Correspondence: Deerhoof

Above from L to R: Satomi Matsuzaki, John Dieterich, Ed Rodriguez, Greg Saunier
Photo by Joe Singh

by MLP and Ruairí McCann

MLP: It was my first ‘real’ concert — that is, not counting Bob Dylan and Eric Clapton, both shows I had seen in the previous couple of years with a friend and his parents in venues that normally served as sports courts. I was 15 and went with several friends (and my first girlfriend) a mere month into high school to see The Flaming Lips perform at an outdoor amphitheater by the zoo, later released as a concert DVD. There were three opening bands that night; Stardeath and White Dwarves (fronted by Dennis Coyne — Lips frontman Wayne Coyne’s nephew), Evangelicals, and Deerhoof. When Deerhoof hit the stage, we took notice: not only were they the only band playing that night fronted by a woman, but she sang in a playful high pitch, often repeating words like ‘Panda’, ‘Flower’, and ‘Basketball’. We thought they were funny at the time, with a unique sound (especially in a line up of three other groups each doing their own riff on neo-psychedelia). Throughout high school they became a major staple on my ipod, and I borrowed a couple of their tracks for the terrible short films I was making at the time. But I didn’t manage to see them perform live again until after college. How did you first hear/hear about the band, Ruairí?

RMc: Hello Max. My first experience of Deerhoof was far and away from your live and relatively context-free introduction. It happened through a chance confluence of old and new methods of discovering music.

I first heard them in 2011, when I was 16. I had recently joined a music forum with a community that had an exceptional wide range of interests, in not just music but other arts and politics. Growing up in rural isolation, where brick-and-mortar pathways to culture were valuable but few and limited, it was a handy trigger for a Cambrian explosion in my own personal taste and purview in art.

Deerhoof was a name I saw pop up a lot and for a few friends on the site they were the best band going, so I downloaded Apple O’ (2003). Their coltish sound: a version of noise rock where there is a tension between its free-form element and a well-trained rigour along with melodic and pop sensibilities, was exciting. The way that Dietrich and Saunier are engaged in this push and pull between overplaying and reigning themselves in, all throughout ‘Dummy Discards A Heart’. And there is the ‘demolish it and build it back up again but slightly differently each time’ structure to ‘Panda Panda Panda’. It was exactly the kind of music I was looking for at the time and so I played that album to death.

A few short weeks later, I was rooting through the sale CDs at XtraVision (essentially an Irish Blockbuster, also defunct). Wedged in between near-current Top 40 releases and greatest hits compilations, I found a clear plastic sleeve with a single CD inside, tinted black with Deerhoof emblazoned across the front in emphatic white lettering. It turned out to be their 2008 album Offend Maggie, a straighter affair than Apple O‘ but perhaps my favourite of theirs, with its stability allowing me to appreciate their musicianship more. By the time Breakup Song came out in 2012 with a new sound, sourced in a deeper exploration of ‘tacky’ sounding but very expressive electronic instrumentation, I was very much taken with them.  

MLP: Apple O‘! I picked that one up on vinyl a few years later, alongside the Green Cosmos EP. From the first time I heard “Spiral Golden Town” — I’d like to take a petty moment here to point out that the Pitchfork review mistakenly drops the suffix from ‘Golden’, and adding insult to injury calls the track a “chintzy magic carpet misfire”, wtf? — I had the distinct feeling that it was a very old and familiar melody. A crisis I never saw resolved at the time, and which itched anew when the same motif re-appeared seven years later on Mountain Moves in the form of “Palace of the Governors”.

