When it comes to successful experimental indie rock, Deerhoof is at the forefront. Along with bands such as Animal Collective and the Fiery Furnaces, the San Francisco foursome continues to make creative music without boundaries.
Formed in March of 1994, Deerhoof had humble beginnings as a duo made up of Greg Saunier and Rob Fisk. Over the next several years, the group went through many lineup changes and attracted the attention of variously connected fans (Matt Groening and Sonic Youth, to name a few), all the while producing material prolifically.
Led by Satomi Matsuzaki’s childishly compelling vocals alongside her now steady bandmates Chris Cohen (bass), John Dieterich (guitar) and Greg Saunier (drums), the band honed its frenetic sound and even more schizophrenic live show, resulting in quite a reputation. This was only improved with the release of perhaps the band’s best-received record to date, Milk Man, in 2004. Later in the year, Deerhoof toured with Wilco, proving that the forces of abrasive pop and alt.country-influenced pseudo-mainstream (albeit excellent) music can be combined in one tour.
The group has yet to let up the pace. This summer, a previously Japanese-only EP, Green Cosmos, was released and, despite its fantastic fifteen minutes of music, was all but ignored by the media (except for Prefix). Harder to disregard is Deerhoof’s latest full-length, The Runners Four, which for a band that tends to keep its releases fairly brisk, qualifies as no less than epic, with twenty tracks spread over fifty-seven minutes.
On the morning after a show in Columbia, Missouri, the band members shed the soccer uniforms they wore on stage, found some shade in the grass next to a Wafflehouse and some time to talk about all sorts of things.
PM: What time did you get in last night?
Chris Cohen: Pretty late.
PM: Did you guys have a chance to catch Wilco, who played earlier in the evening at a different location here in town, or Nels Cline, who was at your show? Did you guys get to go to their show as well?
John Dieterich: We didn’t have a chance.
PM: How’s the tour been going so far?
JD: It’s been great. Really good.
PM: I liked the uniforms. How did that come about?
JD: That was a Satomi idea, I think.
Satomi Matsuzaki: Chris said, before the tour, “We need costumes. We need to wear something different.” I went to a thrift store that day and bought them.
CC: I didn’t want to soil my clothes, so I bought new ones.
PM: You guys played Intonation over the summer. Have you done many other festivals?
JD: We’ve played All Tomorrow’s Parties a few times, but outside of that, we’ve probably played three or four, something like that.
PM: How was Intonation?
JD: Oh, it was great.
PM: It was weird how well it came together, being their first time and everything.
Greg Saunier: They made it very cheap. What I normally think of as a rock festival is the extremely aggressive audience. A lot of them are glad to be there, but at the same time, they’re so far from the stage that they can’t see or hear.
JD: And the thing is, people had to take care of themselves (at Intonation) because it was so hot. I was just amazed at how focused people were and that they could stand up. It was the hottest show we ever played.
GS: Xiu Xiu would be up there playing and there’d be thousands of people standing there, and he (Jamie Stewart) would get some quiet part where he’s tinkling on his autoharp or whispering through the microphone, and the place was dead silent.
CC: It was nothing like Monsters of Rock. My friend went to that.
PM: I don’t know what that is.
CC: It was maybe early ’90s or late ’80s. It was Metallica and Iron Maiden. Monsters of Rock was like the super metal package tour. It was the Ozzfest of that time. It was when I was in high school, riding around in the back of pickup trucks while my friends blasted And Justice for All. My friends all went. I didn’t go because I was too scared.
GS: You were scared because there wasn’t enough reverb on that album. The album was too dry and it scared you. It was totally in your face.
CC: No, I liked that. I didn’t like the real reverbed-out Megadeth albums. I preferred And Justice for All to that. But at Monsters of Rock people were acting like real animals. I think maybe James Hetfield was inciting them to rip the mattresses off their chairs. My friend was eating a hot dog and the guy next to him goes, “Hey, give me that!” He grabs the hot dog out of my friend’s hand and takes a big bite out of it. Isn’t that the most
PM: It’s like grade school.
CC: Yeah. I would like to think that times have changed, but maybe Pitchfork just did a good job. We played at All Tomorrow’s Parties and there was a guy on all fours in the parking lot who was all like, “Help me!” No one would help him. Most of those festivals are a medical emergency – like a giant ER with some background music.
PM: I try to make it out to Coachella every year and it’s so hot. People are passing out, and
CC: That’s the one they have in the desert, right? I stay out of the desert. If something goes wrong and they run out of water or the sanitation backs up and the outhouses are suddenly full, it’s an emergency. They’re going to have to get helicopters to airlift people out. You can watch the movie when it comes out ten years later. I like watching Gimme Shelter, but I’m glad I wasn’t there. We’re like the Grateful Dead. They got to Altamont and they were like, “What’s happening here?” Then some guy’s like, “They’re killing people.” And they’re like, “Uh, we have to go.”
PM: Peace out.
CC: It’s scary. Those same people are animals when you get them all together. Isle of Wight – that was 600,000 people. I have nightmares about stuff like that.
PM: That’s ridiculous. That’s like ten times the population of this city, all in one place.
CC: Yeah, and there’s no Wafflehouse anywhere.
GS: There are some bonfires and stuff.
CC: I went to the Rainbow Gathering a couple months ago. It was kind of like a hippie family. They have this big gathering where they camp out on this site where there are thousands and thousands of people. It was total anarchy. And if anybody started trouble, they would eject you. I heard that they’d tie you to a tree and dose you with acid and take your clothes off.
