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On the Hoof

by Andrei Van Wyk / 10.04.2013

There have been very few bands that have pushed the boundaries of what can be done in music like Deerhoof, the noise rock outfit from San Francisco. This is definitely one of those bands who have questioned the limits and have drifted on the furthest tangents of imagination. Formed in San Fran in the early 90s, they’ve developed an intricate and devilishly addictive brand of rock, taking influences from free jazz, indie, J-pop and many others. While suffering under the label of a ‘musician’s band’ for many years, with artists as diverse as The Dirty Projectors, Sleigh Bells and St. Vincent citing them as a major influence, Deerhoof’s underground credentials are spotless. But with the release of their latest album Breakup Song, Greg Saunier, Satomi Matsuzaki, Ed Rodriguez and John Dietrich are bringing their indescribable brand of avant-garde happy-go-lucky art rock to the masses. Mahala caught up with Drummer and de-facto band leader Greg Saunier to talk about their new album, their beginnings and where they’re going.

MAHALA: So starting off, you guys have just released your latest album, Breakup Song, September last year. Like all your other albums it’s very eclectic and always marks a positive progression. What made the writing and recording of this album different?

Greg Saunier: They’re always so different. If there was ever a band that could just use the same method over and over, well, I’d probably envy them. I take my ideas where I can get them and they’re usually in disguise.

The album does display influences from funk and electronic music with heavy emphasis on percussion and drums on songs such as ‘Breakup Songs’ and ‘Mario’s Flaming Whiskers III’. What was the inspiration for this? And what were your other influences during the recording of the album?

Well you kind of answered it in your question there. Our inspiration was probably funk. I say probably because we don’t always know. Synapses firing at random late at night or fingers fiddling with guitar strings or drumsticks or piano keys. The wrong button pressed on a software plugin, one person’s idea being misunderstood by their bandmate, something especially spicy or delicious eaten at dinner.

Deerhoof Chilling

Unlike many other bands, there is no such thing as a “Quintessential” Deerhoof Album. In a review by Pitchfork.com the reviewer says, “Deerhoof have put so much blood and sweat into not repeating themselves, it’s become part of their DNA.” What is it about the way you interact that has led to these effortless evolutions through your albums?

First we have to decide if you’re right that it’s effortless or if Pitchfork is right and we put blood and sweat into it. Far be it from me to disagree with Pitchfork who has given Deerhoof so much support over the years but I tend to agree with you. Repeating ourselves would be a great effort and a wasted one. I watched Three Kings the other day and George Clooney’s character says the way courage works is first you do the thing you’re scared of and then you get the courage afterwards. Change is how you become strong and have fun and grow balls. Change is the state of the universe and a special skill of human beings.

The general consensus amongst serious reviewers is that the album name is depressing, but the album’s sound represents quite the opposite. Can you tell the story and meaning behind the name Breakup Song?

Yes I’d love to. We noticed that breakup songs are usually sad songs. Something you listen to when you’re feeling sorry for yourself and it makes you feel sorrier. Like binging on ice cream. Which is totally unhelpful. Deerhoof decided to try and make something you could use when you’re feeling low and it will give you energy and make you feel better and wash the dishes and help you get your sense of humor back and not take yourself so seriously. It’s our contribution to the genre.

How do you personally feel about the final product?

I think it works.

So getting to your beginnings, how did the band actually start? How do you guys know each other and then get together?

It was all pretty accidentally. I was in a kind of grunge band and then suddenly half the band quit, which left me and the bass player, who I didn’t know too well, to fend for ourselves. We played the bass lines and drums beats from our grunge songs but played them extra loud and kind of went from there.


What were your earlier influences?

At that time the bass player (Rob Fisk) and I had almost no musical taste in common. I was listening to The Rolling Stones new album Voodoo Lounge over and over. Rob was heavily into Goth and Pink Floyd. I think we bonded over free improvisation since neither of us could find anyone else who wanted to try that.

What were the struggles you went through at the beginning?

Take your pick. We didn’t have a rehearsal space for a long time. When grunge went down the tubes all the rehearsal spaces in San Francisco got sold to software companies. We started practicing in our kitchen. I played with chopsticks to keep the noise down. We recorded everything with a four-track cassette machine till 2002.

After initially starting the band you guys recruited Satomi (who was editor of a magazine, at the time), who has a very attractive “Japanese-ness” in her voice and performance. What is it about her and her background that adds to your sound?

She had no official musical background, had never played in a band or played any instrument. But she obviously had talent. The first thing I noticed when we auditioned her was that she could sing exactly what I was singing, at the same time, without ever hearing it before. She followed so well she was like a mind-reader. As for her performance, for the first few years her performance style was actually very shy, nothing like what is has become. She also taught herself the bass and guitar.

As mentioned earlier, you guys do not really conform to “genres”. How do you feel about people categorizing you, either as a noise band or experimental?

