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Exercises in career suicide: A Q&A with Greg Saunier of Deerhoof

Deerhoof

There are few sentences as difficult to finish as one that begins with "Deerhoof is."

Deerhoof is an art-pop band comprised of four fearless musicians willing to follow the muse anywhere.

Deerhoof is a fully combustible rock quartet who have spent the last 25 years radiating creativity in such a way that your favorite band would blush and sneak out the back door while no one is looking.

Deerhoof is a group committed, above all, to creating music that gets people moving while paying no mind to needless genre classifications.

Most importantly, in the short term, Deerhoof is making its Lancaster debut on Thursday, April 25, at Tellus360. We spoke with drummer and founding member Greg Saunier last week over the phone between soundcheck and a show in Milwaukee. Tickets are still available for the Tellus360 show and can be found here.

As far as I could see, Thursday’s show will be your first time in Lancaster. What made you add the city to the tour list for the first time?

I think it was just like, on the way. We had a free date between Pittsburgh and the New York show. I think normally in the past, we would have skipped right from Pittsburgh to New York. I think one factor is declining interest in doing very long drives. John Dieterich, our guitar player, does 99.9% of the driving and actually, he never really complains, but it’s the other people in the rented mini-van watching him drive that gets so bored of watching him behind the wheel. He sort of always does his left turns the same way. We never listen to any music in the car. I don’t know, it seems like the thrill is gone.

Well, we’re happy that you decided to make a pit stop.

It’s going to be awesome. Everything I just told you was a joke, but the truth is, the second we booked this show, the interest from local bands, from you to do press, is so beyond what we usually get in big cities that we usually play. It’s usually like, “Oh, Deerhoof again.” Anytime we play a city for the first time, it’s always - well, to be honest, I don’t want to put any pressure on the citizens of Lancaster, but it’s always a great shock to us because the first show in a new town is usually a knockout.

I saw that you played all of “Friend Opportunity" live back in February; was that the first time the band had attempted that?

That was definitely the first time, but hopefully not the last because it was so fun. It was a very hard-to-describe experience. The record is 12 years old, and most of the songs we hadn’t even attempted to play live, much less actually putting them on the setlist. Some of our records are more live sounding with all of us playing at once, but “Friend Opportunity” was sort of assembled in various bedrooms and among various microchips on our computers.

A classical percussion trio from Brooklyn called Tigue reached out to us wanting to collaborate, and we suggested playing the album all the way through. With them there, they could cover all the percussion and I could play piano and keyboard parts. You just can’t imagine - 2007 happens and you’re like, "Oh, some of these songs are nice, I’m glad they made it on the record, these will never be revisited again in our lives” [laughs]. I can’t describe to you sitting on the stage playing those songs, and not only playing them, but having them actually work.

A lot of the songs we skipped before for the sheer reason that they’re quiet ballads that we were too timid to play at a noisy punk show or whatever. We’d play these whisper-volume, heartfelt ballads that ... I don’t know what we’re known for, or even if we’re known, but if we are known for anything, it’s not for that. I was moved to tears multiple times during the performance just from the unexpected emotional red carpet that I never thought would be rolled out for me.

Are you the type of person to care about album anniversaries?

[Laughs] I care if someone takes the time to remind me. I guarantee you that I’ll always press “Retweet” if I see that come up.

Well, then I’ll tell you right now, “Milk Man” is celebrating 15 years in 2019 and “Holdypaws” is reaching 20.

Oh my god, exactly. Actually, we’re working right now on putting “Holdypaws” on vinyl because those really old [albums] have never been released on LP. I’m going through it and trying to figure out how to fix some sonic flaws. Of course, the original tracks are long since erased. They were probably erased before the album even came out. Our friend who recorded it probably needed space on his computer the next day, so there’s no recourse to go back.

I’ve learned a few tricks in the last 20 years, so maybe I can get it a teeny bit less flaw-filled. I went to listen to it a month ago, and I didn’t even have a copy. Kill Rock Stars, the record label that put it out originally, had to send me a copy. I hadn’t listened to it in so long, and it was sort of a similar experience [to playing “Friend Opportunity”], I was so moved to hear this old music.

On the one hand, I had all these memories of making it from 20 years ago, and at the same time, I feel like our style hasn’t really changed all that much. It’s really a shock when you consider that half of the line-up was different people in 1997. There's something in the dynamic of Satomi [Matsuzaki] singing over an abrasive-sounding rock band that hasn’t really changed. I was really touched by how the songs sounded. I think if we can get our act together, and, you know, people stop calling me for interviews and stuff like that, I can sit down and try to get this music ready for LP release.

