Oh Sees’ John Dwyer: 21st Century Renaissance Man
Now in the 20th year of his ever-evolving band project, the recently renamed Oh Sees, the DIY road dog lets it bleed onstage and on his new album, Orc.
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.
John Dwyer and the Oh Sees are known for passionate live performances, sometimes taking things off the stage and into the crowd. Dwyer uses his own PA onstage as a monitor to premix his signal. Photo by Minivan Photography
Is that why you use the metal-neck guitar?
Arab on Radar, a band from Providence, always had them and Six Finger Satellite played them, too. I got to borrow one on the road one time. My guitar got broken at a show and I borrowed one for about half the show and I realized it had its own sound. I needed something resilient. I talked to Kevin [Burkett] over at Electrical Guitar and he built me that acrylic/aluminum piece. It’s pretty resilient, man. The one thing I have to do to keep it up to snuff onstage is—basically at any venue, even if it’s outside—I need to put the guitar onstage about half an hour before I go up, and leave the case open. It acclimates to the temperature and then there are usually no trip-ups.
Do you start having intonation problems if the guitar gets too hot or cold?
Kind of. The biggest pain in the ass, frankly, with that guitar is if it’s freezing cold out, which is pretty rare. We did a show one time and it was like 30 degrees out. It was ice cold and it was like playing an icicle. Then when the guitar heats up from your body—I get really sweaty a lot—the guitar gets pretty warm pretty quick and it will actually send it out of pitch. But usually, once I tune it up for the show, I’m fine for the show.
You usually only use one guitar per set. Do you do all your tunings right there onstage?
Yeah. I used to have two guitars. I had a 12-string and the 6-string. Kevin made me a 12-string as well. I love playing that thing and I’ll probably bring it on the road for this U.S. tour. But the reality was it was just getting too expensive to bring it to Europe. I end up spending $1,500 putting gear on a plane, because planes are just getting worse and worse.
Also, I found that my guitar will play better for longer in between tune-ups at the shop if I take it into the hotel with me every night and let it dry out completely. Like I said, I get really sweaty and the guitar gets pretty gross. If I take it out of the case and let it sit in the hotel room and let it sleep with me—then it’s also safe, because they’re not exactly cheap either. But if I leave it in the case over night, the knobs will get dead spots in them and the strings corrode faster. The condensation, even inside the acrylic, will affect the whole play of the guitar. If I give it some air overnight, it seems to heal better.
You said you use .060-gauge strings on the low end?
I use this company, Cleartone. They’re made for drop-tuning. They sent me a box of the .070s, which are .070–.013 and I tried one pack. They’re bananas. I’m not sure if my hands can handle the load of that, but I’m leaning towards just going there. Just start playing bass strings on it. Why not?
Do you have other guitars that you won’t take on the road with you?
Oh yeah, for sure. I’m a huge fan of Gibsons and old Gibsons. I love the Melody Maker. I don’t know why. I have this little ’65 Melody Maker that I got for, like, $700 back in the day—somebody refinished it and I guess they go down in value. The thing looks brand new, though. There’s a company that makes P-90s that fit in a single-coil space—you don’t have to rout out the guitar at all—I put two P-90s in it and the thing smokes. It’s awesome.
So, you upgrade the electronics on your old guitars?
Sometimes. I have an old ’57 Kay bass that I use on a ton of my records that literally still has the same 4 mm-thick, screwed-on-top-of-the-wood pickup in it that sounds like total dog shit, but in the best possible way. It sounds like the bass from “Little Green Bag” [a George Baker Selection hit from 1969 that was used in the film Reservoir Dogs]—that real thumpy sound. I’ve never changed the strings on that bass. It’s a skinny hollowbody Kay. It’s my favorite. I have a Jazz bass, too, and it’s good for other stuff, but that Kay is always my go-to.
You play the bass parts on your records?
It depends. It varies. There’s a live band now for Oh Sees. Tim Hellman plays bass and Dan Rincon and Paul Quattrone play drums. The new record, Orc, is everybody playing their own instrument. But I have a solo project called Damaged Bug where I play everything. And I have a record coming out later in the year with a different set of players. I try to change it up to keep it interesting. But when I do play bass at home, I play that Kay bass [laughs].
