Download Deerhoof’s “The Merry Barracks” here.
Pray that Deerhoof’s members never settle their differences. “The four of us are so different from each other, our backgrounds and our musical taste, it’s almost a joke that we’re in the same band together,” says drummer Greg Saunier, who founded the band in San Francisco in 1995. Saunier, singer/bassist Satomi Matsuzaki, and guitarists John Dieterich and Ed Rodriguez all write songs and much of the band’s output is self-recorded and -produced. Those are two hints as to why, despite constants like the pristine chirp of Matsuzaki’s vocals, the band as a whole tends to sound a bit different from album to album. That’s also true from song to song on the new Deerhoof Vs. Evil (out Jan. 25 on Polyvinyl). More like 2007’s Friend Opportunity than 2008’s Offend Maggie, Deerhoof’s latest doesn’t feel tied down to any of the band’s conflicting tendencies toward sparkly melodies and jittery noise-rock. More often than not, as on “Behold A Marvel In The Darkness” or “Hey I Can,” it bobs contentedly between the extremes.
When the band plays live, those extremes get bashed together with delirious results, making Deerhoof’s output feel a bit more unified. Still, Saunier seems as happy as ever to embrace the ungainly variety of his work. Paste spoke with him about his bandmates’ contrasting approaches to songwriting, and why he’s glad Deerhoof took a long time to be successful.
Paste: You’ve said before that as a band, you often don’t know what you’re doing. Is it maddening to embrace that feeling?
Saunier: No. I mean, I don’t really have anything to compare it to. It’s just how it’s always been, at least in this group. If something ever worked in the past—”Wow, that one song we did last year really came together, and I love how we managed to write, and everybody’s input really helped, let’s try and do one like that again!” And inevitably, it fails. We never seem to be able to use the same trick twice. We always have to create new tricks to trick ourselves into making new songs, or making the songs work. I mean, is it maddening? No.
Paste: Maybe “maddening” is too strong a word.
Saunier: It’s actually very exciting. I think it would get a bit maddening if we were feeling a pressure to repeat either a method or a sound. With bands that become successful very quickly, or very suddenly, that’s an unfortunate pitfall that can happen to them. They get associated with one hit song or one sound, and they’re sort of expected to repeat it. Our success has been so slow, so gradual over the years, that it’s like we never had that hit song. We never had that one sound that got associated with Deerhoof. You ask different people who listen to Deerhoof to describe our music, and one will say it’s gumdrops and goofy light pop music, and another person will say that it’s harsh noise improvisation or something. I kind of actually feel really lucky that when we’re working on new songs, all of that is true, and we feel kind of like, if there’s any pressure on us, it’s actually a pressure to not repeat. Our listeners actually seem to want surprise out of us. So no, it’s not maddening at all. It’s very freeing.
Paste: What are some of the ways in which you trick yourselves?
Saunier: I know John spends a lot of time just playing the guitar, kind of noodling, sometimes almost mindlessly. I sometimes just marvel at it. And maybe I find this maddening, if we want to use the word “maddening.” I can be in a conversation with John, where we’re talking about totally different topics, and his fingers are just flying around the guitar, totally noodling. It bothers me because he’s not paying attention to what I’m saying, or if he is paying attention to what I’m saying, he’s not paying attention to what he’s playing, and either one seems like some crime against the band or something. But I have to marvel at his ability to do this, and I realize that this is really a creative method for him. Sometimes he will just hit on something in the middle of his random or arbitrary wanderings around the fretboard of his guitar.
Paste: Do you think that having two music degrees help you with more self-guided music-making?
Saunier: No! No, actually, because I’ve got a perfect example of someone who had absolutely no music education, and no musical experience of any kind before she joined our band, and that’s Satomi. She is not any worse at writing songs that I am. I think she’s a master composer and master songwriter. Often, it’s her songs, I would say, that go through the least amount of revision and change once they hit the band. Her songs seem to be the most perfect in that way, that they don’t seem to want to get changed… Whereas me and Ed and John all tend to do endless revisions of our own songs as we’re writing them. By the time it gets to the band, it’s already like it’s been re-written 15 times. Whereas, in Satomi’s case, she presses record on her tape recorder, within 60 seconds of having come up with an idea. So it’s totally fresh, it’s authentic, and it’s like a gem and it doesn’t need to be altered.
Paste: What are you working on now besides getting ready for the Deerhoof tour?
Saunier: Well, I’m working on a lot. I just finished a really intense project, for me. A filmmaker that’s been associated with our band, for many years, named Martha Colburn, she made a video for a song called “Wrong Time Capsule.”
Paste: That’s the one that looks like a Terry Gilliam animation from Monty Python’s Flying Circus. You guys actually get eaten by Ulysses S. Grant.
Saunier: She just finished a new movie called Dolls Vs. Dictators... Basically, she was commissioned to do it by a museum here in New York called The Museum of the Moving Image that is all about the history of TV and cinema. They’ve got this enormous doll collection. She got photos of these dolls from the museum, and the museum, which is having a big re-opening after a big re-construction, commissioned her to make a film for this re-opening. She turned it into this kind of sci-fi, 3-D, ballet battle between these dolls from cinema and TV history fighting against the world’s current dictators. The leader of Myanmar and the leader of Sudan and the leader of North Korea, but dressed up as weird insects, and just incredibly, just so imaginative, you’ve never seen anything like this… I just did a remix for another band that’s on our label, Asobi Seksu… Since I’ve gotten to New York, I’ve also started some bands here. I’ve got a duo with Sean Lennon called Consortium Musicum. We’ve recorded an album and we’re gonna be playing a concert here in New York in the middle of the Deerhoof tour on our one day off.