Interview: John Dwyer from Thee Oh Sees

Thee Oh Sees' new record Warm Slime is outstanding, but Bearded editor and über Oh Sees fan Gareth Main doesn't use his interview time with John Dwyer to talk about it. Instead he chatted to his musical hero about the Channel Tunnel, marijuana legislation and the flute, here's the transcript

Posted on Jun 14th, 2010 in Features and Interviews, Thee Oh Sees, In the Red / By Gareth Main
Thee Oh Sees Thee Oh Sees - Warm Slime

You’re at the end of the tour now, are you looking forward to finishing up?
Well we have three dates left in France so we’ll be going on the Chunnel, or Eurotrain, the fucking weird creepy-ass thing that I didn’t like at all. Well I didn’t like it until we got over here in 45 minutes. I like coming over on the ferry, with the casino and the smoking deck - it’s really strange. On the train we were in the car and there was a woman walking up and down checking you weren’t getting high or something in there, it’s the most depressing job I think I’ve ever seen: being on a train with a bunch of parked cars? Fuck me, really? Interesting.
So have you got any band work lined up when you get back home? You run Castle Face records - is there anything coming out soon, or any production work you’ve got on?
I don’t really production for anyone other than us because, to be honest, I’m not very good at it. People always ask me but I manage to talk them out of it. Ideally it would be great to do it but I’m fucking terrible, and everyone ends up disappointed. I do my own stuff because I’m really familiar with what I need. I’m starting a new record with this band, Bare Wires, who are really great. I really like them. They’re sort of a low budget Cheap Trick, they’re fucking great live and they’re really nice guys, and the record is astounding so I can’t wait to put that out. This band Gardens from Detroit, I’m putting that out too.

The San Francisco scene is thriving at the moment…
It’s always been really great but is getting recognised there for some reason, when I moved there I wasn’t playing any music and I was so impressed by so many local bands like Deerhoof and Deep Throats, it was really inspiring. It’s just a great city and I don’t know how you couldn’t be there and not want to do something. Do you want a beer?

They’re a bit warm

That’s British beer for you
Yeah, I think when I get home I’m going to sit in a big tub of ice. In France, they don’t do ice. I was like ‘do you have any ice?’ (shakes his head), ‘you know, frozen water?’ You have a freezer – I know, I’ve seen it.’ And just no, they have a freezer but don’t have anything in it.

With lots of young bands in San Francisco, do you ever feel like an older statesman, parental over people on Castle Face like Ty Segall?
No, and I’m sure a lot of them would hate to hear that too. With Ty it’s different because he’s a friend of mine and he’s young and just a really nice guy. I’m so jaded, I’m like ‘don’t let them fuck you over,’ but it’s more of a friend thing, not a dad thing at all. He’s making waves all on his own and every decision he’s ever fucking made has been outside of anyone else’s opinion and I think he would be making music whether I was living or dead – he’s just really good, I’m astounded by him. He’s much nicer than I am, luckily he’s dealing with really good people who don’t try to screw him around or anything.

Do you think you’ve mellowed out then over the years?
Oh yeah, I don’t do speed anymore and that hasn’t stopped me making music which is a good thing. People fear about quitting and I was like ‘is this it for me?’ a post-drugs Lou Reed? Not that he’s terrible or that I’m comparing myself to Lou Reed. But touring’s the only thing I know so I still do it and have a good time. But I have to turn down the house parties now - guys are like (puts on drunken drawl) ‘hey we’ve got this party do you guys wanna come?’ and I just usually lie to them because it’s easier so say ‘yeah totally, see you there’ and then just don’t go anywhere and relax. It’s hard to do these 15 hour drives everyday so it’s hard to rage and also get up at 9 to drive 700km or whatever to get to a show and sit around for four hours, then play the show and make it entertaining. I actually really enjoy it but you know what I’m saying… there are no more fights anyway.

