Picking Brains At Pitchfork: Brigid & Petey of Thee Oh Sees

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Thee Oh Sees

On Sunday, June 15, Kerri O’Malley and Kayla Wroblewski met Brigid Dawson and Petey Dammit after Thee Oh Sees’ set at Pitchfork Music Festival. We sat on a zebra-patterned picnic blanket near some Port-O-Johns and chatted about the friendly atmosphere of San Francisco’s garage rock scene, Brigid’s early musical career as a Clam-Tone, what it’s like to watch Ty Segall grow up, and the myth of the “natural.”

Check out our other Pitchfork interview with A Lull, and stay tuned for fest conversations with Dirty Beaches and Milk Music.

Kayla Wroblewski: What does it feel like to play a festival?

Brigid Dawson: For me, I’m still getting used to playing festivals. I kind of miss that closeness when you’re playing in the clubs, cause we were made for that, I think. But I think we’re getting better at festivals.

Petey Dammit: It’s definitely much better playing in a smaller place, with people right next to you and all around you. At festivals there’s that disconnect.

Kerri O’Malley: It’s harder to find a face in the crowd.

KW: And there’s…sunlight.

Brigid: [Laughs] Playing during the day, it seems so unnatural.

KO: How did you two meet John Dwyer?

Petey: I used to live in a place in San Francisco that had shows, and he had played there a couple of times and would come to the shows. I would go to his shows, or we would see each other at other shows…we just saw each other around a lot.

Brigid: I had moved over from England, and I was working in a coffee shop right around the corner from his house, and that’s how I met him.

KO: Coffee – the great unifier! Brigid, what first got you into playing music?

Brigid: I’ve been in bands since I was 19 because I love singing. Everything else came after that. I had to overcome my initial shyness to get up on stage and sing in front of people, but I wanted to do it badly enough that I figured out how to do it. First, I started with whiskey. First night I ever played a gig was Southern Comfort, actually, which I’ve never drunk since then.

KO:That brings out the inner Janis.

Brigid: Oh it literally gives you the courage to do it. I remember my first gig that I played, my ex-boyfriend that had just humiliatingly broken up with me was going to be there, and I had this fucking fire inside of me. It was even better than whiskey, actually.

KO: Did you always play in garage bands?

Brigid: No, actually, the first band was a bunch of 50 year old surfer guys, and it was called the Clam-Tones, and they made all these baseball t-shirts, which I don’t have and I regret so much, with a clam surfing on a surfboard. And the second one I was in, I was only in that for a really short time and it was great, they were doing Ike and Tina Turner covers, and it was fun. It was the classic thing of like, “We’re going to need a young back-up singer to spice it up.” And then the third was a northern soul band, and that’s probably where I learned my stuff. Petey, what was the first band you were in?

Petey: [Long pause]

Brigid: Do you not remember? [Laughs]

Petey: No, I think the first proper band I was in, we didn’t have a name yet, but had gotten a show booked, and I remember we just threw a name out and put it on a flyer, but two weeks before the show one of the guys in the band was like, “I’m going to Austin to play for this other band” and we had to cancel the show. And his band ended up taking off and being super huge.

KW: How old were you when you were in your first band?

Petey: 18 or 19…maybe a little older, maybe 20.

KW: You’ve been making music for so long…how important is it to you now?

Petey: It’s different now, especially because we’ve been working at it for so long, and it is kind of a definite job now. You know, you can have the best job in the world, but it’s still your job.

KW: Do you make any art or music for yourself, away from the band?

Brigid: I go home and paint, and it’s the loveliest separation from what we do all the time. It’s something, you know, that I do alone. It’s a very different thing and quiet. Plus I just discovered GarageBand. I just got a computer. I never had a computer.

Petey: I try to be in other bands with friends, but we’re just so busy with Thee Oh Sees.

KO: Yeah, you guys are everywhere now.

Brigid: Yeah, it’s hard to find the time, especially with music, because you have to practice with people.

Petey: We’re only home for such a short period of time –

Brigid: And the last thing you want to do is go to practice.

Petey: [Laughs] But yeah, when I am home, all I do is just sit there with the TV on, not necessarily watching it, just playing guitar.

KO: Do you still get to see your families, or has it even gotten too busy for that?

