Deerhoof, one of this publication's favorite bands of the past fifteen years or so, has experienced lineup change after lineup change during the course of it's eleven album career (drummer Greg Saunier is the only member of the group who's actually been in it since its founding!)
To celebrate the newest record, Offend Maggie (out on Kill Rock Stars on October 7), we swung by the Hollywood Bowl for an awe-inspiring performance by the quartet and an interview with Saunier (which was, by the way, one of the most intense and inspiring ones we've experience). In addition to chatting up half of Deerhoof's rhythm section live, we also talked with guitarist John Dieterich, singer and bassist, Satomi Matsuzaki, and and rookie guitarist Ed Rodriguez. Each Q&A was conducted separately, making for a compelling, hyper-in-depth glance into the heart of the band.
View the video in the media player to the right or over at our Vimeo page for a slightly higher-quality version… and don't forget to read through the whole interview portion! It will rock your world.
On the new band: Basically, we think of it as a new band. It's not necessarily that we do it on purpose. I feel like we never know.
On practicing and playing together: If we have anything more than two days off, we're in complete panic… we're never able to recapture something.
Ultimately, we're trying to communicate—and you need to speak a language that's intelligible. As a receiver of art, one of the things I like most is seeing something I don't understand because I know the artist is saying something.
When you're playing the music for the ten-thousandth time or something… you change! And we work off that.
On songwriting: I think the 'ragged' element you're talking about is… I dunno. There's something very pleasing about the music, but at the same time, there's this counter-rhythm element, too.
On the Hollywood Bowl Performance: I love [playing there]. It presents different kinds of challenges. One of the challenges is [our size]: we're a small band! We try to keep everything small, so on a stage like that, it's easy to lose [the other band members] and the music.
On musical restraint: Greg used to have a big drum set and he tended to play everything at once. He wanted to restrict himself from overplaying. Now he can delve more deeply into the sounds [his drums] can produce.
Ed and I have been playing together for fourteen years… and we've always been investigating our tools. Like a sound explosion. For us, [listening to improvisation] is a way to learn how to extract sounds from these pieces of wood with four strings.
On Satomi: She's partially what drew me to the band. I'd almost lost interest in the voice. Words are loaded with so much meaning; it's the most powerful instrument we have. I was trying to figure out how on [the guitar], there's no language, no words—so how do you communicate emotion? When I saw Greg and Satomi, I immediately connected. Her voice is like a trumpet or something. She created a musical language for herself.
One of Satomi's complaints with me is that I go into a sort of trance [on stage]… while she's very focused and she looks at everyone.
On albums: We were always attempting to create something that was thought out. From our perspective, we've always thought of our albums as albums. We always thought that you could dive into them—or not—as much as you wanted.
On the “Fresh Born” sheet music: It was an attempt to leak it in a way that we would enjoy and other people would enjoy, too. It's excruciating, to not receive feedback. It's hard to wait! The hope was that the [sheet music] would add to the meaning of the music for the listeners.
On becoming aware and a fan of Deerhoof: John and I had met up in Minnesota [where we were living] and then he moved to California and told me he'd joined this band, Deerhoof… and I remember him sending me these demos that wound up being Reveille. I remember sitting in my room and listening to it and almost crying—he'd landed something so amazing!
It's funny because with Reveille, I remember them pass[ing] [different versions] around to a lot of friends to get feedback and everyone seems to have their own favorite version.
On joining Deerhoof: I had always been in other bands, and [joining Deerhoof] had apparently come up before, but I'd always been busy. About a year before, I took a break from touring and went back to work. Then, on a Wednesday, I got laid off… and on Friday, John asked me to dinner… and then asked me if I was interested in joining!
Plus, John is one of my best friends, and I partially moved to the Bay Area to play with him—but Deerhoof's usually in San Francisco for about two months out of the year!
On integrating into the band: The only time it didn't feel completely comfortable was the first couple of shows because I was still caught up by the idea of being in the audience, and I kept looking at people!
John has been playing the material for so long, that new things always come out, and Satomi gets [different] when there's a crowd in front of her…
But I've been so close with them for so long, that we… just hit the ground running!
On pop music: I think [Deerhoof's] more poppy than anything I've been involved in… the way the songs stick with you…
A lot of the material is worked out as group even if [the parts] are made individually. We think about what needs to be there, and that helps [the songs] have a pop feel. Kind of a staggering amount of time goes into each song… that's what surprised me; the amount of time and care that goes into each song.
On releasing the sheet music for “Fresh Born”: Within the first couple of [fan-made songs] we got back, I was like, 'I want to release the whole album's sheet music!' I can't help but wonder how they'd treat the other songs…
So many of them sound like they have that Deerhoof spirit.
The goal of a lot of sheet music is to not get in the way of the music, to just have the best performance you can.
It's so meaningful, also, to realize that [all these fans] have done [the recordings]… I find it incredibly meaningful.
The only thing behind it is to share what you're doing with other people.
