Unless your only exposure to local music is the rainbow of buskers that shack up in and out of Bart stations on the way to and from your office job, you probably know by now that the kings and mentors of San Francisco's ever-undulating womb of music is Thee Oh Sees. Their utterly fearless live shows aside, the band releases new material like they're firing uzis into a crowded room and when it comes, you're never quite sure what you're going to get.
When the music began, it was just frontman John Dwyer recording sparse, bizarro-world ditties full of clicks, clacks and smothered vocals. Now, with what future scholars will likely call the "classic" Oh Sees lineup (Brigid Dawson, Petey Dammit, Mike Shoun, Dwyer), the group's sound is garage-gone-bananas; it's a swirling vortex that sucks in everything from berserk post-punk experimentalism, reeling psychedelic wobbles and effects, and the aggro come-ons of bombastic drums and punkified, hectic yelps. Only top-notch musical minds can make complete chaos sound this brilliant for so long and then turn on a dime, reverting to the campfire songs of the band's early days.
That's exactly where the band's latest release Castlemania winds up. Out June 14th on In The Red, the confounding new disc is a return to quieter, weirder times, when the music was more suited for reading magazines and smoking pot to rather than dancing in a sweaty dive. "Pleasure Blimps" is a spiral of sinister lyrics and twisted singing. "I Won't Hurt You" (a dissonant vow to a lover) and the instrumental "The Horse Was Lost" come alive with quivering mellotrons a la The Beatles' Magical Mystery Tour. And the jaunty single "I Need Seed" sounds like a happy-go-lucky singalong, until Dwyer opens with the line "It don't feel too good to be dead in the 21st Century".
We caught up Dwyer to ask what inspired the low-key sound on Castlemania, and here's what he had to say:
These tunes seem to be a little more akin to your older Oh Sees material. Have they have been kicking around in your repertoire for awhile?
I wrote them in the last couple months in my loved flat (608c Haight Street). They were pretty spur of the moment, as can be heard I'm sure on some songs.
What's the significance of castles to you? Your label is also named Castleface...
I have always dug castles since my early days as a Dungeons and Dragons player (36th level Chaotic Evil Cavalier). This record in particular reminisces about a lot of my early fascinations, like LSD, MTV, high school etc...
Parts of the record are very sinister. Most of the vocals even sound like you're taking on an entirely different character from your normal self. Was that a conscious decision, or it totally dictated by the music?
The voice that appears in Castlemania seemed to suit the songs at times better than our conventional voices. It's always good to try something new and to move around inside the songs, especially when you have the freedom to record at home. The mindset is just the tone of the time during which I was writing the songs, because of being evicted from a very well-suited and creative flat and turning a page.
How will you perform the new stuff on Castlemania? You guys are famous for your insane pits....I'm curious as to how you envision future shows playing the new stuff.
We probably won't be playing too much of the Castlemania stuff live, because it has tons of strings and horns on it–stuff we actually don't have in the live line up. But over time, we may end up working out a couple of songs. Stranger things have happened.
People are unanimously astounded by your prolificness. What do you like about machine-gunning out new albums so quickly, as opposed to sitting on an album for a long time?
Believe it or not, I sat on Castlemania longer than I normally do and we have a full band album with two drummers that's not even mixed yet. We must keep up with ourselves.
What was it like to see your name in the New York Times a few months back?
I read the SF Chronicle. I can't pay 2 clams a day to get depressed but I heard. That's nice.