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Interview: Deerhoof (part 2)
Published on November 18th, 2011 | Jonny Abrams
Here is part 2 of Rocksucker’s interview with Deerhoof founder member/songwriter/drummer/producer/keyboardist/occasional singer and guitarist Greg Saunier. Click here to read part 1.
Have you ever considered making a solo album? I love the versions of “Behold a Marvel in the Darkness” and “Almost Everyone, Almost Always” that you performed solo on a Casio keyboard for Out Magazine (click here to watch these).
Oh yeah, I forgot about that!
Some amazing facial expressions too, by the way.
What facial expressions? Don’t tease me; that’s just my face, man! That’s just how I look. I’m some crazy nut that makes faces, I guess.
Is that how those two particular songs started life?
One of them did. The one with the kind of jazzy, dissonant chords. Er…yeah, “Almost Everyone, Almost Always”. I should try it again. The Casio is perhaps the only instrument I own that’s in my house, because for twenty years now I’ve been living in big cities where I can’t set up drums in the house because there’s no way that would fly with the neighbours. But I’ve always got the Casio sitting there, leaning against the wall with the wrong power adaptor, not really working, got to jiggle the Casio to turn it on. I set it up grudgingly once in a while when it’s time to record a keyboard overdub or something.
I’ve had this piece of junk for years but, you know, I should keep it set up because every time I fiddle around on it, it’s really fun and I come up with things that I would never write in my head or on a guitar. “Almost Everyone, Almost Always” was one of them; I started plinking some chords and they felt like they were one step beyond what I could have written in my head. The chords are too rich, too dissonant. I can write really simple things in my head, melodies for major chords and maybe some minor chords, maybe a 7th chord if I get fancy, but the stuff on the Casio was more ambiguous, more complex. It was just sitting down, pressing the keys and seeing what happened. It came together really fast.
The other one I wrote in my head after seeing a…I don’t know what I was doing. I was watching a video…what was I doing? I was at a weak point in some day. When I reach weak points and my ego needs a stroke, I do Deerhoof Google searches to find out what people think of it and I found some odd thing where somebody had posted something that they had called a cover of one of our songs, so I went through it and all it was was a photograph. I thought, “This is odd.” In their mind, maybe they took the photograph while the song was playing in the background or something. I don’t know. It was very strange.
I also found a video on this girl’s page of her dancing to some other band’s song and the abandon with which she was dancing to this song; she was just so carefree, had totally let go of any worry. The song had obviously pressed some button with her that she could post this video of her dancing to it and I thought to myself, man, how could I write a song that would inspire that kind of feeling in a person? I’m not sure that the finished result of “Behold a Marvel in the Darkness” really ended up like that (Rocksucker says: it did if the video below is anything to go by) but a lot of the little melody ideas that are in there, when I came up with them I was picturing this girl dancing in my mind, so I sort of made it up in my head I guess after seeing that video.
It was a really strong experience for a moment there, realising what music could do to a person; not that there’s anything strange about dancing but the way it struck me at that moment…I was like, wait a second, that’s what I’m not doing! That’s what I’m missing. It was something I instantly felt inspired to try. To answer your question, I don’t have a solo album but I do have a band that I’ve started here in New York to play guitar and sing. We just played a few nights ago. We write the songs together but most of the songs are kind of my songs: I’m singing them and I made up the melodies, the guitar riffs and whatever. I’m really excited about it. We just recorded an album and I just need to put my vocals on it and mix it.
The band’s called Les Bonhommes. It’s kind of a joke, actually: after this summer, we didn’t have a name for a really long time because we didn’t have any shows, and we weren’t trying to get any because we were just doing it for fun. After speaking French all summer, when I got back from that ridiculous trip, got back to New York, which was theoretically where I lived but I couldn’t remember it because I’d been gone so long, all I could think of was French stuff in my mind. It was a joke I was constantly making with the Congolese guys, going up to them and saying “I’m a gentleman” – “je suis le bon homme” – if they started poking me or kicking me or something, or if I did something kind.
At first they didn’t trust me because I told them how great I thought they sounded; they thought that someone this effusive with compliments must not be telling the truth. They were totally not like that at all; they were hard as rock and it was really hard to get a rise out of any of them, to even get them to smile. The slightest upturn of their mouth in the middle of a rehearsal or show was like a miracle! They do not give praise easily, so when I would do something kind for them, to them I seemed like such a dork, so I would very calmly tell them “je suis le bon homme” – a gentleman, a good man, that kind of thing – so suddenly I had this flash that that would be the perfect name for our band. The other guys liked it instantly so it stuck.
