Sept. 5 2012 08:12 AM

San Francisco garage-rockers care about music, not hype

Clockwise from top left: Brigid Dawson, Petey Dammit, John Dwyer, Mike Shoun
Photo by Beryl Fine

In the age of the Internet, a few good demos can go a long way. When Wavves frontman Nathan Williams released his home-recorded slacker-punk songs into the blogosphere in 2008, it was only a matter of months before he’d signed a deal with Fat Possum Records, gotten the attention of Pitchfork and toured Europe.

Even in this new world, though, some bands still do things the old-fashioned way. Take Thee Oh Sees, for example: In 15 years, they’ve gradually gained a reputation as one of San Francisco’s best garage-rock bands, thanks in large part to a busy touring schedule, prolific output and a killer live show.

Like Wavves, they’ve also gotten a leg up from hip online tastemakers. But keyboardist / singer Brigid Dawson doesn’t place a high premium on media buzz.

“I don’t think you really need to do that much publicity,” she says, speaking by phone from her home in San Francisco. “What you need to do is play good gigs. If you aren’t doing that, then you have a problem.”

While some buzz bands spend time cultivating their image with non-musical pet projects—a video game, say, or an Urban Outfitters clothing line—Thee Oh Sees spend a lot of time just, you know, making music. They’ve released more than a dozen records, including two in 2011. A new album, Putrifiers II, will come out on Sept. 11 via In the Red Records.

One of the most potent garage bands around today, Thee Oh Sees hark back to the vintage bands of the Nuggets compilation series, but they push everything to giddy, brain-frying extremes. “It just makes you want to wiggle and twitch and make bug-eyed faces in the mirror with your tongue wagging,” writes journalist Rauol Nilsson on

Each of their albums has a distinct feel. On last May’s Castlemania, frontman John Dwyer handled almost everything himself, offering up LSD-friendly bubblegum pop with infectious hooks and freaky, chipmunk-style vocals. For November’s Carrion Crawler / The Dream, the band recruited a second drummer—Lars Finberg from L.A. punk-weirdoes The Intelligence—to dish out carnal, Krautrock-style psych jams.

With Putrifiers II, Dwyer takes a lead role again, Dawson says, but also works with vocalist Heidi Alexander of San Francisco’s The Sandwitches. The result is characteristically freaky: While “Wax Face” and “Flood’s New Light” are all about fuzzy guitar licks, upbeat rhythms and kooky vocals, “So Nice” has a Velvet Underground vibe—a tom-tom funeral march guides a druggy haze of string-driven drones.

Thee Oh Sees—Dwyer, Dawson, guitarist Petey Dammit and drummer Mike Shoun— started as Dwyer’s solo bedroom project back in 1997. They’ve gone through several evolutions and names in the years since. Dawson joined the band in 2004, when they were called OCS and played low-key freak-folk.

“People would sit down and rest their chins in their hands and kind of check it out quietly,” she says.

Today, they have the kinetic energy of Coachwhips, Dwyer’s old noise-punk band. And though Dawson says she liked their old style, she adds, “There’s something really satisfying about playing a gig where everyone at the end of it is completely wet, and maybe they got a microphone bumped into their mouth and they bled a little bit.” 

This must-see live show helped take the band to new heights of popularity. Now that they’re playing international dates and getting media attention, Dawson no longer needs a day job to get by.

Dwyer and Dawson are both in their late 30s, and Dawson says she feels more situated than a young musician might be if they’d seen the same levels of fame.

“You take it exactly for what it is,” she says. “No one’s going to tell you what to do or how to make your music or how it should sound, how your record should look. You’re in control of all of that. You’re not a pawn.”

She recently found herself in an uncomfortable position when the band got paid to play a free show that was put on to promote a certain product. (She asked that the company not be named in print.) As part of the deal, she sat down to do a video interview; at the end, without being warned ahead of time, she was asked to read a tag line mentioning the product.

“I did it because that paid all of our rents for the month,” she says. “But they snuck it up on me. … I felt very—almost ashamed. My parents are these English lefties. It was a thing that I could never tell my parents that I had done. I felt really bummed out about it for, like, a month afterwards.”

She says she’s learned her lesson, though. And in general, she’s not worried about PR.

“Every one of us would be bummed if we played a shitty show, but I would never be too sad if I looked terrible on camera,” she says. “I’m not going to worry about that part of it too much, because I don’t think that’s really important.”

Thee Oh Sees play with Sic Alps, Wild Wild Wets and Thanksgiving at Bar Pink on Monday, Sept. 10.

Email or follow him on Twitter at @peterholslin.