There are very few musicians who have redefined the parameters of what it means to be punk quite like John Dwyer of the long-running and shapeshifting San Francisco band OSEES. The prolific mastermind of the group has taken the band from its early punked-up garage-psych beginnings to create kaiju-sized prog-metal epics and mind-altering krautrock soundscapes, breaking down any limitations on what they could strive for on record. But after their 2020 album Weirdo Hairdo—which consisted of three long, acid-soaked psych epics—Dwyer decided to bring things back to basics with the band’s most hardcore-leaning project to date, A Foul Form, premiering at Paste today (Aug. 11), 24 hours ahead of its official release.
The new album was a test for Dwyer—who recorded the band and mixed the record in his basement—to make the harshest, most no-frills OSEES record he possibly could. The inspiration for their 26th full-length came from recent dives back into some of the aggressive music that inspired Dwyer early on. “Every few years, I come back to punk and metal. And I definitely listened to enough death metal this year to kill a horse,” he tells Paste. “Over COVID, I really dug deep back into old metal and a lot of contemporary metal, but also old punk and, man, nothing sounds better than that shit on vinyl.”
The direction of A Foul Form can be traced back to when he and the band resumed doing what they do best: playing live. During the height of the pandemic, Dwyer and the OSEES were in a similar position to every band sidelined from touring. With none of the reliable income coming their way from years of establishing themselves as a ferocious and unmissable live act, the band set up a series of pro-shot live streams—Live at Big Sur and the band’s Levitation Sessions Vol. I & II. While the first Levitation Session focused primarily on nuggets from the band’s catalog, Dwyer and the band offered fans curveballs on Vol. II and the Big Sur set, with brief blocks of covers from some of his favorite punk bands. The Big Sur set included four covers from Black Flag’s early days, while the second Levitation set included a handful of covers from L.A. weirdo-punk pioneers Chrome.
Playing these underground standards by these beloved bands added an element of surprise to the sets, but it also inspired Dwyer to reconnect with his roots in this life-changing music. Hearing the OSEES tear through Black Flag classics like “Fix Me” and reimagining the amphetamine crash post-punk of Chrome’s “Looking For Your Door,” you can understand how Dwyer’s warped vision of punk lands somewhere in the middle of those two bands. It was an experience that felt invigorating for Dwyer, and that need to show love to his heroes carried over to A Foul Form, with him and the band closing out the album with a downright demonic cover of “Sacrifice” by the legendary U.K. anarcho-punk band Rudimentary Peni.
“When you’re doing a stream, there’s something about it that is weirdly freeing where there’s not an audience watching you suffer to get these things right. So we were able to do things like covers that we never really do live,” says Dwyer of reacquainting himself with all of this music. “It was also a way to be like, ‘Okay, let’s try and get people more interested,’ because [our fans have] seen us a million times. It’s tough to be like, ‘Watch four streams no matter how bored you are!’ I would be bored of us. So adding the cover sets—things like Chrome’s little surprise—was really exhilarating. [It was] also pretty cool to reach out to people like [Chrome singer and guitarist] Helios Creed and the dudes from Southern Records. Rudimentary Peni [as well], to check in to make sure everything was kosher with us going forward with all that. It was just nice to talk to these people. These are heroes of mine.”
On the new record, the band rips through 10 no-bullshit, lo-fi punk ragers in just 22 minutes. Each track pares things down to pay homage to hardcore’s beautiful simplicity while working in menacing, bad-trip electronics to shake off any illusion of this record being a simple genre exercise. In the recording of A Foul Form, Dwyer explains that he wanted to honor the up-front dry drum sounds of those early punk records from bands like Rudimentary Peni, as well as their peers Crass and The Subhumans. He explains that since the engineers who recorded those records didn’t have the budgets to use the wet reverb used in the big-budgeted heavier records of the day, they escaped any sense of seeming outdated or trapped in a specific era. But funnily enough to him, he also cites the dry and aggressive sounds of Rick Rubin’s “genius” production on Slayer’s 1986 corpse-grinding high-water mark Reign in Blood as a huge influence to his approach. “If you’ve listened to Slayer’s albums before Reign In Blood, [they have] big boomy, ammo dump drum sounds, which take the toughness and the assertiveness out of it. So suddenly, they had this record that blew the lid off the metal world.”
Being in a basement, OSEES were already halfway to achieving the “bunker” quality of those dime-budget records Dwyer still finds himself infatuated with. To harness the spirit completely, he made sure not to use too many unnecessary mics on the drums in order to capture them as you would hear them in a cramped studio space. “With old soul records and old punk records, you just have a simple setup and it’s recorded mostly live. I think that shit really shines through,” he says.
