Here’s another from the Beat This Archives at SF Bay Times–Published May 1, 2008 about Thee Oh Sees, still SF’s best band
I went out to the Eagle Tavern last Thursday night, a spontaneous decision rather late into the evening, and found the place pretty packed with a boisterous indie-rock-in-the-know crowd. Then it all came to me that the headlining band, Thee Oh Sees, were indeed the very band I had been reading about all over the Internet and some in the local press throughout the week. The group’s latest record, The Master’s Bedroom is Worth Spending a Night In, was getting rave reviews all over the place, hence the extra large turnout, but as the night went on I could tell that this was a band with a strong local following, these people knew the material and responded to the band with reckless enthusiasm.
Something good had been brewing for awhile here, and until now I had been oblivious to it. This wasn’t the first time Thee Oh Sees had played the Eagle, and it definitely wasn’t the first time the band’s leader John Dwyer had graced the stage in a number of other band projects, including Yikes, The Coachwhips, and Pink and Brown.
Come to find out, Thee Oh Sees have put out seven records since 2004, including a double album. They have also changed their name five times, from Thee Oh Sees, The Oh Sees, The Ohsees, OCS, and Orinoka Crash Suite. I also just learned that John Dwyer was the mastermind behind a strange electro-hardcore homo-industrial outfit called Zeigenbock Kopf, who put out two really abrasive and odd discs that got a little play at The Eagle by their DJ’s. I also found out he played guitar in the very primitive punk rock band The Hospitals. It makes me wonder when this John Dwyer person ever sleeps.
When the band took the stage they looked unassuming and happy enough, three guys on bass drums and guitar and one girl on vocals and tambourine.
Dwyer, the guitarist, pulled his instrument way up high on his chest and close to his face and just let loose with an electrified crunchy barrage of dirty bluesy/garage-y guitar genius driven by an energy and zeal that was almost other-worldly, steeped effectively in feedback, reverb and fuzzed out garage guitar glory. It was clear in just moments that we were witnessing a musician who was long due for stardom, and his time may just be starting right now.
I loved the way he pulled his guitar up high and peered down its top edge like it was a gun, aiming down at his effects pedals or into the audience. Every move he made was a pure indication of a person driven by an overwhelming urge to make music, like this monster talent was being channeled through this average looking guy, turning him into a maniac, a flurry of motion and reverberance. He was clearly on fire. As was the other guitarist, I believe he was playing a guitar instead of a bass, actually, and was also an enthusiastic spire of motion, even when he just clapped along with the drum beat.
The drummer was more than a steady player himself whose performance became more pronounced and notable as the show went on. Brigid the female vocalist was far more physically subdued onstage, but she had a never-ending smile and a sparkle in her eyes that further conveyed a band that was really having fun and perhaps finally getting noticed for it. The vocals are almost always delivered in double layer male/female unison and oddly distorted, sounding kind of primitive like a fuzzy radio signal or speaker-phone or something, yet at the same time kind of down-home-y like old Carter Family records.
The crowd was literally going nuts, all trying to be as near to the stage as possible and dancing wildly. It was just on the good side of total chaos, a far more rambunctious nature than I would have guessed. The band whipped through many songs and several moods and qualities from elongated grooves punctuated by glorious crunchy fuzzed out guitar riffs, to shorter, faster punk rock numbers with shrieking feedback and drums beaten harder than usual. All of this was replete with layers of sound created via reverb and echo and various guitar effects and treatments or mistreatments, you might say, but at any rate John Dwyer can play the dickens out of his guitar, that was quite clear. As soon as the show ended I raced back to the merchandise table and bought their latest disc. It has turned out to be even more of a revelation than their show.
You can really see the careful construction of this disc while listening to it, but a certain lo-fi production quality actively defies its complexity. It might take a few listens for it to sink in that this lo-fi raw and rough sound is hardly as primitive as it seems. That in itself is an achievement. When the multitude of layers of sound begin wrapping around each other, when traditional rockabilly and surf-style guitar is swathed in reverb or texturized with static or distortion, when a hillbilly sounding tune gives way to a wailing wall of feedback that plays like a guitar solo gone to hell and back until it starts to sound like human vocals…but wait, those are vocals, one male and one female layered on top of each other and sounding like they are delivered from the bottom of well. All of the sounds created here travel and are transformed and treated and shaped into another layer, and the overall depth, weight, growl or ethereal qualities are fucking magical. They can sound haunted and foreboding and creepy, as well as childlike and folksy, and as ass-kickingly unhinged as the most psychotic garage-rock. Each song unfolds sonically in ways that are mind-blowing.
Thee Oh Sees also prompt a number of stylistic comparisons. You can hear a bit of the primal rockabilly of the Cramps and some of the instrumental meanderings of a host of garage and psychedelic acts like The Seeds or even The Great Society, or the more contemporary pared down blues of acts like the White Stripes or The Black Keys. And hey, those aren’t dirty words either, just because they’re popular, and I can think of a lot more bands they bring to mind, like The Oblivians, The Dirtbombs, The Gories, Mr. Airplane Man and more.
Specifically one now defunct local band kept coming to mind again and again while I listened to Thee Oh Sees, and that band is the very revered and missed Zen Guerrilla. Some might not agree and think the two bands are worlds apart, but it seems to me that these are two bands that definitely go well beyond the elementary sum of their parts into a creation of a powerful sonic structure, a miasmic monument or wall of sound using oddly treated vocals, lyrics that are difficult to make out but definitely convey a certain emotion, and guitars that fearlessly go off the map and around the world and provide no excuses or justifications because they don’t need to, and drums and bass that burn, searing it all together, some of the rockin-est manic mad visionary shit you’ve ever heard, a new monster that takes on a life of its own.
I definitely urge anyone who likes Thee Oh Sees to pick up any of the back catalogue by Zen Guerrilla. You won’t be disappointed. But do pick up Thee Oh Sees – they are probably the next great San Francisco band. Who was the last greatest San Francisco band? There have been a few I really liked, but they failed to get the national attention they deserved, like the incredible Dirty Power. Or was it one of those bands that claimed to be from here but none of us had ever seen them play around town once, like Black Rebel Motorcycle Club? I really don’t know. Who was the last great San Francisco band?
That is, before Thee Oh Sees?