Deerhoof is Not Going to Save the World
Published January 24, 2011
GREG SAUNIER (FAR RIGHT) WITH HIS DEERHOOF BANDMATES. PHOTO COURTESY OF RICHARD SAUNIER
Next to the word “unorthodox” in the dictionary is a picture of Deerhoof, the San Francisco-based superquartet known for its schizophrenic sound and mind-blowing live performances. For 16 years, Deerhoof has electrified audiences: think John Dieterich and Ed Rodriguez’s roaring guitars with the explosive thrash and burn of Greg Saunier’s virtuosic drum work, all set against singer Satomi Matsuzaki’s poetic, cloud-like vocals. If only all contradictions could be this good.
On the band’s last record they offended Maggie, but with their latest release, they’re staring evil straight in the eye. Deerhoof vs. Evil (Polyvinyl) drops today. We managed to catch drummer Greg Saunier via Skype before the band begins their 2011 tour, which kicks off this Thursday in Sacramento, California. We talked to Greg about a dude with silver duct tape in his hair, whether going to conservatory can make you a rock star, the band’s collaboration with New York-based artist Adam Pendleton, and the rumor that Satomi would quit if Greg talked about Michael Bolton ever again.
MADISON MOORE: What’s with the evil?
GREG SAUNIER: [laughs] I’ve got childhood friends who are working for non-profit foundations, or who are running for state senate and doing things that actually do fight evil in this world. And what am I doing? I bang on some drums in a rock band. I try to tell myself that by doing that, I’m fighting evil—which is completely absurd. Music is not equipped in any way to fight against anything. Other than, I guess, it could fight against silence. [laughs]MOORE: [laughs] That’s funny. Tell us a little bit about the sound of this new record—how does it evolve from 2008’s Offend Maggie?
SAUNIER: You say evolved, and I would like to be able to agree with you. But for us, it’s more like starting from scratch every single time. It’s sort of like when it’s time to write a new song, anything that you thought you understood last time is pretty much pulverized.
MOORE: You guys are such an exciting, energetic band. I’ve been a fan for a long time.
SAUNIER: Oh, thank you! That’s awesome. You can’t imagine the thrill it is for us in the band to imagine that that’s ever the case. And so it’s such a surprise to travel around the world and go play a show in Moscow or whatever. [laughs] I’m sitting there playing the drums and I look out in the audience see people singing along with this melody that was from my dream!
MOORE: Yeah, I mean, that’s part of the community that music creates.
SAUNIER: Yeah, I suppose so. It’s one that I never intended—and it’s one that I rarely even feel part of. It feels like, “Whoa! There’s a community here? Can I join?” [laughs]
MOORE: So you founded Deerhoof in San Francisco in the ’90s. How did that happen? Is that where you’re from?
SAUNIER: [laughs] Well, it was where I was from once I moved there after college. I’d never been to San Francisco, so I had these ridiculous, clichéd fantasies of moving to San Francisco and becoming a rock musician. Actually, I had a few bands in San Francisco before Deerhoof got going. Deerhoof was really just an accident. I had a totally different band with a couple friends of mine from college. And we didn’t have a bass player, but they met some guy at a street fair—this guy with duct tape in his hair. His hair wasn’t kinky enough to make dreadlocks, so his way of trying to form them was with silver duct tape.
MOORE: That’s amazing!
SAUNIER: He was really short, too, so it looked ridiculous. [laughs] Who in the world is this guy? And that was a guy called Rob [Fisk]. And once that band broke up, Rob and I were the only two members left. He recorded a solo cassette tape, this really incredible thing. And it was super-creepy and crushingly loud, this kind of noise improv thing. And he glued pieces of these leaves onto a cassette box and spray painted it black and gold. And basically he called it Deerhoof. When he and his other band broke up, he and I decided to continue as a duo and call it Deerhoof. The only material we had was the sort of grunge songs that we’d been playing in this four-person rock band that had now lost its singer and its two guitar players.
MOORE: The band has been described as “indie,” “experimental,” “challenging,” and “post-punk.” Do you keep a genre in mind?
SAUNIER: We never think about genre, and I suppose if I had to pick one I would pick pop music, because pop music is the one genre that isn’t a genre. If the kids like it, then that’s what defines it as pop music. Pop music is just something new.
MOORE: Yeah, it’s always changing.
SAUNIER: It’s always changing.
