Vic Galloway meets the punk rock lifer who's spent the last 20 years running the best live band around whilst also working as a visual artist, screen-printer, photographer and label boss
Vic Galloway

11:53 9th October 2017

It’s a bold and brassy statement, but Oh Sees are THEE best live rock’n’roll band on the planet right now. I’ve said it before and I will say it again to anyone who bothers to listen... With the current two drummer line-up (and in previous line-ups I’ve seen over the last 10 years) they are visceral, mesmerising, euphoric and injected with so much energy, it takes your breath away. Those who disagree probably haven’t seen them, because they NEVER have a bad night!

Celebrating 20 years as an ever-shifting, mutating, amorphous, garage-psych-kraut blob around the main-man John Dwyer; when asked about his two decade masterplan he replied, “There’s no plan – I’m kinda going commando on it. Yeah, 20 years is a nice surprise!” Speaking to him via phone at soundcheck from a three-night residency at the Bowery Ballroom in Manhattan, he is candid, sharp, friendly, somewhat self-effacing and full of that all-consuming vitality. Seeing the band for myself days later at the POP Montreal festival, yet again I was astonished.

Dwyer is a punk-rock lifer. During these 20 years under the ever-changing Oh Sees/OCS moniker, he’d managed to release 19 albums culminating so far in the funk-laden, shred-fest that is Orc – certainly a contender for Album of the Year. However, a 20th album release is approaching with Memory of a Cut off Head dropping in November. And I haven’t yet mentioned his solo project Damaged Bug, under which guise he released the excellent Bunker Funk earlier in 2017. There is no stopping him.

Some kind of Renaissance man, now based in California, he also works as a visual artist, screen-printer, photographer and label boss – co-running the superb Castle Face records, which he set up in the early 2000’s as an eventual home for Oh Sees and a myriad other punk, psych and prog bands he encounters. But where does this limitless energy come from? “Growing up on the East Coast, everyone I knew had that work ethic. Working all the time, moving ahead. Once I’m done with one project, I’m ready to move on to the next thing and I no longer care about the last one. When I was a kid, art was what I grabbed onto immediately – I wanted to paint, I wanted to draw, I wanted to make music.”

He’s certainly done that. With uncompromising noise combos such as Pink & Brown and Coachwhips behind him, Oh Sees have grown into a phenomenon. With almost no PR, no major label machine, no real hype to speak of and a completely DIY attitude; they are now like The Grateful Dead of garage-punk, playing to thousands and selling out shows all over the world, almost solely by word-of-mouth. And honestly, how acts hit their peak 20 years after forming? How many bands’ albums improve year on year?

Orc was recorded in the Sonic Ranch, El Paso Texas, “right next to the border wall which is pretty humbling to see every morning. Written mostly by the whole band, we did a lot of improvisation. I record everything we do pretty much, and we pick out minutes we like and focus on those and hone in on it”, Dwyer explains. Similar to Can’s recording techniques? “Yeah, those guys were jam-heads and all about it. The funkier the better for me. I hate to use the word ‘groove’ as it’s so corny-sounding but it’s totally true. Even in metal I like something that has a bit of swing to it. Obviously Krautrock has had a huge influence on us – I love Can right up the 1970’s, Brain records and the Teutonic image of psychedelic music has always been the best of the best for me. Jaki Leibezeit and Holger Czukay passed away recently too – all these heroes of mine are slowly dying off.”

Unlike some rigid rock behemoths who plod on regardless, Oh Sees is a fluid thing and all the better for it. As the music moves forward and changes shape, so does the line-up of the band and even the name - dropping THEE recently. Dwyer baulks, “I never cared that much about the name, and the fact the news picked up on that was so ludicrous to me. THEY CHANGED THEIR NAME AGAIN… oh, and they have a new record! But really, we’ve always changed the name – it’s nothing new. Maybe we’re getting more attention now than we used to, so people seem to notice that.” And the constant conveyor belt of band-mates? “As to why I keep changing line-up – some people just aren’t built for touring. Not everyone can take it! And sometimes it’s time for new blood. I mean I’ve been doing this for 20 years – to keep someone around for 20 years is a miracle in the first place. Nobody’s a lifer but me!”

Their work ethic and output are second to none right now in rock’n’roll, with jokes abounding online about how prolific Dwyer is, much like another band he admires - The Fall. “It’s always a pleasure to see The Fall in whatever line-up. The dude’s the terminator! I can’t say enough good things about Mark E Smith. He’s a hero… for me.” Can he keep up this rate of an album or 2 every year? “I’m all about it. The more the merrier I think. I’d put out more if I could. And if I get any grief for it, it makes me wanna do it more. Any time they accuse me of being too productive, it makes me stronger!”

Does he care about Oh Sees being more popular and more in demand than ever? “Not really. I’m pretty happy where we are. We’ve always worked on the road and tried to pay the rent with it. The only difference now is that now we’re somewhere where nobody has to have a day job, which is real nice. But it’s still a lot of work for the guys constantly, even emotionally, because I’m quite draining!”

Oh Sees ‘Orc’ and OCS ‘Memory of a Cut Off head’ show two very different sides of Dwyer, both equally satisfying. The former brings the live attack to the forefront with dual drummers, slinky basslines, droning synths, eviscerating guitar sounds and Dwyer ever-present ‘woah’ before the fuzz kicks in. The latter showcases the more home-recorded, whimsical, acoustic psychedelia which also obsesses the man, ably assisted by long-time collaborator Brigid Dawson. Both are rich in melody, swing, depth and texture, and deserve a place in any collection.

But has he got another 20 years of Oh Sees in him? “Oh God, we’ll see… at some point I may have to sit down.” Before a final quip, “But I can do it from a chair!” Long may John Dwyer make art of all kinds, and long live Oh Sees… or whatever they happened to be called next week.

John Dwyer has designed an exclusive band t-shirt to benefit young adult cancer support charity Trekstock. Check the website for details.

Photo: Nadia Davoli