Oh Sees' John Dwyer on What Drives His Endless DIY Quest

As his band releases its 20th album, the prolific musician and label head explains how 'D&D' and a "zen" work ethic fuel his underground empire

As his band Oh Sees release their 20th album, underground-rock mainstay John Dwyer explains what's behind his DIY empire. Credit: Mini Van Photography

It's a late August afternoon, and John Dwyer is sitting in his Los Angeles backyard, sipping an iced coffee. His beagle, Buddy, zips around the bramble and the sound of a Robert Fripp record trickles out from inside the house, which doubles as Dwyer's studio. It's a rare moment of downtime for the heavily tattooed frontman of California psychedelic rock group Oh Sees (formerly known as Thee Oh Sees, and sometimes as OCS), a man who has spent the past two decades in fanatical service to his DIY creative muse. 

Dwyer is never not on: Within the first 10 minutes of his conversation with Rolling Stone, he's touched on tattooing his grandparents' names on his chest, pasta that resembles little ears, and how you can see the namesake of his neighborhood, Eagle Rock, from his porch.

Dwyer just wrapped a European tour, and he's already gearing up for the next leg. "I bought 500 white T-shirts and yesterday all day long I smoked weed, stood in my living room with a big setup, watching Seinfeld all day, just twisting shirts to do 500 tie-dyes, which I'm going to do today," the 43-year-old says. He turns down an offer of assistance. "Oh no, no, that's OK. This is, like, my zen thing that I have to do alone. But I appreciate it. I got 10 days to do 500 shirts and the first step is done, and then I have to make 200 posters which I still kind of need to draw up. But I think I can do it. I like working."

That's one way of putting it. Dwyer recently marked his 20th OCS release – not counting his many side projects and other bands – with Memory of a Cut Off Head. It's a beautiful and unusual record, even for him, hewing closer to reflective chamber pop than the manic, brain-frying work Dwyer is best known for, and it marks the welcome return of longtime collaborator Brigid Dawson on vocals and keyboards. Like any Dwyer product, it's just one piece of a large puzzle that includes his label, Castle Face Records, his solo project Damaged Bug and his obsessive devotion to touring.

Originally from Providence, Rhode Island, Dwyer first got into music via skating culture. Yet the emotional aspect of his art stemmed from a lifetime of playing a certain role-playing game. "Dungeons and Dragons was a huge part of my childhood, even before I got into smoking weed," he says, in reference to the fact that the album he released back in August is named Orc. "It was the first taste I had of imagination-based stuff. I still get immense enjoyment out of writing and playing live, because it's like that magical dopamine kick of creating from nothing."

Exposure to acts including the Cramps at all-ages joints, and a vibrant warehouse scene that gave birth to the likes of noise-rock heroes Lightning Bolt, also jolted a young Dwyer. At age 20 he picked up a guitar, and shortly after moved to San Francisco. He lived there for 17 years and became instrumental in helping build city's DIY garage-rock culture, a fact that led Ty Segall to once dub him "the mayor of San Francisco." Along the way, Dwyer cultivated a reputation for putting on some of the most dynamic, high-energy performances in live music. Onstage, his signature vocal delivery – marked by falsetto howls, gasps and moans – has become a rallying cry for fans (especially in set mainstays "Dead Energy" and "Tidal Wave").

In 2006, Dwyer co-founded Castle Face. The label's name came from one fateful night when OCS' original drummer got too stoned from a particularly potent joint and "his mouth looked like a drawbridge," Dwyer explains with a chuckle. Since then, the label has released work by garage- and psych-rock luminaries such as Segall and Australian rockers King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard. 

Dwyer seems indifferent to his reputation as a scene godfather. But he does allow that he's gotten better at recording himself, and that over the years his band has become more collaborative. "Maybe – I'm sure [the band] would disagree with this – I'm more easygoing than I used to be," he says with a laugh. 

The secret to his success might be the fact that he isn't trying to escape his DIY milieu. Oh Sees tend to play the same venues, ones they like, when making the rounds on tour (with the exception of rare one-offs – over the summer, they played a wedding in southern Italy). Just staying busy is enough. "It seems like the whole world is in a tumultuous vibe, not just with politics but psychically," Dwyer says. "The only way you can try and deal with it, I think, is to make good work and be a good person.

"That's why I use the work as my system of getting through everything."