San Francisco’s Deerhoof is well known for its energy, precision and spastic sweetness, both live and on record. Offend Maggie is another in a long line of inventive albums from the band, now bolstered by second guitarist Edward Rodriguez. Here, founding member, songwriter and drummer Greg Saunier talks about politics, Glenn Gould and the Rolling Stones.
He started off with an explanation: "If I shake, it’s not because I’m nervous. It’s cold."
If I shake, it’s because I am. We are sitting here a few hours before you play. Do you still get nervous for shows?
Yes. I haven’t figured out the pattern. It’s not every show — it feels like every three or four. For the first show I’ll be absolutely not nervous at all, and three days later I’ll be absolutely terrified. And it doesn’t seem to have to do with the number of people in the audience or if I know somebody in the audience. It’s something unconscious.
Or maybe it does have to do with those things, but it’s not something I really realize what it is. Sometimes it’s not a big audience; it’s a small audience. Sometimes you’re less nervous if you’re opening a show for a big audience that hasn’t heard you before. When you play in front of people that have heard you before, in a way that makes me more nervous. The most nerve-racking show to me is in San Francisco in a tiny venue in front of your friends who have seen you play a million times. There’s no way you can impress them.
What are the effects of the nerves when you have them? Do you play better when you’re nervous?
That’s a good question. I haven’t figured it out yet. I think that I play better when I’m — you know, I was going to say I think I play better when I’m nervous, but I realize that the word "nervous" is too general. There’s the kind of nervous where you’re trying to show off. You get a certain kind of nerves and you start to play everything too fast, and you start playing way too many drum fills. Or you start playing way too loud. That’s a favorite of mine. And I get this look from Satomi that’s like [makes a face]. It’s because of nerves that I try to play flashy. That’s when it has a destructive effect on the music, and I’m not listening very closely to what’s really going on. I’m not getting deeply into the feeling of the music. I’m very self-conscious. I’m focused on what I’m playing. What do I sound like, what do I look like?
There are other times that I get nervous and I decide to do something about it before the show happens. I realize I’m getting nervous, and I decide to prepare for the show. I decide not to play too fast, not to play loud or whatever. It’s just a little signal from myself to myself: "Remember to play music, remember your band mates, remember the songs." It could be almost anything.
It almost doesn’t matter what you’re concentrating on, as long as you’re concentrating on something. Like, one night I’ll just stare at Satomi all night, and having that kind of focus makes it work. Other times, all I’m thinking about is making the most beautiful tone out of the snare drum every time I hit it. I’m just thinking about the sound of the snare drum. Another time all I’m doing is just listening to Ed’s guitar, just listening to it and trying to lock in rhythmically. Other times I’m looking into the audience and I’m trying to send some kind of emotion out to them. It’s weird, any of those works.
Talking about Satomi or Ed or John, your shows depend very much upon improvisation and the interaction between your personalities. The band has changed members often over the years. How does that affect your improvising in the band?
It affects it drastically, but not in a way that I can put into words. Like you just said, it’s about personality. How do I sum up a whole person? It’s like, How do I sum up Ed Rodriguez, who now plays guitar in the band? This is the ultimate cop-out for any musician to say in an interview, but rather than describe what it is like, you have to listen to us. The band and Ed are still expressing how it has changed the music. We express it in the concert. A big part of the concert is that what we are playing now is how we are adjusting to, or struggling with, or celebrating the fact that Ed is in the band, and that once again we don’t know what we’re doing and there’s all kinds of surprises.
This tour is the longest string of shows we’ve ever played with Ed, and it’s been so much fun. I don’t want to jinx it in the middle of the tour, but I get so excited just to find out what’s going to happen. It’s very playful.
I guess the word "playful" isn’t the perfect word. You think "playful" and right away images of children come to mind. I think it’s just the opposite. I find that the most playful bands are simply the bands that are more experienced. Or individuals, too, like in jazz. But basically the idea of musicians who’ve lived a lot, who’ve already played a lot, who’ve already made an idiot of themselves many times in life. The ice is broken.
