"I don't want to answer to anybody at all." That philosophy has seen Thee Oh Sees' John Dwyer through nearly two decades in San Francisco's garage rock scene, a stint that has included 13 bands, countless records (35 Oh Sees releases alone) and a career trajectory that's brought the 38-year-old to his best-known band's 12th and most unconfined full-length, Floating Coffin.
Recorded at the Hangar, the Sacramento recording studio owned by magazine publisher John Baccigaluppi, Coffin was assembled in December. The band spent Christmas dinner in the warehouse: "I think we drank something like 13 bottles of wine that night," Dwyer says with a laugh. "Everyone had gray teeth and we were lying around on the floor by the end." The sessions also saw the return of longtime Oh Sees engineer Chris Woodhouse; the equally prolific Sacramento studio man also produced, mixed, and mastered the record, a first for their six-albums-long partnership.
What will emerge April 16th is a masterful, 10-song array that first concentrates, then refracts the band's darkest (and smartest) idiosyncrasies into musings on humanity's failings: its wars, its industry, its obsession with technology, and above all, its indifference.
"The way the human race is going, America in particular, is getting thicker every day, by people not paying attention," says Dwyer. "And I'm totally as guilty of that as anybody else, you know? . . . I'm not a political person by any stretch of the imagination, but it's just constantly in our faces."
As if to drive the point home, the band promptly marched out of the studio doors and flew overseas. They toured Australia, New Zealand, China, Japan, Hong Kong, Vietnam, South Korea, and Bangkok through January and February. Dwyer says it was a fitting trip after recording the new album.
"You get off the plane in Beijing, and you can look at the sun without taking your eyes away, it's so heavy," Dwyer recalls. "I was thinking a lot about people who have gripes about jobs being shipped abroad, and stuff like that, and then you look at what it does to places like [China] – it's like, 'I'm not exactly sure if you would want this at home.' China's taken on so much industry, it's mental what it's like over there. I've never seen anything like it before."
Thee Oh Sees andDwyer's related projects have dropped a full-length studio album every year like clockwork over the past decade. For Coffin, they're trying something new. Dwyer says he's loosened his creative grip, redistributing control among Thee (other) Oh Sees.
"Usually I bring in the [songs] and everybody sort of forms around [them], but this time a lot of this record was written together, as a band, which we haven't done in awhile," he says. "We hired on a couple extra days in the studio so we were able to write on the fly."
Coffin is also the first self-released Oh Sees record since 2008's The Master's Bedroom Is Worth Spending a Night In.
"I've always wanted to do my own record," says Dwyer of the choice to split with L.A.-based garage-punk label In the Red Records, home to the band's last five albums. "I learned a lot from Larry [Hardy, In the Red founder], but I know what I want, and I like to control everything, decide who I'm working with."
Neither tour fatigue nor major jetlag have slowed the Oh Sees machine. They hit SXSW seven times last week and will play Coachella in April and Calgary, Alberta's Sled Island festival in June. In time for Record Store Day, they'll package up a handful of "a little more light-hearted" songs left over from the Coffin sessions to be released as an vinyl-only EP. The proceeds from that release will benefit Healthy San Francisco, a healthcare non-profit that Dwyer says "everyone I know has used, including myself." Of course, now back at home, Dwyer's already back to the drawing board.
"I just went out and bought a bunch of magnetic tape to start working again, and write and demo stuff," he says. "I'll just turn the machine on and have a day with it. It'll be interesting to see what comes out next."