Upon visiting the group’s bandcamp page to verify some of these specifics, I am realizing not only how much that website can act as an encyclopedia when a band’s full  discography is present (not only can you peruse release dates, titles, and high-quality album art; you can actually listen to the tracks in most instances). In the case of Green Cosmos, it even seems to be listed as a sort of preservation — the album is not purchasable there either as a physical disc or even as a digital download. Nevertheless, you can stream its 7 tracks for free. BUT I am also struck by the enormity of Deerhoof’s career. Their discography is so expansive that I often forget about its minor titles and oddities; Deerhoof Plays Music of The Shining, their year (2017) as artists-in-residence at Joyful Noise (which produced of 160 minutes of music “from eight distinct Deerhoof-related projects”), and even the insane orchestral crossover album Balter/Saunier

In fact, I was completely unaware of their latest release until this moment: Love-Lore, which looks to be a collection of covers? Did you know about this?

RMc: Green Cosmos is a key release, for sure. At the very least because it has “Come See The Duck”, which I think of as being their unofficial anthem. It’s an old standard, dating back to at least 1998 during the original Rob Fisk-fronted configuration of the band, and it still shows up on setlists for some of their most recent tours. When I saw them back in 2016, they closed with it, as an audience singalong, and it is one of those prime and primal experiences with art that is seared right into my cortex. I remember it vividly. Speaking of Rob Fisk, what’s your read on proto-Deerhoof?

You’re right about the databasing aspect of Bandcamp, which is especially useful for a band like them, who are very conscious of their body of the work as a whole, their legacy so to speak.  

They make good use of it. I have been trawling and picking and choosing down that main page and, even though I knew they have done a lot of collaborations, one-off special releases, shows and the like, I was also a little surprised by the sheer range of their discography. Looking through it again now, a lot of the solo and side stuff has been instigated and spearheaded by Saunier, who has always seemed the most ambitious of the bunch. Going by his voluble and tangent-prone interview presence too, I take him for the kind of artist who needs to be busy, with a lot of plates spinning at any one time. The Balter/Saunier (2016) album is interesting work and makes think of the art music itch that weaves its way throughout a lot of their discography, as far back as Green Cosmos, and the operatic aspect of Friend Opportunity (2007). The project I keep coming back to is Nervous Cop. Have you listened to any of it? It’s a noise band Saunier and Dietrich put together with Zach Hill and Joanna Newsom. 

I think the dynamism of a release like Green Cosmos (the addition of dance, orchestral and traditional folk elements on top of a rock structure) and how wide they have cast their net when it comes to their extracurricular activities too, when taken together reveals something essential. This wish to be ‘undefined’, as Saunier himself has called it, which is in the hyperactive and organized chaos qualities of their writing and textures, but also this pick and mixing from a wide range of sources. Love-Lore (2020), which from what I can gather is a collaboration with another composer and a musicologist; a recording of a live performance of mashed-together medleys of covers, drawing from decades and centuries’ worth of folk, classical and popular idioms, is an upfront experiment in this eclecticism. For instance, a considerable part of the fun and artistry behind track 2 is this playful challenge. How are we going to go from Karlheinz Stockhausen to Muppet Movie music, within a single arrangement of about 5 minutes? 

To me it sets them apart from a band like Low, who make a very different kind of rock music but have been around roughly for the same stretch of time and also have this strong, self-governing identity, so it is interesting to put them side-to-side for a moment. Low seem to have kept themselves intact and productive through a reverse tactic, reining in and defining their sphere and, to a lesser extent, their toolkit. It is not like they have not experimented with their style. Perhaps their best album in this century is their latest, Double Negative (2018), a pretty genius blend of their rock dynamic with glitch electronics. But apart from the odd collaboration with musicians who, generally speaking, make similar music, they are limited to a core group and a certain set of expectations when it comes to both their main and side releases. Their approach to the latter mostly being the standard tact of periodically releasing live and Christmas albums. On the rare occasion when Low does breach this bubble, like their live rendition of Rihanna’s “Stay”, there’s a level of irony to it: they approach the song seriously, but there is a latent, self-aware absurdity in these white, middle-aged Mormons from Duluth, Minnesota doing Rihanna. While with Deerhoof, whether they are collaborating with Dal Niente or Kasai-Allstars, or opening for Red Hot Chili Peppers or covering the Jetsons Theme and The Ink Spots, it always seems like the right fit. Even though it is so disparate. 

