The San Francisco musician discusses his new record, his DIY work ethic, and Dungeons & Dragons.
As Rolling Stone once put it, John Dwyer is something of “scene godfather” in the world of California psych rock. Friend and collaborator Ty Segall even calls him the “mayor of San Francisco,” the city where Dwyer got his start in recording and production before relocating to Los Angeles. In conversation, however, Dwyer doesn’t let his originator status go to his head; he’s too busy writing and recording new music for his bands Oh Sees (formerly Thee Oh Sees) and OCS, projects that share similar lineups but are differentiated primarily by latter’s folkier, more instrumentally diverse sound. Besides that, he’s the self-identified “A&R douche” of his label, Castle Face, for which he is consistently recruiting new talent. And while Dwyer is quick to identify and praise the collaborators and instrumentalists that make this whole operation possible, it’s hard to overstate his role as a driving force in experimental music on the West Coast.
Dwyer’s catalog is lengthy and impressive, with this year’s scorched-earth, shred-heavy Smote Reverser being his 21st studio record. We sat down with Dwyer earlier this month to discuss the new record, his DIY work ethic, and Dungeons & Dragons. Smote Reverser is available now via bandcamp. You can catch OCS in Brooklyn at Murmrr Theatre on December 15.
AdHoc: The visuals for your releases can be surreal and occasionally frightening, between the animated demons in the video for “Overthrown” and the red-eyed beast on the cover of Smote Reverser. Are you a big Halloween person?
John Dwyer: I am—we toured this month and a couple years ago during October, and it’s really nice to hit up all the spirit shops. Y’know, I grew up on the East Coast, and as a kid this was definitely my favorite holiday.
Did you do anything fun for Halloween this year?
We played our returning-home show at a place called The Teragram Ballroom, here in L.A. It was actually a pretty fun night. We played with this band called EXEK from Australia, who were great, and our friend Prettiest Eyes, who are a fantastic band that played with us for five or six shows on the way back home.
I took it you wore costumes for the performance?
Paul, our drummer, was Macho Man Randy Savage. I wore a horrible mask that I bought for half price. Tim, our bass player, was a Smurf, which was actually pretty amazing.
You mentioned that you enjoy going to spirit shops—do you engage in any of that spirituality on a personal level?
I’m kind of superstitious, I guess. When we were kids, we all looked into that stuff, and I still have friends who are very mystical. I went to Catholic school, so I think the hand-in-hand rebellion to that is to embrace things like Slayer and what have you. All that shit was very appealing to me.
I read in a previous interview that you draw a lot of inspiration from your experiences playing Dungeons & Dragons as a kid. Do you still find time to play when you’re not on the road?
No, man, unfortunately. I still have all my stuff, and I have a few friends who have actually gotten into it at an older age—like, they’re in their 40s. But I just don’t have the time; I wish I did though.
[D&D] is weirdly my Rosebud—all those imagination games from when I was a kid. Not necessarily pre-video games, because Atari and Pong and all that shit was around, but just the real experience of building something from nothing. It had less to do with me being into fantasy and sci-fi; just being in a room and talking up that amazing kind of adventure was always really cool. I walk into gaming shops on the road all the time, and they look at me kind of horrified, like, “Are you in the wrong place dude?”
A lot of artists put so much focus into projecting a consistent brand, but you release music under a number of different monikers, between OCS, The Oh Sees, Thee Oh Sees, and now just Oh Sees. What would you say drives your desire to record under these different titles?
Well, they’re all related; it never really mattered to me, and I kind of have my own agency to just do what I want. Ironically, if I had known years ago that every single music journalist was going to ask me, “What the hell’s up with the name?,” I probably wouldn’t have done it. But now it’s kind of a running joke that we do it just to aggravate the press.
I’ve had people complain—promoters mostly, who are always nervous nellies in my opinion about ticket sales. They’re like, “Well, they’re not gonna understand that it’s the same,” and I’m like, “No, they will.” The people who know my shit, know my shit, and if they can’t handle a name change, then I’d rather they just not listen to my shit, frankly [Laughs]. You gotta stay on your toes sometimes.
Variety is the spice of life.
Yeah, plus they’re all in the same phonetic ballpark. And we have Google now so you can find anything.
Plus, if you go on Spotify or other streaming sites, they’re all there, like OCS comes up as a related artist to Oh Sees.
Spotify is very on top of their game. I fought the law and the law won—I’m now on Spotify, so, I can dig it.
So the name changing is not so much an act of rebellion.
Yeah, we’re just having a fun time with it, you know? I’m not a big purveyor of “branding.” That said, I feel like I have fallen ass-backwards into that kind of vibe, just from doing it for so long.
It’s interesting you say you’re against branding when your label, Castle Face, has carved out a very specific psych-rock aesthetic.
