For two decades now, John Dwyer has been an influential and spirited force within the garage, psych, and noise rock scenes. He's consistently churning out incredibly loud and increasingly experimental music through numerous projects but is best known for his work as the frontman and leader of Oh Sees.
Recently, the band unveiled their twenty-second studio album, Face Stabber, which saw them continue to adapt and push their sound in new directions. Blending genres like krautrock, punk, thrash metal, no-wave, and psychedelic, the album is a far cry from the straightforward garage rock they debuted 15 years ago and a testament to Dwyer's tireless quest for the innovative and unconventional.
KEXP had the pleasure of speaking to Dwyer (and his dog, Hank, who was incredibly vocal) about championing other artists, the duality of running a label and running a band, and burnout while debating the age-old question: how many drummers is too many drummers?
KEXP: Hi John! Where are you at right now?
John Dwyer: I'm sitting in my house. Very exciting stuff. I'm on a black vinyl couch. It's an attractive couch but it's not great during the summer months.
Oh yeah, I can imagine. You can't have it all with a couch.
No. You can have design or comfort but nary the two shall meet.
Exactly. So you just released your twenty-second album, Face Stabber, which is, as always, fantastic. How do you feel about the reception and do you pay attention to that at all?
Thank you. No, I try not to. I find it pretty disheartening regardless. We usually get slammed by the press that would like something like Taylor Swift or something anyway so there's no need to be bitter about it because it's obviously not for everybody. That being said, I don't really read reviews because even when they're positive I still find it upsetting.
I can see that. I've heard other artists describe releasing an album as kind of like having a baby but for you, when you're having a baby literally every year, does the intensity or excitement subside?
No, I always enjoy recording a record and I definitely would not compare it to having a baby. I would never want to have a baby, not in a million years. Whereas if that were the case it'd be like I had 20 something children which is like my own personal hell. but I think it's a personal thing I guess. But I haven't lost any of the...I still enjoy putting it together. Recording it, writing it with the band, and touring it and working with artists for cover art and all that.
Do you have a better analogy?
Not really. I didn't expect to come into this to have to beat the baby analogy but no, not really. I mean it's like any art, you know, it's like working on a painting for instance. That's like the coolest thing I can think of. You're obviously taking from your surroundings and taking from your own personal self and putting it into something that somebody else can take their own thing away from. So it's not like I'm just making it for myself. So there obviously is an element of extrovertedness to it.
Absolutely. So you're a huge champion, and some could say, mentor, of young upcoming artists. Helping bands like King Gizzard, Ty Segall, and White Fence put out albums and kind of solidifying their place within the music scene. Are there any new bands you're vibing on or excited about right now that we should be paying attention to?
There's so many great bands out there right now. It's a really good time I think because rock is so unhip it's actually become like the true underground again. Electronic music and pop music and contemporary hip hop are really taking off now and becoming more homogenized which makes it better for people that make the kind of stuff that we make to truly get weird and keep it underground in a way. But to answer your question, last night I went to see a band called Kamikaze Palm Tree, who you may or may not have heard of.
God, they were so good! I was so impressed, I really was. And they're super young which makes it even more exciting because there's a lot of young bands out there but I feel like there's a laziness to music in my scene in rock. You know, you see some bands and I don't really know how to describe it without sounding negative which I really don't want to do because I want everybody that wants to make music to make it and make it how they want. But every now and then you see a band really just kicks your ass and that's how these guys are live. They're incredible. There's this girl in it that I know the best out of all the members, just peripherally, but her name is Dylan and she plays with White Fence and Cate Le Bon and she actually was a graduate of the School of Rock in San Francisco which is fascinating to me that she's like a success story in my mind.
But I went and saw her band last night and it's her, a boy guitar player whose name I want to say is Cole, and then a new guy who I just met last night. I didn't catch his name but he played really simple like low-end synthesizer. They remind me of Magic Band at times but kind of punk though and pretty far out. Just really hard to describe but they were fucking great. Another band you probably know, Uranium Club. The band I saw last night had a very similar vibe to them. Not sound-wise but the way they made me feel was just a very concise awesome thing.
