Greg Saunier is a tough interview — that’s the way it looks, at least, based on what’s been published. But, at least when I spoke to him earlier this year, it seems he’s been overcome with a certain loquaciousness. Maybe he just felt like talking that day, or maybe he’d grown tired of offering sarcastic answers to unyielding interviewers, or maybe it was simple ebullience: Deerhoof, the band he formed with guitarist Rob Fisk in 1994, has had quite the year. In what may be a rare show of cooperation, Saunier talked extensively about what Deerhoof has experienced over the past few months, from scoring two films and opening for Radiohead to having its 2004 album, Milkman, performed by middle-school kids in a small town in Maine. We should all be glad he had so much to say.
Did the band have any preconceived ideas before recording Friend Opportunity?
We always go into something with some preconceived ideas, but nothing ever turns out the way we expected. By the end we’ve changed those ideas about five hundred times. Sometime last year — maybe even more than a year ago — we were doing an interview and were just starting to plan out what our next album might be like. The interviewer was giving me a hard time, asking me all these difficult questions and never being satisfied with any of my answers. So I say, “Okay, what do you want to hear?” [laughs] And, as if she had been planning out her answer for days or something, she’s like, “Oh! I think your next album she be a cappella vocal harmonies, country gospel music. Everything recorded with one microphone, like Johnny Cash or the Staple Singers.”
I went back home and immediately plunged into researching gospel music, which I had never listened to that much before. I knew a little bit of the Staple Singers and such, but I was pretty unfamiliar with it — if you don’t grow up with the religious upbringing, gospel music, at least in the parts of the country where I grew up, was not easy to find. But I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. It was some of the most intense music I’ve ever heard — a couple albums in particular by the Staple Singers. I don’t know how to explain it: It was so full of energy and fire but at the same time had this kind of welcoming quality to it.
Anyway, I was convinced that this was my preconceived idea. This is it; this is what Deerhoof is all about. Sure, none of us are in anyway religious [laughs], but I was convinced this celebratory music, that was all about celebrating the existence of the music, was just right up our alley. I started playing the Staple Singers for Satomi [Matsuzaki, bass and vocals] and John [Deiterich, guitars], and even though they liked it, they were like, “No, not what I was really thinking. . . .”
Then I called our booking agent and said, “Okay, what kind of music should we do? We are totally lost here,” and again, on cue, as if he had planned this out, he said “Cajun music! I definitely think you should be doing Cajun music. The next album has got to be Cajun music.” So it’s back to the drawing board. I started researching this Cajun music, which I’ve never listened to in my life. Everyone has heard one or two New Orleans-like tunes or whatever, and I remember that one Dire Straits hit from the ’80s that was a really vaguely watered-down Cajun kind of thing, but basically it was all new to me, just like the gospel music was. I was getting so excited, but once again my bandmates and I didn’t exactly see eye to eye.
So the idea changed a million times, and by the time it got finished it was like every other one of our attempts at recording — it just turned out to be a total mash, something that you can’t imagine would have a preconceived idea because it just kind of sounds like we had no idea what we were doing [laughs]. One thing that really made me happy is that when I asked people what we should do, they would say these funny answers, but they all wanted us to do something that would surprise them. I realized what a privilege it is to have your listeners expect that of you. It seems like people who listen to Deerhoof aren’t expecting any one thing.
I have to know about the North Haven Community School in Maine that performed a ballet version of Milkman. What was your reaction that?
Disbelief! When (organizer Courtney Naliboff) wrote me an e-mail saying she thought Milkman would be a great ballet, I just replied like, “Okay, thanks for writing. Talk to you later.” But this past summer she wrote again and said, “Hi, remember me? I’m ready to do the play now.” I was in total shock. My finger couldn’t move the mouse quickly enough to forward it to my bandmates. But honestly, when we made Milkman that was kind of the style we ended up trying to do — a musical or something, but for kids, or at least about kids. And for her to want to create this piece involving kids seemed like the most uncanny event and made us think we got incredibly lucky or there was some kind of ESP in the music that made them hear that or something.
One of the most exciting things about this for us was how much we weren’t involved. That might sound strange to say, but this is a tiny community on this island off the coast of Maine that took this thing totally to heart and made their own vision of it and made it a big part of their lives for a couple months. They got their gym teacher to choreograph; he was a dancer and all. We didn’t help at all; we just showed up the day before and saw the dress rehearsal and were just stunned. I couldn’t believe it was happening: The music had graduated, and people were doing what they wanted with it. We were sitting in the audience like everybody else, just kind of thinking, What in the world is this? But it was beautiful.