What do you think of this eclecticism? 

MLP: I think you’re absolutely right, that it’s a key factor in what sets Deerhoof apart from someone like Low — not only has the band consistently adapted itself in a way which instantly suits such disparate material, but it always feels uniquely theirs — no one else could have covered a piece of music in the way they have. Even thinking of something as silly as Liam Lynch’s old ‘fake covers’, in which he would write original songs in the style of bands like The Pixies or White Stripes, I can’t imagine a ‘Deerhoof-style’ song of any kind to be even remotely within the realm of possibility. No doubt Saunier’s leadership and background as a jazz drummer (who else in rock can do so much with an almost laughably minimal kit?) plays a big part in the band’s ‘sound’, but it practically goes without saying that the most obvious attribute is also the attention-grabbing hook that makes them unforgettable to first-time listeners (like 15 year-old me) – Satomi Matsuzaki’s heavily-accented singing voice. 

The story of how she joined the band is fantastic:

“I joined Deerhoof a week after I arrived in San Francisco from Japan. I hopped on a MUNI bus to have a first meeting but got off at a wrong stop. I was lost and confused. They found me on a dark street corner after I called for help from a pay phone. Since then my adventure expanded. Deerhoof is a vehicle with four powered wheels that takes me through forest, desert and buildings. My life is adventure!” 
(From the bandcamp notes on The Magic)

As I type this I’m listening to Love-Lore, and right on cue, the cavernous fourth track collapses into a moment’s silence before Satomi chimes in her trademark staccato, “Meet-George-Jet-son”. The instant-identification that her voice lends to the group has me thinking back on Mountain Moves (or as its sung, ‘mah-houn-thain-mo-ooves’), an album I was excited for given the slew of guest vocalists. I found The Magic’s brief vocal appearances from the other three band members — Greg, John and Ed — to be refreshing cameos in a discography where Satomi’s voice was often a highlight but occasionally a distraction (her bass grooves remain absolutely essential in every iteration though). In the years since Mountain Moves, I have found myself returning to it the least. It is by no stretch of the imagination a bad or even sub-par album, yet in the body of Deerhoof’s work, I find it missing…’the magic’, so to speak. And that’s how I came to realize that Satomi’s voice was doing more for me than I thought.

From L to R: Satomi Matsuzaki, Greg Saunier, Ed Rodriguez, John Dieterich
Photo by Asha Schechter

To answer your last round of questions; when it was announced that Deerhoof would be touring with RHCP and playing stadiums around the world, my roommates at the time were huge Deerhoof fans and we all laughed at the mental image. Yet you’re right that somehow they just manage to pull off stuff like that, as if it were totally normal — and it is! Why shouldn’t such a hard rocking band open stadium shows if they want to? Their live presence is positively electric and seeing the physicality of a Greg Saunier performance truly recalibrates how you hear the recorded drums; suddenly the intensity of each snare hit is felt, you abandon the idea that the levels were pushed in the mix to achieve this effect. Even seeing them up close in smaller venues later on felt like a different band than the faraway figures at that first Flaming Lips show. 

Nervous Cop I knew, yes, though I wasn’t aware until now that their 18-min 2018 track replaced Joanna Newsom with Zach Hill’s fellow Death Gripper Andy Morin. 

To be honest, I don’t think I know anything about proto-Deerhoof, but Wiki’s take certainly makes it sound funny: “Deerhoof were formed in San Francisco in 1994 as Rob Fisk’s improvisational bass/harmonica solo project. Greg Saunier joined on drums a week later.” Are you able to recommend some proto-Deerhoof listening? Also hilarious to me, “Karen O chose Apple O’ in the Rolling Stone 2003 Music Awards, Artists’ Top Albums”. 

