Dissecting the Song: Thee Oh Sees – “Warm Slime”
August 13, 2010
Written by Aaron Sankin
It takes a certain brand of chutzpah for a band to tack 11 minutes of spaced-out krautrock onto the end of a 2-minute garage-pop song, and then make that whole 13-minute epic the first track on an album that barely clocks in at half an hour. The conventional wisdom of track ordering says that you front-load a record with your most accessible pop ditties and put your extended psychedelic jams in the back – give people an enticing piece of candy at the beginning in the hope they stick around for the LSD-laced meat you have planned for them later. To convincingly pull it off, it takes a band with a devoted fan base willing to follow them through all of their long-form experimentation – thereby earning the buy-the-ticket-take-the-ride mentality that starting an album off like this implies. Or, it takes a band that simply does not give a shit about their audience’s expectations. In the case of the title track from Warm Slime, the newest full-length by San Francisco garage-rock pioneers Thee Oh Sees, it’s probably a bit of both. In either case, it helps that the whole thing kicks a veritable mountain of ass.
John Dwyer, the band’s front man and principal songwriter, went into recording Warm Slime with the stated goal of recreating the band’s raucous live performances as faithfully as possible. Live, the band is a howling vortex of lo-fi energy that leaves crowds sweaty and spent in its wake. Their recent string of free, Bay Bridged-sponsored, live shows at Serra Bowl in Daly City have been evening-length masters classes in audience destruction.
To capture the electric, anything-can-happen vibe the band projects when they perform, Thee Oh Sees recorded Warm Slime as if they were performing the songs live – tracking the whole thing on an old Tascam 388 eight-track tape machine in one short day of recording with zero overdubs. If they couldn’t perform something live, it didn’t go on the record. The result is seven songs that blend noisy sonic chaos and infectious pop hooks so deftly that any attempt to discern where the former ends and the latter begins is instantly rendered moot.
â€œI used to work by Club Six,â€ Dwyer says, â€œit’s a hip-hop/reggae bar at 6th and Market – a big, airy room with a nice wooden stage, hardwood floors and really high ceilings. I gave them $500 to record in the room for 12 hours.â€ The bar owners were initially a little reticent and asked if Dwyer and his crew were going to use their unfettered bar access to drink all the booze on the premises. â€œWell, I’m going to fucking try,â€ Dwyer joked.
Staying in their hometown to record was a change of pace from their normal routine. The band’s previous few albums saw them recording at John Baccigaluppi’s Hanger Studios. Baccigaluppi, who is also the publisher of the influential recording nerd magazine Tape Op, houses his studio in a relatively isolated industrial section of Sacramento. Other than walking to a Chinese restaurant about a mile away, there’s nothing to do except record music. Usually, the band likes this because it allows them to get away from real life and completely disappear into their music for a few days. But, with this album, they didn’t want to disappear. To accurately represent what they do live, they had to be fully engaged in their normal lives – as drunk and distracted as they are when they play shows. â€œClub Six was great because I could walk out the door and buy crack or a taco,â€ Dwyer says with a laugh, â€œbut there are so many distractions, which is why we only spent one day there. There’s no way we could have spent a week at 6th and Market. I love it over there and I worked that area for ages, but it’s such a nightmare – police sirens and shit, but in Sacramento it’s just crickets.â€
It would be natural to think that someone as famously prolific as Dwyer wouldn’t edit himself very much. In reality, for every song that successfully makes it from his head to an Oh Sees record, there’s a handful that get tossed out and, if the band hadn’t been proactive in adapting the rough song sketch he initially brought in, Dwyer admits that â€œWarm Slimeâ€ would have likely ended up in the circular file.
You can trace the evolution of the song from Dwyer’s original, home-recorded demo:
To an early full-band recording:
One of the key differences between the early version of the song and the one that made it on the finished album is the transition into the jam. In the final version, the band stumbles into it in a way that recalls early Pavement, whereas in the demo, the transition is much more liquid. While Thee Oh Sees count Stockton’s finest as an admittedly strong influence (they’re even opening for Pavement at an open air show in Central Park this September), the quirky, halting transition is a result of drummer Mike Shoun accidentally coming in a beat late during the moment when the entire song turns around. Shoun catches it like a pro and makes it work almost instantly. The elegance of the catch is impressive because the band waited until the very end of the session to record the song and, by that point, everyone was pretty cooked. However, they only recorded two takes and, despite the slip up, the one that made it onto the final product had a much more ferocious energy – Malkmus would likely approve.
