On their terms, on their time
San Francisco band Thee Oh Sees don't have a plan, they just play what they want, when they want - and they want to play a lot, writes Charlie Carter
Thee Oh Sees are a tangle of contradictions. While the scuzz-rockers are at the vanguard of San Francisco's psychedelic revival, they are old enough to remember the city's first era of peace and love. Although they harness the recording and promotional potential of new technology, they have led the way in reviving the defunct flexi disc. And as their peers lazily stick to the album-tour-rest formula, Thee Oh Sees instead record whenever the urge takes them and fill the gaps in their schedule with gigs.
"When you're in a band, you don't have a plan - it should be a natural process and not like you have a manager telling you what to do," says Brigid Dawson, keyboardist and, along with founder John Dwyer, one-half of Thee Oh Sees' frontline.
It's this take-it-as-it-comes attitude that sets apart Thee Oh Sees and their Fog City peers from the latest crop of American alternative bands, for whom the in-vogue insult "landfill indie" could be comfortably applied.
As their east coast counterparts - and particularly the near-identical band-by-numbers groups from Brooklyn - are busy trying to recreate the squeaky sounds from the wrong bits of the 1980s (think A-Ha, The Cars, Cyndi Lauper and so on) on bedroom synths, Thee Oh Sees have carved out their own niche of garage rock with more than a pinch of 1960s psychedelia.
Within their distorted guitars and eerie keyboard drones, you'll hear touches of Iggy Pop's proto-punks The Stooges, hints of druggy drone gods the Velvet Underground, a nod to the west coast's '80s punks and more than a suggestion of rough-and-ready proto-punk of 1960s bands such as Paul Revere and the Raiders, and ? and the Mysterians.
"Our influences include the Velvet Underground, of course, but we each have our own things that we grew up with," Dawson explains. "We are very much of the mindset that if we think something will go well in our music, we will probably use it."
Not for them the soppy boy-meets-girl lyrical vapidity of the Brooklyn set. On their sixth and most recent album, Putrifiers II, Thee Oh Sees explore themes of mental instability, and Dwyer and Dawson have sought to sonically capture the condition with discordant noise and atonal electronic squeals. Opener Wax Face, for instance, took a favourite Beach Boys signifier - the opening jingle to Wouldn't It Be Nice - and bent it into a hellish new shape.
The band haven't eased the intensity for their upcoming album, Floatin Coffin', due out next month. Dwyer has described it as a collection of songs that "occur in the mindset of a world that's perpetually war-ridden. Overall, it's pretty dark, and much heavier than our other albums."
Thee Oh Sees' music is made for seedy bars and intimate clubs, the sort of setting in which the band really come alive - as Hong Kong fans will discover when they play Hidden Agenda on Saturday. Over the phone from Melbourne, the latest stop on the band's tour of Australia, Dawson says: "I don't think you can be intellectual about this, but when a really great gig happens, it's because there exists a flow of energy going back and forth between the band and the audience. The communication between band and audience is the fundamental thing about playing live, it's why we play music."
At 39, Dawson is no stranger to the live music scene. Mostly San Francisco-based, she also featured in a number of British combos during a 12-year stint living in London and Cambridge.
The focus of Thee Oh Sees' live experience is multi-tattooed guitarist and lead vocalist Dwyer, an artistic force of nature on the Bay Area music scene where he runs his own record label, Castle Face, and produces and guests on other musicians' records. Onstage he is a whirl of snarling rock energy and bare-chested aggression.
"He is a great person to watch play live - I just watched his old band play a reunion gig and it was a funny experience because I'm there watching this guy I play music with all of the time," Dawson says. "So instead of worrying about the music and playing as part of it, all I have to do is be a member of the audience and he was so good.
"I realised why people are so excited by him … he is so much fun to watch and you can't take your eyes off him. It's a train wreck and it's beautiful all in one."
There's very little about Thee Oh Sees that could be described as orthodox. It's difficult to say when they started out, because the band emerged from the many Dwyer has played in throughout his 20-odd-year career, and a continuous thread has run through them all, with each bleeding into the next. Band members have come and gone, but each seems to have straddled at least one name or style change.
"John started it as a solo project and it developed from there," says Dawson. When asked if he operates a revolving-door policy, she giggles. "Kind of, but for the past six years it's been the same people."
Dawson is the longest serving, at eight years, of the current line-up due to come to Hong Kong. Their numbers have been occasionally bolstered by singer, songwriter and king-of-the-moment of garage rock Ty Segall, a fellow San Franciscan. "We've known Ty since we met at a party when he was young and we took him on tour with us - we've been friends with him ever since. John put out his records and I got to record a song with him last year for his last album."
Segall is another proponent of Thee Oh Sees' work-fast, play-fast philosophy, releasing three albums of his own and one with another of the scene's luminaries, White Fence, last year. Thee Oh Sees released two albums, featured on at least two compilations, a flexi disc box-set of Castle Face Records output and guested on dozens of other artists' work.
"We don't labour when we go into the studio - we want it to be a live recording. We don't go back and do overdubs. I know we sound like that, but each recording is meant to capture a moment in time."
Dawson's excitement at being in a band - and at the prospect of playing in Hong Kong - is infectious. "I'm really surprised that we are going to Hong Kong," she says. "As a kid I was always fascinated by Asia. It's a great thing that you can play in a band and go visit all these places you only know of from TV or something."
And what does she know of Hong Kong? Not much, she admits, embarrassed. "All I know is that there are big, big, big skyscrapers."
Thee Oh Sees, Sat, 9pm, Hidden Agenda, 2A Wing Fu Industrial Bldg, 15-17 Tai Yip Street, Kwun Tong, HK$250 (advance), HK$300 (door). Inquiries: 9170 6073