Thee Oh Sees, a band touted as one of the best current garage rock acts, played Seoul on Sunday night. There are obvious reasons why they have garnered this reputation, but a reputation such as this sets expectations pretty high.
Many of us born in the late 70’s to the late 80’s, who did most of our growing up in the 90’s and came of age in the aughts, cut our teeth on sad, dark, and/or angry music. From the grunge era to a flood of emotional indie artists, from gangster rap to hardcore, much of “Generation Y” is steeped in overly serious and even melodramatic music. That’s what makes a band like Thee Oh Sees so refreshing. Not that they’re a happy hippie fluffy jam act. They exude plenty of attitude and their oeuvre is prolific and often aggressive. They are experienced enough to have developed a mature sound, yet their sound reflects a youthfulness and rawness that is necessary for their style. The point is that they play psychedelic-garage rock with some punk tendencies that gets into your bones and makes you want to dance and jump around. In other words, their music is fun. Sweaty fun.
The band got off to a rough start with some issues with singer and guitarist John Dwyer’s gear. One of his effects pedals malfunctioned so he unplugged it and hurled it into the wall behind the stage. You could see the frustration in his face as he continued to have problems throughout much of the show. Despite the issues, the band handled the difficulties well, holding down a groove while Dwyer fixed his pedal chain. The bassist, Petey Dammit! (yes, that’s right, Dammit!), and drummer Mike Shoun form a solid foundation for Dwyer’s sometimes linear, sometimes spaced out guitar playing. One of Dwyer’s greatest strengths is the range of sounds he dials in. His slightly dirty tone powerfully interacts with Dammit!’s tight bass lines and Shoun’s unwavering drums. Then, when he kicks on the fuzz it takes them to another dynamic level, which coaxes bursts of intensity out of the crowd. He completes the tonal triumvirate by playing reverb and echo coated guitar leads that hang in the mix like stalactites in a cave. This echoing and swirling dissonance creates a disorienting funhouse mirror that helps to set their sound apart from less dimensional acts.
Thee Oh Sees also demonstrate dexterity vocally that can be attributed in part to Brigid Dawson’s vocal interplay with Dwyer. Dwyer’s utilization of vocal effects and Dawson’s close harmonies, in conjunction with fore mentioned strengths, creates a strong sonic identity. Dawson also contributes electric keyboard sounds that layer nicely with the wall of guitar, bass and drums. Her calm demeanor on stage and her tasteful additions to the music compliments the outfit well.
Ultimately, Sunday night was probably just an average show for Thee Oh Sees, but the band’s competence made it anything but average. Dwyer seemed a bit tired and his energy low. This could be attributed to technical difficulties, being exhausted on tour, or even the onset of becoming jaded. Who knows? Regardless, the group builds tension that can thrust into an eruption of excitement in an instant, and an in-tune audience can’t help but react.
Words by Grey Watson
Photographs courtesy of Round and Round