INTERVIEW- Galloping success: Deerhoof stampedes into Satellite Ballroom
Greg Saunier is full of fascinating juxtapositions– for starters, he responds to every question with an unintentional half-laugh somewhere between Mike Judge's Butt-head and a hippo, always teetering just on the edge of an Urkel snort. But more to the point, his latest album opens with a caffeinated drum break that actually sounds like Jet Li beating down 30 people in a single meticulously choreographed fight sequence only to fade into vocalist Satomi Matsuzaki's cute timid invitation to "Meet me/Meet the perfect me."
That brief passage typifies the contrast that makes Deerhoof so interesting– bursts of aggressive noise are woven into pop so sweet and childish that it almost has to be a joke.
It isn't, but it does seem like Deerhoof is just starting to figure out the formula themselves– they've stuck pretty close to an album-a-year release schedule for the past decade in an attempt to figure out just how much experimentation the mainstream is willing to swallow. They've found no reason to let up yet: the response so far has been strong enough to land them opening gigs with everyone from Radiohead and Wilco. Last time they were here, for example, they were opening for the Flaming Lips at the Pavilion; kudos to the Satellite Ballroom for giving them the headlining show that will really let them spread their wings.
The Hook: Why such prolific output?
Greg Saunier: People ask that question, and I'm never quite sure how to take it. Are you saying it seems like a little much?
The Hook: Ha! No. I just mean that you seem to create more art than other bands in your position.
Greg Sanier: Even if people are listening to your music and you rejoice in that, you never assume that anyone's still going to be listening to it tomorrow. In popular music, tastes are extremely fickle. There's never been any such thing as feeling established or comfortable or stable. I don't feel like we're prolific. It actually, to me, feels very slow. I see other people around me, other musicians, who seem to make us look glacial in comparison.
The Hook: It definitely seems like the media marketing machine doesn't view music as a timeless art anymore; it's a product with a limited shelf life. Do you think you can make timeless records if you're putting one out every year?
Greg Saunier: You used the word marketing machine, and I use that word all the time too, but when you look at it, it is composed of actual people. And if you talk to those actual people, it's not like every one of them listens only to music that came out that week. Timelessness is a value, but it's one that rings hollow as far as a press release is concerned. So it doesn't get used much unless it's Bob Dylan or the Rolling Stones or something. It's not even an accurate description of the music, because it's just one person's take on it with ulterior motives. I would go so far as to advise your readers not to even believe your article. Even though there's less an ulterior motive, it's neither true nor false, and it's no substitute for a listener's own experience of the music. Each person brings something different to Deerhoof. We're always astounded at the number of different– even conflicting– ways our music is interpreted by our listeners. All of them are right, but none of them are the whole story. We sort of think of our music as not even music until someone hears it and has some sort of response to it.
The Hook: If a tree falls in the forest...
Greg Saunier: Exactly. It doesn't really become music until it's listened to by people. And then it really becomes something mysterious and collaborative. Anyone listening becomes part of the band, in a way. I don't know what they're going to hear. I know what I hear, but my perspective on it is completely different. Some people think we play the weirdest, most avant-garde noise– that we're people who don't have any idea how to play a music or play an instrument. Someone else thinks it's totally sellout poppy bubblegum whatever– and they're talking about the same song! I love that. I love that confusion.
The Hook: How do you write? On paper? On a computer? On a guitar?
Greg Saunier: Each of us writes differently. John or Satomi might record into a tape recorder. The format isn't important, as long as you find a way to remember the idea. I happen to notate my ideas on paper, but that's just because that's what I learned when I was a kid. I studied music in school and went the academic or technical route.
The Hook: So did I, actually. And, you know, at my college graduation ceremony, the head of the Music department gave me two things: my diploma and a copy of "Milk Man."
Greg Saunier: What?!
The Hook: Seriously.
Greg Saunier: Was it at UVA?
The Hook: Yeah. How did you...
Greg Saunier: It wasn't Fred Maus, was it?
The Hook: Wow. Yeah.
Greg Saunier: I'm going to have to go scold him for that. I know Fred Maus really well. He was my teacher in high school. I did composition lessons with him, I'd go maybe once a week after school. He was kind of a mentor to me.
The Hook: And all this time I thought he was on the cutting edge of indie rock hipness.
Greg Saunier: The wisdom that he had, I'm still comprehending the meaning of even today. The music he introduced me to, I'm still coming to terms with.
The Hook: I thought, "Who the f–- is Deerhoof?" and traded it in for something mundane.
Greg Saunier: One of the things that's very striking about Satomi is her lack of background. She had never been in a band or played any instrument or music in her life. She was starting from absolute scratch. I treasured that, and I still do– her perspective and her background being so utterly different from mine. And yet we seem to be able to find points of agreement or consensus about what we want to do in music. If we can agree on what we're doing, then we know that we've made a good decision.
The Hook: I remember hearing that The Runners Four was submitted to the label and then recalled four times before its release.
Greg Saunier: It's not just The Runners Four. We've done that with every single album we've put out. You're working so hard on it, you start to not be able to tell anymore if it's right. You can't even tell what it sounds like. Suddenly, once it's too late to do anything about it, you can see the flaws, crystal clear.
The Hook: Is that exacerbated by the fact that you produce it all yourselves?
Greg Saunier: It's not a problem, it's just a step in the process. Becoming overfamiliar with it is not just a problem, it's a solution. We're putting the music to extreme tests, testing the songs in every way we can think of– listening to it over and over again so as to get deliberately tired of it and sick of it to realize the flaw. You realize what part of it is getting on your nerves or what part is getting boring so you can have your imagination try to solve that. That process of getting tired of your own music becomes a stepping stone to some place you didn't envision the song could go.
Deerhoof stampedes across the Satellite Ballroom February 24 at 9pm for the bargain-bin price of $10. The Harlem Shakes and Flying open.