They were all so great, and the musicians put so much work into it. The kids were amazing and the choreography that Ken Jones came up with was amazing; it was avant-garde in one way and in another way he had them doing types of moves that would send people like you and me straight in the hospital with shattered bones. He had them jumping up and falling straight back on the ground, and he came up with these movements that kids do very well. They really made a whole narrative out of it, transcribing every note from the album. They were also very sweet and put us up and everything: One day they’re total strangers, and two days later they are like our best friends.
They filmed the whole thing, so there’s going to be a DVD so everyone can see what it was all about. I think that, if nothing else, it’s a document that this is even possible. Forget that this has anything to do with Deerhoof: This was a risk that Courtney and Ken took to put this on. It fell in no genre at all. I mean, there’d be some guy playing noise guitar next to a five-year-old while a reverend is playing trumpet next to them — it wasn’t like anything anyone had ever seen before. I think other schoolteachers might be curious to see that this is even possible.
It’s not the only time your music has had visual accompaniment. Deerhoof began working on soundtracks for film in 2006. How did that venture come to be?
We’ve actually had two different soundtrack experiences this year. At the end of 2005, we got invited to perform a soundtrack to a silent movie live at the San Francisco Film Festival, and we ended up doing that in March. It was actually the second-to-last concert Chris [Cohen, guitarist] played with us before he left the band. It was incredible for us. We ended up picking out this movie called Heaven and Earth Magic by Harry Smith, who’s otherwise known for compiling the Anthology of American Folk Music. Smith also made these really bizarre home-made animated movies. Basically, John [Dieterich, guitarist] spent two months writing music to go along with the movie, and we performed it in a big movie theater in March. It was a totally new experience for us — super fun — and one that we hope to be able to perform again in different cities. It also yielded a lot of music that we ended up using on the CD. The last track on the album, “Look Away,” is kind of like a distilled version of the movie soundtrack. The movie was about an hour long, so it wasn’t everything, but it was a lot of the sections, and we rearranged it and added different lyrics.
The other soundtrack experience was with an actor named Justin Theroux; he starred in Mulholland Drive and he’s in the new David Lynch movie — he says wears a Deerhoof pin throughout the whole film, but I’ll believe it when I see it. Anyway, he’s been on Six Feet Under and other cable shows that I haven’t seen because I don’t have cable, and he’s also directed his first movie, Dedication. Sometimes directors will sort of put in music, and he just kept putting all these Deerhoof songs in all different places in the movie, and then he got in touch with us. We were overjoyed, because we had hardly ever seen any of our music put together with images. It went beyond a piece of our song playing in the background — it was our music with a minute or two of no dialogue, and it was pretty dominant.
He needed more music in other parts, so he asked us if we could record some extra music. We were recording some electronic sounds for certain parts of the movie and sending that over e-mail, and I think a lot of that ended up getting used. Then he came out to the Bay Area and we recorded stuff that sounded like the band playing — some got used, some didn’t. We recorded a version of “Little Drummer Boy” that went with this winter scene, and everyone was totally into it, but then Justin’s producers discovered that the song is one of those that you have to pay like six figures to use — like “Happy Birthday” — so that song got axed.
On a total lark, the producers sent the most up-to-date version of the movie to this quite well known Hollywood composer named Ed Shermer, who’s done a lot of famous movies and is considered to be one of the hottest commodities in Hollywood for film scoring. They thought it would really help the movie if we could get him associated with it, we thought there was going to be no way he would even watch it. But it showed up on his desk the day after saw Radiohead perform in L.A., and who was opening for Radiohead? Us! Apparently during the concert he was thinking that he wanted to work with our band, and the next day he comes into work and there’s this DVD on his desk with all of our music on it. If it were fiction people wouldn’t believe it, but it actually happened. Ed came out here and we recorded more stuff together, and then we all went to L.A. and recorded in Ed’s studio — he had composed new music that he wanted us to play, all of which turned out really well.
Basically, we’re kind of all over this movie, which is just an incredible honor. It’s a really cool movie — if it were a bad movie we’d all feel ashamed! [laughs] But I can’t wait for people to see it. Justin, with hardly any budget in movie terms, was able to come up with something so rich and full and finished — there were so many incredible people involved. I don’t know when it’s going to be out in theaters. I don’t think it’s been bought, but hopefully it will be.
