5:16 PM CDT, September 26, 2012
On the latest album by Thee Oh Sees, “Putrifiers II” (In the Red), John Dwyer sings, produces and plays guitar, keyboards, flute, clarinet and just about everything else he could get his hands on.
For more than a decade, his albums have toggled between one-man-band solo efforts and full-blown band projects. All told he’s been a member of a dozen bands, collaborated with numerous others, and had a hand in countless recordings – and that doesn’t include the music by other artists he has released on the San Francisco label he co-owns, Castle Face Records.
It all started in his hometown of Providence, R.I., where his parents enabled his obsession with all things music.
“My parents got me art classes as a kid, I played saxophone and, when I turned 16, I got a guitar,” he says. “They bought me two lessons from this local reggae guy, Paul, who was about 7-feet tall and wore white puffy sneakers. He looked like (the serial killer) in (the 1986 Michael Mann movie) ‘Manhunter.’ He taught me how to tune, how to play (AC-DC’s) ‘Back in Black,’ and one Misfits song. I owe him everything.”
After graduating from high school in 1992, he hung around Providence “learning how to play music.”
“The whole goal was always not to have a real job,” he says. “My mom said that I’d never hold a job with the attitude I have, and she’s right. I can’t be trapped. To line someone else’s pockets, to sell my time for minimum wage, I couldn’t bear that. But I did everything a 20-year-old loser can do: I was a housepainter, I cooked at fast food restaurants, I was a bike messenger, I sold weed.”
In the late ‘90s, he left Providence and starting driving west, landing in San Francisco. “As soon as I got there,” he says, “I saw a beautiful girl, had an insane cup of coffee and went to the beach. Fifteen years later I’m still here.”
He was inspired by the underground music scene he found there, from the skewed indie-rock of Deerhoof to the progressive metal of Weakling. “I was a kid still experimenting with my life, going out to shows every single night,” he says. “I was ferociously into it.”
A series of bands, some of them operating simultaneously, quickly followed, including Pink and Brown, the Hospitals and Coachwhips. The most long-lasting has been Thee Oh Sees, which he describes as his “family band.”
“It’s a little more versatile,” he says, enabling him to indulge his wide-ranging interests in metal, psychedelia, garage-rock and baroque pop. “Putrifiers II” is perhaps the most versatile release of them all, tying together his musical interests and stamping him as perhaps the most punk-rock clarinetist of them all.
“I got into all these weird instruments because my step dad is a prolific yard-saler,” Dwyer says. “Once he realized that I was going to do this for life, he got me a flute, a saxophone, a bunch of crazy ‘80s keyboards, amplifiers, anything he could get his hands on at garage sales and flea markets. He’s got a good eye for stuff like that, although I probably now have more tambourines than I can handle.”
“Putrifiers” is also a rarity – so far it’s the only release from Dwyer and Thee Oh Sees this year. Usually he’s involved in multiple releases annually.
“I’ve gotten better at being an editor,” he says. “Years ago I would agree that I was just releasing things as I made them. Some of it’s not really for everyone but yourself. But believe it or not, I have tons of (music) I haven’t put out.”
He says his Castle Face label is doing better than ever, now that he’s added a third, more business-minded partner. The label focuses on the local scene, mostly releasing debut albums by new bands, including those of Thee Oh Sees and rising star Ty Segall. Dwyer met Segall when the then-teenaged musician first came to town a few years ago.
“I went to see Ty at this basement show with a muddy P.A.,” Dwyer says. “He was 18 at the time. The (surf-punk band) Traditional Fools were playing and Ty was playing drums with a broken arm. He had a drum stick stuffed into his cast. We were just laughing watching this guy – what a maniac! Then I saw his solo band, and I was sold. He’s a genuinely creative person. He’s constantly working, and his output is high caliber and frequent. There is a no b.s. vibe about him.”
It’s no surprise that those who know him best would say the same thing about Dwyer.
Segall, whose tour with Thee Oh Sees arrives Friday in Chicago, calls Dwyer “the mayor of San Francisco” and “a great guy.”
“We all owe him a lot,” Segall says with a laugh. “But he’d rather just have a beer and play music with us.”
Thee Oh Sees and Ty Segall: 7 and 10 p.m. Friday at Logan Square Auditorium, 2539 N. Kedzie Av., $18; ticketweb.com.