Interview: Deerhoof

I discovered a whole bunch of stuff I didn’t know about by doing this interview (my very first, so I was a nervous guy), but one thing stands out: I am not the next Bob Woodward. Luckily, powerhouse drummer Greg Saunier is also a powerhouse all around nice guy, and was full of chatter, laughs and insight into Deerhoof going Classical, recording tidbits, Pop music, fairytales that relate to drumming technique and his favourite Stones record (which comes as a surprise). Thanks Greg for a wonderful chat, and enjoy!

So how are you, are you at home at the moment?

Yeah I’m at home, I’m in Brooklyn.

Great! I’m in Adelaide right now, almost like opposite sides of the world huh? Do you have any upcoming local shows before the Australian tour?

Actually yes!

I’m just curious; because this is the second time you’ve been to Australia in just over 12 months, right?

That’s right, but this is the first time we’ve been to Australia since the release of our new record (Breakup Song).  We do have one show, just one, before we come to Australia. Australia’s our next tour, but we do have one isolated show in New York. Basically, it’s with a Classical Music ensemble; we’re playing part of the show, they’re playing part of the show, we’re going to be doing a piece together which is an original piece, and then they’re also going to be playing a piece that I just finished writing….which is kind of an arrangement of a Deerhoof song for Classical instruments! It’s basically something that we’ve never tried to do before, so I’m really excited about this! It’s going to be in a Concert Hall and everything, something quite different for us. Actually coincidentally, there’s going to be a kind of ‘part two’ to that, which is that when we play the Adelaide festival at the end of this Australian tour, actually because of…..uh, what’s the name of the guy who wrote the lyrics to Smile?

Van Dyke Parks.

Yeah exactly! Van Dyke Parks is a part of the festival as well, and he’s acquired an orchestra in order to do his performance, so suddenly there’s an orchestra there available! So we’re going to be playing-it’s not the same arrangements but I’ve also created some orchestra arrangements to play simultaneously with Deerhoof on a couple of our songs. Yeah so it’s like, the upcoming two months are sort of like, ‘Deerhoof enters the world of Classical music’, y’know, finally! But in our minds, that’s always what we’ve been doing, at least that’s the way I always think about it, but it just doesn’t come across that way, you know? (Laughs)

You studied composition right?

Yeah, yeah I did actually! I mean, it’s a weird thing to say because; anybody who ever tries to write a song studies composition, they’re trying to figure out what they’re doing and they look at other music that’s differently composed and try to figure out ‘how did they do that?’ and whatever. So, I don’t feel that I studied composition any more than the next guy, but yeah, it says so on my diploma! (Laughs)

(Laughs also!)

But even that was a long time ago, that feels like eons ago and I don’t necessarily believe that I’ve learnt all about music in school; I’ve learned from being on stage, from my bandmates – Satomi, the singer since almost the very beginning, since ’95 or whatever – when she joined, she had just moved from San Francisco from Toyko, and was just looking for something to do, so that she could make friends with somebody, because she was in a completely new country and didn’t know a soul! She was just looking for an excuse for a social thing; she had never been in a band, had never played any music and never had any desire in her life to ever play music! I mean, she was studying film and Art, basically – so somebody with no musical training, no musical experience, I still trust her – I mean I’ve learned as much from her about how music works, as I have from the, you know, quote unquote ‘experts’ who’ve been studying music their entire lives. To me, that doesn’t even seem strange; it’s like ‘of course!’ (Laughs)

That’s interesting, because my questions were sort of around this line, how your training has affected your music; reading about how you spontaneously wrote and recorded Breakup Song, is there much leeway during the rehearsal process to morph these songs into something different?

(Laughs) Well, uh…

I mean, you’re all living in different places now, so is rehearsing even possible?

In our case, the working method is different from probably most bands, because we don’t actually rehearse any of the songs that we play; I mean, usually until long after they’re written and long after they’re recorded, long after they’re mixed and even after they’re released! So it’s like, we didn’t find out that the songs on Breakup Song were gonna be actually playable as a stripped down guitar rock band, which is what we are on stage! We didn’t find this out until long after the album was sent to the label and was being manufactured and that kind of thing, there’s no turning back, y’know? It’s kind of this gamble, like, ‘let’s try and a make a record that we’ll enjoy playing on stage a year from now’ basically. It’s been great going from, the imaginary version of the songs, into the real life versions, where we’re actually holding our instruments and playing them in front of real human beings, and it’s coming out nice and loud, people are singing along and jumping up and down and it’s like, you feel like ‘ok, your playing makes sense’ and it’s come to something. Now, we get to find out what forces are being set in motion by performances!

