Dwyer uses a Death By Audio Fuzz Warr Overload, custom modded especially for him. He likes to use the fuzz with his guitar’s neck pickup. “It sounds awesome if you turn all the high end off, just have the fuzz—it gets that ‘American Woman’ sound … totally round,” he says. Photo by Debi Del Grande
John Dwyer, the guitarist and lead singer for Oh Sees (formerly Thee Oh Sees), makes a good case for the argument that the best decade for making music is right now. Dwyer’s work ethic, attitude, and outlook make him the poster boy for everything right about music in the 20-teens. As a musician, he embodies the touchstones of the era: roll-up-your-sleeves DIY and the drive to embrace, not fight, changes in technology and the industry. Check out Dwyer’s prodigious output: his Castle Face Records label, his multiple projects, his touring schedule, and how he promotes and manages those operations.
While these are exciting days in music, it’s not exactly easy. You need to be entrepreneurial. You need to hustle. You at least need to be willing to advocate on behalf of your music. But if you do, the sky’s potentially the limit. As Dwyer told Tape Op in a recent interview, “The way the world works now, with the internet and all that shit, in the underground, if there’s good music, people know about it. The word spreads now. You don’t really need a label anymore to get out there.”
A native of Providence, Rhode Island, Dwyer relocated to the West Coast years ago. His main focus since the late ’90s has been various incarnations of Oh Sees (including OCS and, most recently, Thee Oh Sees). His music, although diverse, sounds like a strange intersection of garage, psych, noise, and the moody space jams of krautrock pioneers Can. Releasing albums at a rate of about one per year over the last 20 years, Oh Sees are prolific, consistent, and their music is raw and challenging.
Oh Sees is Dwyer’s band project. That means—as opposed to other projects where Dwyer overdubs most of the parts—Oh Sees record together, with each member playing his respective instrument.
“Everybody’s amps are in the same room,” says Dwyer. “We’re all standing there looking at each other. We let it bleed a little bit. You have to train an engineer to be okay with that because they’re so stuck on having everything separated. This is a live band. We use the SVT at top volume. The SVT will be in the corner—and it will be baffled to shit—but you’ll still be able to hear it a little bit. The guitar is also baffled. We try to keep it from bleeding, but if a little blood gets on there, it’s not going to hurt anybody.”
I didn’t ask Dwyer if this is the best decade to make music. Instead, we got geeky. We spoke about the newest Oh Sees’ release, Orc, as well as his thoughts on maintaining and caring for metal-neck guitars, his minimalist approach to pedals, vintage Fender amps, and his mysterious pentagonal trapezohedron-shaped guitar knobs.
When did you first start playing guitar?
On my 15th birthday, my folks got me a cherry red Yamaha—a shredder, pointy headstock guitar that probably cost about $100—and a Crate amp. That got stolen from me. Somebody broke into this house I lived in in Providence, burned the building down, and stole the guitar and the amp, which was actually one of the biggest favors that anybody ever did for me. I took a few lessons when I was about 16 from this guy in East Providence.
Orc (above), released in August 2017, is the 19th album by Oh Sees and was recorded live with all members in the same room. Only a few months later, Oh Sees announced its 20th album, Memory of a Cut Off Head, released in November 2017.
He taught me how to tune my guitar and how to string it. He taught me how to play “Back in Black” and a couple of Misfits songs that I brought into him. And the rest is history. I pretty much learned from jamming with people over the years. I didn’t really get going until I was in my 20s.
What kind of music were you doing?
Math-y guitar stuff. I was super into guitar bands back then, as I still am, but a different genre. The guy I was in the band with used to bring a lot of bands through town. We’d see Polvo. They were a pretty far-out alternate tuning band that played a lot of weird shit like Sonic Youth. I was into Sonic Youth’s early records like Confusion Is Sex and Sister. Probably due to my lack of actual knowledge about how to tune the guitar or what the hell I was doing, I was really into people who started doing their own thing. Bands like that were inspirational to me when I was that age.
Do you play in alternate tunings like that now?
Yeah, all the time. I do three tunings live. I do a dropped-D standard type thing, a couple of Elizabeth Cotten tunings—like open G—and then I do this tuning I used to do with this band, Pink and Brown, where the lowest gauge string is dropped down to the next string up, so it would be a double A and then the top two strings would be tuned to the same B.
Do you play in standard as well?
The new record I’m working on right now is the first time in years that I’ve played in A440 standard. Initially, my reasoning in my brain was that if I tuned the guitar lower it would sound like I was singing higher, but then I realized the physics of that doesn’t make any sense. But regardless, I got stuck on that tip and after years of just doing it, it sort of stuck. I like the way a down-tuning sounds. I use .060-gauge strings right now.
They ground out if you tune down with regular gauge strings. I was using an old Gibson Melody Maker. I would drop-tune on that and it would just send the whole guitar out of whack.