Are there plans to release a soundtrack for the film?
Actually, that’s a good question. That question hasn’t really been delved into too deeply. I think they are sort of hoping they will be able to do a soundtrack release. It doesn’t have only Deerhoof; it also has Cat Power and Joanna Newsom, and I think the Strokes have a song, so there is a bunch of music. It’s kind of too early to say, though. A couple weeks ago we sent the axed “Little Drummer Boy” to a bunch of music blogs, and a lot of people posted it as a holiday song.
What was it like to share the stage with Radiohead?
Words sort of fail me trying to describe the thrill. None of us had ever seen Radiohead. Of course, all of us are familiar with the godlike status of the band and the legendary live reputation. When we loaded into the first show on the first afternoon, we were just kind of like, “What’s this going to be like? Are these people even people? Will they even notice that we walked, by or are we just ants?” I have to say you get a really funny feeling when you pull in at the Greek Theatre at Berkeley, driving past the front to find the load-in entrance, and already — at one in the afternoon — the line of kids down the sidewalk goes for two blocks. Then you drive to the gate where you load in and the person who is guarding it is like, “Deerhoof? Who’s Deerhoof?” Just beyond them there are two or three enormous tour buses and some other trucks hauling equipment. It’s a massive production with a huge car, and we pull up in an economy car and say, “We’re the opening band,” and they’re like, “These guys are liars!” but they finally let us in. We walk to the side of the stage, and almost instantaneously there is Colin Greenwood. He says, “Hey! You guys must be Deerhoof!” and he already wants to take our picture. He’s the friendliest person you’ve ever met in your life. You step about five feet farther into the arena; Radiohead is in the middle of sound check, and Thom Yorke greeted us and recognized us instantly. Every person in the band was so — it was more than friendly. Them being friendly is great, but that doesn’t make it necessarily unusual. All five of them and everyone in their crew were so helpful to us. Any time something would go wrong, one of their guitar techs would come over to help. Within two minutes, you felt like they were close pals.
It was amazing: On a huge tour with a lot of work to do, Radiohead must have just hand-picked every one of these people. Their good-natured attitude and enthusiasm and just sheer joy at being part of kind of the best touring production that maybe the world’s ever seen was really noticeable and made us seem so welcome. Jim Warren, their sound person, offered to do our sound, and he did toward the end. At the time, we were working on Friend Opportunity, and Johnny was like, “Let me know if you want me to overdub something on it,” and we were like, “What?!” So we give him the rough mix and he comes back and says, “Oh, I think it sounds finished already. I don’t need to add anything. It already sounds perfect.”
By about the third day into this six-show tour of California, they are like, “Hey, do you want to play with us in Europe next month? We’ve got two shows in England and one in Amsterdam.” We just couldn’t believe it. Johnny did our light show in Amsterdam, and Jim did our sound. The whole tour had a day off in Dublin, and everyone was exhausted and had been exhausted from going from festival to festival. But we end up setting up our own Deerhoof show at a small club in Ireland because we’ve never played there. Before the show, we want to go to a Japanese restaurant for dinner, but it was a long wait so we found a little really neat-looking vegetarian restaurant because John and I are vegetarians. We walk in, and who’s there but Johnny and Thom, so we sit down and mention we were playing two blocks away that night. And Thom’s like, “Oh, really, I’ll come by!” I’m thinking, This guy is exhausted, and he wants to come to a Deerhoof show on his night off. So he comes down and apparently makes a scene — not because he’s a famous person, but because he’s dancing so much! He was the only person in the audience who knew the songs, and he could bang his head in the correct place and it was really, really funny. We got to the end of the show and we were all just so surprised. I just could not believe he came.
So it turned out that all the exaggerated, legendary stuff about Radiohead — the musicians they are on stage and the religious experience of the show — didn’t even compare to what it was actually like. All three of us — it almost just hurt: You would listen to this music and you would hurt, it sounded so good. It was the most beautiful shows we’ve ever seen. And the three of us never agree on anything, but we were totally blown away every single night and we’d stand in the audience and sing along with all the songs. I’d just never heard anything like it. We really cherished the memory of that: It was a real once-in-a-lifetime thrill. My admiration going in was already so high, and it just got multiplied by a thousand. They prove that it’s possible to be extremely popular but not lose your interest in music and not lose your humanity as a person — that childlike glee about making sounds for people.