The other guys are Deron Pulley who’s done sound for Deerhoof every time we’ve toured in the US in the last couple of years – he’s really great and it was his idea to form this band; he plays bass for the most part – and a friend of his called Bill Kuehn, who used to play drums in Rainer Maria who were on Polyvinyl, which is the label that Deerhoof is now on. Even though I had never met Bill and didn’t know him at all – even Deron had never even played with him – there was an instantaneous rapport. It was so easy; we had multiple songs by the end of an hour. He just totally got it and nailed everything playing along to what I was playing on guitar.
We had all these common friends from the music world and the fact that he’d been on the same label that I’m now on, so we got to insult the same handful of people over at Polyvinyl to each other! It felt like we were already friends. So the band is really fun and it’s going well. We’ve actually played twice in the last week in the same city, which is amazing. Deerhoof would never dream of playing twice in the same city in one week.
Have you considered John Bonhomme as a stage name?
Exactly! That name must come from that. It’s a French name. I hadn’t realised that but of course, Bonham: that’s exactly what that is. There are so many words and names in English that you can actually tell are from a French word or maybe two French words put together.
As George W. Bush was supposed to have said (but apparently didn’t): “the problem with the French is they have no word for ‘entrepreneur’.”
There were two Swedish dudes in Congotronics vs Rockers this summer, from an amazing group called Wildbird & Peacedrums, and I was sharing a drum riser with this guy Andreas the whole summer, totally locked in with this guy. The two of us together were like one drummer. I’ve never locked in with somebody the way I locked in with him, rhythmically and in terms of precision.
It was incredible and it feels like you get to know each other intimately. Even if you don’t talk to him, you feel like this guy is your brother, you know? A long lost whatever. Anyway, one day I asked him what the Swedish word for smorgasbord is. He says, “Why do you know that word? Yes, smorgasbord is smorgasbord, a table full of sandwiches.”
How was your Iceland show with Plastic Ono Band? Did Ringo make an appearance?
No, not that I know of! He probably did guest on some performance within the last two years. Obviously Plastic Ono Band is going to be a big event, so the shows that they’ve set up over the last few years have been infrequent, each one a crazy bonanza, a total freak-out with guests coming on. When they played LA, Clapton showed up, Lady Gaga did a song: maybe Ringo played on that one. There weren’t too many celebrity appearances at the Iceland show. tUnE-yArDs came out and did a cover of a Yoko Ono song as a kind of encore, then Yoko came out and started singing with her. It was just so cool.
Sean Lennon was in the group too, Nels Cline from Wilco, Yuka Honda from Cibo Matto, two members of Cornelius and the bass player was Charlotte Kemp Muhl, a model for Maybelline. But I’m a huge celebrity of course so it was pretty much centered around me! Seriously though, I did have a really amazing Ringo-related experience. I had no idea how any of the songs went and neither did some of the other guys – there was this amazing trumpet player called CJ whom I’d never met before – so we had an eight-hour rehearsal on one day and a shorter rehearsal the next day. Yoko wasn’t there for it but she did turn up at the end of the eight-hour rehearsal to see if things were going okay. She walks in surrounded by three handlers who if they even heard Yoko sniffle would go running for boxes of tissues – it was just incredible! – and there was obviously a power struggle between her and Sean.
It’s a really amazing dynamic and it’s really funny. It’s like, Sean will have already planned and rehearsed something, he’ll tell her what it is and she’ll be like, yeah, but I think we should do it this other way. Then Sean’ll say, yeah, we could do that, but we haven’t rehearsed that and if we do it that way then it’s going to be harder for you to sing and you might blow out your voice. She’ll say “okay, okay, okay” and sort of acquiesces with Sean, which is really funny to see. Sean’s saying to her, “Don’t sing so hard, we don’t want you to blow out your voice; the show’s tomorrow so save your voice,” and all day he’s saying to us, “Guys, don’t turn up too loud, Yoko doesn’t like it when the band’s too loud, it kind of freaks her out and she can’t sing loud over all that noise. You’ll have to keep it under control and do something silent; you know, she’s really into silence, really into space.”
