There's a story, possibly an apocryphal one, that when George Martin first brought the Beatles into the studio, he noticed the pre-Fab Four couldn't tune their guitars properly. So being a producer, he insisted on tuning them himself. But as legend has it, the young musicians were so used to hearing their music a certain way that they had to go back to their slightly dissonant tuning in order to continue the sessions.
Whether or not that's true, it would still be interesting to see what would happen if Martin went into the studio today with Thee Oh Sees, a San Francisco psych-garage outfit that's released nearly two dozen albums and EPs, all of them recorded live-to-tape, over the past seven years.
"We try to be in tune, for sure, but sometimes it just doesn't work out that way," admits singer/keyboardist Brigid Dawson, whose band's newly released album, Carrion Crawler/The Dream, finds indie-rock producer Chris Woodhouse (A Frames, Wounded Lion) capturing the group in all its lo-fi glory. (Full disclosure: I once worked with Chris at a music magazine.)
"I really do think that people hear things in different ways," Dawson continues. "Some people hear things perfectly — like, I think Chris Woodhouse is a really great example of that. He has perfect pitch. And then me, I'm not a perfect musician by any means. Probably when things are a little funky, I actually hear it better."
As do plenty of critics.
Earlier this year, the New York Times rhapsodized over Thee Oh Sees for putting out "music with a pop core that moves at a spastic speed with warped melodies," while Spin proclaimed their work "a Rolodex of garage styles circa 2011, 1979, or 1966."
True enough, the band's passion-over-polish approach echoes the warp and woof of outfits like Thee Midniters and Thee Headcoats.
"It's an homage to all those people," says Dawson of the band's own distended Thee. "Since I was young, I've always liked music that was a little bit raw. That's just what music sounds like to me."
Dawson's induction into the realm of Thee Oh Sees began after she met founder and frontman John Dwyer. "I moved back from England in 2002," says the dual-national, "and I worked at a café around the corner from John's house. He would come in every day and he'd always be handing out fliers for all the different shows that he was involved with."
Eventually, Dawson checked out a show with Dwyer's former band, the Hospitals. "They played outside of the 16th Street BART station, a generator show, and it was really, really brilliant." Not long after, Dwyer returned the favor and went to see Dawson's group, "and that night he asked me to be in his band."
While Thee Oh Sees now tour as incessantly as they record, they're still very much in touch with a local music scene that ranges from the folk-glam of Kelley Stoltz to the proto-punk Sic Alps.
"We all go to each others' shows, and sometimes we play on one another's records," says Dawson. "It's strange, because you know all the bands, and they're your friends, and you've seen them at every single gig in town all the time for years and years, you know? It's just a nice place to be for music. We're very lucky."