Dwyer says that the band has, â€œbeen getting more and more into jamming live – bringing stuff in and then seeing what happens naturally. The beginning part came together pretty quick but the whole segue into that 8-10-13-minute part was essentially from us fucking around with the general idea I came in with, which was to write a song similar to Can’s ‘Yoo Doo Right’. ‘You Doo Right’ is this 20-minute song from Can’s first album that blew my mind when I was a kid. It starts with a riff and breaks it down to almost nothing until it’s just the beat and the singer. I wanted to take apart the riff and have everything build around that – from the vocal and melodic changes to the solos.â€
â€œWarm Slimeâ€ doesn’t immediately sound a whole lot like â€œYou Doo Rightâ€ on first listen, but both the jam on â€œWarm Slimeâ€ and the seminal krautrock band’s song are anchored by repetitive rhythmic grooves. The heart of â€œWarm Slimeâ€ is bassist Petey Dammit’s driving, one-note bass line. One of krautrock’s key innovations was taking the tenants of classical minimalism, the work of guys like Terry Riley and La Monte Young, and applying it to rock music. They discovered that you could put any amount of craziness on top of a simple, rock-solid groove and everything still holds together like clockwork.
It’s a good thing too because the guitar solo that Dwyer dips his 12-string Burns guitar, a gift from his friend, TV On Radio guitarist Dave Sitek, into on the second half of the song is pretty much the definition of craziness. â€œI call it the anti-solo,â€ he says. â€œI hated solos when I was a kid, unless it was someone like Iron Maiden shredding up the neck like a phoenix rising from the ashes. I like solos that are more percussive than tonally based. Going with the beat you can get away with doing anything. I call it the Brady Chord because, if you ever watch an episode of The Brady Bunch where they do a band thing, you look at their hands and they clearly have no idea what they’re doing. They’re playing guitars with their elbows. Play a Brady Chord and you can do whatever the fuck you want.â€
Dwyer’s primal guitar technique is largely due to his being self-taught. He took two guitar lessons when he was a teenager where he learned how to string the guitar, tune it and play AC/DC’s â€œBack in Blackâ€. â€œAfter that,â€ he says, â€œI told my teacher I was done and never came back.â€ It taught him some major chords, some minor chords and, â€œin a way, every song I’ve written since then has been a variation on that one.â€
The waves of guitar squall can seem crushing and oppressive, especially coming after the part of the song where the band deconstructs the groove down to its most base elements. There’s an intentional thematic component to all of this because the song is ostensibly about the distinctly crummy feeling you get by being too hung over to go outside on a gorgeous, sunny day – how certain circumstances can turn a nice, warm afternoon slimy and full of regret.
Dwyer recounts a recent tour through a hot and muggy New York City. â€œPlaying that song there finally made sense. It really is a summertime song and when we played it it finally felt slimy. Every show we played was like 130 degrees inside of a tiny room. That right there is what we’re singing about. Sometimes stuff will retroactively make sense like that.â€
This song, their first wholehearted embrace of krautrock, is a pivotal turning point for the band – one that may well see them graduating from the garage-rock world into becoming a (capital “I”) Important band. At a recent show at the Independent, they debuted a bunch of new (as of yet unreleased) material. It’s much more in the vein of the second half of “Warm Slime” than it is like anything they’ve done previously. Bass lines repeat into infinity as guitars drift in a mist of hazy dissonance. Instead of recalling the band’s expected touchstones, like The Cramps or The 13th Floor Elevators, the new songs sound, more than anything else, like post-OK Computer Radiohead, Atoms for Peace, or the New York/Berlin art-punks, Liars.
It’s not that Dwyer has suddenly affected Yorke’s soaring falsetto; instead, with the new songs it’s impossible to miss that the band has fundamentally shifted the way it thinks about its compositions to become more in line with Radiohead and Co. Most band write songs from left to right, assembling each individual section (verse, chorus, etc.) and then transitioning to the next. What Thee Oh Sees have begun to do is to build each song from the bottom up – thinking about the song as a whole and what each instrument is doing throughout the entire composition. It’s less about intentionally subverting the traditional verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chours-outro pop song structure than it is about being unconcerned with it entirely. Even if if they don’t seem to do so lyrically, songs written from left to right tell a story as they progress from beginning to end. Songs written from the bottom up create a world, put different elements into it and then let those elements interact. Done clumsily and it sounds like aimless jamming; done well it verges on the transcendent.
Maybe that’s why the band not only selected “Warm Slime” as the first track on the album but named the entire record after it. They wanted their listeners to know this is the direction they’re going. Bury it in the back and people could ignore it or dismiss it as a mere self-indulgence. Putting a weird, difficult and ultimately rewarding song like this up front is like erecting a signpost pointing toward the weird, difficult and ultimately rewarding direction Thee Oh Sees are taking anyone brave enough to follow them.