There's also been a lot of good jazz coming around L.A. but it's a lot more old-timey so it's not like anything new but I've been digging in more into live jazz which is about as far away as you can get from what I've seen a million times. It's really nice to see these masterful jazz players do their thing. But yeah, Kamikaze Palm Tree was my one take away this week of a band where I was like, "Holy shit, they're fantastic." So that's awesome.
Have you ever had a champion or a mentor yourself?
I don't know if I would even describe myself that way, frankly, but yeah actually I could say I had people who definitely were very helpful discerning the path for me of what I wanted to do. Like Dan St. Jacques, who's the singer of the band Landed from Providence, who I played with for a short while. He was definitely one of the people that showed me how you should go on stage and not be concerned with what people think or what you look like because it doesn't really matter. None of that matters. Life is too short to be pent up about putting on your makeup or making sure you look acceptable for the fans. I don't think any of that matters if the music speaks for itself. And also not being scared to perform.
I got lucky growing up in Providence. There were a lot of people that you could take inspiration from but they were all kind of around my age. "Mentor" to me means older automatically. But you know people from Fort Thunder and Lightning Bolt all had this very DIY aesthetic they would put on their own shows right where I grew up. We weren't rich. My dad was a mechanic, my mom was a secretary. So I already had a little bit of a DIY ethos just out of necessity. We would make our own punk shirts and stuff like that just because I had no money. As you get older you realize that none of that really matters all that much either. Those guys were all a huge inspiration.
Also, there's a woman named Sandra Roberts in Rhode Island too who like put together this sort of female-run compound called the Dirt Palace which is pretty commendable. That was a little bit after my time but still, it was cool to see somebody just buy a building and do whatever the hell they want with it. And she was a terrifying woman. I find her more scary to have mad at you than any of the dudes in Providence. But the fact that she would go to like meetings at town hall or whatever and be a part of the community, all that kind of stuff is informative to me.
Do you have to separate the record label running side of you and the band frontman side of you at all or are they able to coexist? Because it seems like those would be very different sides of the brain.
They are very different and luckily I have my partner Matt Jones who does all the real work [at Castle Face]. I just find bands and talk to people and make connections. When it comes down to like signing on the dotted line they're going to be talking to Matt, not me. That being said, I'm also in the band that needs to get paid from the label so I sort of have my feet in both worlds since it's technically my label, me and Matt are 50/50 partners. It's good for the band because I can keep my guys from having to have a regular job and that way I can have them on call to write or tour or whatever without worrying about that and that they're comfortable.
But also making sure that the label doesn't go under. That's always looming in the corner like death. Especially in the way we are. We don't own any of the bands' rights so any money for placement is their money, not ours. Even though that's not the precedent, I feel like that's how a lot of the bigger labels will make their money is they own masters of the band's music and then they basically build up their placement department to get movie and commercial stuff and then they get to keep half the money. That's really how a lot of labels keep the money coming in the door is not necessarily physical sales unless they're lucky and they have a record that sells a lot.
Have there been close calls where you've thought "We're not gonna make it"?
Yeah definitely. I feel like 99.9% of bands are just pursuing their dream and whether they're good or not is irrelevant because there's a lot of great bands out there that never make it. Which kind of blows my mind but it's all subjective as well. But there's so many bands that I can think of where I'm like, "How is this band not huge?" Where they're innovative and interesting and they have enough of a pop aesthetic that they could have some crossover to the normies or whatever. Thank God for radio stations like you guys, honestly.
Yeah, that's essentially our whole goal.
Yeah but it's true, KEXP is so great.
Well, we love you guys too. I'm curious about the band dynamic as you've changed lineups and gotten more experimental and jammy. Is it more of a democratic and collaborative band now or are you still very much running the show?
I feel like everybody gets their say and lately people have been coming up with good ideas so it's hard to deny them their great ideas but I'm still the boss. I've been around the longest and was the original member. That being said, I listen to everything anybody says and everybody has their own input to their own parts and a lot of times somebody writing something in a song will change the whole direction of the song and by the end it's something completely different that's completely due to their part so they have a lot of input into it.
