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Garage punks Oh Sees unplug for a night of psychedelic serenades

Written by
Andrew Frisicano

For the bulk of Oh Sees’ 22 years, the band’s unmistakable calling card has been its live show: a throbbing din made of loud, distorted, reverberant guitar, yipped, gutteral vocals and driving rhythms at breakneck tempos. Its music—garage-rock fueled by caffeine and weed and stretched out with heavy riffs and hypnotic drumming—is made for pogoing, stage diving and generally getting soaked in sweat (if not your own, then your neighbors’).

For this week’s show at Murmrr Theatre, the band explores its softer side. Expect frontman John Dwyer to strum an acoustic guitar (as in the photo above, from a similar show in San Francisco last December, which was recently released on LP). Joining him are longtime collaborator and vocalist Brigid Dawson, drummer Paul Quattrone, bassist Tim Hellman and a string trio.

Though Dwyer & Co. tour the globe stirring up mosh pits, the mellow tack isn’t totally unheard of for the band: Its earliest albums, released under the name OCS, which it’ll use for this performance, were weird dispatches of twisted bedroom pop and freak folk. “Ironically, the music was less hectic, but there was way more drugs,” says Dwyer.

As the project evolved, the group added Dawson, along with one drummer (later two), another guitarist and layers of fuzz. But even on its heaviest releases—this year’s excellent prog-metal LP Smote Reverser, for example—there are moments of quiet and respite mixed in with the cranked amps and thundering drums.

Last year, the OCS name returned with the album, Memory of a Cut Off Head, which featured string arrangements, a more laid-back feel and Dawson cowriting and occasionally singing lead. It was a reunion of sorts for the pair—Dawson no longer tours with the band—and, in some ways, it harkens back to their initial collaborations. “She’s really easy to harmonize with and to write with and a good person,” says Dwyer. “So, she’s like the yin to my yang. I’m like the bad cop.”

Their voices mix sweetly on songs like “Cannibal Planet” and the title track, showcasing Dwyer’s words, which are cryptic as usual but with a hopeful edge. “Let’s not go easily,” goes the chorus of the former song, describing, possibly, the fight to survive in a world in ruins.  That too is a bit of a departure as Dwyer's lyrics tend toward the gross, depraved and damaged.

When the pair met in a San Francisco coffee shop near Dwyer’s apartment, Dawson had “a Florence Nightingale vibe of providing coffee for me and my hungover roommates,” according to Dwyer.

“I had just moved over from [the U.K.], so I was used to the English sense of humor and people looking at you right in the eye and cracking jokes,” says Dawson. “And maybe because John’s from the East Coast, that culture is more similar somehow. It’s really the most random thing in the world.” Dwyer says, “It was sorta just kismet, me and her meeting and getting along as good as we did.”

It’s the second December with an OCS show, after debuting the expanded format in California in 2017. So after another year of heavy touring (as much as you can do without breaking yourself”), it’ll once again serve as the closing rites. It's a very holiday vibe kind of thing. It's mellow, you know?” says Dwyer. It's been really fun doing it live in the past. So if we can get this rolling and maybe we can do a little thing every year.”

OCS plays Murmrr Theatre in Prospect Heights on Saturday, December 15 at 8pm ( $30–$40. Buy tickets.

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