Exclusive LP stream
Read our HERO 29 interview with Osees frontman John Dwyer, alongside an exclusive stream of their new LP, Live at Levitation, immortalising the band’s performance at Austin Psych Fest 2012. Scroll down – hit play.
John Dwyer has been up all night with a goddamn song stuck in his head. This twisted earworm loop – recorded days previously at Dwyer’s new Discount Mirrors LA studio for the latest Osees record – has been burying its way into the US musician’s psyche and won’t fucking leave. “Maybe I’ve broken my mind by working on this for so long,” he suggests. Or maybe he’s cracked the songwriting code. It wouldn’t be a surprise if he had: Dwyer has been furiously creating the most addictive, visceral, knee-jerk, lo-fi jams of the past two decades.
As the frontman of Osees – as they are currently known, but of course that could well have changed since – Dwyer has crafted a sonic tapestry ingrained in psych garage lore. The frequent name changes – Thee Oh Sees, OCS, Orange County Sound, The Oh Sees, to name a few – the constant spitting out of records, sometimes three, four a year, shifting gear, genre, sound, beat with the flick of a fuzz pedal, and a visual landscape populated by psychedelic beasts, comic humour and sci-fi futurism. At the centre of this ever-evolving world is Dwyer, the six-string menace scratching, riffing, yelling it into existence. Warning: Osees will infiltrate your mind – not even he who creates can be saved.
Alex James Taylor: Hey, John. How are you doing?
John Dwyer: I’m alright. A little bit hungover, it’s a little early over here – but I’m good.
AJT: I’ll take it easy on you. I want to start by speaking about Discount Mirrors, as that’s your big project at the minute. I know you’ve been collecting gear for a while, but where did the idea come from to create a studio?
JD: The reality is that most of the gear is not mine, it’s Eric Bauer’s, who’s been engineering for us for years, working on our records and producing with us. He’s done Ty Segall and White Fence and worked with all the bands from the Bay Area. He had a studio called Bauer Mansion sitting up in San Francisco’s Chinatown in a basement. It’s such a weird thing to say that it was an impulse decision to buy a building here [in LA] because it’s so expensive, but Eric was talking about moving to Kansas, which I really didn’t want him to do. [laughs] So we started this studio, which has been a huge bite to take, we’ve just recorded the new Osees record there.
AJT: When was that?
JD: Just now. It sounds really good. It’s a nice big live room, a big mix room, and it has an apartment for bands. It’s really centrally located in Highland Park in Los Angeles, so there’s groceries and stuff.
AJT: Does it change anything, recording in your own studio?
JD: Not really. I mean, I’ve been working with Eric for so long now, we’ve got a system down. We had a new guy on board named Mike Kriebel, and our sound woman, Liza [Boldyreva], she was shadowing them to learn how to use the tape machine; she knows how to record digitally but we were using two-inch tape, which requires a whole other system that’s a pain in the ass. And of course, the second we finished recording the machine broke, so we have a guy repairing it right now. That’s how these archaic machines are, it’s really few and far between finding people to fix these vintage machines, but they sound great. I think what we did really sounds fantastic. We also had our first paying band in there, Sunwatchers from New York. They crushed it.
“I also used this thing I’ve used on Damaged Bug records [another of Dwyer’s musical projects] before called the acid piano, it’s this big apparatus I built in my house using power tools while on LSD”
AJT: In the information about Discount Mirrors you mention how you took aspects of other studios you enjoy working at and incorporated them here, could you talk me through some of those studios?
JD: I would always prefer to stay and sleep at the studio we’re recording at, even a couch or something. That started at The Hangar in Sacramento with Chris Woodhouse. That place had apartments and a kitchen and I really liked that aspect of being fully-invested with zero distraction. Plus, it was a warehouse district, so there was like a barbecue joint down the road and a couple of bars, but not a lot of shit to do. We recorded at the second Hangar spot in Sacramento, which was lesser so, but it still had a place you could stay. I basically bought a coffee machine and a toaster oven so I could make breakfast, but very minimal. Then we started recording at Sonic Ranch, Texas, and they have several studios on this big 2- or 3,000 acre pecan farm. There’s a studio there called the Adobe we basically modelled our spatial planning in the live room and mix room on, because I was really fond of it having a large mix room.
