Back Issue__ Brigid Dawson of Thee Oh Sees
Brigid Dawson of Thee Oh Sees on garage rock, throwing TVs out windows, being comfortable with herself and not being allowed in the green roomWords: Sasha Hecht
Photos: Jody Rogac
Sitting in a divey Greenwich Village pub across the street from Le Poisson Rouge, where her esteemed garage rock band will take the stage in just a little over an hour, Brigid Dawson is taking sips from a glass of house red wine. She smiles welcomingly, considers each question carefully, and a responds in a mellifluous, gentle tone. Her gaze is unwavering, but never uncomfortably so; rather, it is inviting and, at times, vulnerable. It is almost impossible to believe that the poised, mild-mannered woman is the same one known to incite such feverish mayhem, crowds-turned-manic-mosh-pits leave nothing but destruction and half their body weight’s worth of sweat in their wake. As keyboardist, backing vocalist of Thee Oh Sees, Dawson is one of an increasing number of women redefining the notion of primal, gritty rock as “boys’ club.”
Originally founded as a way for John Dwyer to release his solo experimental recordings, today, Thee Oh Sees is one of the most prolific and innovative garage bands in a genre that is quickly becoming overwrought with cliché. With 13 celebrated full-length releases under their belt (two in the past 12 months) and having demolished crowds from condemned warehouses to cruiseliners, Dwyer, Dawson and company are undoubtedly some of the hardest working, hardest rocking artists in the business, with exuberance and enthusiasm to spare.
We caught up with Brigid before an NYC show to discuss what it’s like being a female musician in a scene often monopolized by machismo.
Garage rock is generally a bit of a “boys’ club” for the most part. Being a woman in the lo-fi, ostensibly “hard partying” scene, is it really as chock full of testosterone as it seems to be? Bros being bros, throwing each other around, getting bloody….
I have to say that most male musicians I know are really open-minded about women being creative and strong-minded and just fucking making music alongside them. Honestly, that’s all I really care about; that’s the most important thing. As long as nobody is trespassing on your freedoms, it’s fine. Of course they’re going to be looking at girls, of course they’re going to be talking tons of shit, of course they’re going to be constantly touching each other’s penises and all of that stupid shit, and that’s fine. That’s what guys do. We, women have our own silly shit that we do. When I was younger, it wasn’t like that, but now I feel like all the guys I know are pretty open-minded. They’re not saying shit like “Women can’t play guitar. Women are terrible musicians.” They’re willing to give everyone a fair chance.
Do you think that’s a result of a changing environment in the music scene or do you think that you just sought out musicians who were accepting in that way?
I don’t really know, because all I know is the musicians I play around. I don’t know what it’s like in other scenes. I would imagine a lot of it has to do with things slowly changing as we all grow up—more and more women playing instruments and being good musicians and being unafraid. Slowly, that changes the dynamic. Most guys I know want to have maybe one girl in the band. I don’t know why. Maybe because they think the dynamic is nicer?
There’s definitely an appeal to a garage rock band with a woman who can go out and hang just as tough as the boys. It adds a whole new level of fearlessness that defies certain standards.
Yeah, I mean, [female musicians] do have a good history for that; we have our Moe Tuckers and our Alice Coltranes. There are a million different women going way back and they could all hang with the boys—though it’s bullshit that we even phrase it that way. That just means that you then have to talk about what it means to be feminine and what it means to be male…
I’m glad that you mentioned that! I was originally going to ask you “Do you ever feel like you have to keep up with the boys?,” but then I thought, “Why isn’t it that the boys have to keep up with you? Why is there this stigma that the guys are going to go out and get crazy and have all the fun and the girl is going to be struggling to hang in there?”
I think that there are certain ways that we’re raised in society that marks us out as different, for sure. The way I was raised, I was taught to be a good girl, take care of my brothers, and put my brothers’ needs before my own. I didn’t come from a traditional family at all, but that’s how I was raised: to help my mum. A lot of women grow up with that. It’s probably different for younger women now, though—there’s less of that. I hate that there’s this separation though. There are guys that I know who act much more prima donna –i.e. what the world says would be the “woman’s role”—than a lot of the women I know in bands who are sometimes total troopers and stoic people who just do their job fairly humbly and happily.
What’s it like to tour with a group of boys?
Aside from all the personal comforts that any person would miss on tour, I miss my girlfriends. I really am the only girl almost every place that we go and you definitely feel like the odd man out. I’ve noticed that I’ve fallen into a more “male” way of talking to people, as opposed to the way I speak to my girlfriends on the phone.
