Not a freak-out band: When Deerhoof scolds you, it's with deep, abiding love.
Deerhoof drummer Greg Saunier talks about the nature of gradual fame and the release of their new album, 'Friend Opportunity'
By Matt Stroud
CONCEIVED IN 1994, Deerhoof are known for tangential songwriting and playful experimentation, while rooting their music in sweet, sometimes shrill melodies and hypnotic rhythms. A Bay Area mainstay, they've produced countless albums, contributed to myriad anthologies and, just this summer, toured internationally with the likes of Radiohead and the Flaming Lips. The New York Times praised their work in 2005, saying that, since 2002, "Deerhoof has had a track record of at least one excellent record a year." And we're content to agree. Friend Opportunity, to be released Jan. 23, maintains Deerhoof's childlike liveliness, unrelenting positive energy and their ability to whimsically avoid standard song structures. Deerhoof's drummer, Greg Saunier, spoke to Metro via telephone, from his San Francisco apartment.
METRO: So, give me some broad strokes of description here. To you, how is Friend Opportunity different from The Runners Four?
GREG SAUNIER: When you make music, you're always trying to make something that no one's ever heard before— something that's new to you and everyone else. And we're usually more surprised than anybody about how our music ends up sounding. We try to plan things, and we try to calculate things, but nothing ever turns out the way we plan it. The songs seem to have a will of their own, you know?—they tell us what they want to sound like... against our will.
Tell me a little about the writing process on Friend Opportunity. How was it different from the band's collaborative work on The Runners Four?
We don't really have much of a formula, or a pattern, or a system where we say, Okay, this is how we write a song, or this is how we wrote all of the songs, or this is how we're going to write all these new songs. It just always seems to come out different, and whatever worked yesterday never seems to work tomorrow. So, in a way, the process is always the same: there is no process. We have no idea what we're doing; we just start from scratch on every song. We're like beginners, really—like music beginners who just don't have the slightest idea how to write a song.
Fair enough. But sometimes songwriters will run into convenient inspiration—political injustice; an interesting interaction between two people on the street; something a child says...
Yeah, that happens, definitely, but Satomi is kinda the lucky one out of the three of us, because she'll get an idea like that, and it will just be so fully formed. I mean, when she gets an idea, it's the melody, it's the lyrics, the tempo, it's in the right key, she knows exactly what the drums need to sound like, and it's just like Boom!—just this perfect composition. And, so, yeah, that's one end of the spectrum. But the other end is when songs just seem to take forever and ever—you're just constantly revising it, and giving up on it, and then staring over again. This one song on the new CD, for example, called "Matchbook Six Maniac"—I've been working on it for longer than Deerhoof has been a band... For thirteen years, or something like that, I've been trying to figure out a way to make this song work. I'd have one or two of the parts, but, in all that time, I couldn't figure out how to finish it, and how to put it all together. Until this CD.
When did you decide the song was done?
Well, funny you should ask, there's a movie premiering at Sundance this year, called Dedication [the directorial debut from Justin Theroux], and there's a ton of Deerhoof music in it. Basically, he used songs from our CDs, and then we created part of an original soundtrack to go with the movie.
Anyway, he had this song going in the closing credits—some Jesus and Mary Chain song—and he didn't know if he was going to be able to get the rights to the music, 'cause, you know, The Jesus and Mary Chain was a very famous band, and they've long since broken up, and he had no idea what the licensing fees might be for something like that, and so on. So, this song started with one of those beats that was like doot... doo-doo, kssshh; doo... doo-doo, kssshh—one of those sort of classic beats, which is one of the great things about Jesus and Mary Chain—they're this old fashioned kinda fifties rock thing, but their music is written in this wonderfully horrible, amateurish way, with this terrible distortion and echo and everything... Anyways, Justin didn't know if he was gonna be able to get the song, so I was like, Okay, I know what I'll do: And so I sat down and started with that drum beat—because I knew he wanted a song that started that way—and then just started... I don't know, it just sorta happened in a flash, and suddenly all these different little fragments and pieces that I'd been collecting for years suddenly, in about 20 minutes, as I was sitting at this little Casio keyboard, came together. And I was really very happy with it. And so, immediately, we recorded it and sent it to Justin. But we got absolutely no response from him. And then he ended up getting the rights to the Jesus and Mary Chain song anyway, so, whatever—the song's on our album, and that's its fate. It doesn't get to be in a movie. Strange thing is, though, no matter how strictly you think you've figured out a song, you're very quickly unburdened of that misconception as soon as the band listens. Sometimes a quiet folk song can end up sounding like heavy metal. You just never know.
Would you say you recorded Friend Opportunity quicker than you generally record full-length albums?
We've taken four years to do an album before, so. This time, we'd set aside all this time to record this summer, but then, at the beginning of the summer, we got an invitation from Radiohead, to do a series of shows. How are you going to say no? So we did that. And then Justin comes along and says, I want you to work on this title track for my movie. And then we go to Los Angeles to work with another film composer on another movie. And then The Flaming Lips came along—another one of our absolute favorite bands—and asked us to tour with them. And then, because the Radiohead shows went really well, Radiohead asked us to do more shows in Europe. And The Flaming Lips extended a similar offer. So basically, amazing opportunities kept stacking up, but the time to make the album was just floating away. So we ended up mixing a lot of the album while on tour. We would be in a room somewhere in Dublin or something, coming back from a Radiohead show that we just played, and then we'd turn on our computer, and start to mix tracks in the middle of the night, trying to make music that didn't pale miserably to the sound that was still ringing in our ears from the concert.