I saw somewhere that Tim is the first actual bass player you’ve played with in years. Why is that?
Pink and Brown didn’t have bass out of necessity, because it was just me and one other guy. With Coachwhips, I wanted it to be really dumb and simple. It was snare drum, floor tom, ride, tiny Casio keyboard, an old Harmony guitar, and two amps—that was it. It was really basic. I don’t know why the hell it happened. Thee Oh Sees, and OCS early on, just had another guitar player playing bass parts with an EQ pedal shifted to mostly bass end. It sounded relatively bass-y. Petey [Dammit], who was doing a lot of that guitar playing in that band, was a guitar player and it never crossed my mind to have it switched to bass. So, Tim is my guy now, for sure.
Petey wasn’t using an octave pedal—just an EQ?
No octave, just an EQ. A graphic EQ pedal with it steeped high end all the way down, bass end all the way up. He started using a bass amp after a while. It was a little Acoustic, new school. It was like those disposable amps. You play them on the road and get the warranty on them. Halfway through the tour it dies and you go to Guitar Center and get a new one. We tend to turn everything up as much as it will take. New amps aren’t too great for that kind of shit.
That Showman is the amp you take on the road?
I take two of them on the road with me, with two cabinets. Those things are great, man. I got a ’78 that’s converted back to a blackface—we put in resistors or whatever. My amp guy is down to the nitty gritty in all that shit; he’s great. It’s funny, I was never really a Fender guy. My first amp, after that Crate got stolen, was a Fender. It was like an old 4-channel PA in my first band. But then I got hooked on MusicMan because they were small and loud. But now after using the Showman, I’ll never go back. Nothing sounds like those big Fender amps. Not a Marshall. Nothing.
This 12-string guitar is a Burns Double Six model. Dwyer holds his guitar high while playing, so he doesn’t have
to bend his wrist. Photo by Tim Bugbee/Tinnitus Photography
You run two? Do you go stereo-out from the delay?
No. I actually don’t use two. I take two on the road. One’s a backup. I use two speaker cabinets. I have two 15s and two 12s going from the ’68. I extension speaker it out and then I bi-amp. I run everything into a tuner—just a standard Boss Chromatic Tuner—and they have the splitter on the way out. I send one to the clean channel and the clean channel only has bass in it—all the mids and highs are turned down. Then the other channel is all my highs and mids with the reverb. I split the channel that way so I get the amp’s two channels on like five and five.
And you use the amp’s reverb as your reverb?
All I’m using live is a simple delay and a Death By Audio fuzz pedal and that’s it. For vocals, I used to use the old tape echo [Roland RE-201 Space Echo], but I ended up having to fix that every single day on the road. Everybody else would go to get Thai food and I’d be like, “Can you bring me something back while I sit by myself in the green room and try to figure out why this isn’t working again?” So, I switched over to a digital delay—out of simplicity and for the sake of not losing my mind on the road. But the guitar is just fuzz, delay, and then, obviously, the reverb tank in the amp when I want it.
That Roland tape echo was just vocals, not guitar.
Vocals and keyboards. I have a mixer up there that I use and I have two synths—three synths now—and my vocals and my synths go to a mixer that goes to the same delay. That goes to the PA we have onstage and then we DI. I run a DI out of the echo going to the PA and then I take a split off the DI. But nobody is getting a clean signal from me. They get the signal that I premix onstage.
Do you use that PA onstage as your monitor?
That’s my own monitor. It’s for keyboards and vocals. It’s the way we’ve practiced for years and I started bringing it on the road with me. We were dealing with a lot of asshole sound guys when we were younger. We were punk-ish and we would want to play on the floor or whatever the fuck. If the sound guy was a dick, I was like, “Cool. We don’t need you. We have our own mic stands and mics.” The guy would always be flabbergasted. We would play on the floor of the club without any of the club’s gear, besides using their power. Over time, it became a thing where it became our sound onstage. There are no surprises onstage when we have all our gear—unless stuff gets broken, of course—and after getting my teeth broken so many times, we stopped playing on the floor, unless we’re playing a small warehouse show or something. Onstage, it just sounds like it does in rehearsal. It’s good. We use monitoring, too, from the monitor person at the show, but a lot of time—especially if we’re doing festival work—you just get terrible monitors. I can barely sing as it is, so if I can’t hear myself then it’s a real tragedy out front and it is fucking embarrassing. Having my own super-loud power monitor that I can both EQ and turn up and down—and it’s right next to my head—is super beneficial to what I am doing.
