THEE OH SEES: SLAP A SLEEPING LION IN THE NUTS
San Francisco’s Thee Oh Sees are live-show legends, a magically berserk fivesome whose double-drummer seismic psych-stomp is poised to bounce the Bay Area straight into the sea. The band, as everyone surely knows by now, began as an outlet for renaissance nutter John Dwyer (Coachwhips, The Hospitals, Yikes, Pink and Brown, Landed, Burmese, Zeigenbock Kopf, The Monkees, The Beatles, the Vienna Boys Choir) to release his perpetually mutating one-man art-folk-garage-noise-boff-thwack-etcetera recordings. In time the project grew into a full band, with an ecstatic Petey Dammit on guitar-as-bass and vocalist Brigid Dawson bringing queerly perfect counterpoints to Dwyer’s lead melodies and guitar. Dawson also plays keyboard and tambourine, and two drummers—most recently Mike Shoun and Lars Finberg—make sure their sets stay deranged. The Sees’ staggering output swings across styles, from Dwyer’s old-timey psychopop tinkerings (see last year’s baroque-spiked Castlemania) to luscious live-taped racket (Carrion Crawler/The Dream—also from last year). Their latest, Putrifiers II, throws all of this together and gilds a few edges with gorgeous strings. In advance of our Sept. 8 pre-party and their Sept. 9 El Rey show, Dawson and Dammit talk slaying orcs, slaughtering fear, and finding proper uses for TV. This interview by Rin Kelly.
Brigid, you threw a TV out a window once! What was on?
Brigid Dawson (vocals): It was off! There was nothing on and it was purely for the experience. I had never done it; I was with a friend in New York and we were drinking a little whiskey, and he was like, ‘Let’s throw this TV out the window. You can cross that off your list.’
Is that the most rock god act you’ll admit to in print? I’m guessing there are others.
BD: I personally am not much of a rock god, unfortunately. But that was a very ridiculous thing that I thought, ‘Aw man, I’m just gonna do it.’ That’s the one I’d admit to in print.
Is there any one show, cultural phenomenon, philosophy or idea most deserves a good metaphorical window tossing?
BD: That women can’t be geniuses. Not that I think that I am one.
Petey, what’s it like to be a man playing in a garage band? Since everyone asks Brigid what it’s like to be a woman.
Petey Dammit (guitar): It’s really tough to be a man in a garage band. I have to do two hours of Wii Fit every morning just to stay in shape enough to not pass out on stage during our shows. I like Wii Fit because no one will judge me if I take a smoke break or do push-ups from my knees.
My friend Chrysta wore an Oh Sees shirt to get her state ID photo taken—she’s got her fannishness forever on file. What kind of pathological behaviors is she going to have to beat if she wants to make your top five superfans? Feel free to really terrify her.
BD: I don’t think we’re that hard to please, honestly, as a band. If she comes to the shows and has a good time and smiles, I personally am totally happy. You know what, it’s wonderful that she did that. That’s a great one.
John Dwyer told us once that a woman sent him a light-switch cover with his face on it.
BD: She’s probably up there. I get passed weird notes and stuff like that, like ‘I love you! I’m here to see you!’ I’m not really sure what it means, because I think people must see bands and pick certain people and think, ‘That’s the one I like.’ I think I’m quite a mellow person so I don’t get too many freaky, freaky people hassling me. Some guy followed me home from a gig. He was a friend—a nice person. He also jumped into my sleeping bag at the end of the night and I had to go sleep in the other room. It was just too much.
BD: It wasn’t terrifying—he’s actually a lovely person. But that was a strange superfan moment.
It seems like the John Dwyer of 10 or 15 years ago had a band for every style he wanted to play around with, whereas Thee Oh Sees as a consistent group of musicians have ended up touching on most everything those individual bands explored. Is that more a matter of Dwyer settling down or of his working with a very particular group of people with expansive tastes?
PD: It might be a little of both? I think he and the rest of us are getting older and don’t have the energy or time to explore lots of other projects. Plus, Thee Oh Sees tour so much it’s harder to get other things going. We as a group are also interested in a wide variety of musical styles so it’s easy for us to mix things up a little during the Sunday Mass.
I was trying to find the dumbest thing on the internet recently and discovered a whole underworld of Coldplay fanfiction. There are stories about Coldplay at the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Coldplay in the Wizard of Oz. What kind of fictional adventure would Thee Oh Sees excel at?
PD: Whoa, you just blew my mind with this information. I think we would be most suited in a Dungeons and Dragons story. Slaying orcs, finding treasure, and having a plus six to damage.
BD: Are you talking about Coldplay the band? I might be having a generational moment. Oh my goodness. We would have to be a military unit. I really do think that. And I don’t even believe in the military at all, but you’d have to give us guns and jobs to do. Like the A-Team maybe.
What would your specialty be?
