John Dieterich Talks Deerhoof, 20 Years and La Isla Bonita

Music Features Deerhoof

I remember the first time I heard Deerhoof. The song was “Kidz Are So Small” off the band’s bubbly 2007 album Friend Opportunity, and as vocalist Satomi Matsuzaki sang the lyrics “If I were a man and you a dog, I’d throw a stick for you” over a perfectly disjunct beat and some not-so-random dog barks, I fell in love. But that’s not hard to do when it comes to Deerhoof.

The Bay Area quartet started in 1994 as the improvisation project of drummer Greg Saunier and bassist Rob Fisk. Now, 20 years and 12 albums later, Deerhoof hasn’t lost a beat. With a current lineup including Saunier, Matsuzaki—who joined on just a week after having moved to the U.S. from Japan in 1995—and guitarists John Dieterich and Ed Rodriguez, the group released La Isla Bonita earlier this month on Polyvinyl. Since then, the band has proven (at least) two things: Even after two decades, Deerhoof has stayed true to its distinct sound, and it’s still kind of impossible to put a finger on just what that sound is.

While La Isla Bonita could be looked at a return to the band’s early days, with guitar-driven tracks and an undeniable charm, it’s also intricately woven and pure. As Dieterich puts it, “we just intentionally removed all pressure from it.” And that may be the thing about Deerhoof—it’s not like they’ve ever really recorded an album through traditional methods.

Deerhoof has always been at the forefront of DIY culture, from their early singles being birthed on four-track cassette to most of 2003’s Apple O’ being recorded live over a short nine hours and Friend Opportunity starting as a Dieterich bedroom recording and continuing to be mixed on laptops over the course of a tour. Over the years, they’ve stayed true to low-budget recording techniques, self-taught instrumentation and minimal gear.

Of course, with 20 years behind them, they’ve been through their fair share of changes. Having always called San Francisco home, Deerhoof’s members moved to various cities across the country after recording their 2011 album, Deerhoof vs. Evil. Their commute to band practice is now considerably longer—Saunier and Matsuzaki are in Brooklyn, Dieterich in Albuquerque and Rodriguez in Portland—but their devotion to the band has never waned. In fact, La Isla Bonita may have not turned out the same without it.

Recorded over 10 days in Rodriguez’s basement, La Isla Bonita came about as naturally as an album can and seems almost like a 10-song catharsis for the band.

“We went to Ed’s house to practice,” Dieterich says, laughing. “We weren’t planning to record.”

Once producer Nick Sylvester added vocals in May, the album really came to life. And while Matsuzaki’s words are often far-out and always charming, they’re not just wacky. La Isla Bonita even brings political notes to the table—whether it’s the subtle ode to female musicians in “Paradise Girls,” the beautifully eerie “Mirror Monster” or the repetition of the line “too many choices to order breakfast” in “Exit Only,” a line that’s well-disguised in a cheerful rock ballad all the while speaking to everything from America’s consumer culture to immigration. That’s good stuff.

Really, though, no matter how they create an album, Deerhoof remains Deerhoof, and it shouldn’t be any other way—at least for the next 20 years.

Earlier this week, Paste caught up with Dieterich on tour and chatted about everything from the Deerhoof family and songwriting to soccer and working with Michael Shannon.

Paste: You guys are in San Francisco, right? I bet it’s good to be back.
John Dieterich: Yeah, it’s great. We had a fun show last night at Great American Music Hall, and we hadn’t played there in a while. It was good.

Paste: Well, congratulations on 20 years, and for you it’s 15? How does it feel to be involved in a project for so long?
Dieterich: Well, in the end it feels really good. You learn over the years how to work together and how to deal with each other and how to not drive other people insane and how to not get driven insane [laughs], that kind of stuff. It’s funny, we’ve had ups and downs. One of the things I’ve really realized is that often the solution isn’t changing someone, but it’s more like changing your own perspective on someone. It’s like, “oh, okay, well, this is how this person is and that’s great,” and “I love that about that person, but, I just have to figure out how to be…”—you know, it’s just like any other relationship.

Paste: You guys are more or less a family.
Dieterich: Yeah, I think that, too.

Paste: What would you say everyone’s role is?
Dieterich: You know, it’s funny. I think we all have to play different roles at different times. There are times when we all feel like we have to play parent roles and stuff like that. When we’re on tour, for example, I do the driving. At the end of the night, we have to check everyone into a motel, so it’s dealing with this sort of, “okay, I have to make sure everybody gets there safe,” you know? It’s revolving roles, I think.

Paste: I think that’s the best kind of family. Is there a particular moment or scene in the past 15 years that you think embodies your time in Deerhoof?
Dieterich: Boy, I don‘t know. It’s like the kind of realization I sometimes have on stage when something’s happening and just out of the blue I’ll be like, “you know, this is crazy.” But yeah, it’s like you’re talking to the wrong person because I have a really horrible memory and stuff. It’s like what my father refers to as the Dieterich memory. It’s just ridiculous.

