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After ending a nine-year relationship in the U.K., Brigid Dawson wound up working in a café in San Francisco, where she met John Dwyer. The mastermind of the psychedelic-tinged garage-rock band Thee Oh Sees lived across the street. "We made friends, 'cause he's a real funny guy, and there aren't that many funny people here in California," she says. "He's from the East Coast."
Since she was a kid, Dawson knew she wanted to sing. But growing up, she was quite shy. "I didn't know if I ever wanted to sing in front of people back then," she says.
"I knew I wanted to sing when my stepdad, a piano player, was working with this singer, and she was a really glamorous lady with long red fingernails—she totally impressed me," she recalls. "She brought over a bunch of Billie Holiday records for me to listen to, and I totally fell in love."
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Dawson overcame her shyness out of sheer determination to be in a band: "You don't really change as a person, but if you want to play music badly enough, you just have to get over that hump, you just do it."
And she did. Dwyer told her to come see one of his gigs, and then, after checking out her band one night, asked her to sing with him at his next show. She'd never recorded or toured very much before—Thee Oh Sees have an incredibly prolific output, and tour constantly—but she agreed, and she's been a staple in the band ever since.
Thee Oh Sees—once known as the Ohsees, OCS, Orange County Sound, Orinoka Crash Suite or whatever else he came up with that day—started out almost a decade ago as an outlet for Dwyer's somewhat-subdued home recording. Since the late '90s, Dwyer had specialized in writing the kind of fried-out psychedelic garage rock that would make Roky Erickson proud.
With Thee Oh Sees, he's done everything from gentler, often creepy folk (Sucks Blood, Dog Poison and Cool Death of the Island Raiders) to psychedelic-garage freak shows (Warm Slime, Help and The Master's Bedroom Is Worth Spending a Night In). On Thee Oh Sees' latest, Castlemania, Dwyer resuscitates his earlier work, fusing it with the frenetic sounds cultivated over the last three or four years with the band. Castlemania is a return to quieter, weirder times, a collection of songs Dwyer wrote at his flat on Haight Street, more suited for reading a book at home than dancing in a sweaty dive bar. His vocals are twisted, the lyrics dark.
These days, Thee Oh Sees exist full-time as a mighty five-piece featuring guitarist Petey Dammit, drummer Mike Shoun, multi-instrumentalist Lars Finberg and singer/keyboardist Dawson. Next month, they release Carrion Crawler/The Dream, a return to the band's bludgeoning garage rock. Cut live to tape in less than a week at Chris Woodhouse's Sacramento studio in June, Carrion Crawler/The Dream is like a studio session warming up for a good solid pummeling, a more accurate reflection of the band's raucous live show.
From the deck of her house in San Francisco, wine glass in hand, Dawson says she's pretty happy to be in San Francisco with her current lot.
"There are so many things I miss about England, but I love it here right now."
This article appeared in print as "Oh, Say, Can You? Thee Oh Sees have nothing to do with Orange County, but flaunt the name proudly anyway."