From old music to new, the band put out versions of two songs from “The Shining” soundtrack last fall. Are there any other film scores you would want to try your hand at?

Oh my god, even this one took three years of constant nagging to convince us to record these tracks. So my guess is, yes, if someone wanted to try and start in on us and are willing to be persistent for three years, you may have luck. “Full Metal Jacket” would be another good one. Ed [Rodriguez] did almost all of the music on that. He sat there with the Béla Bartok score that he had gotten out of the library, and did all the orchestra parts note for note. Satomi sang her part on “Midnight, The Stars and You,” and I added a few drum parts.

We were working right up to the last second. We had a deadline, and if we missed it, the seven-inch wouldn’t come out on Halloween, which was the whole point [laughs]. There was no point putting it out in like, November. I was really gratified to see the response has been so popular, and that it’s gotten played on radio. We were so iffy on if it was a good idea or whether anyone would care.

Is that a recurring feeling for you? Are you continually surprised by reactions to what the band does?

I have to say, yes, it is a reoccurring theme. Our expectations are always that whatever move we’ve just made will equal career suicide in some way. Career suicide is very common, especially in indie or sort of hipster music. Any style that’s a little bit trendy, you don’t expect it to last a year or two, much less anything resembling a career. So it is a real shock each time we find out that anyone is interested in us still. It’s been a real cause for celebration within the band, we’re so happy. We don’t even live in the same city as each other anymore, so it seems like the odds are stacked against a band sustaining itself. Maybe I credit ourselves as opposed to our music? My bandmates are very easygoing, and with all the ups and downs that people can go through in 25 years, we’ve always found a way to work things out and still enjoy being around each other. I think we enjoy ourselves more now than ever.

I guess that’s the hope for any relationship, that it gets better over time?

Yeah, if you can get over the humps, it definitely does, because you can understand and accept each other. You know how to deal with conflict, because you’ve faced it before. You can’t really say that in the first year, you’re running on beginner’s luck. It's all about if you survive your first arguments over what you want the record to sound like, or who gets the couch and who gets the floor [laughs].

Since you live in different cities, have you attempted the video call practice? Is the technology there yet?

There’s always a delay! Satomi wears some pretty good hats when we try to do video calls, though.

Has there ever been an instance where a music writer has accurately described the sound of the band? Where you read it and thought, “Yes, they got it?”

That’s a pretty good question. Now and again, you see descriptions that make you scratch your head a little bit. And usually, I found them to be racially-based. So, what I can only imagine to be a very lazy music journalist, will describe us as similar to every other band with a female, Japanese singer that they’ve ever heard of. So we get comparisons that don’t make that much musical sense. But other than that, I’d say no.

It’s a two-step thing: I totally support and approve of any person, journalist or otherwise, having an impression or reaction to our music. That’s completely valid and justified. At the same time, if I start to see that several people are describing our music in similar ways, then we know that it might be time for us to try something entirely opposite, to keep the tension going. I think that’s really fun for us. It’s sort of like a conversation between the band and the listener over the course of many years where you’re trying to keep it surprising.

To close out, since I’ve seen you mention your love of the Rolling Stones before, do you have a singular favorite Charlie Watts drum moment?

For me, it’s very much about the last song on Side A of “Some Girls,” which is called “Lies.” There’s a place about 20 seconds from the end where you can tell the whole band is really excited and trying to sound punk. The whole band sounds like it’s really in danger of falling apart, and Charlie tries to hit the bass drum on every eighth note for a couple of bars, kind of like doing the fill on the bass drum. They always sounded a little out of control, which was part of their charm. But that was a moment where an almost total loss of control actually made it onto a record, which was rare for them.

  

Deerhoof plays at 8 p.m. at Tellus360 on Thursday, April 25, with support from Palm. Tickets can be found here. Check out Greg Saunier's recently released album, "Instruments" a collaboration with Stargaze of deconstructed takes on Fugazi's "In On the Kill Taker," here.

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Kevin Stairiker is a features writer for Fly After 5. He is a graduate of Temple University and enjoys writing in third person. When he isn't writing, he's probably playing guitar for a litany of bands, reading comics or providing well-needed muscle at