[September 14, 2015]
Written by Jake Weeks (Jacob Spaceman)
Ah, Thee Oh Sees. Where do I even begin? They’ve been shifting and evolving around Garage Warlord John Dwyer for close to a decade. What began as a bedroom side project is now closing major festival stages, releasing a solid album almost every year.
Thee Oh Sees in concert at the Circolo Degli Artisti in Rome.
By Gian Mario Cossu. Creative commons.
I was pretty late to dive into Thee Oh Sees’ intimidating portfolio – I first heard Help in 2012, and only loosely explored Castlemania for a year after that. But when they dropped Floating Coffin in 2013, it was like a light went on. Suddenly I, a former skate punk junkie, realized that I was listening to some of the most psychotic, gnarly rock music I’d ever heard. Soon I was thrashing my limbs to the sounds of Coachwhips, Useless Eaters, and White Fence, burying my face in a scene that was (unfortunately) fizzling out. Dwyer relocated to Los Angeles after Thee Oh Sees released the weaker Drop in 2014.
I first saw the band touring Drop as a three-piece in July of that year. It was a Burger Records event at Oakland’s Mosswood Park, overpopulated with teeny boppers, too-stoned high school headbangers, and Ronnie Spector. How I ended up there is another story for another time. Thee Oh Sees closed day one following a strong showing by OFF! I give Keith Morris and company a ton of credit for putting on a real performance that day – even for an obnoxiously hip bunch of twelve year-olds. Dwyer, by contrast, seemed less than thrilled. Smugly surveying the crowd, he called out a Burger founder: “Where’s Sean? He owes me a beer.” And you suddenly got the feeling that someone was doing someone else a favor by being there at all. That night, their playing was tight, but lopsided. Dwyer’s mythic energy was missing. And I left Mosswood with nice enough things to say: “Yeah, his guitar sounds great live. The new lineup works. They still play some old stuff.” But nowhere near the rave reviews I’d expected to give.
Still, this summer, I jumped at the chance to catch Thee Oh Sees again, this time at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco. I enjoyed their May release, Mutilator Defeated At Last, which had a darker, punchier sound than Drop or Floating Coffin. It’s an album that seethes, lurches, and snarls; Dwyer’s lightning guitar work is as present as ever, but it’s joined by a cleaner, more dynamic rhythm section – a marked stylistic change to accompany his change of headquarters. I hoped the show on August 26 would be a celebration, a sort of homecoming, and a decidedly better performance than I’d seen them give the Burger kids.
By complete coincidence, I caught Dwyer walking away from the venue about exactly as I got there. Surprised, I tossed a quick greeting his way – “Heya, John,” – which he (also somewhat surprised) politely returned. But the guy looked like he was going somewhere, and I’m not the type to hound musicians for interviews unless I’ve got official press credentials. Although in retrospect, I might at least have tried to get a KCSB station ID. In my defense, it’s hard to know exactly what to say to John Dwyer when he’s walking right at you. He’s a tall dude, and he carries himself with the same quiet intensity that I’ve heard used to captivate people about Richard Hell. In other words, he looked like a punk rock star. Arguably, he is a punk rock star, of some weird, understated breed.
I entered the Great American Music Hall as Peacers, a grimy new project featuring Sic Alps’ Mike Donovan, was just starting their set. From what I saw, they specialize in the kind of alternative rock you’ve heard before. Still, there was no disputing that these guys could really play. A lot better than what I expected to be opening a Wednesday show. I wish I had more insightful things to say about Peacers’ performance, but I watched it beer-in-hand from the venue’s tiny balcony, where an enthusiastic fellow attendee yammered endlessly to me about every Ty Segall project under the sun.
Lubricated, I later moved to the floor to see Chicago’s White Mystery, an act with a solid discography of their own. Good energy. Again, not the most original sound by a longshot, but exactly solid in that very particular way an opening band is supposed to be. They’re a perfectly rehearsed power duo: Alex White has the vocal presence of a young Exene Cervenka, and it’s genuinely fun to watch her shirtless brother Francis Scott Key mill about the stage monologuing during the bridge of “DUBBLE DRAGON.”
Thee Oh Sees have this tendency to start performing almost immediately after finishing their sound check. Every time I’ve seen them, this has been the case. And in doing so, they always manage to catch the audience off-guard. Plenty of people at the show were still clamoring at Dwyer’s feet, taking poorly lit cell phone pictures of Thee Oh Sees’ double drum kit setup, when the band ripped into “I Come From The Mountain” to begin their relentless set.
With the band’s touring lineup conspicuously down one Brigid Dawson, Dwyer now takes periodic breaks from manic shred sessions to turn around and toy with a synthesizer tucked among his amps. But there were no true slow songs to give the audience any semblance of breathing room. I didn’t expect that – I saw them play the meandering, hypnotic new track “Sticky Hulks” at this year’s FYF (a great set with a great crowd), and their Drop setlist certainly made space for spacing out. Not so at the Great American Music Hall. They tore through a host of tracks from Mutilator: “Web,” “Poor Queen,” and “Turned Out Light,” along with plenty of candy from their late-2000s reign as the Bay’s garage-psych kings. There’s nothing quite like jumping and stomping along to the enormous riffs of Thee Oh Sees’ setlist staples: Tracks like “Toe Cutter – Thumb Buster” and “The Dream.” Unexpectedly, they even played a few of my favorites from their superb 2011 album, Carrion Crawler/The Dream. “Contraption/Soul Desert” was a highlight of the entire evening, and title track “Carrion Crawler” made for a great encore. The dual-kit attack sounds great live, and it’s always a blast to watch two gifted drummers play in perfect sync – although it certainly takes up space. The Great American Music Hall is basically a miniature Fillmore, and I was surprised that they managed to fit everyone’s equipment onstage.
The San Francisco crowd was far from perfect. I know that everyone’s entitled to enjoy a concert in their own way. But I get unreasonably angry about thirtysomethings who come to shows with no intention of moshing or dancing. It’s a persistent problem I’ve encountered in the city, and it really disappoints me. Nobody is too cool to dance. But rest assured, I got my fair share of shoving in. I might have really annoyed some of the motionless yuppies around me, but damn it, I’m going to get my money’s worth when I go to a rock show. Being from the Bay, it shames me to say this, but the crowd at the FYF set had a better vibe.
Speaking of getting my money’s worth: I saw a different Dwyer on August 26. In the most classically rock and roll sense, he was just on. And when John Dwyer is on, he oozes raw snot and spasticky charisma. He bounces relentlessly up and down, flinging sweat in all directions from his bobbing hair and bare limbs. It’s like watching some psychotic simian, bashing chords like he wants to hurt his (gorgeous) translucent guitar, and summoning solos from scrolls he found in the tombs of malevolent ancients. Maybe he’s just thrashing to cope with all the voices in his head. Whatever the case, it’s a thing of destructive, entropic beauty.
Thee Oh Sees put on a pretty excellent performance. It more than made up for their lukewarm showing at Burger last summer, a reminder that a lot of factors can affect the quality of a band’s performance on any given night. If you truly love a band’s studio stuff, you owe it to yourself to see them more than once. It’s what fans do. And I’m very glad I did.