A lot of times I'll put them on the spot on stage and be like, "What do you wanna play?" And they'll be like, "Uhhh." And I"m like "That's what it's like to be the boss." Or they say a song that we haven't played in four years and I'm like, "You know we don't know how to play that, man, come on." They panic. But every now and then they're kind of on point too. So it's hard to say, it's like gambling every night.
Gotta keep them on their toes.
Yeah, I like to surprise them.
I love it and I absolutely love the double drummer set up. It adds such crazy intensity to watch them side by side tearing it up.
These two are really fantastic. I'm blessed with having these two knuckleheads in the band.
It is a fairly unusual setup, though. What spawned the idea of going the double drummer route?
In Providence, there was a band called Bomb Machine that would have between two and four drummers. Landed, my old band, would have multiple drummers and then, of course, you've got the [Grateful] Dead and The Allman Brothers and a lot of weird old country guys did double drummers. Butthole Surfers, Adam and Ants, bands we liked had two drummers. But then I also realized they would just be louder and more intense with two drummers and you get into polyrhythms and stuff.
Sometimes we get a German friend – there's this thing in the band community that we call "German honesty" where some German fans will say something which is incredibly rude without realizing it. Often we'll get questions like, "Why would you have two drummers? !t's such a waste." I can't believe anybody would ever ask that question, it's such a stupid question. Not that any questions are stupid I guess but at the same time you're like, "Why have so much of a good thing?" So anybody that would complain about the two drummers just doesn't need to come to the show anymore. I'd rather them not be there. Every now and then you get that one person.
That being said, it's like twin engines. I love it. I love it. I love how loud it is. I love how propulsive it is and also, of course, the visual spectacle of it. When they synch up it's pretty stunning. I've watched videos where I'm even impressed by the guys I stand next to all the time.
How many drummers do you think would be too many drummers?
You know, that's hard to say because I played in the Boa drum thing with 88 drummers and that was pretty fun albeit totally gratuitous and ridiculous and still pretty awesome. I brought a case of beer and all of a sudden every other drummer wanted to be my friend.
I'm not familiar with this!
The Boredoms did this Boa Drum 88 where they'd have 88 drummers in like a spiral centering out onto the fairgrounds from The Boredoms, who were playing in the center on the stage. It was really cool.
And then you have people doing corps drumming like even Paul Simon had drum corps in his band. Or The Talking Heads would have multiple drummers. It's cool. Too many drummers I guess would be...I'd say more than four and you start getting excessive. I know King Crimson is touring with three right now and it's cool but it does seem like a bit much. I think two is good. I would love to have a hand drummer, honestly. If we could get someone playing congas I think that'd be really tight. I mean, I don't know if there is such a thing as too many drummers, honestly! I think it definitely gets to be a little bit bloated even with two drummers but we sort of live in the admission that we're a bloated band. I'm okay with that. When I was a kid I hated guitar solos. Now all I want to do is solo all day. I don't know what the hell happened to me.
Are there any plans for new Damaged Bug material?
Yeah, I'm in the process of working on some. I have like 40 songs put up right now but none of them are done. It's been a slow process but I'm working on a little secret surprise project. Basically, I was working on the 40 songs by myself for a long time and not getting anywhere.
Even though I'm happy with some of them I just couldn't get over the hump so I decided to stop working on that and work on a little pet project idea I had for Damaged Bug and that actually worked really quick because it covers and it was really easy...not easy but just much faster when you have the map laid out for you. So me and Tom Dolas, who plays keyboards right now in Oh Sees, came and worked on that with me and we made twelve songs. I'm gonna get some drummers in to play on that and then I think probably me and Brigid are gonna sing on it. I can't tell you what it is, unfortunately, but hopefully that'll be coming out next.
That's so exciting!
It's exciting for me too because it's an artist that I really love and I'm very excited to surprise them with it. It's Madonna! [laughs] That would be amazing.
[laughs] That would be so good! How long are we going to have to wait for this?
