Published on September 27th, 2012 | Jonny Abrams
Deerhoof is one of Rocksucker’s very favourite bands, so having last year had the honour of getting to speak at some length to founder member and multi-instrumentalist Greg Saunier about their wonderful Deerhoof vs Evil album (and all manner of other stuff), we were delighted to catch up with him again in the wake of the release of their barnstorming eleventh LP Breakup Song (click here to read our four-quail review), just before they embarked on a tour of the US and Europe, the dates of which are listed at the end of the article.
Read on for our latest exchange with one of planet Earth’s most excellent all-round musicians and personable interviewees; but first check out this choice cut from the new record…
Why do you have a third song called “Flower”, following on from those on Holdypaws and Apple O’?
(Laughs) Why not? I don’t know. We like flowers, can’t stop writing about them! Flowers are one of those general, vague sorts of things that come up a lot. There’s a lot of possible meanings and uses for flowers and we just felt that we hadn’t exhausted them.
The title of the album is rather wrong-footing: it’s called Breakup Song, singular, whereas the opening track is called “Breakup Songs”, plural. What’s with that?
(Laughs) The album is meant to go by as one song, you know; it’s only thirty minutes long, and the breakup song is like a genre of music in itself, and the album is our contribution to the genre. The album as a whole is meant to serve the purpose of a breakup song. Now, our version of a breakup song is different to other examples of breakup songs that I’ve heard, which are meant to be sad, make you feel worse; we wanted to make a contribution to the genre that was meant to inspire the listener to feel better, give them energy and make them want to do something rather than just sit and feel sorry for themselves, make them go meet friends or go dancing…you know, just feel the energy to motivate them and move on, basically.
The first song is called “Breakup Songs” because the topic of the song is breakup songs, taken as a whole, so believe it or not I have a grammatical excuse!
That actually makes perfect sense.
Is it all a reference to an actual, specific breakup?
Ah! Kind of. It almost doesn’t matter if it is because it’s the kind of thing that everybody goes through multiple times in their lives. We’ve got four people in the band, and everybody knows what it feels like. And it’s not necessarily only about romantic breakups: it has to do with the fact that everybody moved around the time we were finishing our last album. We had been a San Francisco band, an Oakland band, and within the span of a few months each of us moved to different cities, ones that might not mean much to your British readers: John [Dieterich] moved to a place called Albuquerque (Rocksucker says: Any fans of The Shins and/or Bugs Bunny should know of Albuquerque!), Ed [Rodriguez] moved to a place called Portland (Rocksucker says: Where half the world’s bands now live), and I moved to an obscure town on the East Coast of the United States called New York City! Satomi [Matsuzaki] moved to London but she’s since moved to New York.
Basically, we geographically broke up the band in a way, so it has to do with that as well. Of course it also has to do with the fragmentary style of the songwriting: the songs themselves are easily broken up into sections that sound almost independent of each other. When we first wanted to let people preview what the record sounded like, our label was like, “Well, when you announce the album, you put out an MP3,” and I said (carefully), “Nah, that doesn’t sound like that much fun.” So then we had this idea or making a webpage which we ended up calling The Jingletron, which did in fact break up the songs into little pieces that were like jingles, real short, the length of something you might hear on a TV commercial advertising toothpaste or something. (Laughs) That site’s still up actually, because I just thought it turned out so cool!
It’s sort of like this broken-up idea of songwriting, where we were split apart and writing the songs through email with each other: one person suggested one section, then another person added another section to it, so that’s another way that Breakup Song kind of makes sense. Maybe the most important way is that ‘breakup’ is always a word we use for distortion; you know, you’re always checking the sound on your amp and saying things like, “How’s the sound breaking up? Make the sound break up a little more, turn up the gain on the amp,” or whatever. That’s a common way to describe how good the distortion on the amp is, and distortion features prominently on the record so it kind of made sense to call it Breakup Song. (Laughs)
Deerhoof vs Evil had some strummed acoustic guitars on it, which surprised me. Did you ban them this time round?
