Deerhoof Deerhoof… Keratin Pan Alley

Interview: Deerhoof (part 1)

Published on November 18th, 2011 | Jonny Abrams

If there’s one thing that Greg Saunier enjoys as much as creating scarcely believable experimental pop music as part of arguably the most quietly influential band of his generation…it’s laughing. So rampantly punctuated was our chat with the Deerhoof mainstay by chuckles, chortles, titters, giggles and snickers – even, if truth be known, the occasional guffaw – that the ensuing transcript would have looked absurd had it attempted to log each and every instance of this with the stage direction-esque insertion of (laughs), one of the several concessions to journalistic clichés that Rocksucker’s house style has settled upon. Just know that, upon any given utterance, Saunier was likely tickling himself pink with the latest reflection upon his crazy life.

And another crazy year it most certainly has been: January’s release of yet another Deerhoof album to cherish in the form of Deerhoof vs Evil, a summer tour as part of the nineteen-piece band Congotronics vs Rockers, a gig drumming for Plastic Ono Band in Iceland, playing an ATP curated by Portishead, performing Deerhoof’s stunning 2004 album Milk Man in its entirety on a bill which also included The Flaming Lips performing The Soft Bulletin and Dinosaur Jr. performing Bug, collaborating with Wilco main man Jeff Tweedy, even finding the time to form another band called Les Bonhommes for whom he has transgressed from behind the kit to the front of the stage…all in all, you have to hope that a good Christmas off to recharge the batteries is in order.

For all this activity and the hours of awesome, powerhouse drumming that it must have entailed, Saunier showed no signs of weariness when Rocksucker had the honour of picking his brains; at least, as much as one can pick the brains of a musician/songwriter and band whose genius lies in so much chaos. Life imitated art as the conversation took on a life of its own, shooting off on tangents and playfully indulging whims, but so in love are we with the music of Deerhoof for doing just those things that we wouldn’t have had it any other way.

Ladies and gentlemen, we bring you the living legend that is Mr Greg Saunier…(“better than Ringo”, so sayeth one Yoko Ono; read on for more on that)…

New live Deerhoof album 99% Upset Feeling is now available for free download on deerhoofvsevil.com. Where was it recorded?

Should I tell you the truth? If I tell you the truth then I’m just going to have to take the link down. The truth is, it was not recorded in any one place; but I’m only telling you that. I edited it all together from recordings made over the last year in various cities: Moscow, Leeds…actually, should I really say? The problem is, if I say then some of them might wonder why they weren’t credited. You know, someone bothered to record it multi-track, basically, and that’s why I was able to mix it. It was recorded onstage, at actual concerts, with no overdubs. It was partly for myself: I wanted to see what we sounded like live. Just for the sound of it.

Obviously it doesn’t have any of the reality or the visual experience of it. You aren’t actually there, so the random moments of inspiration that can happen at a show, some crazy drum fill, or some weird shard of guitar noise: when it happens in real life, everyone can sort of feel that something just happened, that there was that flash of inspiration, because audiences are involved in it too. I basically wanted to see what it sounded like on a recording, to see if it was nothing but just the sound of that and a whole stream of well performed songs. You know: what comes across?I had to listen to it all about five trillion times while I was mixing it but I found that I still really liked it and I was excited about how we sounded. But, at the same time, I thought, it’s still no replacement for a real show.

Given that you listened to it five trillion times, were you able to ascertain whether or not regional accents are discernible in general crowd roar? Are the denizens of Moscow detectable by their “woooo!”s or “yeeeeaah!”s, for example?

Definitely! I’ll explain it this way: every time we go to a country that is not English-speaking, I attempt to learn at least a few phrases that I can mumble into the microphone during the show. “Thank you for coming”, “we’re happy to be here”: stuff like that. I asked a couple of Russian girls who were there at sound check what I should say and they would give me these lines, I would repeat it back to them and I’d swear that I had my pronunciation absolutely perfect. Every consonant sound, all the strange vowel sounds that we don’t really use in English, but every time I said it they’d laugh, go “no, no, no” and repeat it again.

This would all happen again, until I finally realised that they were just saying it in a low voice – these girls were saying it in a lower voice than I was saying it in! – and, as soon as I said it in this deep voice that made me sound really strong and confident, they were like, “Oh yeah, that’s it,” even though the pronunciation was exactly the same. So yes, you can tell which one is the song from Moscow because the audience has a lower tone to their shouting.The first time we ever played Moscow, I sort of had this image in my mind of what Russia would be like. It wasn’t that strong a stereotype but I did have these Behind the Iron Curtain kinds of fantasies that I was forced to grow up with courtesy of Ronald Reagan and people like that. I pictured a stern, never-smiling, not particularly accommodating type of person.When we got to Moscow, we were walking around town because we had a bit of extra time to enjoy the city, which is a rare treat for us, and they had these beautiful, wooden trains and ancient train stations made out of marble: totally beautiful. You step on the train and you’re thinking, “What beauty! Wouldn’t it be a thrill to live here?” But everybody on the train has this frown on their face, nobody looks each other in the eye…

Sounds like London.