One of my absolute favorite things that I’ve seen recently is that documentary Shine the Light, about the Rolling Stones. I’ve seen it so many times. I loved it so much I made everyone in the band see it. One of the big reasons for me to make everyone see it was to see how playful the band was. Particularly Keith Richards, who in his early to mid-60s is at his most playful, most relaxed, most carefree. He’s done it all, he’s seen it all. He’s played enough wrong notes to fill a lifetime. He has no sense of insecurity. He has no bitterness about music or a feeling that people don’t get his music. He has no sense that he has something to prove. He has no dark message he needs to spitefully prove to people. For him, he just walks on stage and that’s just his sand box, and he can feel free just to enjoy it. I find that an admirable goal.
Do you think that his ability to have no insecurities is based on the fact that they are repeating the same thing over and over, whereas you guys are always on the edge, always changing?
To me the Stones are always on the edge. That’s one of the reasons I’ve felt my whole life that I’ve been trying to copy their music. For them, too, the same song will be different every night. I saw them once in the Oakland Coliseum in the mid-’90s. By then I’d already heard plenty of live versions of "Satisfaction." There are so many live versions, either released or on live TV specials or on bootlegs or whatever. Still, on this one random night in the middle of a two-year long tour, here they are in Oakland. "Satisfaction": What is it, 1966 or something? How many times have they played it over thirty years? And you get to the solo — Keith Richards plays it in that song — and you really got the feeling that it was as if he was playing the solo for the first time, it was like he had finally figured out how to play it this time. It was amazing.
There’s a feeling with the Rolling Stones’ music that’s it’s imperfect — as if it’s always almost right, they’ve almost got it. They’re always trying to find that right place to stab that chord or the right place to smash that cymbal. It’s just always moving and reworking itself. It has a slight sense of struggle to it. Maybe struggle is a little bit too dark. It’s like a kid who’s playing a game or trying to build something that’s just slightly too hard for them to build. I like that feeling a lot.
Do you guys aspire to that same kind of imperfection?
Well, whether we aspire to it or not, it does end up happening. It often feels that a really good show for us is always one where we say, "We almost got it."
As a drummer, what drives you to create the rhythms you do? What do you do for practice? What kind of sounds inspire you?
Not an easy question. I don’t really know. I can say that I don’t really practice that much. I don’t’ really practice just sitting down at the drums. I do it maybe once every year, once every two years. It’s really fun. I love doing it. It’s just that I never bother or never really have the chance. If we get to a venue early for sound check and I happen to have the chance to play myself. I can work on some sound or some beat or something. And then someone else will plug in and make fun of me or something.
Honestly, I don’t really think about playing the drums very much. I do think a lot about the drums themselves, the drums and the cymbals. Sometimes I’ll just sit there and think about the snare drum. How I like hitting it. Or how I like the pretty sound when I tap on this cymbal. Or I think about the set-up. Should I put the high hat on the left side or on the right side? Or, how high should I make my snare drum? But that doesn’t mean I don’t think about music. I always think about music. Drums for me are kind of just an afterthought.
I write some portion of Deerhoof’s songs. Almost always the drums are the last thing. It’s the one part of the song I haven’t given any thought to. I’m like, "OK, John, your part is like this. Ed, your part is like this. Satomi, your part goes like this." And then I’m like, "Wait, I don’t have any idea of what I’m doing!" So I’ll get Satomi or Ed or John to sit down, and I’ll play guitar and they’ll come up with a drum part for me.
I don’t think I’m an amazing drummer. I don’t think I’m horrible either. I just don’t think I do much. I bang on things. I find myself thinking more about the song. I’m obsessed with the other aspects of the music — the harmonies, the melodies, the lyrics, the exact sounds of the instruments, the timbres or tones, the mix. I’m always geeking out with our sound engineer. This is the first time we’ve toured with our own sound engineer, and sometimes with Ian I’ll be like, "Ah, I think it needs more 800 Hz."
