This interview originally ran as the cover feature in Plan B Magazine (RIP) in December 2006.
Welcome to Blackpool. Home of three-quid fry-ups, puke-strewn promenades, disco balls the size of planets, and – for one-night only – cacophonic cartoon musketeers Deerhoof, who’re set to unleash their six-legged beast upon a chandelier-encrusted ballroom. The seaside resort is also renowned for its record-breaking Big Dipper. A man rode it for three months non-stop a few years ago. And it is this of which we speak as you join us …
Satomi: “Oh my God! That man is crazy! How did he eat during those whole three months? His facial skin must have gotten loose from the shaky ride. Wow! But I do love roller-coasters. I mean, if Deerhoof was a fairground ride, it’d be a dog-faced sphere, moving random, like a UFO. And when it landed, four deer-hooves would come out from the sphere and scream: ‘Dear my friends, come on board!’ in an old man’s voice. It wouldn’t be a scary ride actually, and it’d be all you can eat, with all organic fruits and vegetables. And the fee would be you have to make friends with animals or people inside the sphere. You couldn’t leave the ride until you made at least one friend. Sweet!”
Deerhoof make comrades wherever they roam. A delirious, dissident San Fran triad whose allies span Joanna Newsom, Wilco, Zach Hill (Hella), Danielson, Afrirampo and Xiu Xiu, it’s of little surprise that the jovial combo’s forthcoming (ninth) album is entitled Friend Opportunity. For they are a truly congenial troupe – they embrace the tenets of micro-pop, symphonic rock, disco, prog and wayward distortion as one might long-lost kinsmen.
Here they are now. There’s Greg Saunier – a dexterous musical crackerjack who assails his drum skins with psychotic intent. And there’s bassist and vocalist Satomi Matsuzaki, who hails from Japan and loves to laugh and displays the finest gonzo semaphore and quick-fire vogueing I’ve ever seen.
And then there’s John Dieterich. Guitars like thunderstorms, silverfish, love-hearts. In a parallel universe I’d inundate Dieterich with valentine cards, not least because we share a childhood dream. Well, more of a nocturnal terror, really. “I used to have a terrifying recurring nightmare that my entire family was being chased by dinosaurs” he recoils. “And there were these massive 30 foot high steps that somehow I climbed to get away, but then I would realise that I couldn’t find my family.”
They sound like holy night fever. No, they sound like ding-ding Pandas. No, they sound like apple bombs. No, they sound like … oh, I don’t know. “Haha, yeah,” whoops an ever-ebullient Greg. “It blows my mind that over 13 years of doing Deerhoof, and no matter how often we get written about, there’s still no agreement about what we sound like. There’s not even a majority. That makes me so happy.” A wide-eyed beam. “I do think that’s a goal. You know, to never do anything that’s easy to write off.”
To unleash them upon Blackpool’s rheumy promenade is to witness a band whose impassioned command of Air Hockey, Dance Mat and Future Panda is matched by their equally rousing good nature: they endure splitting sheets of shitty wind and rain on the pier; clad only in smiles and California t-shirts. Satomi’s heavenly spirits reign over a chip-shop amusement arcade, despite her repeated (and fruitless) attempts to win a toy from the grabbing machine. Perhaps this is why the octogenarian charge-hand unlocks the case and bestows Satomi the biggest cuddly Tigger anyway (and then gives me one too, by virtue of my association with these technicolour, twenty-first century minstrels).
Their greatest perturbation during the photo shoot is that Greg hasn’t shaved for the occasion (“I don’t want to look like, you know, a Labradoodle”). Oh – and that they’re not depicted as brooding. “No frowns,” Saunier wryly commands. “We are not a serious band.”
* * *
Welcome to the Deerhoof dressing room. Satomi animates her newly acquired Tigger toy; face a galaxy of happiness. John absent-mindedly restrings an electric guitar; drifts in and out of arpeggios. Various Flaming Lips hover in the doorway, boasting iPods crammed with episodes of Battlestar Galactica. Greg enlivens a day-glo cossack and skeleton gloves; ruminates on the elusiveness of his work…
Greg: “I’m always surprised that people make music. I just don’t know why they do it. I don’t know why I do it. I mean – I know that it’d be impossible for me to stop, but that’s not a reason. It’s hard to pin down a clear reason that says: this is why I do music. Like you could say, this is why I build buildings, or this is why I defend the poor, or this is why I grow vegetables: something that has a tangible result. But when you start making comparisons like that, what possible purpose does music serve? And yet – why does it seem like every culture throughout history has always sung, and made instruments, and made music? It appears, based on centuries of empirical evidence, that there’s nothing anyone can do to stop music from happening; from doing new things: from being beautiful enough that it makes people dance, and cry.”