I guess you’ve gotten to a point, professionally, where it would be completely inappropriate for any person working at a venue or in the industry to treat you this way, but was there any point in your career when people in music were outright discriminatory because you’re a woman? Like, “Okay, little girl. Leave this up to us…”
Jesus, well, when I was first in bands when I was 20, every single soundman, and this is across the board, was a total fucking cunt. They would never listen to you and they would do your sound however they wanted to hear it. I must say, now it’s different though, even in the time I’ve been in the business. I mean, I still get stopped going into the greenroom with the boys by security who are like, “Umm it’s just the band right now.” “I’m in the band. I know I look hella old, but you’ve just got to let me in. I know I’m not what most people expect a woman in a band to look like, but let me in, my friend.” [Laughs.] It’s silly shit like that that still happens, but that doesn’t really bum me out too much. It’s funnier now than anything. I’m super lucky, because I’m a side-man in this band, and I’m really content with that, so I don’t have to take too many things personally.
You played with bands before Thee Oh Sees. What kind of music were you playing then? What kind of music did you listen to growing up?
When I was growing up, I had a really great group of friends who were all record collectors. It was really amazing old stuff like rocksteady and soul and oi and punk rock, but me, I was secretly sneaking away to the record store and collecting all of these blues and jazz records. That’s what I really loved. I remember saving up all summer to buy a ticket to see Ella Fitzgerald when I was 15. I think singers tend to have a pretty wide-open taste in music, so I never felt like I was locked down to one particular scene.
Speaking of vocalists, John’s vocals tend to be gritty and raw, whereas yours have been described as the “silver lining.” What other ways, going back to the idea of being a woman in garage rock, do you think that your female influence offsets or balances potentially overpowering testosterone levels, be it in songwriting, touring, fan interaction, or just downtime?
I think it makes it easier for us to get hotels in the middle of the night. [Laughs.]
I know that [frontman] John [Dwyer] originally started writing [Thee Oh Sees] as a solo project. What’s it like joining something that’s already sort of established? Do you ever feel like you’re an artist featured on his songs?
I guess I felt that way a bit at first. I listened to his music and thought, “I’m super, super lucky to get to play music with this person.” And then now, after six years of being in the band, I feel more invested in it--more that it’s a project that belongs to all of us. Although John is totally the fire, I do feel like, if you took away any of the pieces, it would change it irrevocably.
So how did you get involved originally? Were you a fan of his music?
No, I actually made him coffee at a coffee shop I worked at. I had been living in London for a long time and had just moved from England to hopefully start playing music in San Francisco with people I really liked that I was really proud of. It was a total pipedream, but I thought it would be easier in San Francisco than in London, which is such a huge scene. So I ended up making coffee for John every morning and just talking. He was really a funny guy, made me laugh all the time.
Was there ever any romantic interest there?
Never. We can’t really do that in bands. I did it once when I was younger and when I wanted to split up with the guy, I had to leave the band. That was my big learning experience. Never again. I love John like a brother.
I can imagine, especially at this point. Plus, I feel like being creative with someone is such a vulnerable experience that, in order to trust each other creatively, there has to be an unconditional support and love for one another.
I have friends who are married and are definitely a couple and they play music together and it does really work. But they almost have their own isolated unit. It doesn’t work for everyone.
Yeah, look at Sonic Youth.
That’s probably the first time anyone’s ever name-dropped ABBA in a garage rock interview. Speaking of relationships, Ellen Campesinos of Los Campesinos recently wrote an article lamenting the fact that women in indie rock don’t get laid—Men have all these women throwing themselves at them, whereas women musicians don’t really get that. What is it like being a woman in indie rock, in terms of the way your fans interact with you?
I think that probably has less to do with being a woman or a man and has more to do with just the kind of person you are. I would imagine if I were on tour and really wanted to come home with a different person every night, I could probably work it out, but I don’t. I’m not interested in that. Sadly and cheesily, I’d like to fall in love, and that just doesn’t happen in that situation at all. I guess what I’m stoked about is just that I get to play music every night. I do have to say that I can see how girls act with the boys, though. For a while, it made me really bummed out. Like, “Really? Do you have no dignity?” It was just a little bit shameless, and guys are just not like that. Guys will sometimes talk to me, and if they do, it’s friendly. It’s never the hard pick-up or anything.
I mean, your visceral stage presence can definitely come off as intimidating, but most people wouldn’t expect you to be so sweet…
I guess. I just don’t know what garage rockers are really supposed to be like. All you can ever do—every one of us in our lives—is carry ourselves in a way that we think is right. I have no problem being a bitch when the occasion calls for it, but it rarely does. I’d rather enjoy the life that I’m living than put on a show. I was already too old for that when I started doing this. I already know who I am, and it’s really relieving.
Was there ever a moment when you stopped and looked at yourself and said “That was…really fucking rock and roll. This—what I’m doing—is rock and roll”?
I’ve definitely had some “rock and roll moments.” Maybe some of them I can’t say in a magazine. I dunno…I’ve thrown a TV out of a window before…[Laughs] It’s funny, because I look at myself and say “I should have been doing this shit in my 20’s and I’m doing it now.”
Thee Oh Sees’ latest release, Carrion Crawler/The Dream, is out now.