Brigid: I got to stay in England after our tour in Europe to see my dad for his 60th birthday. But my folks are in England, so I see them a lot, but I don’t get to stay with them that much. So I got to stay with them this time, it was lovely.

KO: How tight is the garage rock scene in SF? It seems like everyone knows each other.

Petey: Yeah we always hear about the scene that’s happening there, but it’s strange to think about that aspect of it because it’s really just friends hanging out, having a good time and going to each other’s shows.

Brigid: The people that we met when we all moved there…that doesn’t change. Scene or no scene, I don’t know, but we’re lucky that we have people that make amazing music.

KO: I saw you guys at Psych Fest earlier this year as well, and that seemed to prove that there’s really a huge momentum behind garage rock right now. It’s exciting to be a part of it.

Brigid: I used to make coffee for the guy in Wooden Shjips all the time. He must have lived in that neighborhood, the guy with the curly-ish salt-and-pepper hair.

KW: As a band that’s been around longer, what do you guys think about these new garage rock bands?

Brigid: It’s amazing. More good music can’t hurt the world.

Petey: If there’s more bands similar, then maybe that means we can work a little less. [All laugh]

KO: You need a vacation day. I can feel it!

Petey: I do! Although we were just home for pretty much a solid month without doing anything, and I was so excited to do that, and the first week I was getting wasted every night and spending all this cash and then I realized we weren’t working for another month, so I wasn’t having any money coming in. I had another almost three and a half weeks where I was just so broke…

KO: Sitting on the couch…

Petey: Oh yeah that’s all I did.

Brigid: That did happen. I was going to make you dinner too, I was like, “I don’t know if Petey’s eating.”

KO: Some spaghetti, 99 cents.

Brigid: Top Ramen. When shit hits the fan, it’s Ramen and potatoes.

KW: How do you guys know Ty Segall?

Brigid: Shit, we’ve known him since he was, like, 20. We went with John to see him play a house party when he was doing the one-man band so…a while ago now, and I was totally blown away by him, by his voice in particular because he’s an amazing singer, and you don’t always hear that.

KW: That must be so great – to recognize talent in someone and then see the rest of the world catch up.

Petey: It’s probably the best part of making friends with bands. Making friends with Ty in San Francisco and then seeing him here, not only are you just blown away by how good he is, but you can have that pride in yourself, like, “That’s my friend doing that! Woah!”

Brigid: Last night, I just had that proud moment where I watched this person come completely to fruition and, like, transcend what they started at, which was amazing, and then go to this completely other thing that he’s doing. Building his own band…and really becoming a man in the world.

KW: I think it has a lot to do with hard work, at least that’s what I realized seeing my friend’s show.

Petey: That’s the thing I always mention to friends who’ve been playing music for a long time: really the only difference between that person and me is that I just kept doing it. I have so many friends who are amazing musicians, but they are just maybe self conscious about it or think they can’t do that. There are so many bands I saw when I lived in Kansas City, and it’s so special to see and be friends with these bands. It made me realize that you don’t have to be Axl Rose to be in a band, you don’t have to be Michael Jackson. Everyone can do it. Just do it!

Brigid: My dad gave me this great piece of advice when I was younger. I was really into Billie Holiday and I was reading every biography I could get, and all of those biographies would say she’s just a natural. And it made me sad because it made me think, well, Billie Holiday’s a natural, I’m never going to be a natural. And my dad told me that’s bullshit, and actually it’s pretty insulting to her because I can guarantee you she worked her ass off. And the older I get and the more I’ve done this, I can see of course that’s true. You watch John, and he has an incredible work ethic.

KO: It’s the people that make it look easy as they throw everything into it that are the most captivating, and it gets sold as a toss-off thing, but it’s so much heart, so much work.

Brigid: People love that romantic notion of the artist as a natural; it’s a hard thing to shake.

KW: What’s your favorite country to play in?

Brigid: I love Australia. I never thought I would, but really I do.

Petey: It has such a good atmosphere.

Brigid: And killer bands.

KO: They also have a really thriving garage rock scene right now, with Royal Headache and the Eddy Current Suppression Ring…

Petey: Moon Gates, I just got a new 45 by them and it’s sooo good!

Brigid: And it somehow feels really familiar. There’s an element of it that feels like San Francisco in the sense that everybody helps each other and goes to see each other’s shows and plays with each other in their bands…it’s a big mix-up.