“That drummer’s on the right side of mental” a friend observes as we watch Deerhoof’s Greg Saunier attack his drum-kit with the relentless, cheerful ferocity of a man with an axe, a vendetta and a spare half hour to kill.
It’s maybe an interesting distinction to make from the “wrong” side of mental, but she’s only reacting to the sheer hypnotic mania of his playing. Saunier’s seemingly crazed syncopated/ dislocated barrage is the engorged spleen of the Deerhoof sound. At the turn of a sixpence, they’ll segue from this frantic Can-with-the-heavy-blues drum-pummelling to mellifluous rhythms, light and regular. That’s when the theatrically diminutive Satomi’s sing-song vocals flutter over the music, like a creepy child reciting long best forgotten nursery rhymes.
Over 12 albums and 20 odd (very odd) years, Deerhoof are a band who haven’t been afraid to “mix it up”. Cheerfully slashing and crashing styles with such mischievous abandon, that it’s downright endearing. Their wilful refusal to play the rock game (it’s more scissors paper rock in their case) means that they haven’t sanded down the edges of their sound, album after album, like most of their “alternative” contemporaries. Instead, they’ve cleaved to the quaint notion that sounds can and should collide uncomfortably. And collide they do tonight – often several times within the notional bounds of one of their songs.
With the mighty twin guitars of John Dieterich and Ed Rodriguez throwing sonic shapes on stage, from atonal chainsaw through barbed wire noise to lolloping Peter Gunn Theme blues attacks, they’re constantly and endlessly interesting. For all their jazz tendencies, there’s also lot of wholesomely conventional riffage contained within the rattle bag of Deerhoof’s sound. In the midst of this warm cacophony, it is the professionally deranged Saunier and the sweetly subversive Satomi that don’t so much steal the show, as openly purloin it in plain view.
Admirers have long maintained that no two Deerhoof shows are the same. That’s as much to do with the band’s audience interactions as it is with their healthy disrespect of the “set text” of the studio recordings.
Between winning, expertly deconstructed songs like ‘Paradise Girls’ and ‘Perfect Me’, Saunier’s anti-stand-up ramblings at the mike are something of an arresting oddity. Whether he’s taking about his nerves in that slightly whiny affected Emo Philips drawl or babbling thus: “None of the Toronto shows that I’ve ever played have I seen James there. Marie was busy in college… Rory – get your act together man…” it’s all part of the art of the thing.
Equally, Satomi’s idea of a traditional sing along involves getting the somewhat reserved crowd singing “Panda Panda Panda China!” along to the deceptively arrhythmic ‘Panda Panda Panda’ is as awkwardly absurdist as it sounds. It’s part of an encore that also includes an uplifting ‘Oh Bummer’ which concludes in a beautiful feedback loop and ‘Mirror Monster’ – all squelchy, crunching bass, and Satomi’s freewheeling arms, like a mini-air traffic controller. The rapt not rapturous crowd politely calls for more.
“Mixing together! Belfast is ok! But much quieter than last night!” She sweetly taunts us in our semi-soporific awe, but like a lot of Deerhoof tonight, you’re unsure whether it’s just more performance or point of view. We don’t mind either way with an hour and a half of this band.
“I want to put her in my pocket” my enthusiastic female friend pipes up again, in another slightly unfortunate if spontaneous reaction to the wonders on the stage. But as Deerhoof proved again at The Black Box, you’d be as likely to trouser mercury.