What delay pedal do you use?
I use the DD-3. I’ve tried all these boutique echo pedals over the years. I really like the Death By Audio pedals and I use them in the studio a lot. But live, for the most simplistic, clean, and easy-to-adjust-on-the-fly pedal, I think it’s always going to be that DD-3. They’re dirt cheap and I end up breaking them a lot on the road. I feel a lot of the boutique echos start to get into this territory where it’s really cool in the studio because you can mess around and get some far-out stuff, but onstage they have little tap switches on them that I’ll break off with my foot or they’re incredibly complicated. I even tried to use the Space Echo pedal for a minute [Boss RE-20], and it’s good, but the thing I like about the DD-3 is that it’s really bright. It doesn’t have any of that fake tape darkness. See, my tape delay always had nice high end for some reason. Whenever I use these tape delay emulators, they feel a little dark to me. The DD-3 has a nice, resilient, clear, and simple design.
And you also have a Fuzz Warr?
I have a Fuzz Warr Overload, which is the version of the Fuzz War they made for me that has a high-filter pass on it. I had them take all the knobs off it because I was using it turned up all the way all the time anyway. They put in resistors to make it seem like I have the knobs up all the way. I was just breaking the knobs all the time and I had to mail them back to them constantly. I had like 10 of them that would be in rotation at all times. Now, I’ve been using the same two onstage since they did that without having to get them fixed again. There are no knobs on them. Genius. It’s just a box with two clickers sticking up out of it.
It’s just up all the way. I do all the adjustments on my guitar, frankly. The less I have to bend live, the better [laughs].
You only use two pedals, but you use them a lot. Do you practice and write with them or is that more a product of jamming?
Both. It’s funny because we’ve been playing a bunch of the new material live and I had to change the way we play it live. It just didn’t sound right even though it sounds great to me on the record. I turn on the fuzz where it’s not on or stop playing at certain points. It’s just about what works live when you’re suddenly doing it in front of an audience and the pedal is to the metal a lot more than it is in the studio. Lately I’ve been getting into having one pickup on my guitar with the tone knob turned all the way down—so it’s all bottom—and having the other one with the high end cranked all the way. You can go back and forth between them. That’s been a lot of fun and I’ve been writing a lot around that—especially the more improvisational stuff, live.
You go back and forth between the two?
You get this sort of fake wah wah sound if you go back and forth between them. Another thing is turning on the fuzz with just the 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.
Why do you wear your guitar so high and strum from the side?
I think it’s just more comfortable for me. I always hated not just the aesthetic of the super low guitars—it reminded me of the kind of music I never liked—but the bent wrist to get up and around the neck. That always hurt my wrist. So I started playing high. A lot of old jazz guys, they sit and have their guitar really high. I found my wrist could be straight—I’m going to knock on wood right now so I don’t fuck myself—and I don’t really have any wrist problems after 25 years of playing guitar. I liken a lot of that to my posture. I stretch my hand every day, too, especially before playing. You’ve got to, especially when you’re getting old. You’ve got to stretch everything out or it just hurts. Also, a lot of times my strap would break and I would have to hold the guitar like that during the middle of a song—and it became the way that was comfortable.
Do you use dice as the knobs on your guitar?
Yeah, they’re Dungeon & Dragons knobs. This kid makes them. They’re awesome. I loved D&D when I was a kid and it still has play in my writing now in a weird way. I think role playing is just a huge metaphor for life [laughs]. They’re 10-sided dice and have pointed edges. It makes it super-easy to turn up and down by rolling your finger across it—even more so than a normal knob. I really like them for that. I can do volume tricks with it.
What shape are those knobs?It’s called a pentagonal trapezohedron. How fucking cool is that?
Right from the first guitar break, John Dwyer uses his two pedals constantly. He often steps on one for just a note and then turns it right off.
Watch this entertaining video of John Dwyer demonstrating the Fuzz Warr Overload. And don’t try this at home?