RMc: The physicality of his drumming is incredible, and through such minimal means. When I saw them live I was up near the front and at a pretty good angle to see what he was doing. I remember being enraptured watching him play through ‘Nurse Me’, how he uses those intermittent strikes of a cowbell to structure a very purposely shaggy rhythm, and how it is paralleled by Matsuzaki’s repeated ‘nurse me’ motif. 

Here’s a lovely little clip, where he talks about his approach to the kit.

Matsuzaki’s singing style sets both her and the band apart, for sure. Its content too, in that it is not as if she dovetails the subjects de jour of pop or punk lyricism, like romance, protest etc. But there is a will towards fantasy in her writing which I find is quite rare in those circles. How she loves to dip into surreal or fairy-tale imagery or use nursery rhyme-like forms. All very casually spun together too, with none of the leadenness that you might find on a big portentous prog album. I’ve long thought that they should have shown up on Adventure Time (2010-2018), specifically because it seemed like Matsuzaki and showrunner Pendleton Ward and co. had the same sense of fantasy as something that could be fluid, and created with a trained sloppiness, instead of the self-important, grand ‘world-building’ or supposed grittiness that drives other examples of the form. 

And you say she is sometimes distracting but what I find most interesting about her singing, beyond its immediate enjoyability, is how it is both this prominent presence and the band’s secret solvent solution. Talking about her as a singer rather than a bassist, the unabashed hookiness, occasionally to the point of sounding rudimentary, and her cadence and register, which can be very pronounced and bouncy or gossamer light, produces this consistent surface you can hold onto while the rest of the music zigs zags, testing other registers. In a way that feels very playfully interrogative of their dynamic, rather than just submitting to the commercial minded prerogative of having the tune up front, at the rest of the band’s expense, just so our ears will not feel too tested. 

To a certain extent it reminds me of a band I know you hold very dear: Tera Melos. Initially I had a tough time with those records where Nick Reinhart sings. His vocals seemed very anodyne and so I jumped to the cynical conclusion that it was just an unimaginative way of making their sound more accessible. A few more listens altered that judgment. There was more to his vocal melodies than I originally heard but also the complexity combined with the flatness, made his voice a successful new structuring element for their dense music. 

I am familiar with their early material, or at least, I thought I was. Since I had the bare impression that the first core line-up of Rob Fisk on guitar and bass, Matsusaki on vox and Saunier on drums made for an occasionally fun but ultimately not too interesting or distinctive lo-fi noise rock outfit. However, over the last few days, I have been going back to that period and found a few surprises. The first was an album that I didn’t even know existed. Their debut, Dirt Pirate Creed, from 1996. They may be fastidious archivists but you won’t find it on bandcamp and neither can it be bought first-hand. Though I had a quick scour of discogs and a couple other online second-hand retailers and had no luck there either, so it must be very rare. Luckily, someone out there owns a copy and they ripped it to YouTube. 

A large portion of it fits the bill I had pieced together in my head from years old memories and Saunier’s own descriptions of their early days as a DIY noise outfit. Certain sections almost sound like another unique Bay area band called Caroliner (and lo and behold, Deerhoof supported them on a tour in ‘95). It is a bit of an accidental comparison though because going by what little I could find of its history; the album is not meant to be that ramshackle. Apparently, it’s first and only run, on vinyl, was compromised by a botched pressing. The band called it a loss and took some of the material to recreate on their ‘debut’ LP for Kill Rock Stars, The Man, The King, The Girl (1997). Not wanting to sell a faulty product, they have kept it out of print ever since. 

Listening to The Man, The King, The Girl and Halfbird (recorded in 1997 but released in 2001), I had forgotten that so much of their dynamic was already in place. The push and pull between rock that is more melodic and more dissonant is there. So is Matsuzaki on the mic, though doing a bit more extended vocal business than she would later, and she doesn’t take up the bass until the next album, Holdypaws (1999). That one was Rob Fisk’s last outing, and not noise at all really, but rather a concerted attempt, this early on, to make up a straight-up pop album. Though by a route that turned out to be a bit of a dead end. 

