As a mid-market alt-weekly, we’re accustomed to being jerked around when it comes to scoring interviews with artists. Oh, we’ve landed plenty of big ones in the last few months: Alice Cooper, “Weird” Al Yankovic, Jorma Kaukonen, Robert Earl Keen, this issue’s Dweezil Zappa. But as a music journalist, you’re haunted by the one that gets away far more than the one you pull off.
Such is the case with San Francisco garage rockers Thee Oh Sees. When local promoter Nick Commoditie announced the band’s Sept. 15 Backyard BBQ date at the St. Augustine Amphitheatre, I’ll admit that I flipped my shit — and not just because I remember way back in 2009 when Commoditie booked his very first show in the Oldest City and very nearly landed Thee Oh Sees. I will also admit that when I got radio silence from frontman John Dwyer’s personal email, and radio silence from the band’s PR company, and finally a terse “John doesn’t do interviews” response from someone up the chain of command, I didn’t
Because — and I say this without equivocation — Thee Oh Sees put on one of the most high-octane rock ’n’ roll shows in the world. Dwyer assaults his trademark clear Gibson SG guitar like a man possessed by blended demon spirits of punk, psychedelia, metal, Krautrock, and scuzz-core. Bassist Timothy Hellman wallops out elastic bass lines that punctuate Dwyer’s frenzied six-string attack. And the synchronized two-drummer assault of Ryan Moutinho and Dan Rincon, which is new to Thee Oh Sees’ touring lineup in 2015 … Dear God — it takes an already-titanic live show and rockets it into brain-melting, body-whomping, once-in-a-lifetime territory.
Best of all, Thee Oh Sees can assemble their bare-bones stage setup in minutes flat. I saw them perform four times at SXSW this year in Austin, and each time they launched into their propulsive set with no warning, anywhere from 10 to 25 minutes early. That’s been a point of pride for John Dwyer and company for 15 years and counting: defiantly DIY, unapologetically animalistic, and decidedly anti-bullshit.
So what if dude doesn’t do any interviews? Maybe it’s because, after announcing that Thee Oh Sees were going on hiatus in 2013, longtime keyboardist and backup vocalist Brigid Dawson, often considered the silver lining to Dwyer’s brutish rock attack, left the band. Or maybe it’s because, after 15 years as the unofficial mayor of San Francisco’s thriving underground music scene, Dwyer got skewered for very publicly leaving the gentrifying metropolis for more comfortable digs in L.A.
Or maybe it’s just because the endlessly prolific Dwyer, who in the last few years has 1) reunited his old band Coachwhips, 2) released several synth-driven fantasias under the Damaged Bug moniker, 3) produced a book of photography, 4) maintained Thee Oh Sees’ manic album-every-nine-months output, and 5) elevated his Castle Face Records label to international prominence, would rather be creating, not analyzing. Touring, not talking. Performing, not philosophizing. Writing,
So a word to the wise: Don’t treat John Dwyer like a superstar. He trimmed marijuana and painted houses for years to make it to the top; according to a 2012 interview with Pitchfork, it wasn’t until he was 35 years old that he could finally scrape together a full-time living from his art. And don’t give him that whole “garage rock savior” spiel; in a 2012 interview with The Chicago Tribune, Ty Segall, who credits his mainstream success to Dwyer’s early mentoring, said, “We all owe him a lot. But he’d rather just have a beer and play music with us.”
Hell, the casual fan probably has more of a chance to bend Dwyer’s ear over post-show drinks than I do as a writer to track him down for a show preview. But that’s OK. I’m happy to let Thee Oh Sees remain tantalizingly out of my journalistic reach — especially when their live shows produce such a primal connection between listener and creator. I have daydreamed about getting Dwyer on the phone, when he delivers one line before hanging up: “Actions always prove why words mean nothing.” I hope you feel the same way after you witness Thee Oh Sees rock St. Augustine next week.