Satomi: “I failed music at school. I was so bad.”
John: “I did too. It was the only class I had to drop at college. I never really wanted to be in a band.”
This aural paradox between virtuosic and ramshackle; between sonically refined and discordantly unkempt; underpins the livid Deerhoof dogma. Satomi’s enfranchised vocal expressions are free from the strictures of conditioning, whereas Greg’s demented rhythmic sensibilities are instinctive yet honed by years of tuition. Watching Saunier wreak percussive calamity onstage – a Tasmanian burl of octopod fervour – it’s hard to believe that his pop career was kick-started by a stint in a barbershop quartet.
Greg: “WHAT? What did you just say?”
Saunier is rendered incredulous: a condition that sees him haphazardly veer from stupefied silence to maniacal eyeballing to exquisite, frantic, falsetto yelps. I repeat my assertion that our star did time in a barbershop quartet.
Greg: “My God, how do I respond to that! If I agree with what you’re suggesting, does that mean I condone your stalking behaviour? Haha. How do you know about the barbershop quartet? It’s true though, yes. I sang the high part. It’s not a common thing to do in the States, no, but I was in a public school, and I was really lucky. I took every class I could: concert band, marching band, jazz band, chorus, male chorus, barbershop quartet, madrigals, music theory and music history.”
Satomi: “Music classes in Japan are so hard. Like, teachers play piano and the one girl and the one guy have to sing together. That’s what I had to do. And this guy who I sang with was so bad, so very bad. So out of tune. He threw me totally off. I got a ‘D’. That really discouraged me.”
John: “Same here. In school I was in chorus and stuff, and I was good up until my voice changed but after that, like in college, music was the only class I pretty much flunked. I was happy playing guitar at home, but I didn’t really think about playing with other people, you know? Until I realised it was the only way to … to progress. To move on.”
Dieterich’s madcap axe-mastery was, until recently, augmented by the power chords of sidekick Chris Cohen; who departed the rabble earlier this year to play full-time with his ancillary posse, The Curtains. John’s transition from bed-sit riff-fiddler to fit guitar overlord is hence complete: Deerhoof still rock like fuck now they are three.
Despite their tumultuous, angular live performances, their records lay bare a classical infrastructure: as best evinced, perhaps, on last year’s Green Cosmos EP, whose misfit orchestral alignments were awesome.
“The funny thing is,” considers Greg, “that although I studied music right through school and beyond, I still find that Satomi knows more classical melodies than I do.” Matsuzaki acquiesces with a deep-rooted shudder. “Yeah – in Japanese schools, they play classical music all the time: in the morning, you know at the start of the day, and then different music for lunch. So it’s like they use music almost in a military way. You know – if you hear this music, you must obey,” she mock-enforces.
“And because of that,” resumes Greg, “I can’t remember the number of times that I’ve put on some really beautiful piece of classical music and Satomi’s been like – ‘oh yeah, this is a diarrhoea commercial in Japan.’”
* * *
Welcome to the part of the interview wherein I tentatively question Greg about a rumoured all-consuming aural obsession. It concerns the works of pumped-up balladeer beefcake Michael Bolton. I say ‘ tentatively’, because Satomi has reportedly threatened to quit the band if Greg speaks of his doe-eyed ardour toward said leonine lung-turbine ever again…
Greg: “Well, I first heard Michael Bolton on a TV commercial for a Lite-Rock radio station in the Bay Area. Michael comes on and screams, ‘HOW AM I SUPPOSED TO LIVE WITHOUT YOU!’ from a mountain top and I say to myself – they call this ‘Lite’? But my real fandom doesn’t start until later, when I’m sucked into one of those ‘Buy Ten CDs for One Cent!’ scams. So I’m searching through a page of little stamps, of zillions of albums I’ve never heard, when something catches my eye … it’s the guy from the mountain, and he’s doing opera arias! I decide it’s worth the risk. I receive Michael Bolton’s My Secret Passion: The Arias, and I put it on, and I immediately start laughing. But then, about two minutes in, I realise that actually it is the best album I’ve heard in my life.”