For his demented guitar sound on the record, Dwyer’s secret to the scuzz was plugging in directly to a Tekton Tweeter Array. This midrange speaker cabinet is generally used as a loudspeaker for events, rather than the vintage tube amps he uses live and on other projects, creating a disorienting, buzz-like effect. “The guitars are loud, but they’re really thin. There’s not a lot of body in them,” he explains. “That was a really fun trick. I could plug my guitar directly into that and it sounds like shit. Tom [Dolas] played through a really small, old ‘60s amp I had that had basically a car speaker [in it] that just was not made for playing guitar through. So we did these really low-volume guitars with really weird arrangements, and it came out with that really gnarly sound.”
The album is a joyous, lightning-crack celebration of the crusty kids out there creating classics without a care in the world about whether their records adhered to any rules of fidelity. Songs like the opener “Funeral Solution,” the title track and “Scum Show” harken back to that lo-fi punk spirit, which proved to take quite a toll on Dwyer when it came time to mix the record in a way that would do these songs justice. “One thing I noticed is that mix is so aggressive that at the end of the day, I would just be fucking exhausted,” laughs Dwyer. “Like not only were my ears tired, but my face hurt. It felt like I was being slapped all day.”
For a band that has consistently upped their game throughout their nearly 26 years as a prolific outlet for Dwyer, these kinds of detours are always a welcome surprise, but aren’t out of the ordinary for Dwyer’s eclectic and ever-evolving tastes. As of late, the band has ballooned into a five-piece demolition unit onstage and on record, melding elements of garage rock, krautrock and even, at times, thrash metal into a sound that is all their own. The interlocking motorik rhythms of dual drummers Dan Rincon and Paul Quattrone even led Tom Scharpling of The Best Show to hail the OSEES as “The American CAN.” Even though he is flattered by this kind of praise and cementing of his and the band’s legacy, Dwyer is always ready to move on to wherever the inspiration takes him. Between touring around the world again, building a new studio in L.A., and helping to run Castle Face Records —which he co-founded with Matt Jones and Brian Lee Hughes in 2006—he is already making preparations to rehearse material for a new OSEES record. With all of the fun he’s been having digging back into the crates, Dwyer explains that he and the band aren’t quite ready to abandon the brash abandon of A Foul Form. But that could all change between now and when the new stuff sees the light of day.
“The new record is still in this vein a little bit. It’s really hard to say, because every time I set out to do something, and it ends up changing somewhere along the line and I’m like, ‘Shit, that’s not what I expected at all!’” Dwyer says. “I think the rudiment is going to be comparable, like in its simplicity. The [new] songs have been really good live, I have to say. This is crowd bump shit. I guess the world needs a little bit of that right now. A little kick in the ass. But I wouldn’t put it past us to make another prog record in two years. Who knows?”
As a true lifer, that is exactly the position that Dwyer has fought tirelessly to be in. Rather than grinding away on the road, he and the band choose their dates wisely, opting to do multiple nights at venues they know and love. By releasing his own records, both with the OSEES and without, he can call his own shots on how many he releases per year, with zero interference in how they should sound. Dwyer trusts his gut and trusts that fans of his music will remain interested in following him through his explorations as the band’s sound mutates.
“With OSEES, there is a lot of whim involved. It’s just whatever feels good. It’s very selfish for me and us,” Dwyer says. “We definitely have crossed the line where you could call us genre-hoppers now, I suppose. I’m okay with being up there with Ween. I fucking love Ween! But also, there’s a bit of a not-giving-a-fuck quality when you own your own label. When you really do make your own clock, it doesn’t matter. If people don’t like it, fuck off. They can just go somewhere else. But I feel like it’s always really fun to turn people on to new ideas or revisit some old stuff. So, again, I’m very, very lucky with what I have here.”
Listen to A Foul Form below. You can buy a copy right here.
00:00 – 01:52 – Funeral Solution
01:52 – 03:29 – Frock Block
03:29 – 07:00 – Too Late For Suicide
07:00 – 08:52 – A Foul Form
08:52 – 10:13 – A Burden Snared
10:13 – 12:03 – Scum Show
12:03 – 13:43 – Fucking Kill Me
13:43 – 17:36 – Perm Act
17:36 – 20:56 – Social Butt
20:56 – 21:58 – Sacrifice (Rudimentary Peni cover)