Oh Sees and Damaged Bug’s John Dwyer: “You should make as much of your work and art as you can. You’re only here for a short amount of time!”

Photos by Gimmie; handmade collage B.

Los Angeles-based musician John Dwyer likes to make stuff, he keeps busy making inventive and interesting records as well as outta this world paintings. Gimmie’s editor recently spoke to John for her forthcoming book speaking with underground musicians on creativity, DIY, navigating life as a creative and life in general—coming soon! We wanted to share a little of the chat with you.

JOHN DWYER: I’m with my girlfriend down in Joshua Tree, rather Twentynine Palms, it’s hot as fuck and we’re sitting in the shade by the pool.

Nice! Are you just having a little holiday?

JD: Yeah. It’s a two-hour drive from where we live. We’ve obviously been at home quite a bit, so we had our friend Shannon come over and watch the dog, and just rented a small little house down here with a pool for three days… just to take a break from being around each other constantly in a different environment.

Touring is such a huge part of what you do; how do you feel about not being able to tour right now?

JD: I think it’s shit [laughs], but there’s also not much that can be done about it. It’s a big part of our income, luckily we toured so much last year that everybody is well set for a minute. I think the band is collecting unemployment as we speak; it’s for freelance workers and that’s essentially what they are. I 1099’d them meaning, they’re contractors for my band.

Mostly it’s just the psychic bruise of not being able to travel. I love playing shows, I love travelling. I love going to all the same places; we play the same places because I love them, it’s nothing outside of, we play the same clubs because we like the people that work there. We like going to the same cities, eating at the same joints and seeing friends—everything seems very distant right now. It seems like things are getting worse, so we’ll see if there’s any sort of light at the end of tunnel for music. It’s a real fucked time to be a performer.

Why is music and art important to you?

JD: It’s all that I want to do. I don’t surf or anything. I don’t have anything else. It’s what I wanted to do since I was kid, outside of drugs, it was my first real interest. Watching other people create their own show spaces and doing whatever the fuck they wanted with music meant that I could very much do the same and I followed in their footsteps. Then you work together with other people in DIY scenarios and it becomes a network or dare I even say, a scene. I love it, I still love it. I love writing. Right now I’m writing a ton of music! I have so much shit coming out this year it’s going to be nauseating to anybody who likes to complain about that aspect of my career.

I don’t know why people would want to complain, it’s as easy as, if you don’t like it, don’t listen. It’s so weird to me that people fixate on things they don’t like.

JD: Oh, yeah, I tell people to fuck off all of the time. Lots of areas of the internet are just a psychic toilet. That being said, I catch myself all of the time wanting to talk shit, and constantly have to reprimand myself in my head. I’m trying not to do that more and more as I get older because it’s just exactly it, it’s worthless. The world is so fucked up right now we don’t need any more of that shit.

This year I’ve had a really high output of interviews/work and I feel that some “friends” rather than support and encourage me they kind of give me a hard time and try to make me feel guilty for being so productive. I like being busy.

JD: Oh, Bianca, fuck ‘em! The classics are always right: haters are always gonna hate. I learned at a very young age, which I think you’ll agree, is just to live well. Don’t take the bait on shit like that. The more work you do the better. You’re doing it to keep the wolf from the door [laughs]. It’s good. You should make as much of your work and art as you can. You’re only here for a short amount of time!

My girlfriend yesterday just heard the old cliché phrase: opinions are like assholes, everybody has one. [Laughs]. It’s absolutely true!

After making music for so long; what still makes it interesting and enjoyable for you?

JD: Growth and change. Oh Sees in particular are always interested in innovating on our own sound, or trying new stuff, not necessarily genre-flipping or that; moving more where we are uncomfortable or outside of our wheelhouse.

I’ve been watching a lot of tutorials on guitar playing, with all the shit that’s been happening I’ve finally had all the time to do the dumb shit that I’ve always liked to do but never get around too, like watching guitar tutorials on YouTube. One of them was John Abercrombie, a jazz guitarist. He’s really sick, I love his playing. Him and John McLaughlin, are the greats of improve ‘70s era freakout guitar. Jazz guitar is tough for me, I don’t like a lot of it. These two guys were interesting to me. I was watching him and he was a very uncomfortable character and the way that he talked about it, it’s an hour long interview of him talking about improv but really the gist of it is—don’t play anything that you always play. [Laughs] …which I really took to heart!