It’s a strange one. Apparently stitched together bit by bit over months and months on a primordial version of pro-tools. The Bandcamp notes recount that they purposefully tried to make every song sound similar. Their aspiration being the ‘pop song’ as this uniform and precisely arranged object and ‘pop music’ coming with an expectation of polish and consistency. Any kind of blues or jazz basis is also removed by Saunier swapping out his kit for a keyboard where he mapped one key with a bass drum sample, another with a snare and that was it! It is unusual to listen to a Deerhoof album where the drums are strictly supportive, to the point of being inert.  

Ultimately it is not an album I enjoy much but I respect the ambition and the effort. It seems though neither were enough for Fisk. Across multiple interviews and articles, I have seen family priorities and their lack of success, capped off with his frustration with the distended post-production on both Holdypaws and Halfbird, touted as the primary factors behind his quitting the band. But there seems to have been a deeper creative conflict, given the increasingly anti-pop direction Fisk has taken with his later projects, which all fit more snugly under the noise, drone and ambient labels than Deerhoof ever could or would. It seems like Saunier saw the band’s future more as this constant tightrope walk across the limits and the crossroads of different styles and approaches to composition and production. 

Therefore, losing Fisk but gaining Dietrich, and then Chris Cohen, was really a boon for them. It not only meant, for my money, superior guitarwork but Dietrich especially was clearly and immediately more on Saunier and Matsuzaki’s wavelength. 

Anyway, if I may, I’m going to flip this and go from the beginning, back to now. What do you think of their latest album, Future Teenage Cave Artists (2020)?

MLP: When you mentioned proto-Deerhoof, I had imagined some ancient artifact that I had not yet dug up — basically I pictured exactly what Dirt Pirate Creed turned out to be; this kind of primordial experiment — and which I had never heard of before! So thanks for that. I had listened through Holdypaws and The Man, The King, The Girl a couple times each but for me they are essentially a different band. I had never bothered to learn the context about why that was though. So thanks for the history lesson too. 

And again on the drumming; I had the great pleasure to see Deerhoof perform three more times in Germany — once at the intimate Karlstorbahnhof in Heidelberg, once at Lido and once at the Pop Kultur festival both here in Berlin. I was also able to see Greg’s drumming up close (not so much at Lido), and when they performed at Pop Kultur, it was with a translator, giving the lyrics in sign language. Tijana and I found this addition so perfectly suited to the band that we wondered if the translator was a touring member or hired by Pop Kultur. She turned out to be a part of the festival rather than the tour, but she seemed to really enjoy the show.

Future Teenage Cave Artists did not grab me with the immediacy that Love-Lore did. (By the way, I had been meaning to point out that Love-Lore was not the first time they recorded a rendition of All Tomorrow’s Parties).

As a brief aside, it’s funny you should mention Tera Melos because Greg actually did a one-off supergroup album with Nick Reinhart, Nils Cline (Wilco), and Mike Watt (Minutemen) called Big Walnuts Yonder!

I still need to listen through Future several more times, but I imagine my reaction will play out in a similar way to how I initially received Breakup Songs. When Breakup Songs came out, I was excited for its release and then sort of didn’t know what to do with it when it finally reached my ears. Sure a few hooks were immediate (“hell yeah, hell yeah”), but initially my mind wasn’t ready to separate it from their previous work as its own thing. It fell into a ‘more of the same’ drawer in my mind and it wasn’t until a couple years (and release of La Isla Bonita, which I played to death from start to finish) later that I came back to recognize it on its own terms. I felt pretty similarly about Future when I first listened through it, but playing it as I type I’m reminded that the opening title track ‘feels’ like one of my all time favorite tracks of theirs, “Acceptance Speech”, both riding this uplifting ‘we did it!’ kind of positive wave, musically speaking. That said, this is obviously a far gloomier album in terms of thematics than The Magic — look no further than the gut punch of the album’s title. Forget the recent stripping of what little arts funding managed to get this far in the U.S., Deerhoof aim their sights on a world in the not too distant future where art-making has been relegated to a hobby, and where there exists no funding because the very concept of money is obsolete. 