Here are some other entities of import to Deerhoof, as discerned via Lancashire’s kiss-me-quick hot-spot:
Greg: “We were on tour with the Fiery Furnaces a couple of weeks ago, and I brought along this book about Stravinsky that I really like [Paul Horgan’s Encounters…], it’s just such interesting writing. So I’m reading it and Matthew Friedberger sees me and he’s like, what are you reading? And I show it to him and he hands me this [Memories and Commentaries] – another book on Stravinsky! And now we’re playing with the Flaming Lips, and they’re really into it too! There’s two separate key points in their set where they use ‘Firebird’ – you know, just this super bombastic thing. So it’s all Stravinsky, all the time.”
Satomi: “We’ve been doing quiz shows on the radio while we drive around the cities we’re playing. I love those phone-ins. My favourite was – what’s it called again? Oh yeah, Brain of Britain. That was great.”
Greg: “The tour manager did really well with the answers. I got biosphere.”
John: “I got ergonomic.”
Greg: “I knew it was going to be that.”
Satomi: “I got nothing.”
John: “I’m reading The Waves at the moment. Have you read it? I’ve been reading lots of Virginia Woolf of late, and somebody gave me this one when we played in Germany recently. I kind of started it, like, four times and I kept losing it, but since I’ve realised what’s happening, I’m totally in there. One interesting thing is that the dialogue actually all exists in the characters’ heads – you know, the feelings and thoughts that exist before a person actually opens their mouth. It made me realise that we’re all still children if we go far enough into our heads.”
Satomi: “If I wasn’t with you in Blackpool right now – if I wasn’t in a band – I’d probably be in Tokyo, and I’d be a Tea Master. That means I’d choose tea for people. You know, like: ‘You! Look at your face! You must have Earl Grey.’ I used to learn tea ceremonies when I was a kid. It was nice. For John here, I would choose… mint tea. Fresh mint tea. With flowers. Greg, you would have a decaf – traditional tea. With hot milk. Organic. And you would drink it like this [alternates frantically between slurping milk from one imaginary cup; guzzling tea from another]. I would be green tea. And then I’d eat ice cream. You know, like green tea ice cream.”
John: “I’m increasingly surprised by the music I encounter, and part of that is being around people who keep me excited about things – you know, ‘hey, look at this – look at this tablecloth: this is totally amazing!’ and they point out the flowers on it that you hadn’t really noticed and you’re like, [paws and admires the dressing room tablecloth anew], oh yeah, that is nice! That really helps: having people expose me to stuff that might otherwise pass me by.”
Greg: “Speaking of tablecloths, we made a Halloween costume out of table runners the other day!”
Satomi: “Yeah, a Japanese ghost costume! Ghost kimono. It was Halloween in Montreal. We had like a triangle hat thing, and we walked like, [does angular tango jives], and … well, I don’t think people understood.”
Greg: “I think they maybe just thought we were dressing up as women.”
* * *
Deerhoof fuck with my head to such an extent that when they sound-check the prog-rock wig-out of ‘Milk Man’, I become convinced that the man stood beside me in an empty Blackpool ballroom is not in fact the Flaming Lips’ Wayne Coyne, but rather my dad’s cousin, Charles. They mess with peoples’ perspectives of noise, and rock, and party music and that’s why everyone from Radiohead to Thurston Moore beseeches them to join their tours; it’s why later that night, and live onstage, the aforesaid Lips brand them “The Best Band Ever”.
Friend Opportunity, due out in January, is certain to bag them legion new playmates. Greg’s reticent, however, to predefine our expectations. “I honestly don’t know what people are going to end up saying about the new album,” he deliberates. “Part of the fun for us is that we never know what people are going to think. I mean, we feel like it doesn’t sound like any other music and, um, I feel like it doesn’t sound like any other band,” he continues, slowly, thoughtfully, carefully. “It also doesn’t sound like any of our other CDs. But the listener just plays such a big part.
“I feel like our music doesn’t even exist until somebody’s listened to it,” Greg avows. “The listener has such an important job in helping to finish the piece of music; to finish composing it; to finish constructing it. We always try and make our music feel that way. Really open and free,” he rhapsodises. “So if I were to try and describe new album, or even Deerhoof as a band, I’d maybe just say this: that we always try to give the listener something to do in terms of helping to create our music.”
I listen to the album on the long drive home. And then I listen to the radio. Everything reminds me of our amiable trio: a programme on spontaneous human combustion; the absurdly ace ‘Focus’ by Hocus Pocus; Star Trek, Beyonce, Rimsky-Korsakov, Led Zeppelin. I hear everything in Deerhoof. I hear Deerhoof in everything.
Plan B Magazine, 2006
(Deerhoof photo by Simon Fernandez)