It’s really interesting to not go to your typical standbys for things that you always do, because with guitar playing in particular that’s really easy to do, to just fall into the same formula, patterns that work for you. I’ve been trying to follow his very basic rule of exploring new territory intentionally. Letting go a little bit too… very fluid and strange so it was very interesting to hear that from him.

What do you value as a creator?

JD: Lately I’ve been doing a lot of improvisational stuff with players that I’ve brought together. It’s nice to be inspired by people, all the time that happens, we wear it on our sleeves pretty hard. For instance, I heard a guy down the street playing drums when I was out for a run two months ago. I’d heard him a couple of times but I stopped to listen and he was this really strange frenetic jazz drummer. I left a note on his car. I’ve never met him, I don’t know him, and I’ve never even seen what he looks like. He hit me back and I had him send me some tracks and brought in all these players one at a time into my studio and just had them do one take with their instrument over this drum track. We started with bass, then I did keyboards, then I did saxophone, and I ended up doing some of my own shit at the end.

It’s really interesting though that right now, I really particularly at this point in my life, appreciate people’s ability to run with an idea without thinking about it too much. I’ve been, and can really dig, surrounding myself with people that can do that and work fast.

I brought in Laena from Fields to play violin on some of my stuff, a record I have coming out soon. She was great! There was also a French guy I brought in to play saxophone. With the two of them we smoked that much weed in the studio that… I mean, I smoke weed pretty much every day, these two smoked so much dope I can’t understand how they were formulating sounds, it was perfect! I really love that right now. I’ve been searching for people that fall into that category, relaxed and quickly inspired and moving forward. There could be so many different answers for your question but that was what was just in my head right now.

Do you smoke weed mostly to relax or is it just for fun or something else? Does it help your creativity?

JD: Right now, it’s to keep from being depressed, honestly. I don’t really consider myself someone who gets depressed, I have pretty primal east coast America emotions [laughs]. Right now it’s a really tough time for the whole world. Regardless of anybody’s bulldog front they put up in this shit, it’s really exhausting and grating, it wears you down right now.

A good approach for a healthy psyche is to stay busy, throwing yourself into work is pretty typical. Music and art – I’ve been painting a lot too – that kind of stuff has its own natural high. When I was a kid, my parents were happy that I was playing guitar and painting, which they thought would keep me out of trouble. I think it kind of did.

Do you ever surprise yourself with the songs you make?

JD: Occasionally. I’m used to myself, I’m bored of myself completely at this point but, every now and then we’ll hit some new stride. With the new Oh Sees record [Protean Threat] it takes a sort of a left turn, I think it’s a bit different to the direction we’ve been heading in, while maintaining some semblance of the same sound. We’ve got some new ground gained this year, this was all done before everything thing went down, so it will be interesting to see how this sits afterwards.

You’ve recently released a new Damaged Bug record Bug On Yonkers which is you covering songs by musician Michael Yonkers. I know that you met him; what was it like?

JD: He’s great, he’s a real cool cat. I met him actually years ago and we stayed in touch but, I’ve only met him three times. I saw him play in Seattle, we played with him. He’s an incredibly positive person, especially with all of the shit that’s gone on in his life, his story is insane. He’s a genuinely nice guy. In my opinion, I hold him in really high regard in terms of his innovation and creativity and his creation out of nothingness, he even makes his own instruments. He was so great the night we saw him play.

Did any of his positivity rub off on you?

JD: Always. When you know someone like that… it’s always great to have people in your life like that. I have incredibly negative friends too, people I love that are just like dark clouds, y’know, that have a very pessimistic view of the world. You have to balance your whole life. I also think it’s ludicrous to be positive all of the time! I have some friends that are so positive that I think there must be something wrong with their brain [laughs]; a dopamine serge or a serotonin overload, that’s not realistic to me. We need a balance. I envy people that can maintain a positive outlook all the time though. I don’t think Yonkers is one of those people that is insanely positive all of the time though, he’s a genuinely nice person, which I can’t really say that for myself. It’s cool to meet someone you look up to and them be fucking cool and not a dirt bag! Although I do like some dirt bags too, it’s a real mixed bag [laughs]. Yonkers is a good guy, there’s a lot of power packed into that strange mind of his.

