As KEXP celebrates 50 years of bringing our love of music to the community, we find ourselves this week celebrating the year 2008. This was the year KEXP features writer and resident garage rock historian Martin Douglas first took notice of a burgeoning movement coming out of the San Francisco Bay area. Here, he explores the 2008 releases and enduring influence of the region’s three most significant bands.
California was always a hotbed for psychedelic music. From the enduring goodwill for the Grateful Dead and those damn dancing bears to the under-the-radar, loosely defined collective the Paisley Underground, the Golden State shined with swirling guitars.
2008 marked a convergence of bands that took San Francisco by storm. Groups that pushed the boundaries of psychedelia to implement harsh noise and a caveman stomp. The San Francisco garage scene was a true music scene. In fact, it was one of America’s last significant rock scenes before people tried to claim the internet as the only real music scene.
These bands came straight from the garage, metaphorically speaking; sharing bills, sharing homes, and sharing membership from time to time. The restless artistry of this loose collective of bands inspired virtually an entire generation of guitar slingers, toiling all around the world in dirty denim.
Three of the most influential bands from this fertile scene went on tour in the fall of 2008, groups whose influence is still being felt in various rock scenes all over the world. To varying degrees of quality, of course.
Those bands go by the names of Sic Alps, Ty Segall, and Thee Oh Sees.
The clanging, thunderous volume these bands weaponized on stages across America turned the city by the bay into a massive place.
When Mike Donovan formed Sic Alps in 2004, the Bay Area rock scene that exploded a few years later was in its infancy. The band recorded shrill, rackety songs on reel-to-reel tape during the first commercial explosion of indie rock music. They were fully and rather intentionally out of step with what was trendy in the national landscape. But they fit right in with a generation of like-minded locals like Coachwhips — staffed by John Dwyer, later of Thee Oh Sees, and Matt Hartman — risking tinnitus to make the kind of music they wanted to listen to.
When Hartman joined Sic Alps in 2006, the band entered their period of highest productivity.
While 2006’s Pleasures and Treasures, Sic Alps’ full-length debut, consisted of blown-out garage bangers and challenging noise experiments, their 2008 follow-up found the band nudging toward a different direction.
U.S. EZ was released on the cult favorite record label Siltbreeze, specializing in lo-fi recordings which proudly and aggressively scraped the bottom of the audio quality barrel. Established in 1989, the label experienced a revitalization in the late-2000s with bands like Sic Alps; Portland, Oregon’s Eat Skull; Columbus, Ohio’s Times New Viking; and U.S. Girls, then based in Chicago. One of the label’s signature bands bore a name that described its tongue-in-cheek ethos perfectly: Psychedelic Horseshit.
The Sic Alps of U.S. EZ didn’t abandon their avant-noise roots by any means. In fact, on one particular excursion with an unpronounceable title, they push all their chips into the red … by overdriving the audio signal to a ludicrous degree.
But the bulk of the album pushes that spirit of confrontation ever-so-slightly behind Hartman’s strong melodic sensibilities. A shaggy, long-haired vibe permeates through U.S. EZ’s actual songs. They’re perfect for the kind of rock music obsessive who doesn’t feel the need to choose between Royal Trux and the Byrds. The tunes are delivered with a deconstructionist’s flair; augmented by distorted reverb, drums and guitars in separate audio channels, and even a glockenspiel solo in the middle of the album’s sandpaper-scrubbed closing ballad.
“Gelly Roll Gum Drop” is to this day one of Sic Alps’ most beloved songs, due in no small part to its pop instincts. The verses are so catchy, the song doesn’t need a hook. A guitar solo makes way for a piano breakdown and its overall composition is configured for maximum impact.
U.S. EZ would become the most beloved work of Sic Alps, and to this day, a watershed moment in San Francisco’s post-millennium garage rock scene. That’s in no small part because of the band’s art-damaged rock ‘n roll being augmented by such rich melody, as well as their occasional insistence to wrap their arms around the style that brought them to the dance.
Today, Ty Segall is known as one of rock music’s most reliably great and exhaustively prolific songwriters. You never know what genre you’re going to get when he releases a new album; you never know how many albums you’re going to get from him in a single calendar year. But before he worked — and worked, and worked — his way to the most visible platforms in indie music, he was playing shows and recording as a one-man band.
No, I don’t mean he simply played all the instruments on his self-titled debut album. I mean he played all those instruments simultaneously. He played shows the same way, strumming the same busted guitar, stomping on the same rigged drum set. He used duct tape, a garage rock musician’s best friend, to affix a tambourine to his kick drum.
Ty Segall grew up as a child surfer and a self-described “teenage drunk” in Laguna Beach, California. Remember the unscripted MTV series Laguna Beach? The show known for rich kids with questionable social circles? Well, the coastal town used to be known as an enclave for artists and hippies. Along with his friends, Segall would throw water balloons at camera crews and antagonize the rich kids that turned his hometown into a punchline. He also frequented record stores and played in bands.