I feel like sometimes… Bauer really talked me into this more than anything, but it’s true that sometimes when you’re recording in a studio, the live room is big enough for the band but then you get into the mix room and there’s not enough room for everyone to hang out comfortably and not be bothering the engineer or the person doing the mixing. So this one is large, with big couches far back from the desk so you’re not ass to elbows. We definitely modelled it on that. The Adobe was very woody, a lot of wooden diffusers, low lighting, colourful and simple. Lots of fantastic equipment which, between Bauer and me, the amount of gear we have is absurd. It’s actually, like, hinging on an addiction. Once I saw everything on a list… somehow when it’s all piled up you have a hard time envisioning what exactly it is in front of you, but when you see it on a list, you’re like, “Jesus Christ, what is wrong with us?” [laughs] So the point is to use it, have other people use it and make use of this vintage stuff they don’t make anymore. You can get any sound here, and that’s very similar to those other spaces I was talking about. They were just loaded up with shit.
AJT: Can you ever have too much choice?
JD: For sure. I have a lot of synthesisers and I have a rule where I have to turn them on and use them once a year, otherwise I sell them. I definitely have some I need to sell right now that I don’t use, but I have a few pieces that are sort of museum pieces. They’re very complicated or strange – very specific. The other thing about synthesisers in particular is they’re always going up in value, so it’s a weird investment if you can take care of the gear. I would say 95 percent of it is up to snuff and working, but there’s always something breaking down. Even Pro Tools… It’s funny, I’ll switch over from the tape machine to Pro Tools and then inevitably I’ll see Eric like, “Fuck!” There’s always something breaking when you have that much stuff working at once.
AJT: Yeah, you’re constantly putting out fires. And with your new Posh Swat record [a new percussion-based improvisation record created with Ryan Sawyer and Andres Renteria] you used homemade instruments.
JD: Yeah. That was recorded at my house, the same place I recorded A Foul Form for Osees. The inspiration was a couple of different things. There’s this record by a German band from the 70s called Niagara who were an all-drum ensemble. It’s recorded really well, as the Germans in the 70s liked to do, and it’s an awesome beat-oriented record, like boogie-woogie but without a ton of stringed instruments or anything. I think one record has bass on it, maybe, but it’s very simple, funky and well done.
Then there’s a Canadian band called Syrinx who did a lot of PBS [Public Broadcasting Service] music, soundtracks for television in particular and educational stuff for kids. They’re really strange, man. I think Revenge Records reissued a box set, which is really fantastic, but it’s just a modular synthesiser, saxophone, and hand drums. It’s really excellent far-out music. I wanted to do something like that but I don’t have modular synthesisers so much. I wanted to keep it all percussion, hammer percussion and electronic drums, so we brought in Ryan Sawyer, a jazz drummer from New York, and this kid Andres Renteria from LA, who’s a trained hand drummer – he’s incredible! He brings boxes of shit with him, like some bells from Cuba and shit like that. Then I built basically a giant set of chimes that had piezo microphones on them running through amplifiers, and then triggers coming off Ryan’s drums going into that stuff. I also rented a marimba and I built this weird thing that only got used a little bit on the record but I’ll give myself points for being ambitious. It was like a tree, almost like a crucifix of wood with these bowls hanging down. They went from small to large at the bottom, tilted, and you would pour water in them. The fact they were hanging, you could hit them with mallets and every one of them had a microphone. It was just really weird [laughs].
I also used this thing I’ve used on Damaged Bug records [another of Dwyer’s musical projects] before called the acid piano, it’s this big apparatus I built in my house using power tools while on LSD. I remember my ex-girlfriend was like, “Are you building that on acid? Is everything okay?” And I was like, “Yeah! I got it.” I was in the zone. But it’s just piano strings stretched over this big bowed instrument that has pickups on it, and you can hammer those as well. Then of course just lots of electronic drums. There’s a lot of old school stuff I have, but also really cheap, new shit they’re making that emulates these cool old Simmons machines. Basically the trigger was Ryan’s drum kit going into most of my stuff. It’s hard to describe exactly what came out of it, but there was a lot of interesting and fun little things. It’s definitely a weird record. I encourage everybody to check it out who’s into my stuff, but at the same time, it’s not… It’s hooky but in a weird way. It’s a strange record. It was really fun to make, certainly the sounds. I sent it to a buddy of mine last night and he was like, “I don’t even know what this is. What is this?” And I was like, “That’s kind of the point, to not know what you’re listening to.”
