Friday, January 18, 2013

Interview with John Dawson of Thee Open Sex


Towards the end of summer I bought a cassette deck for an assortment of reasons - firstly, it meant that I could get an analog recording for one third to one half the price of a record. The second was because several bands had been mailing me cassettes and I had no way to listen to them. First, I bought a cassette walkman but I seemed to always have to deal with interference from radio lines and airwaves while walking it around, dangling off my hip like a fanny pack on the side, or like if Misty from Pokemon's side-pig-tail were on my hip and it weren't a group of hair at all but a cassette walkman. One of my earliest trips to find some good cassettes was at Permanent Records, which is my favorite Chicago record shop - has great customer service and a lot of LPs that are harder to find in other places.

At this visit, I walked towards the back to see which cassettes they had. I picked up a bunch of used ones like The Doors' first album, an X album, and Talking Heads' "Speaking in Tongues." When I looked at the new cassettes I found a metallic-looking wrapper with the words "Thee Open Sex (is not a cult.)" If that didn't suck me in, I don't know what else did. So I picked the cassette up.

I often read while I listen to music, so I popped the cassette in and began reading something (though I forget what.) Around this time, I just had started to get into drone and noise music. I had heard of Thee Open Sex before in relation to Apache Dropout but didn't expect a drone record when that was what played. I was surprised, albeit pleasantly, and listened through the whole thing. Much of their cassettes consist of these drone pieces, which are really cool to listen to and what John Dawson assures me to be a piece of their output live and recorded.

Thee Open Sex's John Dawson operates the Magnetic South record label, which puts out many bands along with Apache Dropout (though not their newest LP on Trouble in Mind) and Thee Open Sex. You can learn more about the record label HERE. You can also learn more about Thee Open Sex on their TUMBLR

The band's newest LP on Magnetic South is more indicative of traditional Rock n Roll songs and textures but still adds an unrest that makes Thee Open Sex's output slightly different than the music you have heard before - some call it psychedelia and some call it atmosphere - I guess it's both of these things, but thinking about it in terms of the familiar doesn't accomplish the novelty of the feel.

I talked to John. This is what he said.

Jordan: What is Thee Open Sex? Who is in the band and how did the band happen? How long have you been around?

John Dawson: I made my first tape as Open Sex in 2009. The first performance happened shortly after that. During the first year, performances were different almost every time. Our drummer, Tyler Damon, got involved at that point. Material on our new record started to come about after Miss Mess and I started writing songs together. Mike Anderson (from Racebannon, Rapider Than Horsepower, Medusa) started playing guitar at that point, and Will Staler (Purple 7, Landlord, Defiance: OH) started playing bass. I have been the only consistently present member, but this current lineup is pretty definitive.  Haley Fohr and Daun Door-key left a big foot print on the band.  They appear on the new record but don't play live with us at this point.

J: You guys share the same initials as Thee Oh Sees - is this on purpose?

JD: No. The group began as just "Open Sex". It came from an evangelical sermon record by Jack Van Impe, that guitarist Matt Shuff found called "Marked for Death: Can America Survive?". In it, the Dr. quotes from The White Panther Party Manifesto and recounts instances of young people stripping and engaging in public sex acts at Rock festivals. The name looked kind of like a bad joke on flyers... like naming your band "Free Beer". "Thee" was added because it makes you think about the 2 words differently as you say them. Like saying "Pink Floyd" instead of "Free Beer". In that sense, it really stems more from Thee Temple Ov Psychick Youth. I associate it with that, and Billy Childish. 

J: What is your discography? When was everything released?

JD: "Open Sex on Every Street Corner" was done in 2009. Then the "Doing It Forever" series came out. "Thee Open Sex is Not a Cult" and "Thee Open Sex is Not a Put On" were made mostly from live performances from 2010. Those were all tapes.

J: How has the transition from cassettes to records been like for you guys?

JD: People are more excited about the record than the tapes - both the audience and the band.  It's really part of a bigger transition for the band and for the Magnetic South studio and label.   We released tapes for a few years that really weren't available digitally or for that matter physically anywhere besides local record stores and performances.  We were always surprised at the amount of interest in the tapes.

J: Your early output focused on more noise and drone elements, but the new LP is centered around songs and atmosphere - what made the change?

JD: We've always worked with minimal, open structures with our music.  The material on the new LP just incorporates elements people associated with Rock and Roll music more deliberately.   The lyrics and melodic focus of the vocals happened when we began writing with Miss Mess.  We just integrated that aspect into what we were already doing.

J: You guys share similar members with Apache Dropout - what happened? Is one a split off of the other?

JD: Lord Fyre (Apache Dropout's drummer) and I started Magnetic South as a studio and tape label with Aaron Deer (Daring Ear, Horns of Happiness, Extra Classic, Impossible Shapes, etc) in 2008 or 2009.    I guess I am basically the "technician" of the studio aspect of Magnetic South, so I have been pretty involved in most of Apache Dropout's recordings as an engineer.   Everyone in Apache Dropout has been involved with Open Sex as  musicians for recording or performances.  As each group started to become more active, we just focused on what availability allowed.  Right now, the Apache Dropout guys are more in the cast of auxiliary members of Open Sex.  Lord Fyre sits in on percussion and Nathan usually plays hurdy gurdy when we do more long form drone stuff.  I imagine you'll see Sonny popping up on guitar or bass with Open Sex in 2013.  Likewise, I'll probably be involved with whatever recording Apache Dropout does this year.  

J: What sorts of lyrical themes do you tackle in your music? How important are lyrics?

JD: My interpretation is that the lyrics deal with disenfranchisement culturally and sexually.  I think they are crucial to the record.  

J: What is the live aspect of Thee Open Sex like? What role does live music play in the role of the band?

JD: Our live performances are somewhat unpredictable.  We are pretty fluid with setlists and incorporate a significant amount of improvisation into the performances.  We also like to create venue or event specific performances, and might even write specific material with unique arrangements or instrumentation for local shows.  We generally tighten it up when we are traveling, but the spirit is still the same.  I tend to think of a live performance of having ritualistic effects on consciousness, so we try and project an exalted vibration in the moment of performance.


J: How has it been working with Magnetic South? What sort of impact have they had?

JD: Part of the conceptual framework for Magnetic South is rooted in the observation that shifts in technology and music industry paradigms in the 90's and 00's shifted resources and expertise from the actual production of recordings, and as a result, it seemed like the art of recording was suffering.  We liked the idea of a label/studio partnership that fostered the development of aesthetic continuity and creative community.  I think there is also an approach to maximizing creative energy that is rooted in a DIY approach that has been effective for Magnetic South.  I think Thee Open Sex is really an outgrowth of those ideas.

J: What do you guys see in the future for the band?

JD: We are going to tour in the Spring and Fall of this year.  We'll also be releasing some more tapes of things we have already recorded, and we'll be recording material for another full length soon.

J: Anything else you'd like to say?

JD: You can get our record and other Magnetic South releases here:
and you can get digital copies of our music from Bandcamp:

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  3. This is a great interview. Always found these guys to be pretty mysterious, but I like reading John Dawson's insight about the band. The new LP rules - I hope it's a smashing success.

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