Yeah for sure, man. That’s why I say it’s ass-backwards: Eventually you’ll wander into something, whether it’s intentional or not.
Smote Reverser is a follow-up to 2017’s Orc and Memory of a Cut off Head. Both of those records sound remarkably cleaner than Smote, which has this really dark and fuzzed-out quality. Can you speak about the approach you took to recording this album, and how it differed from the last two?
Well, Orc was recorded in the same studio [as] Smote Reverser, and mastered by the same guy, but we used different producers. Ty [Segall] was in on Orc.
For the newest record, we simplified a lot. I’m a big fan of the simply mic’d drum kick—like, five mics tops. Sometimes people wanna put like 12 or 20 mics, because that seems like a good idea, but the only stuff I could think of [was] old soul bands or even contemporary ones like the Dap Kings, and their drums sound fucking great. I really like these heavily compressed, dirty sounding drums.
I think I want the next record to be even dirtier. Maybe switch back to a four-track—that’s the ultimate tool if you want to make a filthy-sounding record. You can also make a really good sounding record on a four-track, don’t get me wrong, but if you want something that’s really cooked, like a well-done steak, that’s the way to go.
I guess that’s also evocative of your early releases.
Yeah, a lot of the early records were recorded on a four-track. A lot of the early OCS records were recorded on four-tracks, up until I met [recording engineer and producer] [Chris] Woodhouse, which is when we switched over to an eight-track and upwards to a 24-track over time.
You’ve made a pretty serious number of studio albums, with Smote being the 21st. Do you find yourself dedicating specific time every day to write lyrics, chords, etc.?
It depends on the album, really. In the last few years we’ve just been recording everything. We play and play and play—not necessarily write, just improv. Then we comb through the tapes at home, pull out the stuff I like, and then write around that. It involves a lot of channeling, but it’s also tenacious work. For instance, on Cut Off Head, I wrote all the songs at home, and Brigid [Dawson] wrote two or three songs at home, and then she brought them to me and we worked together.
Recently, we’ve been doing one record a year, so we have a year where we tour the old record, and towards the end of that year, we start writing again, get together in the studio. I give the band a break, because we’re up each other’s asses all day, but we come home, take some time off, then hit the studio and just do it in a relaxed way for a few months—just write, write, write a lot. Throw away whatever doesn’t work, hold onto what does, and see if you can come up with a record.
How do you balance your own projects with running Castle Face Records?
To be fair, most of the work at my label is done by [label co-founder] Matt Jones. I’m more than anything tracking down old bands to do releases, plus meeting new people on the road, seeing shows, and I’m always listening to new music. I’m kind of like the A&R douche of our label—Matt does all the logistical shit. Frankly, if I had to do that, I would only be releasing my own stuff. I’m curating, working with Matt and [producer] Enrique Tena—it’s an interesting system. It’s always surprising to me that it works [Laughs].
What advice would you give to someone trying to make their own music or run a label in 2018?
Just do it. Life is short, and everything is at your fingertips; you can record for free on your computer, you can record cheaply on tape. Tour—you gotta eat that shit sandwich. I’m always surprised when people aren’t touring, and they’re upset their record isn’t selling and they’re not internet famous—like there’s only one way to do that.
You can do anything you want with the internet; you don’t need a label. I’ve worked with a lot of great people at labels, obviously, but I knew I could just self-release. A lot of the records I was looking at back in the day were self-released. A huge inspiration for me is Dischord Records—running their own show, having things be the way they want. If you have the funding, which I did at the time because I’d been touring so much, you can do it for a minimal amount. You can do anything you want—it’s just a question of how much time, energy, and money you’re willing to commit. If you put everything in it, then that’s what you do. I’m in my 40s now, and I can’t imagine going back to work at a fucking grocery store or bike messaging or any of that shit.
A perfect example of this is Mac Demarco, who’s doing fantastic right now, playing huge theaters and just crushing it. And he just started his own label, and I was like, “Fucking good man, there’s no reason for you to split that money with anybody except the people in the band.” Start your own label—you can do it however the hell you want. You can throw your records out the window, sell them out the back of your car, go store to store. It’s all about branding, really [Laughs]; branding is as simple as being exactly what you want to be. And if you’re band—hell, even if your band is shitty—you can do really well. You never know. Today is an interesting taste machine.
What’s next for you?
We’re gonna come out to New York and do these shows with Shannon Lay and hopefully have a great time. I’m actually really excited to bring the band out there; the theater we’re playing at looks really cool. Brigid Dawson will be with me, which people are always clamoring for; anyone who’s ever told me they miss Brigid in the band, here’s your chance!
I got some emails from people in Chicago asking, “Can you do it here?” And I’m like “Nope! Just New York.” It’s December in New York; it’s a beautiful time. Come and eat some pierogies and Jewish food and drink a beer at 4 AM. Other than that, we’re gonna start working on some new stuff.