AJT: I was in Paris last week at a Christian Marclay exhibition and his work really reminded me of yours. He has one art piece where he sticks together broken vinyl to create these scratchy song collages, and then another where he ties a guitar to the back of a truck and records the distortion as it drags along the road. There’s a real exploration of using equipment as part of a sound, utilising damage and the history of that damage. I saw you perform in London last time you were here, and the way you tap the guitar lead on the symbols to create these mad sounds, or scratch your guitar on the floor, there’s that same unpredictability of sound.
JD: That’s always my favourite thing, to hear something crazy on a record and I’m like, “What the fuck is that?” I love anything that’s made out of necessity. There are people like Fred Frith, for instance, the British guitar player, he would play guitar with a ribbon. Stretching the boundaries of what something is supposed to be used for is always very entertaining to me. I’ve always loved watching other people do that on stage. There’s a million bands I could go over that I’ve seen do wild shows. Of course there’s Einstürzende Neubauten grinding stuff on stage, or Sonic Youth back in the day, or Glenn Branca. Just pushing the extremes of sound. When I was a kid coming up on guitar, it was my favourite thing ever when a guitar player would make their guitar not sound like a guitar. I remember one time Osees were particularly loaded – I think it was in London – and somebody gave me a bag of weed as I walked on stage. We ended up doing a whole set of an improv bit where I had this bag of marijuana shoved under my strings, there was a kid right up front like [puts his hands on his head and mouth wide open]. He’s like, “Is that a bag of weed?” [both laugh] I was having fun with it. Some of it’s spectacle but I’ve always been inspired by anyone who can pull something new out of something that’s so typical, like the guitar. I mean, the guitar has been done to death, obviously. I think, Pitchfork has been saying for twenty years that it’s the end of rock music or guitar music. But that’s always horseshit, of course. There’s always somewhere you can push.
“When I was a kid coming up on guitar, it was my favourite thing ever when a guitar player would make their guitar not sound like a guitar.”
AJT: Seeing you live is such a visceral experience. I heard you used to run your microphone through an answering machine, is that true?
JD: Maybe in Coachwhips and Pink and Brown [Dwyer’s former bands]. We actually ripped that off and I have to give credit where it’s due. It was Bob Log III who taught me that. He was in a great band called Doo Rag back in the day. Usually it would be the earpiece from old bell telephones like the old plastic house phones, you could take that out and it was just a speaker with two leads on the back. If you wired it and put it to an amp you could talk through it. Lightning Bolt does it as well, lots of the bands from my hometown. But Bob Log was the first. I would sew it into the mouth of my mask so I never had to be standing at one particular place. You could hear me breathing in between songs.
“I always find myself watching the drummer at a show, because unless somebody’s really active on stage, I just enjoy watching somebody hit the drums.”
AJT: That’s what makes Osees so special, those unusual sounds that fly around and play with your perception.
JD: This week, I’ve been working on our new record so much – to the point where I’m completely sick of it. I’ve been having terrible insomnia. Something that happened the other night that’s never happened to me before was that this one song from our record was stuck in my head but in a very unpleasant way, where at first I was like, “Oh, it’s really an earworm. It’s super hooky.” Because our new record coming up, we tried to be very verse-chorus-verse, very catchy, but it was like too fucking much, man. I literally couldn’t sleep, I had to get up and read a book for two hours to get it out of my mind. Now, I’m terrified of that happening again. Maybe I’ve broken my mind by working on this for so long. I’ve had my head up my ass for so many months now, working on my own stuff, I’ve really realised I need a break.
We’re about to go to Australia to play shows and I’m very excited about that because I just need to see somewhere else and go to the beach. Playing live is not the same thing as what I’m talking about. Playing live is this visceral, cathartic event. It might as well be like you’re playing a game of football, chess or whatever. It’s not the same as writing and rehearsing, you have a crowd, you have interactions with other people. I definitely need to get out of my own head right now, because I’m so sick of myself. The other night lying in bed, listening to my own song in my head, I was like, “This is horrible.” I was like, “Fuck! I hope it doesn’t mean the song is horrible.” I had a real moment.
AJT: It seeped into your soul.
