More than any other band right now, Deerhoof represents the refined embodiment of music’s endless possibilities. They’re playing at the Phoenix Theater in Petaluma this Saturday, and I swear you won’t ever see another band like them. At all.
For my Bohemian article, I spoke with Deerhoof drummer Greg Saunier about John Cage, the creative process, Harry Smith, childrens’ music, touring with Radiohead, and shutting down haters. There was no way to fit it all into just 700 words—he’s not one to speak in prefabricated soundbites, that’s for sure. City Sound Inertia to the rescue: read the extended 3,000-word interview here, and don’t say I didn’t warn you. Our conversation starts after the jump.
Q: Did you ever think, twelve years ago, that Deerhoof would go from a little experimental duo to this highly regarded, trailblazing band opening for Radiohead?
A: I didn’t even think it would go from its first show as a duo to its second show as a duo. I never had any expectations that anyone would ever listen to us or that anyone would ever come to our concerts. But also implied in your question is the fact that the style of music has changed, and yes. The music is always changing. I did always expect that the music would change but I never knew how. You can never predict what somebody’s gonna come up with—even yourself. There’s no way to plan out what your imagination is going to surprise you with tomorrow. That’s the way I still feel, and that’s part of the fun of it. That’s something we know we would never wanna lose, is that kind of mystery, that feeling of surprise. In a way, maybe in some twisted way, that means that we’ve always played experimental music. In another way, I think that we’ve never played experimental music. It just depends on how you define the word. It’s always an experiment to see what someone comes up with; then again, once somebody comes up with an idea that we like, we’ve always has a side of us that are a little bit obsessive, or perfectionist, or something. So that it may have seemed like a completely random idea at first, but at the same time, by the time we’re through with it, we have really nitpicked over it to the point that it doesn’t feel anything like ‘experimental music’ at that point. We’re very sure of what we’re doing, for better or for worse.
Q: Do you think that balance of chaos and order comes in part from a classical background, like, say, from composers like John Cage? Like how his prepared piano pieces seem like utterly random pastiches of sound, yet they’re actually meticulously written out?
A: John Cage has been a real musical hero of mine ever since I was in high school, so it’s funny that you would bring him up. I think that he is a really interesting example—one among zillions—of someone who combined what you’re calling “chaos” and “order,” in a really kind of a funny way. One the one hand, so much of the music for which he’s famous was put together in a random way; he’s throwing sticks or rolling dice or using computer programs to come up with random assemblages.
Q: Or there’s that record he did with David Tudor where he put microphones out on the street and in the lobby, and mixed it in with the music that was happening on stage. . .
A: Yeah, and the way it was mixed—when to turn the fader down, and when to turn it up, and how much—was all determined, again, randomly, by chance. There’s absolutely no prediction on his part as to what it’s actually going to sound like. But then at the same time, once he rolls his dice, and says, “Okay, the fader is supposed to be turned up to +2 for 27 seconds,” that’s what he puts down in his score! It’s not just like, “yeah, just sorta turn it up and down”—it’s very specific. And the performer is expected to follow it to the letter, almost scientifically. On the one hand, there’s this wildness you think of when you think of throwing dice to come up with your music, but on the other hand there’s this monk-like discipline that he always showed. He’ll write out his scores in this very neat handwriting, and his performers—David Tudor, you brought up David Tudor—he was mostly known as a concert pianist in the early days, and every time he’d play a John Cage piece, he’s always there in his suit and tie, you know. There was this dissonance, this clash, this almost absurd irony to the situation. Which, of course, made John Cage the ultimate punching bag, and he knew it. And I think that part of him reveled in that too, that he was willing to do something that was so easy to mock and so easy to make fun of and that could so easily be taken as comical. Yet there was another side of it too that was very serious. Maybe serious isn’t the right word, but very deep. It was so radical in the way that it conceived of what music is. As a person who’s had a longtime obsession with him and his music, I feel like what I’ve managed to learn to do… if I’ve learned to listen to his random music and feel that it is music, that effort over the years, I feel like has pried my own ears open in a really interesting way that makes it possible for me to switch into “John Cage listening mode.” It’s almost like I have it in my mental repertoire, and when I switch it on, I feel like no matter what the sounds are—the traffic going by on Hyde Street here at my house—I feel like I can listen to it as if it’s music. And whatever kind of state somebody goes into when they’re listening to music, something different happens. It’s different than listening to speech, it’s different than watching TV, it’s different than eating a sandwich. It’s this special thing that human beings do, they listen to music, and it is it’s own special state, or event, and to be able to include any kind of sounds that might be happening anywhere, anytime, within that state, is a really neat privilege. And I feel like I learned that from him. So my only point being that on the one hand, he’s easy to make fun of, and people thought of him as a goof-off, or a charlatan, or just someone who was destroying music, but at the same time, while all of that could be true, it’s also true that he had something very not destructive, but creative to offer to people, something helpful.
Q: That reminds me: I was amazed to find on YouTube’s home site, where they feature certain videos, this past week they’ve been featuring Stockhausen’s Helicopter Quartet. (Saunier laughs uncontrollably) I don’t know if you’re familiar with that. . .