Is there something you’d really love to make but haven’t yet?

JD: I would love to do animation. I have a lot of ideas for animation, I think it would be within my grasp to do it. It seems very time consuming. I have a thing I wrote which is an episodic feature length animation that’s based on all of the stuff form when I was kid that I’d love to do. We’ll see if it’s in the cards.

Do you feel like you’re doing your best work now?

JD: I’m always doing my best work now, I don’t give a shit about my old records, I don’t care about my old bands… I have very fond memories and I’m glad I did them but… I’ve done Coachwhips reunion trips and stuff and it’s just boring to me at this point. We have fans now that really like that stuff but for me it will always be about the people that were actually standing there in front of it when it was happening. I always want to move forward and I’ve always been looking forward to the next thing.

You’ve been working on painting inspired by sci-fi novel covers you loved when you were a kid for an art show?

JD: Yeah, I’m about two paintings away from being done for the show that I’ve been working on for three years. They’re really big intricate paintings. The problem now is that there probably won’t be anywhere to show them so I’ll just keep painting [laughs]. They’re inspired by sci-fi pulp covers and are very colourful. They’re 6ft by 4ft, about the size of me. I’m very close to being done with the run of specific paintings I wanted to do.

Have you been working on anything else?

JD: I’m tying up a bunch of records I’ve been working on. I have a whole other Damaged Bug record that’s just sitting there waiting to be finished, which I’ve been procrastinating on forever; it’s all my own songs not covers. Then there’s about three records full of improv stuff I’ve done in my studio with all kinds of different players, more jazz, instrumented stuff. I have one I’m working on now with Nick Murray my old drummer, everything is recorded, I’m just editing it, because it’s improv there’s a lot of material to go through. Then there’s the record I finished with that guy that I met down the street, that’s getting mastered next week, I’m putting together the artwork for that.

I’m just trying to stay fit too. I’ve been doing a lot exercising and I’ve been hanging out with my dog and girlfriend. We’ve been growing a lot of marijuana. The guy who grows my favourite weed gave me a bunch of his plants because he’s going to stop growing. I’ve been growing them and cloning them and keeping the strain alive. They’re doing so well because Los Angeles is so fucking sunny! [laughs]. Lots of gardening.

With your Damaged Bug songs I understand that at the end of last year you had about 40 songs but couldn’t finish them?

JD: Yeah, I had a huge pile of songs… that’s why I did a covers album. It was a little break from the actual record. I have 40 songs all on tape, spooled up—I’ll get there! It’ll be done before the end of this year. We still have shows booked in September through December. I refuse to cancel anything early. We’ll see. I’ll just keep chipping away at my projects, there’s no reason to stop. Once a week I’ll take a day off and do absolutely nothing, just sit on my ass and enjoy the day. I try to be in the studio as much as possible though.


Californian musician & artist Lealani: “Everyone should be working together, helping each other, sharing ideas and having fun”

Photo: courtesy of Lealani’s porfolio. Handmade collage by B.

Lealani’s creations are highly original and hit you right in the feels! Her debut album Fantastic Planet was written between the ages of 12 and 19 as she experimented with synths, guitars, drums, apps, samplers, effects and production hardware to create her own universe. It’s a really special record and we voted the record our favourite international release of 2019 our praise of the LP said “It’s like BMO became a real girl by back-engineering human experience from discarded Portishead and Massive Attack tapes.” We caught up with Lealani last week to get an insight into her world.

You really love entertaining people; where did this desire come from?

LEALANI: When I started I actually used to be really nervous during shows. I would just stand there and I would never be myself or super loud in front of people, I was just a really nervous person. I started to perform when I was twelve years old, gradually I just started getting more and more comfortable in front of people. I really like entertaining people because it really gives me a chance to be myself and to encourage other people that they could just be themselves on stage too—everybody could be comfortable in that way. It’s been a learning process and it’s been progress to be comfortable on stage. Now that I am pretty comfortable with myself, I want to entertain more and more people, whether that is through music, performing or making art and making animation as well. It’s all really fun.

Why is art and music important to you?