While musically the groups are pretty unrelated, this train of thought reminds me of “Distant Past”, the first single from UK prog-pop group Everything Everything’s Get to Heaven (2015) — in which the protagonist pleads each chorus, “Take me to the distant past, I want to go back”. The music video makes plain that the distant past he refers to is, essentially, 2015; cavemen beat one another with rotting keyboards. I think it can be difficult to function in the present moment as we’re expected to, while trying to pursue creative interests in earnest, without occasionally thinking about how one day every piece of technology we use daily will just be another small contribution to pollution, useless outdated electronics — an equation only accelerated by short-minded brand loyalties, big tech talk, and the alarmingly large swaths of people who seem to have internalized capitalism to the point of being unable to separate it from their own personality. 

On “Zazeet”, “We are under the ocean” also recalls what was intended to be EE’s first single for last year’s Re-animator, “Big Climb, Big Fall”. Ultimately they decided against releasing such a bleak vision within a pop song at the beginning of covid as a first impression of the album. In that song they sing, “It’s an infinite morning/Dancing on the ocean floor”. This image of dancing on the ocean floor I think really suits Future Teenage Cave Artists

When Future finally comes to a close, it’s with a staggering drop off a cliff. A somber solo piano, “I Call on Thee”, perhaps scoring the lost dreams of our future young artist(s). The tragedy of all that’s been lost, and the hope for what might now be able to grow in this radically different time.

Ruairí McCann is a graduate of English Literature with Film Studies (BA) from University College Dublin and Film Studies (MA) from Queen’s University Belfast. He sits on the board of the Silgo Film Society and has written for Photogénie, Electric Ghost Magazine and Little White Lies.
Maximilien Luc Proctor (+MLP+) is a French-American filmmaker and critic with a special interest in the avant-garde. He is a contributing editor for Photogénie, the founder and editor in chief of Ultra Dogme, and a curator for Fracto Experimental Film Encounter.

2 thoughts on “Correspondence: Deerhoof

  1. Max and Ruairí, thanks for this thoughtful drift through Deerhoof’s catalog. It jogged my memory and prompted me to go in search of documentation of a performance I attended in the Hans Hofmann Gallery in the old BAM/PFA building where the band accompanied a Martha Colburn film screening, then gave a short concert. Search functionality on BAMPFA’s website appears terminally ill but, perhaps better, there’s some lo-res documentation shot by Michael Rudnick at of the screening. Further digging turns up a date of 25 April 2008. It was a 30th anniversary “birthday bash” for the Museum’s MATRIX gallery.

    For me, the period between Reveille and Friend Opportunity (including Apple O’, Milk Man, Green Cosmos, & The Runners Four) is their strongest. I admire the experimentation of the earlier work, but tuned out after Offend Maggie. Your post’s encouraging me to revisit their more recent work and also chase down other Rob Fisk projects (do you have any suggestions?).

    1. Hi Eric. Thank you for your nice comment and for the link. I hadn’t come across that video before but seems like it was an unique performance.

      I agree with you about that period being the strongest, though my own personal favourite is Breakup Song. I am probably extra fond of it because it was their first album I experienced as a new release, but I still think it is also pretty daring.

      All three of Fisk’s later projects are interesting. I haven’t dug into any of them to the same extent as I have with Deerhoof and a lot of its environs, but the band 7 Year Rabbit Cycle, which is him, fellow ex-Deerhoof member Kelly Goode and members of Xiu Xiu, is worth listening to.

      Common Eider, King Eider, essentially a solo project of a dark ambient/drone vein, also has some good stuff.

      Hope it makes for some good listening!

      – Ruairí.

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