A: I’m only familiar with the score, I haven’t seen the video!
Q: Yeah, so there’s four helicopters flying, with each member playing cello, or violin or whatever in a different helicopter. And you wouldn’t believe what people. . . I mean, I think YouTube comments are like the lowest of the low. . .
A: Right, right, they’re the least thought-out ever.
Q: . . . and everyone hated it, everyone thought it was the stupidest thing on Earth. And it was great—it was part of the experience, actually—that almost part of the composition was the audience reaction to the composition.
Q: There are some people that hate on you guys pretty hard; how do you approach that?
A: Well, in no way am I making a comparison between us and anyone else, but all I have to do is remember this: take Martin Luther King, take Mahatma Gandhi, take Jesus—take any of the greatest, most widely accepted heroes of human history, and all of them were hated on pretty hard too. Once again, I’m not trying to compare us to any of those, but in some way, there’s a comparison—not with Deerhoof, but with anybody—which is that at a certain point, a person needs to do what they’re gonna do. When it comes to something like music, and maybe some people are able to find a way out of this, but I’ve always felt like I’m not able to tell—kind of like what I was saying before—I can’t really tell my imagination what to produce. And once it’s produced, once it’s come up with something, I can’t say no. I mean, I could keep saying no and never play any music, but if I want to play some music I’ve gotta use what I have. Maybe it’s not the same as Martin Luther King, because maybe I don’t really believe in my songs in the way that he believed in his ideas—civil rights, or his religious ideas. Even so, those are the ideas he felt strongly about, that was his starting place. And at a certain point, you’re gonna present your ideas. You’re gonna play the hand you’ve been given, regardless. You could either play the hand or not play the hand, but you don’t wanna go through life not playing your hand, you know, just waiting. So we’ve chosen to do that. That being said, my life is not filled with anywhere near the kind of suffering of those historical figures. Sure, a lot of people have hated our music, but a lot of people have loved our music too. I think we’ve been so lucky. Going back to your first question, I never expected that anyone… it’s always weird to think that an idea that would come from such a personal or remote starting point, somewhere inside somebody’s mind, could ever be heard by a total stranger in Petaluma, or Turkey, or Japan, and that’s it’s anything other than total gibberish to them. It shocks me again and again, year after year. Every time we do another album, it’s sort of like, “Well, huh. I would never have guessed that that last one could have been comprehensible to anyone but us! But it seems to have been. So, well, maybe we’ll dare to go a little further this time and see what happens.”
Q: How did it feel to have your music not only understood but performed by children, like the kids in Maine who did the Milk Man ballet?
A: It’s very hard to put into words, just the sheer happiness. It’s beyond “somebody listened to your music,” and even beyond “somebody listened to your music and really liked it.” Both of those are a surprise to me. But this was a case of someone heard your music and liked it and also wanted to perform it. They wanted to do their own version of it. They wanted to spend a few months practicing and working on it and thinking about it and rearranging it for different instrumentation and teaching it to children. It was a moment that I always think back to as being too good to be true. I remember that when I was young, the way that I heard music at that time was so formative for me. To have the opportunity to be one of those things… Normally when I think of kids’ music, I’m no connoisseur, but the stuff is depressing! It’s more conservative even than the music that the adults listen to, which is already very conservative and laden with all kinds of rules. For some reason, there seems to be this thought that kids need all the rules of the music in our culture boiled down and presented very rigidly. I think there’s some truth to the idea that kids like repetitive music, or that they simple music, or music that’s easy to sing. That much, I do think, may have some basis, at least with really small kids.
Q: But do most people not think that it’s right for kids to be singing about people with bananas smashed into their bloody arms…
A: Well, I don’t know, they sing about all kinds of other creepy or scary creatures and monsters and stuff! If there’s any age group that seems the most fixated on scary things, or on monsters, or on the fantastic or on the surreal, I don’t think there’s any second place, I think it’s obviously kids. I don’t find any kind of clash or weirdness there at all.
Q: You guys composed a score for a Harry Smith film a while ago. Did you feel any responsibility to incorporate folk or blues or old-timey music to honor his Anthology of American Folk Music?