L: Music and art is way for me to express myself. I love it so much because I just get this certain feeling from it that I can’t really get from anything else; where you feel like you’re in your own world, you’re in your own space and you are where you’re meant to be. I love both art and music because it’s a way to show people the world I am in and that they are all in their own world as well. Music and art is a way to express that world, to represent it to people—to show people this is your world and you can be who you want to be. You are yourself and you know yourself well enough to be that and do that.

I’m with you, I’ve always been a big believer in being yourself and creating your own world. When I was a kid people would pick on me and bully me and I found a solace in music and art and creating my own world and in time I became okay with, and proud of, who I am. Did you ever deal with that kind of thing at school?

L: Yeah. Actually in elementary school, I used to have a really, really high pitched voice. Even though we were all kids, my voice was much more higher than the other kids. I’ve always been a very small person – I’m below five feet, I’m 4’11 [laughs] really tiny – I guess kids were like, ‘whoa! She has a high pitched voice and is super tiny’ and I would get made fun of. Eventually that wore down and I didn’t really have that voice anymore. Not everybody was nice [laughs]. But it’s totally fine, I like singing so, maybe that’s way my voice was high back then!

Who was the earliest musician that influenced you?

L: I Middle School, that was the time when I was getting into music, I was introduced to mainstream music like Katy Perry, I didn’t realise that there was more underground music scene that existed. My dad started slowly showing me that. He used to be a DJ back in the day, he used to mix old school hip-hop records like Wu Tang and other old hip hop masters. He started showing me things like MF Doom. He had all this vinyl lying around. One day he said, “You should try to make music on this app on the iPad”. He gave me an iPad and I got a music application when I was twelve years old and I made my first beat. He was like, “Oh, that’s pretty cool”. He started introducing me to more and more music, he never forced anything on me though, he put it there in front of me to look at, if I liked it… I knew that it was something I wanted to pursue. My dad is a huge inspiration of mine.

The band Portishead, was when I first felt chills on my skin and felt goosebumps—the music was so weird. When I was a little kid I actually used to be afraid of their music because it was so striking to me, now I understand it more. They’re one of my favourite bands in the whole entire world. Portishead was a huge influence on me and the Gorillaz! When I heard them I realised how funky people could be in music, they were mixing it with art and they were cartoons too!

You’re studying animation, right?

L: Yeah I’m currently a Second Semester Junior here at California College Of The Arts studying in Oakland for animation. It’s really fun to learn about how to make better animations.

Your debut album, I know you also had a radio show of the same name, Fantastic Planet; that’s named from the 1973 sci-fi French (La Planète sauvage) animated movie?

L: Yes! It is. I was really inspired by that.

My husband and I really love that movie, he’s a big fan of animation and has made animated film clips, and he always loved the film’s animation. I’m actually looking at the movie poster on our wall right now! As soon as we found your stuff we knew straight away that was an inspiration. How did it inspire you?

L: Cool! That’s so awesome. I love that animation. The first time that I heard of it I was searching on YouTube and I saw this music video and I saw the clips of the aliens and I wondered what film it was, I looked it up and ever since then I’ve been like—that’s my world! [laughs]. Like I wanna live in Fantastic Planet! I didn’t know that it was going to turn into a whole album. At first it was like, I need a cool name for my radio show, I choose Fantastic Planet because I really liked the movie. That turned into more than that, I can’t really explain it.

What kind of emotions did you’re album Fantastic Planet come from?

L: It comes from an emotion of discovery, finding yourself, it comes with a lot of realisation and being in tune with yourself. Also, feeling all the pain through the journey of figuring out certain things. On the album I talk a lot about the space, the atmosphere I’m in, the feeling that I’m in. What I also try to include in it is the texture of these feelings. I don’t think too hard when I’m making my songs, they’re pretty much freestyle, they just come out of me. I’m not sure if it’s because that’s how I’m feeling that day or if I’m writing about something I felt years ago. I just let the songs come to me and just freestyle them in the best way that I possibly can, to not think too hard about it. The emotions that it really comes from though is pain, not necessarily bad pain but pain that is just felt, it’s just there.

Maybe because you wrote the album between the ages of 12 and 19 it’s just the pain of growing and growth?

L: Yeah, the pain of growth, exactly! That’s what I’m trying to say [laughs].

You re-released the album yourself?