BD: I think I would take a pistol. I’ve held an AK-47 but that’s too heavy to really work with. I like air rifles, so I think maybe a rifle would work?
When did you hold an AK-47?
BD: I was 18 and I was in Africa, and we were traveling down a road that was notorious for having bandit attacks. I was on a safari; they had to have armed escorts at different points along this road. We got out and met this guy, and he was really nice. I was with my real father, and he loved my father and asked my dad if he could buy me, as the story goes. I always thought my dad was considering it. Like, ‘Well maybe—how many guns do you have?’ My dad’s from the South. But he told me recently, ‘Brigid! I would never do that.’ It’s nice to know my dad cares.
You guys bring a kind of portable psychosis with you to your shows. Do you ever have to work to find that pitch, or there just always a natural combustion when you all get together?
BD: I just feel like we slip into it. It comes from just wanting to play a good show. It’s that simple. We play some shows where the portable psychosis does not happen, like every band. I always look at other people in bands and think, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice to just sing into a microphone and kind of stand still?’ That would be really lovely. But it’s just how we do it, and it makes sense for the music.
Petey in particular is always reliably excitable. What advice would you give to people who want to live their lives with their heads on fire?
PD: Firstly, don’t actually set your head on fire—you’re too cute to mess up your moneymaker. Have the best time you can have at every moment possible; don’t worry about what others will think because they probably think a lot of things you don’t agree with anyways.
Brigid, your regular advice to young women in music is to aim for fearlessness. Can a person teach her- or himself to be fearless?
BD: Yeah you have to, don’t you? We’re all different people, and I would not say that I’m fearless now. I think when I said that in an interview it’s that it’s what I hope for women, that they don’t ever have to spend too much time thinking about other people. I know that sounds really selfish but they can fucking go for the thing they really want, whatever that may be. In the same way that a guy would do it, without thinking too much about what your family thinks or your brothers, or anything like that. Just do it.
It doesn’t sound selfish. We’re supposed to consider everyone else first and that doesn’t always make for the most exciting or outlandish or personal art.
BD: It doesn’t—it’s totally true. I absolutely hope that for every young woman that I know, I hope that they get to do that. And I think you do have to teach yourself that, and it doesn’t have to be a weird, hardcore, terrifying thing. You just make sure you carry on doing what you want to do.
I know you said you originally started getting onstage with a little bit of help from Southern Comfort.
BD: I did. Oh God. That was one way to do it. I would not recommend that now, but you have to try every part of life. Otherwise, what is your life? You have to try all the different ways of doing things. But as far as doing that over long term, you’re gonna end up like a Janis or a Billie. You don’t want that. Teaching yourself can be in really little ways, like making sure that you join the band, and that even if you’re shy or nervous you find a way. It’s indescribable. You find a way to just play, probably because you want to play so bad—you just get over that stuff. It’s little increments of getting better and better and it just gets easier and easier. You have to work at it.
Petey, what are you craving?
PD: Puss … Pizza Hut.
What shithole had the biggest impact on your life?
PD: Raytown, Missouri. The same town that the show Mama’s Family was based in was where I was raised. If I’d have grown up anywhere else I certainly wouldn’t be the same.
BD: I lived in a place called Lewisham, in southeast London. Back then when I lived there it was a shithole—it’s like the armpit of London. Even Londoners don’t want to go there. It’s nicer now, and I love it actually. It’s dangerous and boring and bleak, so bleak. So gray and so bleak. Basically I lived there for a long time and I was loving being in England and all of that stuff, but eventually it’s a place you have to escape from and probably never, ever go back to. That was when I moved to California and my whole life changed—and I started playing in a band that I really loved.
Lewisham sounds familiar but I don’t know any specifics about its shitholiness.
BD: Do you know what a chav is? It was like that. It was dire.
Petey’s obsessed with British comedy shows. Which ones, why, and what do you have against America, Petey? Also—can I interview you as Alan Partridge?
PD: Some of my favorites are Green Wing, Black Books, Celebrity Juice, The Young Ones/Bottom, Nighty Night, Ideal, Big Train. I could list them for days. Recently I’ve been watching Phone Shop, and the pilot for Verry Terry with Terry Tibbs was amazing. I’m also excited for the new Charlie Brooker crime drama, A Touch of Cloth. I like English comedies because they have more substance to them. They play more on the uncomfortable situations in life or are more based in something any person can relate to. American TV shows are generally stuck in an archaic formula, such as ‘This is why it sucks to be married,’ and the situations are unreal or unrelatable. How did that dumpy guy score such a hot wife?! I have nothing against America. Even though we are generally xenophobic religious nutjobs who think we deserve everything without doing much. And yes, I’ll go get my Alan Partridge tie and blazer badge set. Ah-haaaaaaa!