I'm hoping to have it done before the end of the year so hopefully I'll be out early next year. And then I'll finish the record that I've been working on which is just really slow coming. I'm really happy with that one too it's just I need to add some vocal content basically. Right now it's all instrumental, like 80 percent instrumental, which just won't fly.
There's always something on the horizon from you! Recently you reissued three of your older records – 2006's The Cool Death of Island Raiders and the Graveblockers EP as well as Thee Hounds of Foggy Notion. How pissed do you think the people trying to sell their original copies of those records for $200 online are about that?
Yeah, that's the reality of the vinyl business though. I mean, for a record to go for two hundred dollars is ludicrous to begin with. The only reason that that record cost so much is because the label that put it out initially just only pressed a very limited amount for some reason. But I don't really care what the collectors think. We have a lot of people that try and buy multiple copies of a record or like recently I had a guy who had me sign 10 posters for him at a show which I was doing to connect with people, I'll sign stuff sometimes. This was somebody that had me signing 10 things which is kind of irritating to begin with and then having me sign them to specific people which is more of a pain in the ass to sign their name but it's fine, I do it. Then somebody sent it to me and the guy had them all up on eBay for 50 bucks a pop and I was like, "Dude, why? This is super lame. Take that down right now. But also why the hell did you have me write like 'To. Anna'?" I think that's ridiculous. So that's kind of how I feel about that.
You know, I'm happy to reissue this stuff especially if there's anybody that likes a band that can't afford to spend $200 on a record. I've never spent $200 on a record in my life and I have a lot of records. That's bananas. So I think it's better for the world to have, you know, not flooded with but just enough copies that the thousand people that might want it can have it.
What's the highest price you've seen one of your records go for?
I don't know, man. I know there were some singles that were going for a few hundred dollars. I honestly can't say, I have no idea. That's another thing I try not to pay too much attention to – Googling yourself. It's a bad way to be.
Yeah, that's a rabbit hole you probably don't want to go down. Something that I think is really interesting about you is how you've managed to cultivate a really wide age spectrum of fans. I work part-time at a restaurant and all the super young chefs I work with are absolutely obsessed with Oh Sees. I'm talking like 23-year-olds which seems unusual for a band that's been around for 15 years to stay so...hip, for lack of a better word. Is that something you're cognizant of or strive for?
No I mean it's cool that we have young fans. Thank God. We also love it when we get some old head at the show being like "I saw Deep Purple back in the day!" You know, those are the people that I really enjoy talking to sometimes too. But we're really lucky.
I think one thing that we tend to focus on is every now and then you see a band that's doing a comeback or whatever and they just kill and I feel like it's rare. I don't know why. We saw it with bands like The Stooges and Red Crayola and it's just fantastic. So it's not unheard of that somebody could get further far out or more innovative or more interesting or hold the torch longer. You don't have to make a boring record when you get old. I feel like people just sometimes lose the fire or get lazy. So we try and get noisier and harder and weirder and longer and more bloated. I just go with my gut. That being said, if that appeals to young people that are burned out on what they're getting handed to them musically right now that's great to me.
Something that you seem to be concerned about and I'm also very concerned about for myself because I'm an idiot who doesn't wear earplugs at my shows is going deaf. You've been bringing it up passively for a while.
Oh, I've been going deaf for a long time. I wore earplugs when I was a kid a few times and I hated it so I never do it. I wear earplugs in practice just because there's no reason to blow your ears off no reason but at shows absolutely not. It's not great advice to give anybody and I think a lot of people are affected really adversely with hearing problems like I've had tinnitus for as long as I can remember playing music. Right out of the gate I played in one of the loudest bands I've played in and just blew my hearing out pretty early. Maybe I'm lucky because I'm completely used to it. It fluctuates, it's weird.
I know other people who have it and they get nauseous from it and then they can't play music anymore because it hurts. Which would be terrible. So awful. I think maybe I got really lucky and have some like really dumb Irish ears or something. I don't know why they're not on fire right now. They should have blown up and there should be blood pouring out of them but for some reason it's been tolerable.