L: Yeah. There was a little situation that happened with the release of the album. Basically it was a whole situation where I took all of my music off all platforms for a series of months… the whole situation that happened affected me in a way that I tried to not let it affect me. Especially for people that are making music on their own and they really want it to be out there… my advice to people basically is, make sure you own everything! I’ve written all my songs, I’ve written all of my lyrics, I make all the beats and then sometimes there are people out there that are trying to take that from you, to take that world away from you. My album is the first album that I have ever released, it means so much to me, there’s people out there that are basically trying to take away my right to my music, which is something that I never signed up for, I have never signed any contracts for. I decided to just go self-release and to really make it my own. I do realise that a lot of people don’t really talk about it but some artists are stuck with certain companies because they feel like they can’t do anything about it. For me, I was willing to take down all of my music because it meant so much to me that everything I made I owned. From learning my lessons and stuff I know so much more about the music industry.

I want to be there for other artists that make stuff and who wants to put their music out there, I want to encourage people that you can do it on your own. The internet is so large and wide out there that it’s making it more accessible for people to be able to do stuff on their own. Fantastic Planet is my heart and my world and it’s really hard when people are trying to take that away from you. I worked really hard to make sure everything was mine. I don’t want to discourage people from certain companies but you do have to be careful. Know what you’re trying to represent and who you want to be, what your goal is with things. There was a certain company that gave me a hard time about some things—make sure what’s yours is yours!

Courtesy of Lealani’s portfolio.

I get what you mean. I’ve been doing what I do for 25+ years since I was 15 and I’ve seen so much not-cool stuff happen in the music industry, that’s one reason why I’ll forever be on the fringes, that’s where the exciting things happen anyway. I’ve seen what the music “industry” is and it’s not for me.

L: Yeah, and it’s not like I’m trying to take money away from anyone, I just want to create, I don’t want any distractions.

Like you said, you play all the instruments on your album, you wrote it, the concepts, the art—that’s ALL YOU!

L: Exactly!

Is there a song on Fantastic Planet that’s really significant to you?

L: It’s definitely “Lonely Stars” and “Floating” is another one. “Lonely Stars” is so significant to me because – that’s probably why it’s the first track on the album too – it’s one of the first songs I’ve ever made that is totally me, this is who I think I want to be. It’s such a simple track, a synth, a bass and a drum and hi-hat and me singing over it. There’s just something about the melody and how I made it fit into the instrumental and how it flows. I hold that song really close to my heart. I love performing it live too.

I love “Floating” as well.

L: That’s another significant one as well because I made it when I first got the synths I made it with. I was playing around with it all day, I was playing around with a certain sound. It was the first time that I made the track and then wrote lyrics on the spot to how the synth was sounding. If you listen to the track instrumental I really feel like the words just come your way. That was probably the quickest song that I made on the album. It felt right to say those words and for the melody to be the way it was. It was really fun to write.

I think sometimes the simplest tracks can have a big impact because there is a lot of space.

L: Yeah, there’s lots of freedom.

I really love your song “Minuscule” too. You have a clip for it by Mitch Pond.

L: Yeah, Mitchell Pond. He’s an animator he made a film, he’s an animator for the Adult Swim show Dream Corp. He’s a very, very good animator. The first clip he sent me he had animated the Fantastic Planet bird in my hair and me saying “I feel miniscule” and I was like, ‘whoa! This is so amazing!’ I let him do the rest of the video. I feel it’s probably the first music video that captures the Fantastic Planet word incorporated into my own world as well. He is so good as capturing the artist and the song. I was really happy with how it came out.

You finished your first animated short recently Rapper Cow?

L: Yes, Rapper Cow [laughs]. It’s an idea that I’ve had in my head for a few years. Last semester I was finally ready to animate the film, I spent three months animating it with everything that I learned from all my classes. I did the sound for it. Rapper Cow’s voice is actually my voice, I just pitched it down. I was taking a shower when I came up with the idea like, oh, a cow that raps that bumps into this roller skater cow and they get abducted by aliens and they make beats. I’m trying to turn it into an animated series, Rapper Cow episode two should be out by the end of May.

You mentioned you had the idea in the shower; do you find you get most of your best ideas when you’re doing something other than music or art, like just non-thinking things like going for a walk or something?