(Laughs) I think there are acoustic guitars on this one. Actually, I played a lot of electric guitar on it; but I didn’t plug them in: I just plucked the un-amplified electric guitar into the built-in speaker on my laptop, recorded it in GarageBand. Most of that ended up on the record, even though I was recording them on the demo versions of the songs to play to the guys, to email to my bandmates, basically. I was in a tiny room in an apartment in New York, where you can’t make much noise, so I didn’t even bother plugging the guitar in; I just recorded it sitting on my bed without it being amplified by anything. So it’s this incredibly thin, scratchy sound: you know, the sound of an electric guitar when it’s not plugged into anything!
With the process we were using, it’s not like we made demos, then went into a recording studio and did the fancy versions; the demos very gradually became the finished versions, and there was no borderline between the first germ of songwriting and the finished mastering. Every step of the way we did ourselves, so some of the elements from the really scratchy demos ended up still audible in the finished version.
Ideally would you use real drums to record with, or by now do you like what you can do with electronic drums?
I dunno, I think the jury’s still out. When I first set the electronic drums up, it was for the same reason, that I didn’t want to make noise. When I first set them up I was really excited as I thought it would be so much easier to record than real drums: and it is, because you don’t need any microphones. If your mic’ing drums and recording the real drums, you put a mic on the snare drum but that mic is still picking up plenty of the hi-hat, or something, and you’ve got a mic on the hi-hat but you can hear the kick-drum very clearly in the hi-hat mic, so what excited me about electronic drums was the total separation between those three things, because that’s how I usually set up: snare, hi-hat and bass drum, a really simplified drum set. They’re also the only electronic pads that I have, so I couldn’t have gotten away with more anyway!
The electronic drums have something about them that does make it hard…I mean, you can twiddle the knobs for days trying to get it to feel more and more realistic, and by the time you get it more like real drums in terms of sound, feel and response…(laughs)…basically, I’d been recording on those electronic drums for weeks trying to get good drum tracks for these songs, then for some reason we went into a real recording studio for one day to record a song that’s not on the album but that will be coming out on a single soon, maybe in a few weeks or something; this was a real studio with real microphones and everything, so I was totally flabbergasted by it after all those weeks of struggle! To sit there with these drums and all the microphones on, it was so incredibly easy to get an incredibly good sound out of it, so I was like, “Oh man, I should have just done this all along.” (Laughs) I was tearing my hair out trying to battle against these electronic drums, so I actually feel that electronic drums are kind of a pain.
I dunno…in the end, that was some of the fun of it, some of the character of how it ended up sounding. The total separation between the different parts of the drum set that electronic drums allow, it sort of opened a Pandora’s box of possibilities: I could erase one snare drum note without affecting the hi-hat or bass drum, so I could move a snare drum note ten milliseconds later or something without it affecting anything else. So I really got into the micro-doctoring of the drum parts in a way that I’d never done before, and I think the drums sound different to the drums on any of our other records.
Do you still use the Casio much? I love the versions of “Almost Everyone, Almost Always” and “Behold a Marvel in the Darkness” that you did for Out Magazine (click here to watch these).
Thank you! I tried to record a bunch of Casio on this record, but either the Casio’s broken or the power supply’s broken, I’m not sure which. I’d plug it into the wall and it would stay on for maybe ten seconds, which was crazy because I’d plug it into the computer, start recording something and then it would just shut off. I’d start over and hope I could get another few seconds out of it, do everything in bits! (Laughs) Finally it just wouldn’t turn on at all, so I don’t know what happened to that Casio, but we have another keyboard that we used a lot: my friend Sean Lennon actually gave it to me (Rocksucker says: Click here to read Greg telling Rocksucker about his experiences playing with Plastic Ono Band!) as a gift, and I forgot to thank him in the credits of the record, when I should have because we ended up using that keyboard, an OP-1, a ton on this record.
