Deerhoof need little introduction. With 17 full-length albums of “aesthetic mayhem” (Saunier’s term) over the past 23 years, the band has become a household name in the underground and a prerequisite for many that have followed. Drummer and frequent band mouthpiece Greg Saunier holds a charismatic and articulate demeanor that pervades performances, merch tables, and occasional interviews.
I was lucky enough to take part in the latter, speaking to Saunier over the phone in early July. It’s been a couple months since our conversation. While that is hard for me to believe, I start to think that it maybe isn’t irrelevant to my slow, queazy, and uncertain turnaround of this piece that the call began with a thorough 10-minute musing by Saunier on how the contemporary, somewhat obscene advancement of the 24-hour news cycle provokes an odd sort of transparency in media. Saunier is somewhat emotionally exhausted while delivering his thoughts, as the monologue was sparked by two disparate but intertwined information events: the proliferation of direct unedited footage of the murder of Alton Sterling and the release of the Chilcot report. Saunier’s concerns hung over the remainder of our hour-plus conversation that followed the odd apology that tied them up: “Yeah, no offense. I’m not necessarily insulting the entire journalistic community at all times on all reportage or features.” I told him it was OK if he meant to do so anyway.
“It’s just a weird moment because the media [pauses] in both cases, it’s so, the news is so newsworthy but also so clear and uninterrupted that the media hasn’t figured out a spin on it yet. So right now, it’s just this rare moment when it’s very obvious that Black Lives Matter and the anti-war movement were both completely correct all along, and politicians and media haven’t figured out a way to make an excuse yet. So it’s just this weird window, a brief slice of the moment where the truth is coming out for a second in unedited form.” It soon becomes clear Deerhoof is not a structure for entertainment nor is it one for direct challenge and subversion. Deerhoof is something like a petri dish for the realm of collaboration, communication, relation, and creativity, a haven from anxiety and the daily horror.
At that time, I didn’t realize I would spend months with my own anxieties and events, pushing this conversation aside — though always in loom — and as a result disrupting the information flow that Saunier was describing (adding, I’m sure, unnecessary uncertainties and anxieties to certain parties — sorry Nathan, sorry P, sorry Saunier). This may be a fully realized exercise in useless journalism: all spin following its event, the collaborative, creative act of conversation. I sit down and play back the recording of Saunier and myself talking over the phone. Slowed down to 85% its original speed (for ease of transcription), our voices are low and fluid, dumb-sounding, words beat to a crawl, however groggy they may have already been (it was 7 AM my time when we held the interview). Saunier is broken but friendly answering the phone: “I’m alright, kinda funny day.”
Our conversation turns to The Rolling Stones via Jean-Luc Godard’s 1968 film Sympathy for the Devil. The film depicts two contrasting group subjects: (1) The Rolling Stones in the studio workshopping and recording the film’s namesake song, and (2) footage of Black Panther members enacting dramatic scenes. I incite from Saunier a lengthy, passionate, and tangential breakdown of the film when I mention aspects of Adam Pendleton’s short film Band (2011) — a response to Sympathy for the Devil with Deerhoof taking the place of The Rolling Stones, specifically how both it and the music video for “Debut” allow a closer look at Deerhoof’s writing and recording process (which has now also been nicely documented by DrownedInSound).
My suggestion is that the unorthodox experimentation Deerhoof utilizes and the horizontal collaboration they pursue show a serious amount of trust between members. Prepared guitars, upside-down strumming, on-the-spot lyric changes, and makeshift mic setups require faith and willingness from one another. I reference Band, because it shows this dynamic of trust and of egalitarianism. The film depicts an argument that feels serious and intimate. After the fanboy floodgates have opened and Saunier has delivered a fanatical lengthy summary of Sympathy for the Devil, he clarifies: “There’s always great potential for people getting hurt, I would say even more so than in The Rolling Stones’ case. Because you see for instance Charlie [Watts] playing drums in the corner of the room and he just looks completely, absolutely carefree. It’s sort of understood that Jagger-Richards is the songwriting team in the band and they’ve already proven themselves with a bunch of hits and taken them to the top of the charts, the roles are very defined and it’s somewhat hierarchical.
“In Deerhoof it’s never been like that. […] Everybody that’s ever been in the band has written songs for the band, and [laughing] none of us have ever proven ourselves by getting a hit single, so it’s sort of like, it’s anybody’s guess. There’s no hierarchy, there’s no central leadership, everything is pure horizontal consensus and just having to potentially discuss every possible decision with every person involved and sign off on every little thing that might get done. […] [This] leads, in the end, to a very happy band, but during the process, it’s like we can’t pass the buck and we can’t, you know, complain that word came down from the guys up top. We all share a responsibility for the outcome, so everybody’s got to deal with the nuts and bolts of it. And sometimes that means hurt feelings, it means somebody’s song getting rejected or an idea that doesn’t get used in the end, so yeah, of course it has a certain kind of tension.”