L: Yes, definitely. It’s always when you least expect it and your mind is free and relaxed. If I’ve been thinking about something so hard and I can’t come up with something I take a shower and all of a sudden everything will make sense.

It’s minimal distractions, you can’t be connected to your phone, computer or whatever!

L: Yeah! That’s so true.

Have you been working on any new music?

L: Yes. I have been working on a lot of collaborations. One that I will mention is a collaboration with the beatmaker, Snakefoot. He’s from L.A. I’d seen him at shows and we said we should collaborate sometime, he’s been sending me some tracks. I’ve really liked the beats. It’s such a challenge for me learning how to collaborate with other beatmakers, just to collaborate with other people in general. It really changes your process because this time I’m working with someone else’s beat rather than making my own. I’m still working on my own music as well. Collaborating is a really big learning process for me and it improves how I make beats as well. It gives me an opportunity to try things I haven’t tried before. There will definitely be new music coming out in the summer. Snakefoot and I will release an EP over the summer.

Courtesy of Lealani’s portfolio.

I’m excited to see how it all comes out; you usually make your beats by yourself in your room?

L: Yeah all by myself. Sometimes I do need to find a way how to use a different drum pattern or try and find a different process… sometimes it’s hard to figure it out.

You started off playing piano when you were 12, got bored of that started playing guitar, drums and synths; you love the drums the most, right?

L: Yeah, yeah! The drums to me are the best instrument. It is limited in a way because there isn’t pitch changes, that limitation really… I believe that limitation sometimes can allow more freedom in how you express yourself. The drums are the most important factor in the tracks because it moves the tracks and makes it come alive. I love bass. I love ‘60s drumming. I love vintage sounding, crunchy drums. That’s something I want to actually incorporate into my next solo album, something that’s more hard and raw, but mixing in a new electronic sound at the same time as being Fantastic Planet. This time I want it to be more raw or hard, just more of everything! I love the drums, it’s the most fun instrument that you can jam on. It’s really good exercise as well [laughs].

I know you and your dad like to collect broken and vintage instruments from Craig’s List; what’s one of the coolest things you’ve found?

L: The coolest thing we’ve found… a lot of the Casio instruments that we find that are broken… a Casio SK1; there’s a circuit bent version called the S-CAT… that’s one of the instruments I really like using. I’ve been experimenting with using more Casio instruments. It’s really interesting how much you can bend sounds through circuit bending. My dad found a Casio calculator, it’s a calculator that’s a keyboard. Casio instruments give you a really vintage sound. I like the encouragement of using broken machines and turning them into something we can make music with.

Through collecting Casio keyboards, I was thinking about majoring as a Music Tech at CalArts. I actually did get accepted but I decided I wanted to do animation. I feel that gave me more freedom to come up with ideas rather than just building instruments. I also wanted to tell stories through animation rather than technology of music. Maybe it would have been better if I did Music Tech, maybe I would have been a complete wizard [laughs]. I’m really happy with my decision though, I feel like I can put out my ideas in a lot of different ways.

I love your illustrative art as well. I guess everything informs each other. There seems to be a real community and collaborations around you.

L: Its cool people support me and for me to see them make things as well. Someone who went to one of my shows at bandcamp headquarters in Oakland and made a “BEEP BOP BOOP” wooden piece for everybody and gave them out at my show. It was really cool to see someone incorporate my little phrase into their art and give them out. For the “Miniscule” music video to come out and to see someone else’s animation with my music was really cool too. It’s one big collaboration. Everyone should be working together, helping each other, sharing ideas and having fun.

Art by Lealani.

As far as your art goes I feel like freedom, exploration and connection are the things that matter most to you?

L: Yeah! Exactly.

Anything else to add?

L: BEEP. BOP. BOOP. Fantastic Planet. Aliens. Thank you so much for listening to Fantastic Planet. Stay tuned for more music coming out and more Rapper Cow. Thanks Gimmie Gimmie Gimmie zine for having me. If anyone needs help with releasing their own music, to self-release, we’re here with a new record company… if you have questions about the music industry feel free to contact me, I want to be there for other artists that might be going through anything. I don’t know everything but I know some things now.

Please check out: Lealani. Lealani bandcamp. @veggieburgerr Instagram.