Then she gets there and she wants to run through a song called “Waiting For The D Train” which is just me, Sean playing guitar and Charlotte playing this bassline. There was another drummer there, Yuko from Cornelius, totally amazing, but she wasn’t playing on this song so it was just me. It’s really stripped down but we go into the song and I’m playing totally as hard as I can, sweating and putting every ounce of energy into playing completely wildly, not holding it down, not making it something easy to play along with, not taking any of the advice that was given to me! We get to the end and she’s just completely screamed her voice out, hasn’t followed the advice either. It was really intense and she was obviously really into it.
When it was over, she turns to me and says, “That’s why you’re here: you’re a bit better than Ringo.” I couldn’t believe it. I laughed so hard because it’s not exactly the experience that you usually have in life, being told by Yoko Ono that you’re better than Ringo Starr! It was an incredibly funny moment and the concert was so much fun. Interacting with her in the moment is just like…you know that you feeling when you’ve just bought a kitten, you bring the kitten home and that kitten is so wired, so on its toes that one little speck of dust goes by and the kitten tears across the room after it. That ready-to-pounce kind of energy.
That’s how it feels with Yoko. A lot of the songs get into a mellow groove, which is cool, but the thing is we had two drummers and Yuko was kind of holding it down while I was more following Yoko, which was a great privilege. You just never knew what she was going to do. She could stand there and leave this huge gap, not say anything, maybe do some weird dance moves, and then suddenly she would come back in with this crazy wailing and it always made a kind of musical sense once it happened, but you could never see it coming.
It was the kind of improvisation that’s very fun because it’s purely about action and reaction, what feels good in the moment, following your instinct, not about musicianship or anything technical. Yoko’s the most un-technical singer that’s ever got onstage. She hasn’t refined her singing style or ability whatsoever since the beginning; it’s still such a primal use of the voice in a way that any human being could relate to.
You know, I just thought, I had a very similar aesthetic experience the other day when I was at the Museum of Modern Art here in New York, in the big cinema they have in the basement. They were showing The Holy Mountain by the Chilean/Mexican director Alejandro Jodorowsky. I’d never seen it before and it’s totally unbelievable, and Yoko was there, sitting next to Jodorowsky who showed up even though he lives in Mexico, I think. He’s an incredible human being; everyone felt that the spirit of this guy was just so amazing. They’re both approaching 80 years old or something like that but still the fire that exists inside a person like Jodorowsky or a person like Ono, it’s like they haven’t tamed themselves or apologised for the point of view they had in 1970, haven’t watered it down.
It’s easy to do crazy things when you’re young – you’re excused – and it’s harder to live by that same philosophy when you’re 80. I don’t know because I’m not 80, so maybe that’s untrue, but one would think! And I really had the same feeling from The Holy Mountain…which actually was funded, I found out, by John Lennon and Yoko Ono at the time.
“Let’s give this piece a chance”, they might have said.
Yeah! Anyway, I had the same feeling from The Holy Mountain that I had from Yoko’s singing insomuch as what was shocking in the movie would not only shock a person who was used to a certain style of moviemaking. It wouldn’t only shock fans of romantic comedies, hippies in 1970 or the bourgeoisie, or something like that. He found such deep images to use for action in the movie that I had the feeling that it would shock – not just shock but scare, make laugh, bring a tear to the eye of – any human being who saw it, because it grabbed onto things from such a deep place, or things that were so strange and unlike anything you’ve ever seen a person do, yet you see it with a feeling of total recognition in some weird way, as if it had been pulled out of your own dreams or something.
It’s just an incredible movie and I was very intrigued to have those two experiences within a couple of weeks of each other and I just feel that they’re two brilliant artists [Ono and Jodorowsky] who have taught me a lot just with these brief experiences. Those experiences were so meaningful and intense that I think I’ll remember them for a long time. I recommend this movie if you ever get the chance. I only saw it just the once on a really big screen but I would say that it really benefitted from being on a big screen and being turned up really loud. The soundtrack was nuts; it had so much different music in it. And you’ve got to sit there and watch it all the way through, all two hours or however long it is.
It’s pretty long so it tries your patience in a way but it’s worth it just to immerse yourself in the world of this movie if at all possible. Don’t rob yourself of the experience of seeing this movie for the first time in a way that really honours the movie. Don’t just put it on in the background or whatever because this is really a once-in-a-lifetime kind of thing! It’s a really incredible movie.