Watch an example of Dwyer’s old ways: this clip of him smashing an electric guitar over the head of a promoter whilst performing in former band The Hospitals is available on the Coachwhips Double Death DVD

You’ve obviously been in lots of bands – Coachwhips, Pink & Brown, Yikes! to name a few – how’s it going in Thee Oh Sees? It must be the longest you’ve stayed in one band.
It is, and we get along. I have no complaints – they’re like a family. It works together, we won’t be replacing anybody, although I think I’m going to try and add a second drummer when we get back to San Francisco. He can play everything and he’s a really good friend of ours, then we’ll have double drums, which is always better. It’s great to watch if there are two drummers – there’s not enough of that.

Do you all write together then, or is it just you bringing tracks for the band to develop?
Well I write all the lyrics. I might make a great demo and see if they can make it better. If not we just kibosh them right there.

So how do you approach writing an album them? You’ve released eleven LPs, but some seem to be promoted better – like Warm Slime or Help – than ones that are more throwaway like Dog Poison. Is there a different approach to writing and recording them?
Really? You think it’s throwaway?

Not at all, that’s really the wrong word to use. I meant it was on a different trajectory to your other records, more experimental compared to your usual sound. I mean… you had loads of flute on that record.
Well, sometimes with flutes and shit on it it’s harder to make it a full live thing and in most venues we play people just want rocking stuff, and stuff that’s shittily recorded. I do more intricate stuff on my own than what the band is doing and we can physically do live so I guess it all depends on your opinion.

I really think throwaway was the wrong word!
Dog Poison is very different - it’s not what I’d do with the band

So did you record it all yourself?
Yeah, that’s all me, Zork’s Tapes is all me, well actually I would say Zork’s Tapes is a more throwaway record because it’s all demos with a few tracks that will be coming out as a full band. I’m working on a new one at the moment that will hopefully come across a bit better.

How did the flute come about then?
My dad bought it for me. He acknowledged that this was all I’ve been doing for two years so my folks realised that I wasn’t going to start working in a bank and this was definitely it. It’s actually my step-dad, he’s an avid yard sale-er and he picks me up anything musically related that he thinks is cool. Often it’s amazing shit, he got me these two amps recently that were some Japanese 60s tube amps for a dollar and I drove them back home and they cost me about $500 to fix them up but they’re really nice and weird. Even the guitar guy was like ‘fuck, what are these?’ and it was just some old Japanese guy that had them. Mostly the instruments are student models, like this beat ass trumpet that some kid played in a school band then left in his mum’s attic, then she has a yard sale, my dad finds it and sends it to me in the mail. So now I’ve started learning the trumpet. I picked up the flute really quickly because I’ve always enjoyed flute, I don’t know why, but it was something I always wanted to play but never had $400 to throw away on one and then my dad found one for a buck so now I play flute.

That’s amazing…
I always liked a little Jethro Tull and I’ve always loved that sound. Fuck it’s hot in here. What is it with clubs over here? They say stuff like ‘we’re gonna turn on the AC’ and I’m just like ‘no you’re not’ and they’re like ‘yeah we have, it just takes an hour to turn on.’ We played a great spot in Leeds yesterday – the Brudenell – fucking awesome people. But we didn’t play in the main band room because there was another show going in there, so we played in the game room and it was packed and a really good crowd. It was probably 130 degrees – American style (about 54 degrees centigrade) – in there. It was so fucking hot that sweat was running off me before we started. I was like ‘this is not good, I’m soaked through to the bone and I haven’t even played a note yet.’ All our amps died while we were playing. We were wondering what was going on and I felt the amp and it was red hot, we’ve brought a fan tonight to stick on them, hopefully it won’t happen again.

It’s not usually a problem you get over here…
Nah man, it’s just muggy. The woman in Leeds was just like (adopts questionable English accent) ‘there’s no air, there’s no air… it’s disgusting.’

So you’ve put out dozens of releases on all sorts of labels, you run your own label too, how do you choose who you work with? Do you just put something out if someone asks you?
It depends on the person. A lot of the smaller stuff I do is for friends of mine. I’ve said no to a bunch of bigger labels who I’ve talked to but they’ve either wanted too much from us or they want to put regulations on us. Stuff like, if we put out a record, we couldn’t put out another record for two years, which is just bullshit. It’s ridiculous to comprehend, but if they wanted to throw a million bucks at me and say ‘here’s enough money to survive for the next ten years,’ then dude I’d suck your cock, I don’t care. The bigger labels just want all your rights and half of the digital sales – but you can’t see the numbers – it’s those people I can’t deal with. But with Larry at In the Red (who have just released Warm Slime after putting out Oh Sees LP Help last year) is a real cool cat, and I like him. Like if I want something he’ll always meet me halfway – compromise for me is what it’s all about. But all those singles we put out on small labels are just really good labels – Woodsist and Captured Tracks – I just like the labels so it’s good to work with them.