Nobody’s really working in this way right now, at least I feel that it’s like, you are putting some sort of restraint on what you’re doing, but from that restraint, you’ve got this liberating thing, where you can make these songs come alive in a different way.

Exactly! I mean, in a way the record is – I don’t want to say it’s dead, but it’s sort of ‘pre-enimate ‘, sort of waiting, it’s like a Frankenstein or something, waiting for the switch to be turned on, and one way that jolt of electricity goes into the songs is by us finally playing it as a live band and going on tour! But another way of course is: when anybody else uses the record in their own life when they put it on at a party and want to have some fun, or want to dance, or want to be in a better mood or inspire themselves to feel differently than they did before – that’s kind of what this record is about, just turning around a sort of bad mood and finding a way to turn it into a good mood. A recording is nothing! (Laughs) I mean, if there’s anything I’ve learned from being in this band all these years, is that the recording – as much as the music journalists want to say ‘ok, this recording really is a good recording’ or ‘it’s bad’, or ‘this is a masterpiece’ or ‘it’s not’ – the recording, the music is not even finished until the listener participates in the music. I’ve found that with Deerhoof, the listener’s participation is extremely important, because two different people can hear the same Deerhoof song and one person can say ‘it just sounds like noise’,’ just sounds like chaos’ and ‘completely ugly’ – and the next can hear the same song and say ‘what a cute little fun melody’ or ‘listen how poppy that is’. One person will think ‘it’s very serious’ and like I was joking around before, like that we’re these Classical musicians (Laughs), who are writing these very elegant compositions, and another person will think that it’s a kind of fun throwaway – something that’s really a joke! I find that of course, none of them are wrong and that the ears of the listener are such a big part of – (Laughs) – I can’t think of Deerhoof without the many different ways that it’s been heard by many different people. I feel really lucky!

I definitely agree with you! I have so many different friends who have heard of your music and they all have these diverse reactions to it. I mean, what I’ve read of you talking about the band, and how you’ve marketed this record as ‘noise jingles for parties’ – which is pretty apt for not just this record but most of your work – it’s still got like, it’s always been social and as close to ‘Pop’ music as any other sort of Pop music and yet there’s still a lot of depth there, for if another ear listened who said ‘I don’t particularly enjoy Pop music’, they can approach from a different angle and still enjoy it.

Yeah, totally! I mean, the thing for me about ‘Pop’ music and the reason that I often like to think of what we do as Pop music, and call it Pop when I’m forced to call it something (laughs) – the reason why I especially like Pop music is because unlike most genres of music, Pop music is – I think it’s not a sound, it’s not a musical style, it just means ‘what the kids listen to’, what’s popular, basically! It could be anything, and you never know what it’s going to be. In fact, Pop is changing very quickly all the time, it’s trendy music – whatever thing is the popular thing this week is gonna sound old next week! That’s this idea of always searching for something new, something surprisingly – I think it relates very closely to what we try and do. We always try and challenge ourselves to find new sounds, to make something that’s sort of gets your attention and makes you want to sing along or dance or whatever. Pop music is a really cool genre in that way – you never really know what it’s going to sound like tomorrow. Nobody can say!

(Laughs) That’s great! I’ve just got a couple of other questions for you and they’re very specific to your drumming style because – I watched you play in Perth last year – watching you play was mindblowing!

Oh thanks!

No worries! As a guitarist slash who is also a frustrated drummer, I was wondering –

(Laughs)

- how do you properly play the one foot double kick Cali punk rock thing? You know with just the one foot on the kick pedal?

