Thee Oh Sees are lo-fi, but not necessarily by choice
Garage-rawk antihero John Dwyer is strapped for time when the Georgia Straight tracks him down in San Francisco, but he makes the most out of the 13 minutes he spends on the phone. Over the course of a conversation that's never less than monumentally entertaining, he demonstrates that sometimes, you can't judge a man by his reputation.
For a start, he proves an exceedingly nice guy. This will shock anyone who's ever seen “Hospitals vs. Dan Burke” on YouTube, in which a catatonic-looking Dwyer finishes a song that sounds like full-blown metal-machine music by clocking a Toronto promoter in the head with his guitar.
“If someone was to throw a snare drum at me, I might do that again,” admits the easygoing frontman, on his way to the bank. “But yeah, I've mellowed out a bit—I'm more of an adult than I've ever been.”
Confess that, despite his having been in a small army of bands, you've never really heard of him or his current band Thee Oh Sees, and Dwyer doesn't get even remotely offended.
“Don't be embarrassed by that at all,” he says. “It's almost intentional at times. The choices that we've made over the years have tended to take us into more of a cult status.”
Indeed, as great as Thee Oh Sees' current album, Warm Slime, might be, the band hasn't exactly gone out of its way to crack the mainstream. While heavy-hitting labels have tracked him down over the years, Dwyer has never been interested.
“It leaves a bad taste in my mouth anytime people come sniffing around and talking about hype and other ridiculous shit like that,” he says. “It seems like they always want to take charge, which I'm too much of a control freak to allow.”
Even when Thee Oh Sees have gotten breaks that might have landed them on the mainstream radar, they've backed off. The best example of that might be the time the group abandoned its favourite approach to making records—set up in one room and let the analogue tape roll—to work with tastemaking producer Dave Sitek of TV on the Radio.
“We did some digital recording with him one time, but I just don't like the way it sounds,” Dwyer says. “It's like HDTV—I look at that picture and it just seems gross to me. I like analogue TV and analogue records.”
It's hard to argue with his approach on Warm Slime, an acid-damaged blur of super-scuzzed, reverb-drenched psych-pop. The insanity starts right off the top, with the title track playing out like a 13-minute fistfight between the White Light–era Velvets and the Kingsmen. From there, Thee Oh Sees come on like the greatest garage band never to appear on a Nuggets compilation, drawing on everything from vintage shockabilly to swamp-fever country.
Now that everyone from Dum Dum Girls to Wavves is fixated on lo-fi, there's an argument to be made that Dwyer has been ahead of the curve for years. What he finds funny about that is Thee Oh Sees were never after hipster points.
“I never had money to go into a studio, so there was never a question of whether I'd be recording at home or not,” Dwyer confesses. “It wasn't an aesthetic choice.”
Revealing that he has to go because he's stepping up to the counter at the bank, Dwyer happily reports that he's making a deposit, something he'd love to do more often and is willing to do almost anything to make happen.
“I have no qualms about placing my music in things like commercials, or television, for that matter,” he says. “In my mind there's no such thing as selling out, unless you're making terrible shit and being a complete asshole.”
Thee Oh Sees play Venue on Wednesday (September 8).