music. A lot of these kids had grown up punk rock, and they were against that. And they were all, “Well, we don’t want to have 17 guitars on our track and use huge budgets to make music. We just want to take it back to its most basic form.” I think that’s happening again. With all the recent music, I think kids are turning against what is popular and going back to all of its most basic forms.
That’s interesting, because I was reading a press release the other day by Mark Sultan of King Khan & BBQ Show, and he’s been trying to make a case to destroy rock ‘n’ roll completely because its context is completely lost. What would you say about that?
PD: I don’t think it’s been lost at all. It’s still one of the most basic things you can do with music. But that doesn’t mean you’re stuck doing the most basic things and it doesn’t mean you’re stuck doing it in a formulaic way that’s been done for many many years. So I think there is still a lot of room for growth. It’s just a matter of getting off your ass and making it happen.
Now, going back to San Francisco, I think with this generation of music, you guys have taken a sort of senior role in the scene, given your longevity (and John’s experience with Pink & Brown, Coachwhips, Landed, Sword & Sandals, and Dig That Body Up, It’s Alive in the years prior to Thee Oh Sees). What can you say about your position, especially with everyone that has come around in recent years? What do these newer bands see in you?
BD: It feels much more equal than that. Almost all of the people in San Francisco involved in the scene are our friends. You go see their shows, and they totally inspire you. You take it back to practice. I’m sure that it works that way for everyone here. I guess we all go see each other’s shows, love each others’ bands, and therefore get inspired by them.
“We’ve had a few friends pass away. I know that a couple of those were people that John really cared about.”
You’ve discussed Ty Segall before. Is there anyone else you feel inspired by currently?
BD: I have to say Kelly Stoltz for sure, who makes unerringly beautiful music over and over again. And Sic Alps.
Going back into the intensity of Carrion Crawler/The Dream, are there specifics emotions you draw on when you play your music?
BD: Just trying to get it right and not fuck up too much. [laughs]
PD: In a live situation, I always try to give a little bit extra, and have a good time while doing it. If you’re putting out a lot of positive energy, then the crowd’s going to put out a lot of it as well. There’s nothing worse than listening to an album and falling in love with it, and then going to see the band, and they’re just phoning it in. I never want to be that guy.
Going back to feminism in rock music, I see these two camps making a different case for what the general agenda should be. You have people from the East Coast like, say, Amy Klein, who preach a more assertive feminist role in rock music. And then you have on the other side, people on the West Coast like Bethany Constantinos of Best Coast that have this whatever attitude towards feminism, which some see as antagonistic. Do you see that as a problem?
BD: No, I mean, people are all different. All women who play music are probably going to have widely different views about how they want to go about it. When I was 18 and I joined my first band, the leader of the band once said, “Oh man, just get up there and shake your ass! You’re a backup singer! That’s what you’re there for.” That was what I grew up in. But there are a million other women who are fucking terribly strong and terrifying. Think of Alice Coltrane, think of Bessie Smith. People who were proud and totally unapologetic, as well as amazing musicians. That would always be my template. I think you can fully be a woman, make great music. I don’t think you have to be at all apologetic about it. I also think you don’t have to be aggressive and feminist about it. I suppose just the fact that you’re doing it is enough.
So, just disregard the politics and focus on the music?
BD: Yes, be totally fearless about it. Don’t worry about it, just play the music. That shouldn’t even be a question. I mean, what have other people said about it?
Well, I spoke to Raphaelle Standell-Preston of Braids recently about it. Recalling the interview, she was discussing how identity should not matter on that front. She was mentioning Le Tigre and other bands that have this in-your-face, confrontational feminism to them, and that such an intent is not entirely necessary. By the same token, however, she recalled how, when the band released their debut Native Speaker this year, and the immediate initial response to it was complaints that she was just this girl with a trucker’s mouth because she was talking about sex, even though it was in a positive manner. I guess really exhibited a hidden hypocrisy, in that men can get away with that while women cannot.
PD: I think it’s incredibly important to have both sides to that argument. You have the more relaxed attitude of Bethany from Best Coast that will gain more acceptance because she is so relaxed about it, and that will further more people not giving a crap. But at the same time, you also need to have that feminist attitude for people to speak of, because there is still such a divide in that. There is still a lot of fight to be fought. So that’s important for that aspect of it, to level the playing field more. But it’s also more important for the relaxed attitude to gain acceptance.
BD: All I can say is, again, I would love it if this wasn’t even a question, and if women had the freedom to not think about being a woman first while they’re making music, and sadly try to model themselves on every singles 60s girl-group band, because they get up there and play music and people think they’re attractive first, and then like their music. The freedom should be that the woman should be able to sing whatever the fuck she wants without people talking about her having a trucker’s mouth! I mean, did they say that about GG Allin? Wait, they probably did, but he’s maybe an extreme case [laughs]. Still, I doubt that’s what people say about a lot of other singers who swear or talk about sex in their songs when they’re men.