Did this interest in that aspect of timbre, that acoustics-type stuff, come out later on? Or have you always been into it?
Definitely not always. I remember as a kid listening to the radio — AM radio coming through a two-inch mono speaker — it’s very hard for a child’s ears to separate things out. It’s not like, "There’s the guitar. There’s the piano part." When you’re a kid it comes as all just one big package, one big hit that you get a feeling from. Maybe you can just sort of vaguely sing along.
My point is that starting a band, in particular this band, is what forced me to do this the most. You don’t have any budget; you don’t have anybody helping you. You don’t have any producer; you don’t have a label, of course, either. And it was because of that that we forced ourselves to learn — at least to our own satisfaction learn — how you record, how you mix, how you judge sounds, how you put sounds together. And actually it has pretty much stayed that way the entire time.
Even on Offend Maggie, we recorded it all in a studio with Ian and his brother Jay, but we mixed it all at home over months on the computer like we always do. We’ve always done it ourselves. So, if I know anything about the sounds, it’s not because of school or anything, it’s sheerly from doing it on our own.
The best way, it seems.
I don’t know. I can say it’s a cool way. You don’t get bogged down with rules. You don’t get stuck on anything. You have nothing to trust but your own ears, your own intuition. You don’t refer back to some web article you read about miking techniques. You just say, "How does this sound to my ears?" What I’ve learned is not techniques and tricks. What doing it myself has provided me with, if anything, is just a little bit more self-trust — a little bit more trust of my instinct. When I think something is or isn’t working, I believe it. I can’t say it’s anything that I have technical knowledge of.
What other changes happened with the latest album in the recording? Other than adding Ed, of course.
It’s hard to sum up. Anything that happens, any step that’s taken by the band, after the fact, it always seems that it was supposed to happen that way. But at the time it just seemed like an accident, a mistake. Even though we have occasionally tried to make plans, it never works. We always end up with the exact opposite every time. Usually it’s just accidental.
I feel the same about this album. It surprised all of us. It’s not that the music sounds odd to me or strange to me. It’s very familiar to me. The record came straight from my imagination or Satomi’s or John’s or Ed’s. The record is very close to home. It’s just that when it’s all done and you listen to it, it’s like, "Wow, I don’t know why or how that happened and I’m a little surprised that it happened." I don’t really know the reasons why an album needs to be made. In this day and age or any day and age.
You’re definitely bending boundaries with albums — putting out the sheet music of "Fresh Born" before the album came out and letting fans upload their versions to your Web site.
That wasn’t really to bend any boundaries. I thought it would be fun for people to get to know the song without knowing our version of the song first. Our version would be like a cover of a song someone already knew.
You gave the music in written form. Do all of you read music?
Ed and I do. Satomi can read one note at a time, slowly. She uses the do-re-mi system. John can’t read at all.
Do you feel there is a difference between textual music versus music "by ear"?
Yes, but that doesn’t mean that a person has one or the other. People who can read music, that doesn’t mean they don’t also play by ear and vice versa. Maybe the most master musicians are the ones where neither playing by ear nor reading text is ever even an issue or a consideration. It’s like, if you’re walking down the sidewalk, you don’t have to think about "Now left foot, now right foot." You’ve learned it, so what difference does it make if you’re taught to walk by your mother or by your father, or if you start with your left or with your right? That’s ancient history. That’s not an issue anymore. They are reaching for something beyond that with the music.
I think of Glenn Gould when you say "something beyond." He’s always associated with reaching beyond the music he had to work with.