Here’s a question from Mr. Partridge: How much influence did Orange County’s great Sugar Ray have on the development of The OC, either as a musicians or as boxers?
PD: Well, Alan, I would say Sugar Ray has influenced us greatly by showing us that if you make shitty pop music, you can make lots of money, get rid of your band, and then go on to host entertainment shows on TV.
If Chris Morris interviewed a Mr. Peter Dammit on The Day Today or Brass Eye, what horrible thing would Mr. Dammit be doing, and how would Morris brusquely admonish him?
PD: Hopefully I would have a made up name like Callon O’Hallahallaran, but he would probably drill me about my involvement in the Rashida Jones sex-tape scandal which resulted in the destruction of one million boxed Furbies.
Putrifiers II is a real ‘always different, always the same’ sort of album, singular but similar, lush in spots, and a bit subtler than usual. Was the writing process different?
BD: Well this would be a question for John because it’s mostly a John album. I sing on some of the songs but the rest of the guys, as far as the whole Oh Sees, it wasn’t us playing that. It was John.
This wasn’t another instance of everybody recording live to tape with Chris Woodhouse in Sacramento?
BD: The writing is all John, and we certainly didn’t have a part in it. But I was up there watching him do it, and I know he did most of it live. Well, I guess it wasn’t actually! I know he was doing the drums and stuff with Chris Woodhouse, and he was probably playing some of the drums, but I guess he was tracking it a little bit more. When we went up to do the vocals on the songs it was definitely that the songs were already recorded and we were singing to it in headphones—which is not how Thee Oh Sees normally do stuff at all.
You’ve said that when writing songs, John comes in with an idea and then you all go to work on building it collectively. Brigid, your voice is your main instrument—what kind of influences do you add to Oh Sees songs?
BD: I love opera. I love Leontyne Price—beautiful, beautiful voice, an American woman, so not Maria Callas. Mahalia Jackson! These are people I’ve loved from early on. And I love Elvis, I love Madness. My first single was Adam and the Ants. I guess none of these are shockers. It’s nice that though we collectively like a lot of the same music, we have quite widely different tastes as individuals.
Petey, what is it about musicians like Victor Villarreal, Tex Carman, and Wilko Johnson that you respond to, and how can their influence be heard in your work?
PD: These guys all impressed me with their playing styles. Each one of them has a picking approach that is completely different from the other millions of guitarists that have played. A guitar teacher would never suggest you play like them, and that’s what interests me about them. Just because there is one way of doing something doesn’t mean it’s the only way. There was a bigger influence in my playing during albums like Masters Bedroom and Help, but not so much anymore unless you count the fact that I make a standard guitar sound like a bass. This came out of a necessity—and a happy accident with a strange guitar I was playing at the time—for a lower-sounding instrument to round everything out. I do miss my old set-up where I could quickly change between guitar and bass on the fly as needed.
What question do you never want to be asked again?
PD: ‘Would you rather slap a sleeping lion in the nuts, or explain the name Thee Oh Sees?’
BD: ‘What is it like to be a woman in a band? What’s it like to be the only girl?’ In a weird way, when I started doing interviews and people were asking me that I felt a strange sense of responsibility that I never expect to feel, because I’d never really—of course when you’re in bands your whole life you have experiences, you talk to other women musicians, you’re like ‘Oh my god, this happened again,’ and they say, ‘Oh yeah, I know that one.’ But at the same time you don’t think too much about it; you just get on with the job. Then all of the sudden I felt this responsibility, like good lord, I never got to read that many interviews with contemporary women musicians. I didn’t seek them out. And certainly ladies like Billie Holiday and Ella weren’t talking about what it was like to be a woman, really. They weren’t even addressing that issue. I would love for that never to even be a question, to be singled out as the odd one out. I don’t know why that is. It’s so stupid. But on the other hand, I would have loved to have read women’s honest opinions about the stuff they had to deal with. So I don’t know. I wish it weren’t even a question.
L.A. RECORD, GOLDENVOICE AND AQUARIUM DRUNKARD PRESENT THEE OH SEES WITH SIC ALPS, THE MALLARD, AND ZIG ZAGS ON SUN., SEPT. 9 AT EL REY THEATRE, 5515 WILSHIRE BLVD., LOS ANGELES. 8 PM / $17 / ALL AGES. GOLDENVOICE.COM. L.A. RECORD AND SINO TEQUILA PRESENT THEE OH SEES PRE-PARTY WITH WOUNDED LION (DJ SET) ON SAT., SEPT. 8, AT FOOTSIE’S BAR, 2640 FIGUEROA ST., CYPRESS PARK. 10 PM / FREE / 21+. WIN TICKETS TO THE SEPT. 9 SHOW AT THE PRE-PARTY! THEE OH SEES PUTRIFIERS II RELEASES TUE., SEPT. 11, ON IN THE RED. FACEBOOK.COM/THEEOHSEES.