A: I’ve never been asked that, and I never really thought about it, but instantly, I felt like when you asked that, the first thing that jumps to my mind is if you listen—I don’t think I’ve ever heard the whole thing, but I’ve heard bits and pieces—it’s like, when you listen to the examples that Harry Smith put together, what strikes you is not how faithful it is to some traditional genre of folk music, like, “isn’t that quaint, isn’t that nice, this reminds me of Hee-Haw,” it’s like what strikes you is how incredibly individual each song is and each performer is, and how eccentric. If anything strikes you about it, if you’re going to make a comparison between the quote-unquote “folk” songs that you hear on Harry Smith’s collection, and then a quote-unquote “folk” song that you would conjure up in your mind as a stereotype of a folk song, the difference is that the performers on the Harry Smith collection, for them, it feels at least to me as a listener like they weren’t choosing a genre. They didn’t arrive at age 18 and say, “Okay, well it’s time for me to decide what I’m going to do with my life. I could do folk music, I could do jazz, I could do the many various subgenres of heavy metal, I could do salsa.” It was more like the performers… folk music was not a genre choice the way it kind of is now: when people say the words “folk music” it’s a reference back to an earlier style. Harry Smith lived in the middle of the 20th century, but these recordings he compiled were much older than that, they weren’t contemporary for him. They were historical recordings that were stored in the Smithsonian archives that he compiled into a release, so they were turn-of-the-century stuff, if I’m not mistaken. So basically, it never occurred to us to do music that sounded like “folk music,” the genre, but in a way what we were trying to do was the music that come to us most naturally, or that came from the deepest in one’s own imagination, or was as personal as possible. That was our thought on it. And I’ve always felt—I mean, it sounds absurd, or ludicrous to say—but deep down I’ve always felt that’s what we play is folk music, or traditional music. Even though it might sound weird, or it might sound different from somebody else’s music. It’s like, how could anybody do anything other than folk music? I don’t know, that seems to me to be what music is.
Q: Well, it’s different if they follow a formula or something. You mentioned the word ‘imagination’ a couple of times, and how you set out to create a good facsimile of what you imagine in your mind, and there’s a lot of bands that don’t do that. There’s a lot of bands that say: “We’re gonna try to create this.”
A: You could be right, but if they have that ability, then it’s an ability that I admire, and it definitely eludes me. I just don’t understand where that comes from. To me, that would be a great skill to have. It’s not like we never try, you know—a lot of our songs are attempts to do something in the style of such-and-such, but it just always comes out so completely different. It just never works. We’ve never been able to do an accurate imitation of anything. We’ve never been able to fall into a known style, even if we have tried. I think it’s pretty neat if people can do it. We were actually talking about this last night. We were all having dinner together, and we were talking about which one of us is good at doing physical impressions. Like, if we see somebody, or we see someone we know, or some celebrity or character from a TV show, which one of us can do an impression of this person and make it seem real?
Q: Was anyone successful?
A: No! That’s just it; any of us try to imitate the person and we just end up coming out with some completely bizarre thing that doesn’t remind anyone of the original, nor does it remind them of anything else. The only person it reminds us of is the person who’s trying to do the impression. If John tries to do such-and-such person, basically what you end up seeing is John. And I think that a lot of the time that’s what ends up happening with our music too.
Q: Tell me about touring with Radiohead—what did those shows feel like? Was it tough to play for thousands of people waiting to see a different band?
A: Well, we have, many times, opened for other bands, so we have experienced the feeling of just being tolerated or suffered through. But in the case of their audience, it felt a lot different. Radiohead’s fans are music fans in a really extreme way. They’re listening for the finer points. Their fans seem to be real deep listeners, and even though most of them had never heard of Deerhoof, I still felt very listened to rather then ignored. And of course, what a privilege. We didn’t think that we wanted to do the tour because we thought that anyone would like us, I think probably, none of us had ever seen Radiohead live so we wanted to get a chance to do it. It turned out to be way beyond what we thought it would be. The band, too, turned out to be actually better even than I thought and as people they turned out to be really friendly. I think that we’d been warned that they were aloof and pretentious and depressed all the time, and if you meet any of them, words like that are such a complete and total mismatch to describe them. It could not have been more different. So friendly, so funny, just joking all the time. Totally self-deprecating—they’d go out and play one of the most inspiring concerts, with so much energy and so much beauty, and a feeling that the audience and the band were really connected in some kind of stunning way. And five seconds later, they’d come off the stage and be like, “Oh man, we really blew it tonight.” That kind of thing. It’s like, what are you talking about?! That’s just their style.
Q: Have you ever thought at all about the legacy of Deerhoof—what people will think of the band when they discover your records 50 years from now?
Q: Not really. I don’t know if it would occur to me until I maybe stopped making music, and then I could sit back and think about it. But right now I’m so caught up in, like, “Why does this one section of our new song not work?” or “God, I think my drum beat in this one part sounds so stupid.” That’s what keeps me up at night. Where should I set up my cymbal? What kind of drum stick should I use? How far should John’s bass knob be turned up on his amp? Because if he turns it up from 2 1/2 to 3, then I think that’s going to ruin my entire life? I’m not thinking that far ahead, I’m just really fixated on what we’re working on now. It feels like we just started a new band. We’re all so excited right now, and also overwhelmed. Everybody has ideas, and were trying to get to them all. Sometimes these ideas aren’t necessarily the easiest things to play, too. But it amazes me that that feeling can keep happening. As long as the band’s been together, it still feels like we’re only starting and that we’re still complete mysteries to each other in a lot of ways. We don’t understand anything about how you put a song together or how you play music. It feels like nothing’s given. We aren’t starting from a solid base of understanding. It’s just constant upheaval. So yeah, things are going really well right now.
Tags: deerhoof, Harry Smith, Interview, John Cage, Radiohead