The kind of music we used to call noise in the early 90s was this ultra-high energy performance art, usually quite funny and very short in concert. It was startling and gave you a serious jolt. Now when someone talks about a noise band I sort of imagine they simply mean the guitar player has a distortion pedal and plays a sort of rhythmless wall of sound. Something that creates a kind of deadening effect when you hear it, it’s definitely not what Deerhoof is going for.

Experimental is even weirder because I think the meaning of that word got lost way before Deerhoof even started, probably in the 50s. It was a kind of music where the composer and the performer didn’t know what was going to happen. They’d deliberately take themselves out of the equation, throwing dice to choose the next note, or tying themselves up with rope while they were trying to play the drums, really wild stuff, awesome, nothing like the tame music that gets described by today’s music journalists as experimental music.

How would you describe your sound and philosophy of music?

Experimental Noise. No, kidding….hahaha… I don’t know how to describe it. The only time I have to describe it is when an immigration officer sees all those stamps in my passport and asks what kind of music I play. Even then I usually refuse. But luckily the description and philosophy of our music is contained right there in our music. Because that’s exactly what our music is a description of a kind of music and a philosophy of music.

In 1997 you released your first album The Man, The King, The Girl. At the time it was very different with the use of keyboards, harsh guitars and other unorthodox instruments. What was your main aim with that particular album?

It was our first CD and we had no expectation of having the chance to ever make a second one. So we went nuts with it, tried to make it our testament to life and the universe, ended up with everything at once, a grab bag. It was a youthful error, like trying too hard on a first date but kind of cute too.

Throughout the years, from albums such as Apple O’ to Offend Maggie to Breakup Song, how has your ideas of music and aims change?

I think we’ve gotten bolder over time. There are songs we bring to each other now that we would have been mortified to show each other way back when.

You’ve developed a very dedicated grass roots following, what do you think it is about your band that has kept the audiences growing?

I don’t know but it is so fun, I know I am a lucky so-and-so. I kind of think what you mentioned earlier has something to do with it. There’s no definitive Deerhoof sound, so we never had the same rise and fall that music trends have. We have the greatest audience in the world: they like to be surprised. We have to keep contradicting ourselves and it gives us another breath of life.

Your albums have a very subdued sound, especially your drumming, compared to your live shows. Your shows have been described as wild and unpredictable, which band have acted as inspirations for your live performance?

There are lots of great bands but I don’t think my aims come from other bands. It’s more a personal thing, a human thing.

In the early 2000’s after 6 years together you guys started doing music full-time. What gave you the confidence to quit your jobs and go for it?

We weren’t going for it, not any more than we had been for the first nine years where we didn’t tour as much. Our jobs just wouldn’t let us go on tour as often as we wanted, so we quit. We said we’ll go back to job hunting when the tours stop paying for themselves, and we still are saying that. We’re having a really good run but there is no security.

In the beginning you guys produced all your own albums. Given your experience over the years, what are the pros and cons of self-production and management?

Not just the beginning, we still do produce and manage ourselves. I can’t tell you the pros and cons because I don’t have anything to compare it to. I guess I’ve seen friends with bands where I think they gave away too much responsibility to a producer or manager or team of managers and specialists. Most of those bands are broken up now. Sometimes it works if those people are really part of the band. I’ve always admired that but never been able to find it. Doing things yourself forces you to take responsibility and say “the buck stops here.” You take that away, you’re just robbing yourself.


South Africa’s music scene is based on a DIY ethic, with artists funding and producing their own releases. What do you think are important things to know when going about with a self-sufficient mentality?

But that’s the beauty of a self-sufficient mentality: you don’t have to know anything. You don’t have to take any advice from any self-appointed experts. You create a new way for things to be done and there’s no reason to think that the new way won’t be better than the “right” way. When somebody takes a chance, everyone benefits.

Many artists, in South Africa and abroad, struggle to move forward with an experimental sound (usually conforming to other music forms). You’ve survived all these years, while standing behind your experimental sound and ideals. What do you think are significant lessons to learn?

To me it seems like conforming to someone else’s style is a pretty good way to get approval, in the short term. And maybe you don’t want to have your band forever, maybe you just want to do it for fun for a short time. Because being in band is incredibly fun, and I recommend it. But if you want to keep playing longer I think it’s better to have your own point of view, stand for something.

Where are you going from here?

I’m on my way to Australia. I’m answering your questions sitting at Haagen Dazs at the Dubai airport on a five-hour layover because my first plane flew too slow and I missed my connection. Haagen Dazs hot chocolate is surprisingly rich and creamy.

What would South African audiences have to do in order to get you guys to come over here?

We’d love to come. Flights for four with one checked bag and one carry-on each. We also have 10 friends in the Congo we’d love to go see. We played in a band with them on a big tour in 2011 and haven’t been able to see them since.

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