You might know them as Thee Oh Sees, like I do. Or you might know them as The Oh Sees, The Ohsees, Orange County Sound, or maybe as Orinoka Crash Suite. But you probably think of them, if you know them now, as the band with two drummers.
Like most things about this band, currently called “Oh Sees,” that unusual configuration hasn’t always been the case. Since John Dwyer began the project in 1997, Oh Sees’ lineup has changed dramatically and repeatedly. Not only different musicians, but entirely different kinds of musicians have entered and exited Dwyer’s orbit, and their impact memorialized in the project’s prolific lifetime — twenty albums under different names.
The incarnation of Oh Sees that produced the majority of these albums, and will perhaps remain the best known, spanned from 2006 with the release of The Cool Death of Island Raiders, their first album as The Oh Sees, to 2013 with the release of Floating Coffin, their eighth as Thee Oh Sees. During this period, Dwyer (vocals and guitar) collaborated with Petey Dammit (guitar and bass), and Brigid Dawson (keyboard and vocals). From 2007 to 2013, they had Mike Shoun on drums, and before him, briefly, Jigmae Baer and Patrick Mullins.
During this period, Oh Sees created a substantive place for themselves in rock and managed to avoid being pigeonholed in any particular genre by pushing each album into incrementally progressive sonic spaces. By 2010, they were showcasing a kind of krautrock that distinguished their sound from that of contemporaries like Ty Segall, who emerged in the late 2000s, and even Dwyer’s other projects like Pink and Brown. Dawson as a female vocalist brought a distinctive edge to Oh Sees, as did Dammit’s unusual bass technique. He plays an electric guitar fed through a kind of translator, that makes it sound like a bass guitar. When the five-year-old incarnation announced a “hiatus” in 2013, it quickly became clear that Oh Sees were entering another metamorphosis. Dawson and Dammit moved on, both geographically and creatively, and Dwyer produce an album with the also-prolific Chris Woodhouse in the same year and then brought Oh See’s into a new rendition as a trio with drummer Nick Murray and bassist Timothy Hellman.
A band undergoing a total gutting faces the possibility of alienating fans and producers alike. That Oh Sees have usurped this challenge, despite total rebirths, name changes, and new directions is a testament to two things: First, to Dwyer’s ability to hold onto a thread, a vision and a core energy that connects the days of Orinoko Crash Suite to the contemporary, double drum Oh Sees. Second, it demonstrates the value of this kind of change in and of itself; a kind of nebulous structure for a “band” that allows members to come and go, to bring their best and leave when the time is right, not feel pressured to hang on for the sake of squeezing out another album that isn’t there. It’s a kind of progressivism, really, that suggests a band or project does not need be defined by the tenure and impermeability of its members.
When I saw Oh Sees play at The Sinclair last month, only fleetingly did I remember that the people on stage were not all those who created the albums with which I’m most familiar. It would have been cool to see Brigid Dawson perform (so much respect for that woman), but it’s hard to miss her too greatly for the sold-out show prohibits nearly any thought. Watching Oh Sees, as they exist now, is awesome. And the show proved to me just how unwavering their fanbase is – the venue bore a kind of honest energy that you don’t get for all bands, not even all really great bands. There are some shows for which the crowd is just really excited; there’s a shared expectation for how it’ll go, or how it’s going, that is palpable and unpretentious.
In their current incarnation, Oh Sees performed songs from its past lives but left little room for any kind of nostalgia. And from listening to their past couple records that feature the double-drums, I wasn’t totally convinced of its utility – I didn’t hear it. But at The Sinclair, I got it. The double-drums don’t just make Oh Sees louder. They make the band better by pushing Dwyer.
The band took up an unconventional arrangement on stage, with the drums front and center, Dwyer and bassist Hellman on either side. Watching Dan Rincon and Paul Quattrone hammer away on the drums, side by side is like watching synchronized divers. Synchronized movements are far more impressive than those of a sole diver, no matter how nice his thing is. As you hear them, live, there’s this extra sonic something that for this band makes two better than one.
And adding to the spectacle of watching Oh Sees is this sense of healthy competition. I’ve seen it before in exactly this way: last winter, I saw Kamasi Washington play with the nebulous West Coast Get Down at the San Francisco Jazz Center. Drummer’s Tony Austin and Ronald Bruner Jr. performed together and against one another, going into an explicit “drum-off” competition. I caught up with Austin at another show later that year and asked him about it. He laughed, both asserting the brotherly, well-meaning, fond but nonetheless competitive competition between the two, but also the substantive value that it brings. In short, he and Bruner push each other, learn from each other, and are better because of one another.
With Oh Sees, this striking sense that you’re watching concurrent competition and collaboration is invoked intensely not just by watching the drummers.
It translates to the whole band, but especially to Dwyer. He’s challenged to match the sound and energy of two drums already in their own intense vortex, and it’s clear that their live show is better for it. Undoubtedly, this is also at play in the creation of their recent records, and their ability to keep this thing, despite twenty years and plenty of changes, alive.
Oh Sees have covered a lot of ground. If you’re new to them, I’d look to their most recent album, Orc. It pays faint homage to the early days of Dwyer’s project, while pushing towards a sound space that’s heady, a little experimental, but entirely gripping. And though I didn’t at first appreciate the role of double-drums in the record, after seeing them live, I certainly do. It’s this kind of innovation that can keep an old band young, and push music into untapped places.
 Though Dawson would return to sing backup vocals in Mutilator Defeated at Last, Oh Sees’ fourteenth studio album.