With 21 full-lengths, eight EPs, two live albums, four compilations, and at least a dozen seven-inches released over the last 21 years, there’s a lot to talk about when it comes to garage-psych outfit Oh Sees (also known as Thee Oh Sees). But 43-year-old singer-guitarist John Dwyer doesn’t really like to talk about his band. He doesn’t care about the discography numbers that music writers love to read back to him during every interview, nor is he the type of musician who likes to dish details on his latest work.
“I always feel like when I hear someone say something about where the art came from, I’m always a little bit disappointed,” he told Billboard over the phone last month.
He’d rather be spending that energy on the band itself. Or one of his numerous side projects. Or on Castle Face Records, the label he’s co-owned since 2006 that helped launch artists such as Ty Segall and King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard.
However, the amicable yet blunt Dwyer chatted with Billboard in honor of the latest Oh Sees record Smote Reverser, one of the most eclectic albums of their entire catalog. He touched on what makes writing new music exciting 21 records deep, Smote Reverser’s deceivingly metal cover art, and the band’s ethos that, to him, seems incredibly ordinary.
So Memory of a Cut Off Head (2017) was sort of a commemorative album for your band, since it was your 20th record in 20 years. Was the press fanfare surrounding that milestone sentimental for you?
No, not really. The only reason I knew that was because the guy who was doing PR for us told us that. It puts a little bit of a perspective on it for me. That we’ve been fruitful, busy. There was no intent behind it. I hardly celebrate birthdays anymore.
Memory was definitely one of the most mellow albums you’d released in a while, so was some of the wildness of Smote Reverser a reaction to that?
No, not really. They’re two different bands honestly. Two different lineups. The origin of the OCS came from this band [Orinoka Crash Suite]. We just wanted to get back to writing like that. But I also wanted to write a record with Brigid Dawson. I wanted to do something specifically with her. And it ended up being a lot of fun so I’m glad we did it. But this is more the double-drummer thing. This is more fun. This is my kind of permanent touring act. Acoustic guitar wouldn’t really work for me in this live rendition of the band.
The album art for Smote Reverser looks like a death metal album cover. Why’d you decide to go with that for this one?
I always wanted to work with someone who does pulp sci-fi record covers. This guy, I met on the internet and it was his vamp on an idea that I had and we just ran with it. He does a lot of Star Wars shit. And he’s really into dragons. And he was really nice, I like him, we’ve never actually met in person. It was two different worlds coming together so that was pretty cool.
So was putting “Overthrown” as the lead single a way for you to spook or shock fans? Being that it’s one of the most insane tracks you’ve ever released.
The record was kind of hard to orchestrate honestly in its full version. It took me a while to get it down. I think that was a good “sure, why not.” That one’s a little bit of a smack in the face. But there’s also a lot of pop numbers on it too, though. It was hard to pick a song to represent the whole album because there isn’t one. The record doesn’t have like a continuum.
Are there any political undertones with this record or no?
We’ve always written from what’s going on around us. When I was younger it was more selfish because it was self-involved. It’s really hard to ignore not just politics but humankind and empathy and kindness. It’s a tough time for humanity. It comes and goes. We’re living in in a really interesting time right now and it’s hard to have that not playing in your art. You have to choose whether you’re going to talk about this stuff or completely ignore it—and that’s not who i am. We’ve always had this even if it’s not written right on the face of it.
What experiences informed the songwriting of Smote Reverser? Any events or instances that inspired any of the songs/lyrics?
Nothing in particular, no. I think it’s more a culmination of things. This record, again, has no one specific message. It sort of moves around a lot I think. It was culled from a year of songwriting with these guys and lot of touring and a lot of seeing the world. The songs are less about drugs and fucking and more trying to not be a terrible human I guess. And looking around.
Was there anything different in the writing/recording process this time around than in previous albums of yours?
Not really. Over the years, with each band, there are changes. Now we’re writing a lot more from improvisations. It’s really a mixed effort. It’s been derived from the mass of recordings that we compile over the year. [We record] every time we play. So a lot. We record every rehearsal, every improvisation we do. Anytime we’re working on new material we’ll pretty much record everything. Have half-hour tracks that I go through and notate and learn and use that to write from. It’s sort of like farming, you know?
Since you’ve made so many records, what makes the process of making a new one interesting to you?
I don’t know; it’s all I like to do really. I like painting and printmaking but art and creative energy have always been in my wheelhouse of desirable things. Like eating or anything else. This is what I do. If it ever gets boring I’ll stop but it hasn’t so I’ll just keep going.
Are there any genres or styles you’d really love to try working into the Oh Sees that you haven’t tried yet?
Right now anything that’s super unhip. I’ve been really, really digging into a lot of European prog from the ’70s. Been liking a lot of early proto-metal stuff. It’s sort of where I’m leaning these days. I’m not a huge fan of contemporary pop music so that’s sort of null and void to me. I’ve just been digging deeper into underground, more old school stuff. That kind of shit is really inspiring to me. I just heard this band called Kedama that I really fell in love with that are this really weird Swiss prog band that are fantastic.
I know most every article written about you uses the word “prolific” in there somewhere. Which is fitting, cause obviously you’ve put out so much music. But I’m curious how you conceptualize yourself as an artist? If there’s a different word you’d use to describe yourself.
I mean, no. I do know that the world prolific is used constantly because it could be used to a detriment. I know a lot of people complain that I put out too much material but I’d just tell them to fuck off and not buy the records. People work at different rates. I’ve always been a very fast person. In my mind, the expected rate for a band should be one album a year. I don’t think that quality is made up for in a timeline. I don’t find that if someone works on something longer it’s better. I just like working at this rate. I’d put out five records a year if I could but that’s just ridiculous and I wouldn’t have time to do anything else. The word prolific must have been cut and pasted by every journalist from the first person to ever write about us.