When historians look back at the last 10 years of San Francisco underground music, they'll likely note John Dwyer's sizeable impact on the Bay Area. More than most modern punk provocateurs, Dwyer has blanketed the scene with an exhaustive list of projects that range from elaborate experiments in hearing loss to rabid rock 'n' roll.
"Seems like whatever John does, he does it 150 percent," says Zac Ives of Gonerfest, the annual Memphis garage-rock marathon that invited Dwyer's band Thee Oh Sees back to perform for a second year. "His projects have never sounded like anyone or anything else — you could try and map [them] out but you'd go crazy."
Dwyer's best projects (Pink & Brown's jackhammer punk, the Coachwhips' overdriven garage rock, Zeigenbock Kopf's faux-leather-daddy techno) are jolted by an irreverent electricity from this mad musical scientist. But he's such an obvious subterranean stalwart, with no shortage of new output, that as a critic you must choose your moments to dive into his material in print. Not to mention, as other reviewers have noted, that some of his music (see again: the Coachwhips) is so purposely single-minded that it is more entertaining as a live phenomenon than something you'd repeatedly throw on the stereo.
Dwyer's latest disc with Thee Oh Sees, Help, is such a art-damaged amalgam — both live and on disc — of San Francisco over the ages that it'd be idiotic to ignore it. Four decades after psychedelic garage rock first hit San Francisco's music scene, it's of course as popular as ever. But Thee Oh Sees have created a great example of paying homage to the past by perverting the groundwork of their predecessors. The band promotes a sound that's seeped in the city's unconventional musical lineage. You can hear in their music '90s noise bands' embrace of feedback; the late '80s budget rock scene, which mixed a trashy recording aesthetic with droll humor; the cheeky attitude of '70s punk; and the sci-fi interludes of '60s acid rock. "Everybody has a little psychedelic in them in San Francisco," says Dwyer, wearing one-armed cop sunglasses on a recent sunny afternoon. "That's because the weed is so great out here, and the weather is great, it's the perfect city for it."
In the past, Dwyer has speedily careened down one or two of these popular musical straightaways at a time. With Help, the divergent pathways merge into a pop superhighway, elevating the band to new terrain and making for the most accessible Dwyer journey to date.
Coiled at the center of Help are Dwyer's vocals with Brigid Dawson. His words topple out in a cartoonish fashion. From his nasally, hiccupped outbursts to his feathery falsetto howls, he remains a trickster front man. In Pixies terms, a band evoked throughout Help, Dawson is the Kim Deal to Dwyer's squirrelly Black Francis — her harmonies possessing a cotton candy sweetness with a rock candy edge. The band's powerful rhythm engine — drummer Mike Shoun and bassist Petey Dammit — offers indefatigable momentum, even when the songs get nearly sludgy on "The Coconut" and "Maria Stacks." On standout rave-ups "I Can't Get No" and "Ruby Go Home," Shoun and Dammit break into quick trots, and the latter song becomes a particularly catchy squatter of a tune that refuses to budge once it moves into your memory. "Rainbow" is driven by simplicity — Dwyer's quick guitar windups, which explode with the rest of the band on the chorus. If you're looking for something a little more stoned, "Destroyed Fortress Reappers" puts the singer on delay, his words swimming in echo. Overall, Help is a dissonant listen — awash in lo-fi, warts-and-all textures while grabbing listeners with unusual pop hooks.
The pop songwriting approach is standard fare for plenty of musicians, but for Dwyer — who moved to San Francisco in 1998 from Providence, RI's noise-rock scene — common idols like the Beatles reside in a world he's only now investigating seriously. As someone who brags about having a whole $1.98 in his bank account (the reason Thee Oh Sees play so many shows? They're always broke), Dwyer didn't have the budget for a complete library of classics. It wasn't until he recently figured out how to download the pop canon off the Internet — which led to juggling books on ABBA, Chuck Berry, and the Zombies — that his songwriting style shifted course. Now, Dwyer loves the string arrangements on Roy Orbison's songs so much, Thee Oh Sees have tucked a budget version of violins into Help's "Peanut Butter Oven."
"It's really having an effect on what I'm writing," he says of his current genre obsession. "I'm getting into a pop aesthetic, and the record's composed in a pop setting." But, this being John Dwyer, he can't have anything sound too polished.
Now that Help is on the shelves, Dwyer says it's the last thing he wants to listen to. He was happy enough to record the album, and speaks highly of Chris Woodhouse's work, even after he struggled with his producer buddy about whether a song sounded "fried" or "crispy" enough. But Help is too clean to his ears — even though that clarity is exactly what helps bring the album to life, making it markedly different from the rest of the Dwyer roster. On the other side, he thinks the previous Oh Sees release, The Master's Bedroom Is Worth Spending a Night In — was "a little too crunchy."
"I'm still looking for that happy medium," he says. "You have to try both ends of the spectrum before you find the middle."
That medium will be tested again later this year, as Thee Oh Sees already have a full album's worth of material ready for the studio. From the sound of things, these tunes could take Dwyer fans on yet more stylistic turns. The unrecorded material apparently takes heavy influence from Swedish experimental act Parson Sound. "We're getting into the vein of more open-ended stuff," Dwyer says of Thee Oh Sees. "Everyone's getting more accustomed to riding one note for 10 minutes." One new song is nearly 15 minutes long, and Dwyer says it could take up an entire side of a record. "It'll be our 'In-a-Gadda-Da-Vida,'" he jokes.
Dywer remains more San Francisco's Iron Chef than Iron Butterfly, however, battling against himself to churn out new tunes to feed all those garage heads hungry for his ample musical helpings.