Are you comfortable with what you released?
Oh, yeah, but, since we knew we were so restricted on time, we put no restrictions on ourselves, as far as what the music should sound like. And, like, for instance, how many instruments should there be, and who plays what instrument? It didn't matter. So, sometimes John or Satomi are playing drums, and sometimes I'm playing the guitar. And some songs have, like, ten organs on them, or trumpets, or vocal harmonies, or just, things that, at the time you're recording, you're just sitting there thinking, There's no way we can play this in concert. But, then, you're thinking, No, we've gotta let ourselves go, and follow the ideas where they take us, even if it ends up sounding artificial, or like a thirty piece band, or an orchestra, or something. But then, once it was done, we listened to it and know we had to tour, and said, We're in some serious trouble.
Were you freaked out?—panicked that you'd be unable to perform at the level you'd like?
Deefhoof isn't really a freak out kinda band. Or, if it is, it's only for moment at a time. And only in our music. When we play something that sounds explosive, or loud, or even violent, it's a little like some mothers who you see scolding their child in an angry voice. But you can tell that they're controlling themselves; you can tell that they're using that voice on purpose. Not because they're actually overcome with real panic, or real rage, but because they're doing it on purpose to make a certain impression on the child, but always with a deep love in their hearts. Versus, when you see a parent who you can tell really isn't in control of what they're doing, and is so out of their mind with anger that they start yelling at the kids, without love. The difference between the two, is that Deerhoof—we might use explosive, or harsh, or perhaps even cruel-sounding noise, but we use that noise consciously, and we're able to switch in and out of it instantaneously. It was never that we were panicked or violent. It was just that we want to portray a feeling.
Has your music ever been painted as being rage-filled, panicked or angry?
Probably—in both a positive and negative way. That's the fun of it. I mean, we've pretty much been called everything. And it's not like anybody's wrong. Part of the thrill is that you get completely contradictory descriptions with every album—someone will say that Friend Opportunity is the craziest, rage-filled, experimental experience in rock, and someone will say it's just bizarre, and someone else will say it's the most poppy, bubble-gum, sellout crap Deerhoof has ever made, and whatever else -- but they're all talking about the exact same music. So it's always this confused mishmash of responses. And I'm really into making music that might sound different to different people. Or even different to the same person two different times.
Sure. What's sometimes interesting about art, or rock, or film, is not necessarily the pretense of the composer, or the way the work is presented, but the way people relate to it.
Totally. And I've always felt that way—that the listener has the power to collaborate with the musician. To me, if somebody is listening to Friend Opportunity, they become part of the band, a part of the music. And without them, I wouldn't even really consider it music. Because the songs are just suggestions or sketches—and they may be very elaborately constructed suggestions, but they're still suggestions and they're never finished. They're not finished until a mind interprets them, and uses them in some way that's useful and interactive. That's what it's all about.
Do you feel it's still possible to surprise people in today's musical landscape?
When Deerhoof came out, in the spring of 1994, the possibility of being shocked was pretty much nonexistent. Kurt Cobain had just committed suicide, and there was definitely a feeling that, culturally, there's no way anyone was going to be surprised by anything anymore. There was that question—what could anyone possibly do to shock me? Like we had seen it all. And I'm not even saying that I thought that was true, because, as it turns out, post-1994, all kinds of people have been doing ridiculously shocking things. And I'm constantly shocked by what I see, in a very pleasant way. I'm always surprised, first, that people even both to continue making music, and, second, that the music is always so creative, finding ways of making music that I really think I've never heard before—not only sounds, but whole purposes, whole new feelings in music that are completely foreign and beautiful and new to me.
Let's talk about the progression of Deerhoof. It's not like you were VH1 child stars or anything like that.
No. We weren't. If your band is a one hit wonder—if your band has the luxury, or curse of having one hit song that has defined it—then you're hard pressed to sustain any kind of career because basically everyone just wants to hear that one song, or, if they make a new song, the audience expects it to sound like that old song—they expect the band to conform to that certain way, to that certain style, or their record company and their marketing machine expects them to have this consistent sound, and to keep playing the hit, and basically, if the band can't fina way to change, then they just sort of deflate and shrivel up. Our career didn't start with a bang, and, instead, it was very gradual—extremely gradual—so we've achieved the amount known that we are now, but yet, we've had this freedom to change, to constantly change.
It's as if you've achieved the exact opposite of the one hit wonder. You're almost expected to change all the time.
You could say that, sure.
Deerhoof play on Tuesday (Jan. 30) at 8pm at Great American Music Hall, 859 O'Farrell St., San Francisco. Tickets are $15; 800.225.2277. Listen to Deerhoof at http://media.slims-sf.com/Deerhoof-SealedWithAKiss.mp3.
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