On the new album: I think thing are kind of tied together in the way that… all the material was generated at the same time! Everything's sort of influenced everything else. Any song would [inevitably] effect the next.
I would write something and then Satomi would say [her edits] and then I would take it back and accommodate those.
Everyone's mind was really set around the album and that's what made it all work…
And Satomi spent so long trying to tie the whole thing together lyrically—there's a different quality to her singing on this record.
Deerhoof has had many lineup changes over the years, but you never seem to get let down by those alterations. What're the main difference with the new one from your perspective?
The new one [is with] Ed. He is great. He had been in a band with John even before John joined Deerhoof so they play like twins. Ed doesn't need to blast to hear himself on stage. Many musicians demand to hear themselves but he can rock without loudness.
Lineup doesn't mean much to me because each Deerhoof member brings in their own songs almost to the finish line. All the parts are figured out most of the time.
More members means more songs… if a new person has songs they want us to play.
The “core” members (you, John, and Greg) have continually changed over the years in terms of style and aesthetic. Since the beginning, what would you say your biggest changes have been and how dot eh others' progressions influence yours?
I consider that we haven't had any style before. We don't have rules how and what we should play. We always start from scratch.
The big thing is that I now can play bass the way I want to.
Greg and I had a long talk about jazz music, classical music, and pop music… how they all intersect, and where Deerhoof stands in the whole equation. There's something jazzy about your music, although maybe not in a learned way. With an organic fluidity, though, you all seem to act and react according to what the each of you do. How did this super-tight and deeply-connected approach to making music come about?
That's funny because I always say we don't play tight enough. We react to each other because we play same songs differently every time we play and we have to use psychic to predict what might happen. It's a big risk we depend on. Sometimes it goes so wrong but life goes on and audiences won't recognize those mistakes unless they have come to see our live shows quite a lot.
You seem to be the most levelheaded of the band on stage. Even when you're dancing all around and freaking out, there almost seems to be a choreographed nature to what you're doing. Is this the case? And furthermore, is it ever tough working with Greg and John in particular who tend to sort of get into a trance?
I am so conscious of what I am doing on stage and I want to exaggerate to look fun. Certain moves are choreographed, but most are just winging [it]! I like jumping up and down in general.
John is into trance… that is true. His eyes are rolled back and he sometimes looks like Marilyn Manson.
Greg is funny. If you observe him carefully, he sometimes dances with me, lifting one foot in the air. He sometimes tweaks John's guitar amp knobs, turning down treble and so on: He is a drummer/sound engineer/dancer!
John was talking about what originally drew him to your voice. He said that you made your own musical language and truly turned your vocal abilities into an instrument. Was this a natural progression or did you deliberately want to sound like you do? Also, has your songwriting technique changed in a noticeable way?
That's a nice compliment. Thank you, John!
My Japanese accent mixed with halfway decent English has a unique sound. I also sing with emotions that are disconnected from what I am singing about or what melody it reminds you.
I don't have a technique to write songs. They just pop up in my mind. I record a.s.a.p. before I forget then I show the Deerhoof guys how it goes and say, “Hey, do you want to try this song?.” Something like that happens.
I've asked the other members this, but I'd like to get your opinion as well: what was it like, playing at the Hollywood Bowl? Did you embrace it? Did you have to approach it differently?
What a fun night! I love being in outside in the sun with a big stage. I felt like having a picnic with the band and friends. I was very excited to see Fallou Dieng. They were so entertaining and dancer guy was amazing. He looked like he jumped as high as my height! (Which is like, five feet.)
I hope this isn't a sensitive subject, so don't answer it if it is. I'm always allured, though, by what brought you to S.F., how you met up with Greg, and how you fully integrated yourself into the ensemble?
Well, it's a long story.
I met this great band from San Francisco, Caroliner, in Japan fourteen years ago. They were friendly and I loved their music. I still do. I paid, of course, to see their show in Tokyo, and I talked to them after the show. I told them how much I liked their show. We became friends instantly and they were apologetic about the fact I paid for the show and they paid my dinner! Super nice people.
Then, they went back but kept sending me tapes of noise bands from U.S.A. I thought, “Wow! S.F. is where the action is in this world!” I was going back to England originally where I went to high school for three years but at the last minute, I decided to go to S.F.
I came to S.F. and I stayed with Grux from Caroliner. He asked me, “Do you want to be a singer in my friend's band called Deerhoof? They are looking for a girl singer.” He played their 7″ and it sounded like a lo-fi noise rock band. I said, “Yes! If they don't require me to be able to play instruments… I can do whatever I want!”
I met Rob—who I thought was a girl on the phone—and Greg—who had a really long hair and wore oversized shirts. I was excited [because] they seemed nice natural organic human beings. They fed me home-baked bread and chili beans every time I went to practice, too.
After I joined the band, we played a lot of improvisations mixed with songs for few years. Then we started to shift towards poppy songs, but there has been no [intended direction]. We always seek to do new things and any new things can happen anytime. Deerhoof can be a barber shop quartet tomorrow—who knows? Because we don't know…
That's how it happened and I am still in the band.