Yeah, exactly! But they look stronger than they do in London, where it looks like people would fall over if you touched them a little bit too hard. In Moscow, they wear big leather jackets and look like bodybuilders. Kind of intimidating. Let’s just say there’s a kind of ‘unfeeling exterior’ over there. I thought, “Holy cow! This place is like I thought it would be to the nth degree.” You walk down the street and nobody smiles, nobody says hello; but then we got to the show and, as soon as the music started playing, people went absolutely nuts and it was seconds before I realised, wait a second, this is like the best city in the world to play.

People had all this bottled-up feeling and they let it out. Either it’s the vodka or the music. They seem to take music very seriously over there. Of course, I’m making these grand anthropological pronouncements about a place that I only spent a few hours in, but it seemed like the audience was suddenly the most nuts, the most effusive and over-the-top of any place we’ve played in in the world. So a lot of the cheering I put in there was from Russia!

Has asking local people for phrases to use onstage ever backfired on you? It strikes me as being primo wind-up fodder.

Luckily no! The indie rock universe, that by some twist of fate has become the universe that we travel in, the people in that universe are usually of the nice, polite type so if I ask them for something to say then they don’t usually pull my leg and give me something that would make me embarrass myself in front of lots of people. But there was another universe that we travelled in this summer for a while: the four members of Deerhoof were in another band, a nineteen-piece band called Congotronics vs Rockers, and we toured Europe with this band.There were people from all over the world in this band and we were playing world music festivals, which was a whole different universe. There were ten Congolese members of the group and they spoke French. I spoke very little French but that’s how we communicated as they spoke not a word of English. So for like two months, I had my crash course in French but also had my crash course in a whole different cultural style.

For instance, Jacques, the guy who played all these homemade congas, originally from Konono No. 1, he knew that I was trying to pick up words in the Congolese – I’d already learned how to say “hello”, “how are you?” and “I’m fine” to every one of them, and I would practise it every day – so he came up to me pretending that he was going to give me some more Congolese vocabulary. For some reason, he thought the next thing I should learn is the word for ‘sunglasses’, because he was wearing sunglasses! He takes them off, points at them, looks me straight in the eye and says: “nibolon”. I thought it was unusual but, okay, yeah, nibolon, whatever. He was trying to get me to say “nibolon” to all the Congolese people, especially the one Congolese woman who was in the band; and of course nibolon actually means vagina. It’s like a sandbox trick! We had so much fun with that gang, it was so ridiculous and everyone was teasing each other and playing jokes on each other all the time.

I read an interview in which you talked at length about that tour and it sounded quite stressful in some ways, if ultimately rewarding. Would you do it again if asked? 

Oh man, I have to say, I think I would be deeply disappointed if I didn’t. I really hope something comes together for 2012. It probably won’t be as extensive as the crazy stuff we attempted this year. It was too long, there were too many days off and those poor guys were eating European food for three months straight. The number of shows we actually played could have fit in about two and a half weeks if we didn’t have days off, but we had so many days off: days for rehearsing, days for recording, days for travelling, days for sitting around doing nothing.When you go on tour, you get in this rhythm of saving up your energy during the day, then at night you explode, and it’s really hard to get into that rhythm when you’ve got three days off between shows. You just sink, you just die, everybody was getting depressed, some people were getting sick and they just felt lifeless, you know? They weren’t getting the Congolese food that they felt gave them strength; and to be honest, I think the men were really used to having sex probably at least twice a day. They can be polygamous, have two wives at once. I think the days really dragged on for a lot of them where they just felt that those things in life that give them the basic fuel was just not there but was replaced to some extent by the thrill of travel, of meeting new people and of course of playing music, which was incredibly exciting.

It was really incredibly chaotic; a rollercoaster, a thrill every single time we tried to play because none of us had any idea what was going to happen! Well, we had an idea but none of us had any real way to predict how the show would turn out. There was so much variation from show to show, so many crazy ups and downs: one night people would be jumping up and down, kissing each other with happiness, and on another night people would be yelling at each other and fighting. A lot of the time, those two things would happen on the same night because there were so many opinions in the band that we rarely managed to get a consensus. I think it was harder for them than for Deerhoof because…well, it was harder in a different way, but we basically tried to sandwich a Deerhoof European tour into the same time period.

When we had a day off, we would go and play our own show at some club then come back. The travelling was totally insane, so exhausting. More than anything is the emotional output, the struggle to connect and try and get the music right; everybody in the band was a hardnosed musician in their own band, but they had to acquiesce to levels of imperfection that they really weren’t used to! It was so punk, so shambolic. That was part of the fun of it.

How old are Jeff Tweedy’s kids and what did they play on your recent split single release?