GS: You’re making this up.
CC: I’m totally serious. That’s what they told us.
PM: That’s why you went, isn’t it? You were hoping to get tied to a tree.
CC: Yeah, right. I was so scared. Everybody would come up to me and say the weirdest things, like, “Hey, brother, welcome home.” I’d just be like, “Yeah, okay.” I didn’t want to be rude or contradict anyone because I was scared of being tied to a tree. I lived in more fear at the Rainbow Gathering than I do walking the streets of Los Angeles.
PM: The set you guys played last night was pretty heavy on the new stuff. How are the live versions working?
GS: It’s like, you’ve got everybody cranked up and wailing and blasting everything – the last thing you’re thinking about is how it sounded on the album and what the differences might be. You’re very consumed with how it sounds now. I think we give basically no thought to how it compares to the album.
JD: We concentrate on just making it good.
GS: Just making it good. Making it bad.
JD: Or making it bad, yeah.
GS: We tend to write really simple songs. The reason is that then they can be played over and over again, and instead of it getting boring, you keep finding new possible ways to do it. The same song could be a happy song or a sad song depending on whether you’re sad or happy.
PM: It’s interesting that you say you guys play really simple songs, because the live show is very intense. It’s almost like you’re all playing different things at once, then you come in and share a moment, then kind of go back and flip out again.
CC: Well, we are definitely all playing different things.
PM: Yeah, but I mean that it’s almost like different songs sometimes.
CC: Yeah. You got the idea.
PM: Simple songs but they still sound complicated?
JD: It’s that inspiration – hearing something that someone else in the band plays and being inspired by it. Or, dropping your pick and by accident turning on your distortion pedal.
CC: Yeah, I knocked over my amp last night and it inspired me to open my eyes.
GS: It inspired you to pick your amp back up.
PM: I’ve heard about your songwriting being influenced by dreams. Can you tell me a little about that?
GS: I know that a lot of the songs I’ve written for the band I’ve made up while I was in a dream. I mean, it’s weird to say “made it up,” because it’s not like I did it on purpose. Sometimes I’ll realize I’m dreaming, so I’ll wake myself up and write it down. But, you know, Deerhoof writes some songs while awake, too. Dreams are just a trick. It’s a crutch. I might be the kind of person who needs that, since I don’t drink or get dosed with LSD at the Rainbow Gathering.
CC: I guess the ideal situation is that you would think that anything is possible and there are no wrong choices. That’s the state that I think you have access to the most possibilities. I always dream of finding weird instruments. I’ll go into a room and find a mellotron or something – some crazy, old, fifteenth-century organ. Then I’ll play it and wake up feeling really inspired. I’ll get a melody in a half-dream state, but I don’t necessarily get music from my dreams.
JD: I don’t write much in my sleep either. I keep a little Walkman next to bed just in case, but most of my ideas don’t come that way. The ideal state for me is when I forget I’m even there. It’s like sleeping.
GS: You’re lucky when you get any ideas like that at all. I’ll take it any way I can get it. If it’s got to be a dream, then fine. I think it’s obvious that none of us have any one particular method for writing a song.
CC: Except for electroshock.
GS: Well, I wasn’t going to bring that up, Chris, but
CC: We have this muzak system pumped into our apartment building. We all get underneath this giant blanket that kind of filters out the high end. Then we hook ourselves up to these blinking LED-light sunglasses, which puts you in an alpha state. Then Greg starts with the electroshock, and you get the most incredible ideas.
PM: You guys should sell this as an infomercial.
GS: Oh, wait, this isn’t an infomercial we’re doing right now?
PM: How are the lyrics split up?
SM: On Milk Man, I wrote most of the lyrics because I didn’t go to the recording. Then, after they brought their stuff and I plugged my bass straight into the computer so that it could be overdubbed, I decided I wanted to do something else with it.
PM: The Runners Four is so much longer. There are more songs and the songs are longer themselves. Was there a decision to make something epic?
CC: We just made it as long as it seemed to want to be.
GS: But we did kind of talk about it
CC: Shh. Actually, it was based on the lunar cycles. The moon landing.
GS: Moon landing? I missed that memo.
CC: I’m just kidding. It’s based on the Aztec calendar.
PM: What did the name The Runners Four come from?
CC: We had a lot of pages of scribbled gibberish. We had every possible combination. But when we found it, we knew it was the perfect name.
GS: We’ve called up the pressing plant to change things in the past. We’ve been working for months, and finally it’s done, and then we’d go on tour and listen to it in the car and realize it sounded terrible. So then we’d make panic calls to Kill Rock Stars.
CC: They’re blocking our phone calls now.
PM: How much longer are you going to be on tour?
GS: It’s on and off until December. We’re not TV on the Radio or Hella or something.
PM: But you guys did play with TV on the Radio the other day, right? And the Roots?
GS: Yeah, and I found out that Dave (Sitek, from TV on the Radio) and I went to the same high school. He’s three years younger than me and we grew up in the same little town in Maryland. We realized this over dinner.
PM: What happens after December?
GS: That conversation was the one that was occurring in the Wafflehouse and was interrupted by your entrance. We hadn’t concluded anything yet. More fun stuff. It’s all bonus. Anything this band is doing now has far exceeded any of our expectations. It’s totally amazing to go on tour and go to a place like Columbia, Missouri and have people show up. We might travel to Australia. We’re going to do a soundtrack to a silent movie. Who would’ve thought, right? There’s no bad way to look at it. We’re some lucky dogs.