Paste: You’ve had a considerably longer commute to band practice these past few years, living in Albuquerque. Because of that, you guys recorded the new record in 10 days, and in Ed’s basement—a.k.a “Camp Deerhoof.” With such a short recording window, what all did you have prepared ahead of time? I know you work a lot with improvisation.
Dieterich: As far as improvising goes, that stuff kind of comes out when we’re playing live, and it’s just sort of that the songs become different, or sometimes really different. But as far as that recording went, we went to Ed’s house to practice—we weren’t planning to record. We were just going there to hang out and have a relaxed practice setup. So we set up five or six microphones to record the practices, and then maybe four days into it, or five days into it, we were like, “oh, we sound really good,” you know? Greg was making rough mixes every night…we just intentionally removed all pressure from it and sort of were surprised. We were planning on recording here, at a recording studio or in New York later on, and then we just decided, you know, we didn’t need to do that.

Paste: I like that you said lack of pressure. I think you can feel it in this record.
Dieterich: Cool, good. Yeah, I think so, too.

Paste: Yeah, it’s great. Speaking of no pressure, I noticed that both you and Greg have mentioned imperfection when it comes to how things are created in the studio and on stage. Do you still consider intuition a large part of Deerhoof’s songwriting?
Dieterich: Yeah, totally. With this record, it’s a little different because it was basically just the four of us in a room playing, but sometimes it’s kind of a question of, when there will be a mistake, knowing when to leave them. Or a mistake happens and all of a sudden, half of us are playing one song and half of us another, and it’s like, “wait, that’s cool.” Also, as somebody who works with other bands sometimes, it’s fun to know that “oh, this is not my idea.” It’s hard to hear it and realize that it may be 10 times better than the original one.

Paste: With that, would you say you’re more comfortable on stage or in the studio? The live shows are so fun.
Dieterich: I think that I love doing both. This past time, I was home for three months or something, and the idea of going on tour was slightly terrifying. At the same time, I love playing…I love playing live and playing with these guys. How do I put it? The transition between home life and tour life is less traumatic than it has been in the past. It feels more like, “yeah, okay, cool.”

Paste: Do you have any favorite places to visit while on tour?
Dieterich: Oh, we were just talking about this! Ed and I are both from Wisconsin, but I’ve never been to House on the Rock, and I really want to enjoy a trip there sometime. Maybe next tour.

Paste: Do it! You have to.
Dieterich: That’s right.

Paste: I read that it’s common practice for you to bring a soccer ball on the road, which I thought was fun.
Dieterich: That is true! I brought it on this tour and haven’t broken it out too much because we were on the East Coast and it’s freezing.

Paste: Well, since you drive, what are you guys listening to in the van right now?
Dieterich: Absolutely nothing [laughs]. I’ve been thinking about it a lot on tour actually. Part of the reason I look forward to touring is that you get in the car and, you know, you’ve had every conversation that is possible to have. So when you get in the van, everybody kind of does their own thing. Somebody might be working on music, or on their computer listening to music. Somebody else is sleeping. Somebody else is reading a book. Somebody else is watching a movie. I think that may be one too many people, in which case pick out one of them and that’s the one person that’s driving. So what I like about driving is that when I’m at home, I never leave myself time to just think and [when driving] I can’t work and I can’t watch soccer and I can’t play soccer [laughs] and I can’t hang out with my friends…this kind of thing. I’m captive, but I have to be alert. I find that anywhere between two and seven and eight hours a day, I can just sit there and think. I can think about my life or think about music…think about anything. It really helps. I get a lot of ideas, and it’s something that I should probably learn how to do in my daily life, but I don’t, so I’m lucky that I happen to have the time to do it.

Paste: Yeah, I can relate to that. I’ve always said that driving is kind of my thinking time.
Dieterich: Right, exactly.

Paste: So you guys are on a video roll, too. I think since yesterday I’ve watched that video for “Paradise Girls” like 12 times.
Dieterich: Whoa, awesome! I love it, too. I think it came out amazing.

Paste: I just want to dance with Satomi in little pink cocoons.
Dieterich: Yeah, that can be arranged.

Paste: But, you know, you guys seem to have a number one fan, or two, in Michael Shannon. Are there any highlights from recording that video for “Exit Only?”
Dieterich: Oh, yeah! Well, I wasn’t there, Ed was. But yes, there are tons of highlights. He was an incredibly sweet person. He basically went out of his way and worked extremely hard and was just amazing in every way. I got to meet him later on…he came to our New York show. Yeah, that was a thrill.

Paste: Oh, man. Yeah, I would have given so much to be at the one with Cibo Matto.
Dieterich: Oh, yeah. That was great. They, without telling us, cooked up a cover of one of our songs “Believe E.S.P.,” and then it went into “La Isla Bonita” by Madonna [laughs]. It was totally insane.

Paste: Well, I have one more for you. When you think about the new record, what are the first three words that come to mind? Go!
Dieterich: Six. Times. Over.

Paste: Perfect!
Dieterich: Okay, you got me. I just woke up, so I’m sure there’s a really deep meaning to that.

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