Deerhoof on haters, DIY, and breakups

Categories: Interview
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Photo by Elias Gwinn
Longevity is an elusive eel that is difficult for bands to grasp. Together since 1994, Deerhoof have been able to find something unique that most bands have not been able to discover. Maybe that uniqueness comes from a single person -- drummer Greg Saunier certainly is unique. Long in prose, the musician shares his band experience as the band drives back from Canada and prior to their show at Mill City Nights on Sunday night.

Gimme Noise: How has the reception been for Breakup Song?

Greg Saunier: It's impossible to tell. The time that we can gauge the reception is actually in those moments we're on stage. It just so happens we've been onstage these past few days playing these exact songs. I can say with a huge smile on my face that the reception has included jumping, shouting, clapping, the occasional rap, some air drumming, some air guitar, some tossing of the hair, absolutely no one going to the bathroom. As far as the album reception, you never know, because when you do a recording there's obviously a distance. I can get reception from my friends; they'll tell me, "Hey, I like your record," but even there, it's filtered. They're remembering the experience, they're trying to be nice, or they're trying to tease me. One or the other, and it's filtered through words.

Although, I assume what you're really asking me is "How is the press reception?" I can't totally trust the press reception within the first few days, because reception tends to change over time. Don't you find that when you listen to a record, read a book, watch a movie, whatever, the reaction you have to it the first couple of times is different than what it's going to be a year later, or even ten years later?

I'm gonna go way out on a limb and risk sounding pretentious, but I have this fantasy that our album by someone -- even if that someone is only me -- might get listened to ten years from now, and the reaction that people are giving now is very interesting to me, and it's cool, because there's only one first time, but the reaction ten years from now is almost more interesting. What I'm basically saying to you is that I would like to schedule another time, maybe when I'm not in the mountains, approximately ten years, give or take a few hours, where we can talk again and you could ask that question.

I do feel when I listen to an album, sometimes I connect with it right away or I don't, but if I go back and listen to it again, I will hear nuances or different layers to the music.

Yeah, I've had it go both ways where I listened to it the first time I say, "This is the greatest thing I've ever heard in my life." I can be amazed at how quickly I can get sick of it. Just the opposite thing can happen. We've had this happen many times with Deerhoof -- I don't think it necessarily has anything to do with the nature of our music. In other words, I don't want to take the blame for it, but there have been the occasional hater responses to our music, now and again over the years. People will hear us for the first time, they're like, "This is the worst band I've ever heard." The thing is, very often it's the same person who hated it the most, when they first heard it that ends up loving the most later. There's something about that kind of reaction where it presses a button where it touches on something but you are almost ready to have that button pressed, but not quite.

I've had that happen many times where I've heard records I couldn't stand the first time, and I don't want to hear it again. It almost makes me mad. It makes me feel angry. It makes me feel confused and frustrated, almost indignant. Rather than just saying to myself, "Well, forget about that," I find myself thinking back to it. "What was it about that record that drove me insane?" Then a couple days later, I want to figure out what it is that I hate so much about that record. You get fascinated with why you hated it so much. In the process of doing so, I've found my mind will change. The process of even figuring out why you hate something makes you love it. That moment you change, your brain grows a couple of molecules.

I feel that way about a lot music I grew up with, It's like "Start Me Up" by the Rolling Stones. It was the very first song that grabbed me as a kid and made me want to play rock music. I don't necessarily have to listen to the song anymore. I can, and when I do, I would still love it, but the memory of it in my mind is so deep in there that I feel it's still influencing my actions in life. It's like an internal organ or something; it's completely become a part of who I am.

In keeping with the question about albums, what is your take on writing a cohesive album versus singles?

When writing, I always ask myself, "Does that song mean something by itself, or does it need the rest of the record to be there?" I've always thought about that when we're making records, and I always wanted our albums to feel complete. We've always worked on that, and we struggle with the editing and the sequence. We do it all ourselves, so it's not like we ever trust some producer to throw it together for us, or a label or whatever. We put it together a million different ways and every possible mutation until it feels like this is how it was always supposed to be. This sounds like it was etched in stone. This is the story we were trying to tell. At the same time, because it is separate songs, we also wanted the episodes to work independently, so that if you hear only one song, it has a story of its own.

On this album, more that we've ever done before in the whole time we've been a band, we tried to break it down in a more extreme way. I'll explain what I mean by that: even within a song, we try to break the song down into smaller pieces, so you can hear one little phrase, one melody, one line of lyrics, one riff on a guitar that works by itself. It's like a jingle you hear in a commercial. At the end, they sing a little song for toothpaste, or whatever, and you remember that jingle because it's so catchy, and it delivers the entire message that the toothpaste brand wants, but in the space of seconds.