JD: It’s never happened before! I was sober, so it wasn’t like a drug thing. But I can compare it to when you’ve done too much cocaine and in the middle of night you’re trying to sleep but your brain is racing. It’s the dark end of the night where your brain is like, “Fuck you for doing this! Here’s what I’m going to do to you.” The JJ Cale song or any of the songs about cocaine always refer to this moment. That hasn’t happened again since, but I’ve certainly been taking a dose of melatonin.
AJT: [laughs] I can’t wait to hear it. What’s the new record like compared to A Foul Form?
JD: A Foul Form was so intensively intentional, I set out to make a sound and I think we nailed it. But I remember when I was mixing it, I would have to take breaks every two hours because my ears would be fucking exhausted. That record is meant to be listened to for ten to twenty minutes frequency-wise and mental health-wise. When you’re mixing, it takes a lot longer and two hours in I was deaf. My ears were exhausted and I couldn’t listen anymore. It’s so aggressive, which was the point, but that’s why it’s short as well, to keep it a fist fight: it’s over really quickly, if everything goes as planned. The new record is more… We’ve gotten out of the zone of writing verse-chorus-verse. I used to do it all the time, and I’m not opposed to standard song format but with A Foul Form I was able to get back into that because punk songs are almost condensed versions of a pop song. That got me back on the trip of thinking we have to give the audience a little more to grab onto. People want to hear these tracks from back in the day, like The Dream, or Tidal Wave, these classics of ours that have become fan favourites, they have verse-chorus-verse, and I’m trying to get back in that realm. Somehow we got out of that and were doing all these instrumentals. I don’t want to tell you too much because I think it’ll be better as a surprise. There’s a continuous thread from the last record. It’s still pretty snappy, but not nearly as snotty.
AJT: Great tagline [both laugh].
JD: The point of it was to make a really hooky record.
AJT: Does your process change depending on the style of record you’re making?
JD: Kind of but not really. For us, it’s old hat to switch gears, change speeds, or whatever. This one may be a little bit different because, for instance, Protean Threat  was written more in the rehearsal space with the full band, where somebody would bring an idea and we’d jam. I would take it home and be like, “OK, from minute one through four there’s something interesting happening. We should translate that part and actually learn how to play it.” Then we’d take it from there. So a lot of the more bloated prog records were taken from jam sessions, and I would edit them down from probably 30 hours to 30 minutes, taking all the best bits. It’s fun but you would get out of that verse-chorus-verse I’m talking about.
A Foul Form was mostly written early on by me and Tim [Hellman, bass] he’d come to my house and I have all these hilarious demos, just me on a drum machine and him playing punk riffs. This one was written very much the same way except starting with me and Tom [Dolas, synth] at my house, because this record is very keyboard-centric. This record should have Tom’s fucking face on the cover, but we got a better cover, a better looking face than Tom [laughs]. But it’s super him – I used him to the hilt on this one. Then we brought it to Tim and the drummers. If you build a demo like that and come in with an idea, it’s always interesting to see how other people’s involvement changes it.
AJT: On that, I want to speak about your use of dual drummers. It’s a mesmerising sight seeing them play together live. What was the initial thinking behind that? And how is it for you performing live next to two drummers? It must be loud.
JD: Oh it’s loud. I like it loud, though. I don’t wear earplugs on stage. I’ll do like heavy duty toilet paper in practice, but for me it’s always a part of really feeling the moment. Last night I went to see this band Paranoiac in a little bar in LA. They were loud as shit and I was like, “Yes! This is what I need right now.” It was a rough fucking week and I just wanted to go see a metal band in my face to squash out everything else. Dan [Rincon] and Paul [Quattrone, Osees drummers] are really good. In terms of compatibility and their abilities, they’re probably the best double drummer set-up I’ve had, and I’ve had a few over the years. There’s obviously The Grateful Dead, Adam and the Ants, The Allman Brothers Band. Bow Wow Wow, there are millions of bands I can think of that have had more than one drummer or are drum-centric like that.
I love drums and having them right up front. I always find myself watching the drummer at a show, because unless somebody’s really active on stage, I just enjoy watching somebody hit the drums. So it was a little bit of a selfish thing, and it depends from record to record whether or not they’re syncopated or in unison. I think a lot of people assume they’re playing the same thing, but more often they’re really not, they’re just in time with each other. And that’s the point, to have two guys, a twin engine, playing together, and also playing against each other, but not filling up all the spaces because it can get too much really quickly. My favourite thing to do is have them playing something slightly different from each other and then when you hit a hook in the song, have them come in together in unison. It’s a cheap trick, but it totally works – everything gets powerful. That’s the moment for everybody to headbang or throw a beer and get it out of their systems. We’ve all had a fucking exhausting year.