If anything, it means I can't hear the moron next to me in a restaurant talking so it's been a blessing in disguise for me because I'm an insufferable person as well so if I'm not yelling at some stranger in line at the bank because I can't hear them then all the better for both of us.
Is there a point of hearing loss for you where you would stop making music?
I would imagine at some point like Beethoven or something where you just put your head on the piano, I don't know. But I would paint. That was a quote from Brian Chippendale, "When I go deaf I'll just paint and read more." I was like, "That sounds good to me too, man." I'm already 44 about to be 45 this week.
Happy birthday! You're a Libra!
Thank you! Are you a Libra?
No, I'm a Scorpio.
We're supposed to be nemeses, aren't we? I dated a couple of Scorpios and it was like a total fiasco.
Oh yeah, dating a Scorpio is a bad idea.
One of my very first girlfriends was a Scorpio and I just remember like screaming at each other in the street. I've never done that again.
That being said, life is too short to worry about things too much in terms of that. You know, you can be healthy and then grow to be very old which I'm not sure if I want. But I mean obviously moderation comes with age as well. It just becomes less fun to be over the top all the time. Am I rambling? I think I might be rambling. You should ask me how hearing loss is connected with not making any sense because that I could talk about for hours.
[laughs] Maybe there's a connection! So you're constantly engaged in projects all the time. Do you ever experience burnout?.
I mean yes, of course, after coming back from tour sometimes I really will try and relax. One way to do that for me is just to play video games and have basically the dumbest thing I could possibly do and just turn off for a couple of days. But I can't even really do that for very long. I think I live by the idle hands rule where I think you keep the wolves from the door if you keep your brain and your creativity and your heart busy. The world can be a very depressing place if you are not trying to make something.
How many hours of sleep do you usually get?.
I actually sleep okay. It's like seven hours a night. I used to not sleep at all so I think I'm probably making up. I was actually laying in bed this morning thinking, "I wonder how long it would take me to catch up if I slept one extra hour a day for all the years I stayed up all night every night." Like that's incredibly unhealthy. But now I have a dog and my girlfriend wakes up she works at JPL so she's up like literally at dawn. So even if she's as quiet as a mouse, I usually wake up when she's getting up and then maybe I'll fall back asleep if I'm lucky.
But for the most part, I think I'm at that age now where it happens when you get older where you wake up and then you're like, "I'm up!" You wake up to take a pee at five and you're like, "I guess I'm up now" and you're just watching the sun rising like, "What the hell? I went to bed at 3:00 a.m." So something changes in your body where you just open your eyes and like, "Dammit I'm awake." It's not awesome.
I have the opposite problem. Waking up is the hardest part of my day.
How old are you though?
Oh yeah, you're still young. I think it happened to me around 40. Like my eyes started going to shit and then I started waking up way earlier than I wanted to and I was like, "God I hate this." I have to read with glasses on and I used to wake up at like noon when I was a kid. Now I get up at like eight if I'm lucky.
But you also have so many more hours in the day to get stuff done!
It's true. Absolutely true.
So, KEXP is the station where the music matters and, clearly, your whole life revolves around music but why does music matter to you?.
I don't know what I would be doing with my life at all if I didn't have music. I mean, I would probably be making art somehow and I feel really lucky that I found drawing as a kid and things as dumb as roleplaying games and stuff or reading fantasy when I was a kid. Like getting into movies. I remember seeing Konan and being like, "Oh my god!" That sort of stuff pushed me in a direction of wanting to explore more fantastical music as well and getting into like the weird fantasy art world when I was young. It just appealed to me.
So I guess that's the same thing as music, you know, and I just feel lucky that I found all of that. It was all connected.
Oh Sees will play two nights at Neumos this weekend, on Saturday, October 5 and Sunday, October 6. Catch their live KEXP in-studio session on Saturday, October 5 at 3 pm. Below, watch their KEXP Gathering Space performance from 2017.
KEXP premieres the video for Face Stabber track "Gholü"
"Enrique El Cobrador" comes from Oh Sees' 21st studio album Smote Reverser.