We were trying to build these from out of small jingles. That's why we put up this flash player on our website that we call the "Jingletron" where it will play random jingles from the album. It's not even a song, it's a little teeny fragment from a  song played in random order. In that, we are giving some kind of message of the album. We're really into music being just as wide in variety as in uses.

You spoke a little bit about DIY in the band. Was this a necessity when the band first came together?

Yes, of course. When we first started, we didn't have anyone taking us under their wing, but when we did eventually find a band to take us on tour with them, they helped us out in so many ways. Our singer, Satomi had just joined the band -- even met us for the first time -- a week before we were supposed to hit the road with this band. She'd never been in a band before and had no musical experience whatsoever. This headliner brought us on tour with them, and we thought they would show us the ropes, saying, "Well, this is how the music industry works. If you want to write a song, you gotta play this and end with this kind of chord." They did nothing of the sort. It was them leading by example. They were also completely DIY, putting out their own records on their own label, recording everything themselves, and played by no one's rules. This was a huge inspiration to us. We did not copy their sound, but we copied their attitude.

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Photo by Deron Pulley
The next people that took us under their wings was our first record label, Kill Rock Stars. We got on that label, which was great because it's the only label we ever approached. We were with them for years, and it was the same thing. I would always go to them and say, "Guys, you know what's gonna sell records. Give me a clue, what color should our album cover be? What font should I use? How long should a song be?" They would always say, "No, you just do your thing. We'll put it out." It was completely hands off. They forced a DIY approach upon us. It's like Indiana Jones where Sean Connery plays his dad. Sean's excuse for why he was such a bad father was, "I was teaching you self-reliance." Indiana Jones learned how to be a strong character on his own. I have the same feeling towards Kill Rock Stars and the way they treated us, and the fact that they wanted us to grow up on our own.

That never changed. To this day. it's helped us to feel there's no expert, and if there is, it's always open for debate. If there's such a thing as an authority figure, we're always skeptical. We're always looking for a new angle -- new creativity. A creative spark is always our highest goal. It can always feel like that process stops at a certain age. Frankly, I'm lucky. Being in a rock band forces you to maintain that questioning attitude. It's a creative and problem solving attitude of always looking for something that hasn't been done or tried. It feels extremely exciting. It almost feels like there a better possibility around the corner. I feel occasionally things can happen where you find yourself in certain circumstances that will discourage that feeling. You start to feel like "I know what life is about now. I'm done. I figured out what my life is going to be and the rules I'm going to live by. I know what I like and that's pretty much it."

What I like about Deerhoof is that it doesn't allow us to think that way. You can't rest for a second. Our survival doesn't exist without searching, without change. It's cool to make change your friend instead of your enemy. The passage of time is joy to us. We feel we could be better over the years. The more tours and the more we record, the more time we spend together, we always feel we're getting closer to the target. We never hit it, but there's that feeling of constant searching that I feel is a great privelege. It's a way I can still feel like a human being, and I don't feel incomplete. I don't feel that there's a wild, savage, violent, impulsive part of me that's getting repressed by a society that expects a certain polite playing-by-the-rules or conformity. We have fans that expect us not to conform. They would be disappointed if we ever did. If we feel any pressure, it's the opposite. It's a pressure to create. It's a pressure to surprise them and ourselves. It's an honor.

Do you feel the lack of rules has allowed the band to branch out to other projects outside of Deerhoof?

I think that's partly what our new album Breakup Song is about. We moved to four different places after all living in the San Francisco area for quite a few years. All four of us moved away and that breaking up is an insulated approach to the band where everything you do must be approved by three other people. Every idea you have, you have these three other people that are going to approve it or veto it. That went away when people moved. We all wanted to feel more independent, and also to celebrate ourselves in our own independence. It gave each member of the band a different confidence and a different ability to stand up to each other, and to not rely on each other, but also to feel strong in each person's own rights.

That has caused the music's flavor to change. I think Breakup Song is our sassiest album to date, especially in contrast to our last album Deerhoof vs. Evil. At the time that we made that album, it was at the end of us all living in the same city, and that record has an all-for-one kind of feeling of this inseparable group, fighting outside forces, but in a way it was overly earnest. The mood has changed on Breakup Song where there's more an ability to not take each other so seriously; we can tease each other musically, and dare each other to make fools of ourselves. It almost goes back to that first question you asked about the evolution of how music changes as time progresses.

Deerhoff will perform at Mill City Nights on Sunday, September 23, 2012 Buke and Gase and Bloodnstuff presented by City Pages.
$15, 8 pm

Purchase tickets here.



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