(Laughs) Do I? You know, it’s so funny, sometimes when people talk about school, they say ‘how can we keep the kids from talking during class’ or texting on their phones, you keep in interested in the subject it’s like – oh, another good example is like that fairytale of Scheherazade I think it is, this woman who’s been doomed to a death sentence, by the king for something, due to die at any time – but, she’s telling  a story to the king that’s a cliffhanger at the end of the first night. So the king’s like ‘ok well, I’ll let her stay alive one more night because I gotta find out how this turns out!’ She’s able to keep this going for one hundred nights or something, until he’s decided to let her live anyway! I always feel that when I’m playing the drums, it might seem like a weird analogy but: I’m always thinking about the story, I’m not worried about how my toes are working! (Laughs)

(Laughs)

I actually never practice, don’t practice the drums at all, I don’t think physically about what I’m doing, unless I find there’s a problem that I need to solve. Normally, I’m thinking more about the plot, I’m listening to my band mates, I’m sort of like, checking out the faces, the eyes of the people of the audience – I’m trying to interact y’know? I’m not worried at all about the physical side of what’s going on with the drums. Just like I’m talking to you on the phone now, I’m not thinking about where I am putting my tongue – (laughs)

(Laughs)

- to make different sounds and stuff, it’s the same thing. Basically, my answer is: ‘I have no idea!’

(the biggest bittersweet laugh of my life)

If I want to do the double kick on the drums, that’s just what my foot provides for me. I will say though that playing drums on tour, playing every night on stage, is a great way to keep in shape, it’s very good exercise!

Just one more quick question, thanks so much for talking to me today but: what is your favourite Rolling Stones record?

(Laughs) I was just thinking about that exact question today, because I was actually at the record store looking – and of course they had nothing! It was like this little card in the store that says ‘Rolling Stones’ and there’s just nothing. What kind of record store is this? Then I went to a different record store – I mean, this is Brooklyn, New York, this isn’t like, middle of nowhere, and it’s one of the biggest cities on Earth. I went to another record store, same thing – ‘Rolling Stones’ and then nothing, there’s just no records at all! (Laughs) So I did not find the ones I was looking for, I was looking for: a compilation called Sucking in the 70s. The Rolling Stones have so many compilations, basically just cash-ins, between when they were doing real records, the record company – and they switched record companies many times – would throw something together, odds and ends from various albums, and it’s funny with the Rolling Stones because a lot of these end up being their most popular albums, because people like to hear certain hits or whatever. So I was looking for that, because it just so happens that all the songs on there, I think are really cool. But my real favourite has to be Tattoo You because that was the very first one that I heard, the very first record that I ever bought! It was the first time that I realized Rock music is what I wanted to do with my life. I wore out my copy of Tattoo You by playing ‘Start Me Up’ so many times, the needle would skip all over the place –

Are you sure that wasn’t just Keith Richards starting on a different beat in every bar?

(Laughs) Well it kinda was! I ended up memorizing, you know, where the beat would skip and stuff like that. I mean, once I finally decided to buy a new copy of it, I had been listening to the skipping for so many years, that the one where the beat actually stayed regular sounded completely bizarre to me! There’d be an extra beat and a half that I’d hadn’t heard in years, you know? What that album meant to me was – it posed a kind of musical question, like ‘why are these guitars so rough’ and ‘why is everything so ragged’ and there’s a sense of humour to these stray notes  and a kind of random quality to it, to the shifting texture of the music, there’s no regular – when the riff gets quote unquote ‘repeated’ it actually is never the same thing twice. This kind of rough texture just fascinated me and I think I almost thought of it like a code that I was supposed to crack – it’s still amazing that after all these years I still feel the same way about it, still trying to crack the code of this song! Over the many years, it’s taken on a much larger thing than just a musical question, also a certain question posed by the band and Mick Jagger and stuff about how to act as a man, as a human being – but especially as a person it’s like ‘why is he so excited to be yelling in this part’ and his attitude towards sexuality why it’s so celebratory, why is it so fun, humourous, so playful? I like his somewhat cocky, egotistical approach to living that’s encapsulated in a lot of their songs, a kind of sassy personality that comes across that I find very useful , I find very inspiring – it makes me also want to act like that, because it feels like so much fun! It’s not just for musicians – The Rolling Stones have been very useful for me in many stages of my life so far, and I foresee they will continue to be! I also think it’s very similar to what we do for the listener, what we do as a band, I mean – I’m only one quarter of the group but I can say that for me: Deerhoof is my attempt to figure out what The Rolling Stones were doing, when I first caught fire with Rock Music!

(Laughs!) Well thanks for your time Greg, it’s been great talking to you today, I’ll see you at the Perth show!

Thanks for your questions! See you there!

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