And what about Sub Pop (who put ‘In the Shadow of the Giant’ out through their singles club)?
That was for money. Nice guys, but they gave me $500 to do a single so that paid the rent.

So what do you do outside of music to pay the rent?
Well I don’t do much because I’ve lived in the same place for ten years and so my rent is really cheap. We have rent controls over there so that people can live. But I’m getting kicked out when I get back so there’s going to have to be a lifestyle change – I’m going to have to cut more marijuana.

That’s what you do for money? Who do you cut it for? A dispensary?

That means you’re not too worried about when recreational use becomes legal in a few months?
It’s legal now. I can show you my medical marijuana card now if you want? (unfolds a piece of paper) I don’t have a full card yet, but here you go, a notarised state prescription for marijuana.

So what’s wrong with you?
I have migraines and a hard time sleeping. Although in the UK that’s not true at all – I sleep like a fucking baby.

They should just make it legal really…
They fucking should. You know what though man, me and Mike (Shoun, Oh Sees drummer) just got busted in fucking Arizona. I just don’t like it there, it’s a really free state but the fucking cunts have this sting operation set up on the highway with a legal search and seizure. They pulled us over and threw a fucking drug dog right in the car without saying a word. The dog just sat down which means there are drugs in the car and I was just like, ‘did you just throw a drug dog in our car with no reason?’ Anyway, now we have to report for a court date in July. It’s just for two joints. I can image that if we have a pound they could think we were selling it, but it’s clearly personal possession, it’s just ridiculous. It’s just weed – I don’t understand how alcohol is legal and weed isn’t. I guess you can make money out of alcohol, and eventually it’ll probably be the same with weed. I mean, when was the last time you saw someone get into a fight when stoned?

What’s next then recording wise?
We’re going to chill out for a little bit and do a bit of touring. We’ve got Toronto and New York, then trying to do South Korea, China and Japan later in the year. I’m recording shit at home with some strings. I play drums in a band with these two horn players back home just for fun and I’m looking forward to doing that because it’s so different. It’s good to not be recording and just to be playing live.

Whatever happened to (short-lived side project) The Drums?
The band was really fun but it was fucking hard to do and we both had really busy schedules so there was no time to fucking practice and without practice I was going to have a fucking heart attack. It was a really hard band – probably the hardest band I’ve ever had to do physically as I was singing and playing drums solidly for a half hour with another guy. Then that other band The Drums came to be so it was kinda like ‘who gives a fuck?’ But the guy I was in that band with is the guy I want to bring into Thee Oh Sees.

Is that it then, you’re turning into a one-band man?
Yeah, I don’t want to be in several bands anymore. I mean playing drums in a band is cool because I just play drums, but as far as this band goes, this is where I want to be.

How involved are you in the running of Castle Face?
Not as involved as I’d like to be, I’m going to have to have a sit down with the other guy when I get back to work out exactly what the future is for it. But the Bare Wires record is great; it’s one I listen to a bunch.

Are you going to play flute on it?
Are you taking the piss? (Laughs) Anyone who says they don’t like flute is lying. Watching a guy play flute might be a little too much to bear. But it’s a beautiful instrument.

I can just see you whipping out your flute on stage one day…
We wanted to originally. I actually brought it along to a couple of shows but we’re so fucking loud it doesn’t work and it’d be hard for the sound guys. Especially over here we’re pretty reliant on sound guys but in the States we have our own PA. So we do it exactly how we do it in the practice room, and some sound guys really like it. They’re like, ‘I don’t have to do anything?’ and we just tell them to go and have a beer, but others just take it to heart and want to do everything. That’s just the way we do it though. It’s pretty boring but we don’t change anything apart from the songs, everything is exactly the same.