After moving to San Francisco to attend college, Segall played in a number of bands and quickly became a fixture in the city’s garage rock scene. During a set headlined by the Traditional Fools, Segall, the band’s drummer, played with a stick lodged in his cast. Legend has it that John Dwyer attended that show and struck up a friendship with Segall. That would eventually lead to the release of his self-titled debut album on Dwyer’s imprint, Castle Face Records.
Even at this early stage in his career, Segall’s songs were long on tape hiss and shrill treble. They were also long on pop structure. If Sic Alps could have been considered arty deconstructionists, the Ty Segall of his first self-titled album played completely from the id. Instinctually. Impulsively. Maybe I’ll offer a lesson on the psychic apparatus some other time. But there was a feeling from Segall’s playing that suggested he didn’t write songs so much as he ripped them out of his subconscious mind.
Ty Segall — the album — finds Ty Segall — the songwriter — showing glimmers of the talent he would spend much of the next fifteen years sharpening. Much of the album leans on the sort of howling rock ‘n roll that would almost immediately find a home on Goner Records, the label best known for serving howling rock ‘n roll to a worldwide underground audience. 2009’s Lemons and 2010’s Melted were released on the Memphis-based Goner. The latter would garner rapturous acclaim and lead to a decade-long relationship with the legendary Chicago indie label Drag City.
John Dwyer is a name that has been mentioned several times in this piece already, and for good reason. For years, he was practically synonymous with the scene he helped blossom. After he moved to San Francisco from Providence, Rhode Island, he played in nearly a dozen bands. Including the aforementioned Coachwhips.
There was a time Thee Oh Sees were intended as a vehicle for Dwyer’s weird folk experiments. But when he assembled the lineup of drummer Mike Shoun, guitarist Petey Dammit (who played bass lines on a six-string guitar), and singer, keyboardist, and overall secret weapon Brigid Dawson, Thee Oh Sees became a formidable presence in America’s garage-rock landscape. They put on thrilling, unruly performances with no setlist. Dwyer routinely swallowed his microphone and expelled thick globs of spit into the rafters. He harmonized with Dawson in a way that could raise goosebumps from the dead.
The Master’s Bedroom is Worth Spending a Night In, for all intents and purposes their debut studio album, raised the bar for riotously loud garage-rock with a strong sense of melody. Though Dwyer serves as the creative centerpiece for the band, there is no lead singer here, as he and Dawson sing in unison on every song. Musically, the album stretches the limits of early rock ‘n roll by adding a heavy dose of broken psychedelia. Ringing guitar effects, wild, discursive instrumental passages, and lots—and lots—of reverb adds to the experience.
Garage rock is often misconstrued as the providence of the musical neanderthal; all wooden clubs and no brains. But The Master’s Bedroom is Worth Spending a Night In marks the beginning of Dwyer’s conversation with his intellectual fascinations. Depending on who you ask, the album’s title either comes from a 1920 painting by Max Ernst or a song by British art-rock band the Mekons. The subject matter of the songs skirts from death and decay—frequent topics for future Oh Sees tunes—to a riddle dedicated to a librarian friend, titled “Maria Stacks.”
Thee Oh Sees would eventually grow into arguably one of the world’s greatest live acts. (In this correspondent’s humble opinion, that argument is a very short one.) That reputation still stands to this day. All on the strength of recording and touring around this album.
As the saying goes, nothing gold can stay. A few short years after the underground explosion of San Francisco’s garage rock scene, the noisy guitars by the bay began to fizzle out. Matt Hartman’s tenure with Sic Alps ended acrimoniously in 2011. The next year, Mike Donovan released the final Sic Alps album, a gorgeous and somewhat melancholy self-titled LP. He would start releasing albums under his own name, deepening his marriage of tuneful songcraft and avant-garde textures.
Following a very successful run with what some fans call Thee Oh Sees’ “classic lineup,” John Dwyer was priced out of San Francisco and announced the band would be going on an indefinite hiatus. Dwyer moved to Los Angeles on New Years Day 2014 and released the album Drop with a new lineup in April of the same year. OSEES released A Foul Form in 2022, their seventeenth album since 2008. That doesn’t include compilations, live albums, solo projects, nor collaborations like the groove-based jazz band Bent Arcana.
Ty Segall moved from San Francisco to L.A. a year earlier than Dwyer. He relocated in order to be closer to his sister, but quickly realized Los Angeles was way more affordable. Segall has grown to become not only a reliably great songwriter and bandleader, he also has a solid list of production credits to his name. Not to be outdone by his friend John, Segall has released thirteen studio albums since his solo debut. Again, not including live albums, comps, other bands, nor his celebrated collaborative LPs with White Fence.
The influence of San Francisco’s garage rock scene circa 2008 lives on in a huge way. Not just from these three artists and the multitude of bands they’ve shared stages with, produced, or released records by—but from the generation of groups formed in their wake. The kinds of bands you’d see at Freakout Fest or Levitation, or putting out records on Castle Face. If you enjoy the bands keeping the garage rock flame alive today, they were either inspired by the San Francisco scene or came from it directly.
Martin Douglas revisits the California garage rocker's 2010 "anti-masterpiece."
KEXP interviews John Dwyer 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?