“It was a rough fucking week and I just wanted to go see a metal band in my face to squash out everything else.”
AJT: It’s a euphoric moment. In the pictures taken for this feature inside your home, you can see all your sci-fi comic memorabilia. What is it about these worlds that appeals to you?
JD: I mean, I’m a man-child-idiot. I genuinely love this stuff but also it reminds me of being a kid, when things were very simple, easy and happy. I do have a lot of toys, but I’ve limited my consumption because it’s just idiotic at a certain point. Most of it is in my studio downstairs. I just like my life to be noisy, visual and stimulating. But also, every now and then I crave a white room [laughs]. I always imagine after I’m dead somebody’s at an auction and they’re like, “One dollar for the toy collection! Do I hear one dollar?” [both laugh] With my ex-girlfriend Heidi the joke was always that when I inevitably die before her, this all becomes her problem.
AJT: Is there a sci-fi or horror soundtrack you particularly love?
JD: I just went through all the Mad Max George Miller movies again and those Brian May soundtracks – not Queen Brian May, he’s an Australian composer who wrote these classical scores that are really far out and heavy. Also Fantastic Planet and the soundtrack from Michael Mann’s Manhunter, even though it’s not technically sci-fi. I always like films that are mildly futuristic: “In the very near future…” I love this term that somebody came up with, ‘the boring apocalypse’. I don’t know if you’ve heard that but they’re using it on the news here and they’re like, “Who knew that the future… You have all this shit. You have AI and you have a super powerful computer in your pocket. And everything is so fucking dull. And you’re addicted to it all.” It’s not like Blade Runner where you’re running down the neon street in the rain, you’re at home alone staring at a screen [laughs].
I find that sci-fi melancholic quality super appealing. Of course, you have Vangelis from Blade Runner, which is like a basic bitch, classic, awesome sci-fi soundtrack. And 2001: A Space Odyssey, I think somebody told me that is one of the most pressed records of all time. I really like the use of classical and jazz – Howard Shore and Ornette Coleman in Naked Lunch for instance, which is a fantastic [David] Cronenberg soundtrack. I had that on cassette when I was a kid. I didn’t even really like jazz at the time, but somehow that soundtrack was so haunting and far out. I really dug it.
AJT: Have you ever been asked to do a soundtrack?
JD: A little bit here and there. I like selling songs to TV shows I like, but I would love to do something more serious. I’ve certainly embarrassingly reached out to directors I admire. One I reached out to was Ben Wheatley. He probably never even got the email. I was like, [puts on nerdy voice] “I really like your movies. I would love to make music for your movies.” [both laugh] After that, I watched a documentary about the guy who actually does his soundtracks and he’s like an OG English guy who’s fucking awesome. It’d be great to work with somebody I appreciate and respect. Brandon Cronenberg’s been crushing it, he’s got a new one coming out this weekend I’m excited to see. His shit is very intense. He has a great view on humanity, I suppose. [laughs]
AJT: With such a prolific output, how do you reflect on your work? Do you look back at all your records in a row or is it more, “Onto the next one?”
JD: I feel the same way everybody else does, that it’s completely overwhelming, and I’m always moving forward. The intent was not to produce a ton of material, but once I realised I could… Lately, I’ve been really enjoying working with tons of people. When I was a kid and I first started playing guitar, I took two or three lessons that were very helpful. They taught me Back in Black by AC/DC, The Boys are Back in Town, and how to string my guitar. I took those chords and wrote 100 songs with them. But for me it was always about working with other people, and the more I’ve established myself as not a complete moron, the more I think I can get in touch with people and speak about collaborations.
AJT: So many musicians are very self-conscious of making the wrong move, or changing things up, it’s really refreshing to have a band running on instinct, having fun.
JD: I have pretty good taste in other people’s music, that’s one thing I’ll say for myself, I tend to like good shit. There’s so much good art out there, it’s completely exhausting soaking it all up. That’s the whole point, to enjoy what people put out there and take it into life.