MOORE: And speaking of pop music, you have two music degrees—
SAUNIER: [laughs] How do you know!
MOORE: [laughs] Research! Do you find that that conservatory training impacts your process? Do you ever hear from your old teachers?
SAUNIER: Yeah! I just got mail from my college teacher last week, actually. And he really likes our band, which is kind of great. I do think that me having gone to music school did change the way I think. But the other person in this band who’s been in the band longest is Satomi, and she’s someone who joined the band in 1995 having had no musical experience at all. She had just moved to San Francisco from Tokyo and was staying with a mutual friend. And this guy happened to know that Rob and me were looking for a singer, and she was like, “Okay, I’ll do it.” She was just looking to make some friends or something. Fifteen years later, I can say that music really was a calling for her. I can sit there, Mr. Conservatory Dude, struggling with a song for months. Whereas a lot of time she’s like, “Oh, write a song? Okay!,” press “record” on her tape machine, and five minutes later she’s got a finished song, with lyrics and it’s all totally done.
MOORE: So if anybody out there wants to be a rock star you’d say, “Don’t go to conservatory!”
SAUNIER: [laughs] I’d say it doesn’t matter whatsoever. I think she’s learned a lot from me and I’ve learned a lot from her. And it’s the same with Ed and John and all of us. When it comes down to intuition, when it comes down to gut feelings about whether a song is right, you can get distracted with words, rationalization—
MOORE: The science.
SAUNIER: Yeah! It’s like quicksand, yeah. There’s nothing wrong with music school, but part of music school has to be the ability to forget all of it, too.
MOORE: So I went to an opening in New York at The Kitchen last November and I saw your video collaboration with Adam [Pendleton]—
SAUNIER: Oh yeah, with Adam!
MOORE: What was that collaboration like? How did it come about?
SAUNIER: Oh, man! It was really fun. I’m like the world’s biggest Rolling Stones freak, so you can imagine—I get an email from somebody that says, “Oh, we wanna redo Godard’s Sympathy for the Devil , but casting you as Mick and Keith and the gang.” I’m like, “All right! So where do I sign?” It really was just a meeting of a filmmaker and a band that was trying to write and record this song (“I Did Crimes for You”), and I thought it was very beautiful the way he did it.
MOORE: Any other collaborative projects lined up?
SAUNIER: One thing that I just finished that I’m really excited about. There’s another New York filmmaker called Martha Colburn who did a music video for Deerhoof about five years ago for a song called “Wrong Time Capsule.” Since then she’s done live projections and stuff during our shows a few times. The film that she finished just very recently at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens is called Dolls Versus Dictators. [laughs]
MOORE: [laughs] Okay.
SAUNIER: I ended up making a soundtrack for it. So it’s about an eleven-minute film, it’ll be there ’til April. The soundtrack I did for this is totally unlike anything I’ve ever done before. I was trying to convince Martha that she needed some kind of orchestral soundtrack. Of course, it’s not like I have any orchestra at my disposal, but at a certain point she finally said, “Yes, go ahead and do it,” and so then I was really stuck. She called my bluff, and I had to figure out a way to try and basically record a soundtrack totally from scratch that sounded like an orchestra playing. I was trying to do John Williams or something. [laughs]
MOORE: I’ll have to get over there and check that out.
SAUNIER: Yeah, check it out! The last time I was there it wasn’t loud enough. They need to crank that thing up.
MOORE: Turn it up!
SAUNIER: Yeah! [laughs] Turn it up, dude! That’s right.
MOORE: Are you guys excited to come play New York?
SAUNIER: Yeah, who knows where it’s gonna be. The venue’s already been moved three times.
MOORE: Oh no!
SAUNIER: Yeah, our show on February 8th has been moved—just yesterday it got moved again.
MOORE: Where is it now?
SAUNIER: I don’t know, probably somebody’s living room.
MOORE: Oh, that’d be cool. One last thing. There’s an Internet rumor about you and Michael Bolton, that Satomi would leave the band if you mentioned Michael Bolton again. What’s that about?
SAUNIER: [laughs] Well, now you’re tempting fate, aren’t you? Do you want Satomi to leave the band?
MOORE: [laughs] No!
SAUNIER: [laughs] What kind of band do we got without Satomi? Not much of a band. I’m gonna let that one hang there.
DEERHOOF VS. EVIL IS OUT TODAY ON POLYVINYL. STREAM THE RECORD AT DEERHOOF’S WEBSITE.