A few nights later, Brigid Dawson is eager to find out if I’d been watching the football. Born in the UK, with family spread around the South West and Birmingham, she’s excited to tell me that her old man is a die-hard Tottenham fan. “He took me to a game at White Hart Lane the last time I was over,” she says from her home just outside of San Francisco. “I loved it – it had such a similar vibe to a live show.”
Dawson and Dwyer’s relationship goes back to the earliest days of this project. They worked together on almost all of the band’s output up until 2013 (and again in 2015) and their onstage chemistry arguably helped make the band such a spectacle live. It’s almost strange to find out that this meeting of minds has utterly mundane beginnings. “John was my customer at the coffee shop – I worked around the corner from where he lived,” she tells me, picking up the story. “We were all neighbours, the whole band pretty much lived within a block of each other. I’d walk over to John’s house from the cafe where I worked at and his friend Kyle Ranson was his roommate then; he was a painting hero. It was all just happening there, y’know, and the whole of San Francisco felt like that, not just my little group of friends.”
One of the first things to grab you about Dawson and Dwyer is that they both seem to vibe off the energy of each other. Dawson puts it beautifully when she says “working with John means living your life at quite a fast pace. You’re informed by his really amazing East Coast, working class, work ethic. Everything John has, he’s earned and he works really hard at it.
“You have to be part of a well-oiled machine,” she continues. “His work ethic spurs you to have a great work ethic if you hadn’t got one already. I’ve been making a record with somebody else and the pace of it has been really different – there have been times where I didn’t know what to do with myself. I feel like working with John has kind of turned me into a 15-year-old boy in a way. If it’s not done in a week I don’t know if I have the wherewithal to see it through, although I usually do.”
The pair have reunited recently for the second of the Oh Sees 2017 releases, which also just so happens to be the band’s twentieth record ever. Due to hit the shelves in November, ‘Memory of a Cut Off Head’ sees the band returning both to its original OCS moniker and their quieter, more folk-informed roots. A co-production between Dawson and Dwyer, it’s a record that feels like a complete about-turn when compared to ‘Orc’. Gone are the wild improvisations and duelling drum kits, replaced by lush, stripped back acoustic arrangements that are sumptuous in texture, yet satisfyingly retain the gentle grace of the band’s early work. It’s both a re-examination of old times, a solemn meditation on the hectic pace of the last twenty years and perhaps even a respite from it. “After all, I’m a man in his 40s,” remarks Dwyer when the subject of the new record crops up. “It makes sense not to get shitfaced all the time.”
“This one has been a little bit different,” beams Dawson when I asked her about reconnecting with Dwyer. “For the first time, I’ve got my own songs on this album. So it’s a bit different from our old working relationship and it’s been really nice. It’s actually been really calm – the calmest experience I’ve had working with John. It’s been really easy – you fly down to LA, you play each other your songs and then work them out together. It has been way more relaxed actually than my previous ten years working with him. We all had jobs, we were all building this thing from scratch and touring as much as we could. This has been an utterly different experience. It’s been like hanging out as friends and making music together. We took our time on this one.”
“Yeah, it’s been cool,” agrees Dwyer. “It’s like a variation on the old setup, but it’s progressed. The older version of the OCS was extremely simple compared to the more recent stuff, but this time we’ve brought in more players, which adds a whole new dimension to the sound. So rather than having me butchering my way through a keyboard part, we’ve brought in some people who can actually play the harpsichord. I wanted it to sound good, but also pretty warm. I hate when things sound too perfect. I’m really, really about the little fuck ups that make a record sound human.”
This all begs the obvious question though – is ‘Memory of a Cut off Head’ a conscious call back to the Oh Sees original set up; a love letter to the simplicity of earlier times, as it were? Well, if it is, the pair aren’t admitting it. “It wasn’t until much later on that I realised that this was the 20th anniversary of OCS,” explains Dawson. “I don’t think there was a plan, we were just doing what we do. You have to keep things fresh and keep inspired, but you also have to keep things moving forward. It’s just that with this one, that just so happened to reach back to something that was in the past as well.”
Keeping things fresh is what the Oh Sees is all about. Both the band and Castle Face – the equally prolific label Dwyer runs with his partners Matt Jones and Brian Lee Hughes – are determined to keep their musical horizons as broad as possible. “We’ve been pigeonholed very hardcore into the garage rock scene here,” Dwyer tells me as we talk about his future projects. “But, y’know, we always trying to branch out all the damn time – we have books coming out again next year. More electronic stuff and more, like, odd stuff.” Whatever happens next, Thee Oh Sees, Oh Sees, OCS or whatever they feel like calling themselves will continue to simultaneously push the envelope while flummoxing and inspiring a generation of fans, musicians and critics along the way, ultimately by being so incredibly self-sufficient.
I ask Dawson how it feels to be in a band that is considered the mothership of the post-millennial garage scene. “Are we even garage rock?” she shoots back almost instantly. “I suppose we do have that vibe, because we all love that kind of stuff collectively, but I think the influences come from a lot of other places too. When you say it to me now, I think of a bunch of bros. It doesn’t really grab me, y’know…”
Yeah, but you can’t deny that a lot of garage bands have been inspired by your music though, I say.
“That’s true,” she counters. “Sometimes I hear things when I’m out and about and I know it’s not us, but it sounds like us, which is so strange. But that’s the way music works, y’know, you fall in love with music and then you do your very best to write something on par with the thing you love. Of course, it often comes out completely different, but it will have shades of that old thing that you love. I suppose that’s what garage rock is now – it’s a conversation with all the other bands that are doing that kind of stuff.”
3 albums to start a new obsession with this enduring, evolving group
OCS – Cool Death of Island Raiders
Narnack Records, 2006
This might sound a little hard to believe, but for a band with such a hard-rocking reputation, Dwyer originally intended OCS to be a much softer and altogether stranger project than the one it became known as. Slightly misunderstood at the time, ‘Island Raiders’ is a surprisingly laid-back affair, with gentle freak-folk melodies and tender-hearted, almost cutesy vocals.
Thee Oh Sees – Help
In The Red, 2009
If there is such a thing as a quintessential Oh Sees record, then ‘Help’ is it. Although technically their eighth studio album, it was only the band’s second record under ‘Thee Oh Sees’ and it basically forms a blueprint for the Cramps-meets-Jefferson Airplane sound John Dwyer and company have perfected since. Dialling back the free improvisation of the earlier records, songs like ‘Rainbows’ and ‘Meat Step Lively’ are taut, riff-chugging freak-outs.
Oh Sees – Orc
Castle Face 2017
Back in 2013, Dwyer dissolved the long-running Petey Dammit, Brigid Dawson, Mike Shoun version of the Oh Sees. Since then, the band has been slowly transcending into rock’s furthest reaches, reintroducing the experimentation and extended jam sessions that make the band’s live shows so legendary. ‘Orc’ is the latest postcard from their travels and adds even more ingredients into the formula, from free-form Afro-jazz on ‘Raw Optics’ to the breezy, almost Ratatat-like dream-pop of ‘Cooling Tower’.