I love Glenn Gould. It’s funny, I’m sitting here with my legs crossed ’cause it’s freezing outside. One of the things I like about his style is that in the couple of times I’ve seen little films of him playing in his house or in a recording studio or a concert, he would often play with his legs crossed. Pianists never do that because they have to keep one foot on the pedal, but he would just go through entire pieces without touching the pedal. Everything was absolutely dry as a bone. And I love that kind of nakedness to the music. Nothing is blurred or smoothed over. It’s the driest, sparsest approach.
So often the sound of the records he made was so close up, and he was playing so quietly so much of the time (especially with Bach) that you feel like your ear is inside of the piano. Which it is, because that’s where the mic was, but you can feel his touch. It’s very delicate. The tiniest difference in nuance will be heard. I’m very interested in that. Glenn Could is definitely a big hero of mine. On the one hand his performance seems so dry, with no pedal and the unromantic way of playing. But on the other hand he seems so not quite romantic, but so gripped by the music. He’s famous for humming and kind of howling when he played. It’s almost like he’s disturbingly trapped or enthralled by the composition that he’s trying to put across.
Almost autistically so.
Well, yes. He was a real loner for sure.
There seem to be some interesting connections between Gould and the way you work. The interest in touch is still there.
What visual artists do you like?
There is this one painting by Kandinsky. I don’t know the name and I’ve never seen the original, but a roommate in college had a poster of it. It’s geometric, and it’s rows of shapes that have a limited number of colors — as if there were a vocabulary of a few shapes and colors that he’s putting together in different combinations. So it’ll be like here’s a green triangle on top of a yellow triangle, and next to that will be a green triangle on top of a red triangle. It’s almost as if it is meant to be read as a sequence, and it’s almost impossible to look at it and not think that it looks like a written language.
I loved the way that painting made me feel, which was that there was some slippery gray area between visual art and writing, that somehow it was right on this ticklish border line where it seems like it’s supposed to mean something but of course you don’t know what and it’s nothing specific. It had the feeling that it was saying something. I think that’s a great painting. I should figure out what that one is called. He had a lot of geometric-looking paintings, but I think this might be unique for his work. There’s just this one that looks like hieroglyphics or something. It must be something famous.
What writers you reading now for entertainment or edification?
I just finished this book that I really recommend. It’s called The Making of the Atomic Bomb, and it’s by Richard Rhodes. It’s a really long book with so much detail. It starts off with physicists — with scientists who believe they are making great discoveries. Then those scientists making great discoveries become scientists who believe they are making potentially horrible discoveries — but ones that could lead to the end of war. They could make war impossible by making it fatal to both sides. And then after hundred of pages and decades of this thinking, then, in like two pages some five-minute decisions are made by a couple politicians in a room somewhere. And then OK: [makes an explosion sound]. That. And then anther decision is made a week later: "No, don’t give the technology to the Russians." Decades of cold war based upon one politician’s decision.
And all the physicists who had been working, who had been with these ideas for decades — and particularly Niels Borh the Danish physicist — were really able to foresee all the potential pitfalls, and they tried to warn the government, the presidents. And it’s like dog-doo on the sidewalk: The politicians stepped right in it. Every mistake that could have been made was made. I felt amazement at how so much thought and care could be put into something only to have it all compromised at the last second because somebody else stepped in and said, "I’m taking over now." Someone who had no appreciation for the process or the history and just had not lived with the problem. And that person just makes a snap decision. Obviously this is something you still see all the time.
It was great to read a history of it. And it spelled it out in incredibly great detail. It’s nice to see it written down so you can say, "That’s what’s going on." It’s clear. It’s so muddy sometimes you can’t figure out quite what is bugging you.
Speaking of politics, I’ve read your article on the Web site Noise for Obama. What politicians do you like right now?
That’s not an easy question. I would consider myself to be very uninformed as far as politicians are concerned. I’d be hard pressed to even think of a single one that I’m sure is a "good politician." It’s very hard to say a politician you like when you’re not totally sure about the political system they play a role in. Do you like this baseball player or that baseball player? Well, I don’t like baseball! Politics just feels like a game, and it is. But it gets hard to draw a line between what’s a person’s real point of view and what the point of view of ads or speeches is.