Probably every song has a ton of OP-1 on it, and it’s an incredibly collectible synthesiser that was able to make sounds that I’ve never heard any other synthesiser or keyboard be able to make, so I was really happy with that. And a lot of the sounds that were meant to sound like real instruments were actually cooked up in this synthesiser, and I was very surprised. A lot of the percussion and drum sounds are from that as well, some of which sound very real, some of which sound completely off the wall, so that’s the keyboard we ended up using a lot for this record.
Actually, the other keyboard I used a lot was…you know, in GarageBand there are some default keyboard sounds that I used quite a lot, and I didn’t have an external keyboard to trigger it with so I used this feature called musical typing on the actual laptop keyboard: you know, you press a W and F# comes out, or something like that. I recorded a lot of the keyboards that way because Satomi was borrowing the OP-1 for several weeks while she was writing one of her songs, so during that time I did a lot of keyboard overdubs by typing into GarageBand, and a lot of that ended up on the record too.
One sound that jumps out at me is the ‘creaky seesaw’ sound of “Bad Kids to the Front” (attempts to impersonate it). Was that from a keyboard?
That sound, that repeating loop, was something John made that was going to end up on Deerhoof vs Evil but we never got round to finishing it, so he applied it to this new song he had called “Bad Kids to the Front”. Actually John played everything on that song, other than the vocal: I wrote the vocal and the lyrics, and Satomi sang it, but apart from that every single thing on that song was John. He played all the instruments so if you want to ask anything technical, like “how in the world did you make that insane sound?”, I’ve got no idea! It was crazy because he had what I thought was a kind of boring-sounding song that he played on the guitar; I was like, “Yeah, I don’t know…” and he was like, “Okay, give me one more chance to do something with this.”
And I watched him, just sitting on the couch at Ed’s house, while I was working on “The Trouble With Candyhands” or some other song, trying to get it where my band mates liked it, and from nothing, within just a couple of hours of him sitting there on the couch, he said, “How about this?” and played this thing that was like 90% of what’s on the record. (Laughs) So whatever he did, he magically made it happen just sitting on the couch on his laptop. I don’t understand; he must have already had some files stored in there. I think the song turned out really incredible, and to me it was like some kind of crazy miracle or something, something coming from nothing and sounding so incredibly fun and surprising. He wasn’t even sitting with good posture, he was slouching on that couch! (Laughs) I couldn’t believe it.
Which songs on the album are yours, or originated with you?
To some extent all the songs are everybody’s. A lot of the songs have different pieces by different people which are sort of edited and stitched together; it’s pretty complicated actually and I might not even be able to remember, but John made the first song based on a drum beat that I had played while we were recording Deerhoof vs Evil. I didn’t even realise he was recording it, I was just sitting there goofing around on the drums, playing some different beats, and had completely forgotten what any of it sounded like. He added this really distorted guitar on top of something that he’d found on his computer that I’d played once, and we all thought that it sounded good, really funny and everything, so I made up a vocal part to go on top of that, and Satomi and I worked on the lyrics together.
You’d almost have to go section by section – and each song has a lot of sections! – so say exactly how each one got born, and it would be some really confusing story. None of the songs are mine, or they all are! There were some songs that were maybe a little bit more…you know, John did the vast majority of “Bad Kids to the Front”, Satomi did the majority of “Mario’s Flaming Whiskers III”, and Ed did the majority of “To Fly or Not to Fly”. I think I did the majority of “Fete D’Adieu”, but other than that it’s kind of all jumbled together.
Well, Les Bonhommes plays all the time, but we only play local shows so they’re real small shows. Les Bonhommes is a band in which I play guitar, and Deron [Pulley], Deerhoof’s sound engineer for our live shows, plays bass, and our drummer is a guy called Bill Kuehn who used to play drums for Rainer Maria and sometimes plays with a band called The Golden Filter. It’s really fun! One of the very first things that happened when I moved to New York was that Deron said, “Okay, we’re starting a band,” and I was like, “What?” (Laughs), and it was such a fun way to start to feel at home in this totally new city that I barely knew. I knew a lot of people here because we’ve come here on tour so ‘t times, but I didn’t know the city at all so it was a fun way to feel like part of the scene, you know, be in a local band! I loved it, and I’m still so grateful to Deron that he forced me to start this band with him. It’s been incredibly fun; our last show was opening for Xiu Xiu a few weeks ago, and we had a great time. We really do it just for fun, and you feel like you kind of have nothing to lose, so you feel very free, you know?