So many of the greats of modern, experimental pop music – Radiohead, Stephen Malkmus, Sonic Youth, The Flaming Lips, Super Furry Animals, Sufjan Stevens, of Montreal etc – have gone on record as being confirmed Deerhoof fans. What’s more, you were invited to play at the 2003 ATP curated by The Simpsons creator Matt Groening. Did he sound you out personally? Did you get to meet him?
No, I never talked to him. I’ve never seen The Simpsonseither, slightly embarrassingly. Everybody I know has but I didn’t have a TV when it first came on and I haven’t had one since. I only ever see it on at somebody’s house or in a hotel room if I’m sharing with somebody, so I don’t have any opinion about his work at all. He didn’t contact us personally but he obviously has amazing musical taste and probably somebody who worked with him suggested that he’d like Deerhoof; and, to his credit, he did give it a try.
I think we could have met him at that ATP where he was the curator but the one band that he seemed to be the most sure that he needed to get was to reunite The Magic Band – you know, Captain Beefheart’s band but without Captain Beefheart – and The Magic Band played at the same time as us on a different stage! So not only did Matt Groening not come to see us but we didn’t get to see The Magic Band. Chris Cohen, who was our bass player at the time, was just the biggest Captain Beefheart freak I’d ever met and he was so mad!
We played this show in front of three thousand people which thinking about it now is a thrill but, at the time, it was a serious career landmark to play such a big show at this festival. At the end, I was thinking, wow, this is really something, while Chris was packing up his stuff as fast as he could and ran out the door. He came back five minutes later with steam coming out of his ears because the second he got within earshot of that stage he could hear them introducing the individual members of the band as the show was ending.
The Flaming Lips have collaborated with a few different artists this year. Did they ask you guys to do anything?
Well, we’ve played with them many times. We did play in London this year with them when they played The Soft Bulletin and we played Milk Man. It was an incredible experience.
I booked a ticket for that show months in advance but couldn’t go in the end as I was invited to a wedding! Dinosaur Jr. were on the bill too, weren’t they? Performing Bug, I believe.
Yeah, they sounded great. They were so loud! I’ve never seen so many amps on the stage at the same time for so few people. Anyway, we’re pretty good friends with the members of The Flaming Lips. Our closest friend and contact is the drummer Kliph Scurlock. He’s played with us quite a few times actually; whenever he’s within four or five hours of any place we play, he’ll make the trip to the show and he’ll come on and play drums in some songs, and I’ll play guitar or whatever, you know, we figure out something.
Even with the other guys [from The Flaming Lips], we talk about how we should do something together so, when you were asking about the Jeff Tweedy and his sons thing earlier, that was part of a series of singles we’ve been doing where we take a song from the album we’ve put out, remove the vocals from the recording and give the instrumental version to a singer to put their own vocals on, to sing whatever they want on. Jeff Tweedy did one and Wayne Coyne is going to do one. He’s already picked which song he wants to do.
In addition, they’ve got this twenty-four-hour-long song and Kliph wrote to me in a panic a couple of weeks ago, like, “Oh my god, we’re trying to do this twenty-four-hour song and we need more stuff for it! Can you send me anything?” So I quickly went through some Deerhoof giblets that I had on my computer that we never used but that I thought they might be able to find a home for, so I sent some to him and he said, “Okay, cool, I’ll play it to the guys.”
They got back to me the next day and said, yeah, all of this stuff is too good. We don’t want to put this in the twenty-four-hour-song; we’ll just make an EP. They said, actually, we want to take this stuff and record with it, put more music on it and turn it into a collaborative EP. I saw that Wayne had done an interview or two in recent weeks where he said that he’s planning a collaborative EP with Deerhoof, so maybe it’s true! I hope it happens because it would be really exciting.
Amen to that. Finally, if you had to name your top three albums of all time – right now, off the top of your head – which ones would you choose?
Oh, man! Albums, huh? What is it with you journalists? You’re still stuck in the album era. You should be asking: “What’s your three favourite sections of any song?” I like the verse from “Crazy Mama” by The Rolling Stones, the intro of “Soul Almighty” by Bob Marley & The Wailers, and about two minutes into the Claude Debussy’s “Etude Pour les Sonorités Opposées”.
I’ll accept that as an answer. Greg, thank you.
Thank you. It’s going to take you years to type all this up, isn’t it!?
At least it’ll stand me in good stead for when I attempt to review The Flaming Lips’ twenty-four-hour song…
For more information, a list of live dates and a free download of Deerhoof’s new live album, please visit deerhoofvsevil.com