When trying to describe the mercurial music of the avant-garde San Franciscan band Deerhoof, you might be forgiven for grabbing the big handbook of psychology disorders instead of the thesaurus. This music is fractured, intense, manic, symptomatic of multiple personality disorder, and volatile as hell. Over the last decade theyÃ¢€â„¢ve recorded ten albums which demonstrate impressive versatility and which share two consistent threads, a winning willingness to experiment and an underlying love of melody. You see, no matter how ferociously convoluted their twisting compositions sometimes get, the listener will always find a sugary hook on which to hang that all-important remaining shred of brain.
The bandÃ¢€â„¢s excellent recent album Offend Maggie was hailed in some quarters as a pared down outing for the group. But this is relative. Listening to it still feels like a trip down a water slide. They are playing a three date tour of Ireland in July in association with Foggy Notions – gigs not to be missed due to the incendiary way they deliver their material. Spurred on by founder member Greg SaunierÃ¢€â„¢s expressive (read slightly demented) way with the sticks and lead singer Satomi MatsuzakiÃ¢€â„¢s even more expressive (read even more demented) way with a vocal melody, their live performances really are something else. Ahead of the gigs State got a chance to chat with guitarist John Dietrich about their experimentalism, bright ideas involving fans, and questions of authenticity and emotion in music.
You’ve been around quite a while now, yet a striking thing about your career is how distinct every new release sounds. Whereas many other bands seem to follow a clear trajectory, following your back catalogue feels like hopping across a pond from one stone to the next. Do you consciously wipe the slate clean from one release to the next or does this just happen of its own accord?
I think it’s a little of both. We are definitely aware of what we’ve done in the past, and each album to some degree is a response to the last or another word in the sentence, and it would be kind of weird to use the same word twice. At the same time, I think the ideas that come to each of us are so all over the place that in a way, each album could be just about anything and we’re in the position of refining those ideas to create something that we can make sense of.
Before your record was released you gave fans the sheet music of one of the songs “fresh born” so they could interpret it for themselves. This is a fun and unusual idea, which plays with traditional ideas of the relationship between a band and their fans. Along with Radiohead getting their fans to remix some songs and Deerhunter’s Bradford Cox’s continual blogging of new material, would you agree that the internet is actually drawing fans into musicians’ creative processes? If you do, how good a thing do you think this is?
I really loved what happened with the sheet music. For us, it’s so cool to see how other people react to music that we have written, and I know for myself that working with other people’s material is often a great way to interact with their ideas. I guess for me the confusing part about the internet and its relationship to creativity is that creativity is sometimes very slow and requires a long attention span to hear what it is that your imagination is telling you. For myself, I know I can get caught up in the appearance of doing things on the internet when the fact is that I’m just spinning my wheels, and I’m not really being creative. In any case, my answer to your question is that I think it is a good thing that the internet is drawing fans into musicians’ creative processes as long as people are still exploring their own creative processes as deeply and meaningfully as possible.
Listening to some of your music, and especially watching you live, often gives the impression of very individual sensibilities pulling away from the centre and I often wonder how you manage to tame yourselves enough to work as a cohesive force. Does it ever feel like the centre won’t hold?
Not only does it feel like it, but in reality it definitely doesn’t hold sometimes. And that breaking point may be different for every person in the band and every listener. On the surface, it doesn’t make any sense. We’re attempting to create something very specific together but which also requires the moment to moment ability of the people in the band to react to whatever’s happening. In reality, I don’t think that it’s the improvisation itself that always is what is important. It’s the feeling that anything can happen that’s
important. It may happen that that is the same thing some of the time, but I still think it’s an important distinction, because sometimes the most surprising thing that can happen is that the band plays completely together. One other thing I would say is that whatever the qualities that people work on to develop improvisational skill are the same skills that are required to play written material as an ensemble in a way that breathes. I think often the music that I like has this great tension between people threatening to abandon the form but then deciding that they’re willing to work within it for the time being.
We’re sure you’ve been told countless times that Offend Maggie sounds more intimate than some of your previous records on account of how it was recorded. Often when bands are told things like this the interviewer is sometimes hinting that certain ways of playing or recording are more ’emotive’ or ‘authentic’ than others. Would you buy into this? Like, for example, would you agree that some earlier Deerhoof records might have less of an emotional charge?
I think it’s great that you hear it that way. To be honest, I don’t hear it that way, though I could posit a lot of theories as to why you might. I do remember thinking that this felt like a sad album while we were making it. I will say that I think it’s interesting how we tend to talk about emotion in recorded music (and possibly in other art) as it relates to negative or sad feelings, and when the art has a more positive feeling we tend to think of it as more emotionally neutral or possibly goofy or something. One thing that I’ve realized through playing shows over the years is that when we play live, the more positive sounding music actually communicates its true meaning to people in a way that it just can’t on record.
I don’t know if it’s just an inherent cynicism associated with recordings or what (i.e. the fact that by its very nature, it’s not the real deal but a representation of the real deal), but something really special can happen when people realize that happiness is also something that can be felt very deeply and meaningfully as a result of listening to music. It’s funny, because I may be advertising my own emotional ignorance or something, but I always have been (and continue to be) someone who tends to like sad, morose music, but my experience in being in this band is that it’s not always the most wonderful feeling to pummel an audience with something that’s intended to make them feel bad. They can go home and do that on their own, but since we’re in this big room together, why not try to create an energy that will move people to do things, to make something of their own and change things for the better.
It’s great to see that you are doing a mini tour of Ireland. Many visiting bands don’t do that and only take in Dublin. Was that a decision you lot made yourself?
Well, it’s something we’ve wanted to do for a long time and it just hadn’t worked out yet. We’re really excited to be coming. The only thing IÃ¢€â„¢m scared of is driving. Any tips for a driver used to driving on the other side of the car and road?
You’re on a long jaunt into Europe this summer. Bands seem to spend a lot more time on tour these days and while some love it, many I’ve interviewed hate it because it eats into their composing time. Does increased touring affect or upset your recording or does it have a positive impact?
It’s a little of both, to be honest. I actually feel very, very creatively stimulated on the road and tend to get a lot of ideas for things (something about constantly moving), but it’s hard to act on those ideas when I don’t really have any free time. At home, the world isn’t going by a mile a minute, but at least I have the time to see an idea through to completion sometimes!
Finally, if we had a crystal ball that worked what might it predict you guys will be doing in six months time?
In 6 months time, we’ll be playing the 10 year anniversary of All Tomorrow’s Parties in Minehead!
Deerhoof play Whelans Dublin on July 10th, Roisin Dubh Galway on July 11th and the Pavillion Cork on July 12th