The Congotronics band is actually somewhat active right now: a lot was recorded last summer while we were on tour (Rocksucker says: Click here to read Greg telling Rocksucker about his experiences playing with Congotronics vs Rockers!), I think almost every show was recorded, and there were a lot of sessions being done on the off-days. I believe that Vincent Kenis, the guy who has produced every record on the Congotronics series on the label Crammed Discs, is currently in the middle of mixing a bunch of it, and then I know that Juana Molina and Matt Mehlan both were writing emails to everybody really recently saying that they were working on something, overdubbing stuff at home, going through stuff that they had on their computers, you know.
As you can imagine it’s incredibly disorganised (laughs); the volume of stuff that was recorded prior to the tour, during rehearsals, during the tour and then the sessions in between days…it goes on forever, and there isn’t really anybody overseeing it, nobody’s in charge, so stuff is just sort of ambling along at random, and eventually I think everybody’s hoping that a finished album will be the result. I’d love to hear it, because I think we were a great band, a really noisy band. There were a lot of people in that group, and I’ve never really heard anything like it; it doesn’t sound like Deerhoof, it doesn’t sound like Konono Nº1 , it doesn’t sound like any of the groups that were contained in it: it was its own full thing, just took on a life of its own. It was really crazy. (Laughs)
Greg Saunier, thank you.
Deerhoof will play the following live dates over the next few months…
Fri 28th Sep The Vera Project, Seattle w/ Buke And Gase, Raleigh Moncrief
Sat 29th Sep Branx, Portland w/ Buke And Gase, Raleigh Moncrief
Sun 30th Sep The Deport @ Humboldt State University, Arcata w/ Buke And Gase, Raleigh Moncrief
Mon 1st Oct Slim’s, San Francisco w/ Buke And Gase, Raleigh Moncrief
Tue 2nd Oct The Echoplex, Los Angeles w/ Buke And Gase, Raleigh Moncrief
Sat 3rd Nov Prophet Bar, Dallas w/ Formica Man, Skating Polly, Liam Finn
Sun 4th Nov Fun Fun Fun Fest, Austin
Mon 5th Nov Walter’s, Houston w/ Formica Man, Liam Finn
Tue 6th Nov Spanish Moon, Baton Rouge w/ Formica Man, Twin Killers, Liam Finn
Wed 7th Nov Alabama Music Box, Mobile w/ Formica Man, Liam Finn
Thu 8th Nov Club Downunder, Tallahassee w/ Formica Man, Liam Finn
Fri 9th Nov Accidental Music Festival @ The Plaza Live, Orlando
Sat 10th Nov 40 Watt Club, Athens w/ Formica Man, Liam Finn
Mon 12th Nov The National, Richmond w/ Formica Man, Liam Finn
Tue 13th Nov Ottobar, Baltimore w/ Formica Man, Liam Finn, Dope Body
Wed 21st Nov Loppen, Copenhagen
Thu 22nd Nov Festsaal Kreuzberg, Berlin
Fri 23rd Nov Bla, Oslo
Sat 24th Nov Strand, Stockholm
Wed 28th Nov Le Marche Gare, Lyon
Thu 29th Nov Le Divan Du Monde, Paris
Fri 30th Nov Le Guess Who Festival, Utrecht
Sat 1st Dec Autumn Falls Festival, Brussels
Sun 2nd Dec TBA, Cologne
Mon 3rd Dec Brudenell Social Club, Leeds
Tue 4th Dec TBA, London
Fri 7th Dec Pontins Holiday Centre, Camber Sands ATP curated by The National festival