How do you see the relationship between politics and what you do in music?
I feel kind of defeated about politics and music. A lot of my friends don’t feel the same way I do. Rob Fisk, who started Deerhoof with me, used to argue about this with me all the time. He and I always differed about what we wanted to do with songs. He always wanted to put thinly veiled political messages into the lyrics and into the artwork. And he wanted to make some topical, specific point in support of or usually in criticism of some state of affairs or some group of people.
For me, I liked things more when that stuff wasn’t there. I felt that it shrunk the music down to mean only one thing. And I was always into this idea that anytime you listened to a song or a piece of music, it could mean anything this time or it could be anything else another time. And you never quite knew. You never quite got the answer to the question: What does this song equal or mean? What does it boil down to?
Somebody screaming into a microphone with maximum intensity as if their life depended on it because they are mad about the Republicans can feel very strong. But I almost felt even more feeling when they were screaming into a microphone for no reason whatsoever. That brought in this feeling of mystery, this weird spiritual dimension. Why is this here? Why is this person doing this? It means nothing. It serves no purpose. It doesn’t help anybody and it doesn’t feed anybody and it doesn’t build shelter for anybody and yet they are still doing it and it’s so beautiful and I guess I feel both guilty and fascinated by the fact that music is like that for me.
What you stated really well in that article was the fact that Obama can use language effectively. How does the language of the words of the songs, or even the language of music, relate to everyday language, to political language?
For me, only in one way. In Barack Obama’s case, there is this feeling that he is cutting through something to get to some point. Although music doesn’t really have a point, sometimes I still like this idea of going for that feeling in music, that feeling that you’re cutting through the wishy washiness, the confusion. It cuts through that temporary place-keeper language that people use in lieu of anything they actually want to say. When you hear a politician speak and they don’t really have a point or they have their point and it’s very short and they want to extend the sentence, they will add in a bunch of mishmash just to mark time. It’s phatic language or empty language.
In music it’s hard to say what isn’t empty. I like empty music but sometimes you get a feeling from music that it doesn’t mean anything but that this melody or that chord makes sense. I like the idea that it’s cutting through or getting to the point of something. And when you hear it you go, "Wow, I get it, I see." That seems to have meaningless meaning to it. It’s a lot like that Kandinsky painting. It’s like that ticklish border between language and not-language.
Another instance: every time you see a stroller coming down the sidewalk, that baby is suddenly not off limits to anyone. Anyone can go in and talk baby talk to this baby. And baby talk is the same the world over. It’s not words. It’s just these rhythmic high sounds that are put together in a certain structure. And you’re trying to get a message to this baby, but it’s not a real message. You’re not actually communicating a sentence. It’s not an Obama stump speech. It’s just that you want to make a connection. Who knows what is, but it’s just what an adult does with a baby. It’s instinctual. I feel music is sometimes like that, at least our music. I can’t say what the music means but, it just meant to make some kind of weird human connection with somebody. I know that’s kind of abstract.
This idea of connection. It makes me think of utopia in a way. There is always this desire for the perfect society based around human connection. Do you see music as a utopian thing? Or maybe even more abstractly: What is your musical utopia? What is your utopia in general?
I wouldn’t know what it would be in life. I haven’t thought about it enough. I don’t believe in a single musical utopia. But I think that, probably the closest I come to believing in any of that kind of mystical musical thinking is when we’re trying to write a song or we’re trying to mix our album or something. A good example would be putting the songs in order for the albums. Sometimes I have this irrational belief that there is a perfect order for songs. We put the songs in every imaginable order, every mathematical combination, because I have this feeling that there is a perfect order and I just haven’t found it.
I think that’s a way to keep myself from going insane. If I didn’t believe there was that perfect order out there, if I felt that nothing mattered, I’d just give up on the whole thing.
Photo Credit: Chris Owyoung/Prefixmag.com