I don’t know, let’s see. When did we tour with Wilco? That was about 2007, maybe…? And I would guess that Spencer was 14 or 15 then. Are you good at math? I’m sure he’s still living at home so maybe he’s 18 and Sam’s 15 or 16. I don’t know, maybe they’re younger. Spencer seemed advanced beyond his years, put it that way. We were touring with Wilco, played these huge theatres with five balconies and stuff like that; it was the first time we’d ever attempted to play big shows. We were in way over our heads, totally struggling as a band and we just had no idea what to do.

To add insult to injury, we’d show up on time for soundcheck and every venue would be like a Union venue where they’d go, “Don’t unload your gear, these guys’ll do it for you!” So we’d have to get there at ten in the morning. Wilco’s in tour buses and stuff, got a tour driver who drives them all night, and they arrive at nine in the morning, no big deal. They’ve all slept a perfect night’s sleep on the bus but we’ve got this Union thing to deal with where they guy’s only working from this hour to this hour and we’re not allowed to load in our own gear into these ridiculous theatres, you know? And our gear consists of like three tiny amps and a bass drum. Our equipment’s so small that it would only have taken one trip from the minivan to the stage.

We arrived in the morning and said, okay, we’re here now so we’ll just wait for soundcheck. Then Wilco would just go on and on, play through their entire set three times – “Could you change that one note? Let’s try it again” – then they’d do it again but still have the ten-minute guitar solo. We’re looking at our watches thinking, “What’s going on? Doors open in twenty minutes; we’re not going to get a soundcheck!” Then we’d get squeezed in at the last minute, throw our instruments up there in front of theirs and do this four-minute soundcheck, totally panicked, not having any understanding of the acoustics of playing large spaces, not being able to hear each other at all, not even understanding where the monitor engineer was on the stage to ask him to make things a little bit louder. We were completely clueless!

On top of that, once we got to Chicago, Spencer showed up and he was a huge Deerhoof superfan at whatever age he was at, maybe like 12 or something, and so what few minutes we had left for soundcheck were usurped by Spencer…you know, Jeff came up to me with Spencer and introduced us: “My son’s a really big Deerhoof fan and he’s a great drummer. Would you mind if he sits in with you for soundcheck? He’s got this one song he likes to play.” It was (vocally impersonates the riff from “My Diamond Star Car” from Apple O’). It was a song of mine actually so it was fun getting to watch him totally nail the drum part while I just sat there, the rest of the band struggling to keep up with him. Then the soundcheck was over, that was it!

Spencer was really cool, had a music blog even then which is kind of amazing, so I think he came across as older than he actually was. He had that thing that punk rock can do to you where you appear wiser. It can do the exact opposite to older people, make you seem much more immature if you’re old and you continue to play it!

Perhaps there’s a median mental age to which punk rock tends to auto-tune folk.

Yeah: if you’re 18 or 19 then it comes across as right on the money! We curated this festival in Belgium last year and all the acts were so different from each other, some groups, some soloists and these avant-garde classical musicians; it was the most amazing weekend. One of the bands that we got to play with, and I was surprised to see that they were still playing, this incredible Belgian punk band from 1977 called The Kids. They wrote some of my favourite songs from that era and to see them still perform in their fifties with the amount of energy they had, the amount of snotty immaturity they retained, it was just the best show.

It really was one of the best concerts I’ve ever seen in my life. There were no slow songs, no emotional songs, no technical, flashy stuff on guitars and drum solos or anything like that. Every single song was just (counts to four quickly as would a drummer counting in a punk tune) and they’d steamroller through it, flatten the audience. It was so loud, just incredible. My favourite song of theirs is a song called “Fascist Cops”. It’s been one of my favourite songs for years so I know how to play it and, before they went on, I asked if I could sit in on guitar for that song. It was like the biggest thrill in the universe getting to go up and slam through that song with them. I couldn’t believe it, you know. It was just amazing.

Did “Fascist Cop” inspire the name of your Nervous Cop side project with Zach Hill

Not that I know of! That’s a good question. The name Nervous Cop was created by Zach. You really are a superfan if you’ve heard of Nervous Cop! That’s really digging into the obscurity pile, there. We’ve recorded another album. That reminds me, actually, I’ve got to get off this phone because I’ve got these unmixed recordings from like three years ago and I just keep saying, “Oh yeah, I need to go back and mix that, make an album out of that, but I just keep forgetting.

Lately I’ve finished so many mixing projects. I mixed an album for an Italian band called Father Murphy and I’ve been doing all these remixes for friends’ bands and strangers who hired me. I’ve done a ton in the past two months and it’s just been great. I suddenly finished a whole bunch and I was like: what am I going to do? You’ve just reminded me, that’s what I need to go do.

Do you have time for a few more questions?

Yeah, I was joking.

Ah, good. 

Click here to read part 2 of Rocksucker’s interview with Deerhoof founder member/songwriter/drummer/keyboardist/producer/occasional singer and guitarist Greg Saunier!

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About the Author

Editor of Rocksucker and the website's founder, Jonny is passionate about the music he listens to, both good and bad, as well as interviewing his favourite musicians.