And though Saunier claims lesser unilateral structuring presence within Deerhoof than The Rolling Stones may have, he was clear to note that the Stones knew “ideas could come from anywhere at any random time and might be worth trying.” Saunier states, “One of the things that is so inspiring about the way that song [“Sympathy for the Devil”] was made — and the general vibe of The Rolling Stones — is that sort of, what you just described, everybody chipping in, everybody trusting each other with ideas… Like, let’s just see what happens. A song can drastically change tempos or drastically change feel in the process of the band trying to make sense of it.” He cites the film’s documentation of “Sympathy for the Devil” as it was originally intended to be an acoustic guitar ballad, its piano and percussive drive being a later development. He adds to this, the contribution to the song that is attributed to Anita Pallenberg (Keith Richards’ partner): her bored sarcastic creation of the landmark backup vocals that in some way cement the recording’s atmosphere and identity. “It’s not that the take they ended up with on the record was quote-unquote perfect, but at the same time it is perfect in the sense that those involved in making it — the band — had a consensus that they agreed upon: this is smokin’, this is the one, we gotta keep this, let’s put the vocals on top.”
However, this creative energy that allows inspiration from all sides and recognizes the mixture that works isn’t just confined to the studio or the rehearsal room. “It hadn’t occurred to me until you just asked this question, which you, uh, asked about half an hour ago [laughing]. I’m like those two dogs; it only took one little thing to set me off, and now I’m just going wild with answers. But it just occurred to me that Beggars Banquet starts with “Sympathy” and The Magic starts with “The Devil and his Anarchic Surrealist Retinue,” and it is meant to be, now that I think about it — I realize that I should expect a lawsuit from Mick Jagger any day now because I’m completely going for the exact same thing, you know, track one of the record.” He explains that the phrase is taken from Alex Ross’s book The Rest Is Noise. That in the passage from which the phrase is taken, Ross describes operas under Stalin and how they were essentially forced to be propaganda. In one, the worker’s party defeats the Devil. Empathizing with the Devil in this case, Saunier concludes, “I feel much closer to revolutionary art movements and leaderless power structures and creating aesthetic mayhem than I do state sponsored propaganda or like thinking everybody should think the same way, the goal of conformity.”
Saunier asserts his values regarding his band. “We have to be accountable for whatever pain we might be causing to what has become our business partners, best friends, and almost family.”
We talk about the then-upcoming tour that had been prepped for with a string of five shows. Flustered, almost confused that he is saying it as he says it, Saunier admits, “The five shows we’ve played so far… it’s weird to say this, or it’s weird to even feel this way, but somehow the five shows we just played last week feel like weirdly the most fun shows we’ve probably ever had. We just feel very connected to the people who come. It just feels really good.”
“Do you think that has anything to do with the new material? To me, it feels like the new record has you guys sort of letting loose.”
“I think maybe the difference with the new material is not so much that it’s the kind of material you can let loose with,” he says. “All of our songs are ones that you can let loose with — maybe not all, but all the ones that we actually do play — I mean, we don’t have a way of playing on stage that doesn’t involve letting loose… I think maybe the difference on this record is that the recording is also a recording of us letting loose.”
Recorded in a week at guitarist John Dieterich’s house in Albuquerque, New Mexico, The Magic felt to me to have been created with a sort of urgency — quick preparation and turnaround. Saunier denies this, contrasting it to their fifth album Apple O’ (2003), which was recorded in a single night because a friend “was working at a very nice studio and could get [them] in after hours. [They] took the shift from whenever the final session of the day was over until the first session of the next day began.” Saunier remembers, “The engineer Jay was sitting there, nodding off while we were doing takes. […] I think we recorded this new one in about five days, so that actually felt luxurious comparatively, you know we’d actually take like a lunch break, ‘Oh, let’s go to the Vietnamese place down the street’ or whatever.”
Saunier then insists, “The thing that always happens with these DIY records, as crammed as the recording was, the opposite almost always happens with the post-recording process. That can and almost always does go on for months. It’s this weird thing of like whatever very spontaneous or almost random thing happened to occur when the mics were set up and the red light was on then gets poured over in detailed analysis over several months, during which we regret ever recording it that way. [laughs] […] It’s like a very strange but fun doubled thing of it being spur of the moment but kind of sloppy but then kind of being perfectionists about it after it’s done and working on it alone without the help of an outside mixer, producer, or anything — every day for months making ourselves sick of the music, and if anything remains after that process that we still aren’t sick of, that we’re still excited by, that passes the test basically.”
It’s interesting then to consider this relentless infatuation and enthusiasm toward their work within an assertion Saunier made of the dissonance within Sympathy for the Devil: “The mixture of the [Stones and the Black Panther members] is kind of, you watch the movie and it’s kind of totally inconclusive, because here’s this song that’s from the point of view of the devil, you know, Mick Jagger is casting himself as the devil basically talking about how great he is and how everyone else is so hypocritical, and then you know basically beyond that you’re seeing young, white, incredibly famous and rich rock stars in a very expensive studio taking their time recording their song at their leisure, kind of the height of decadence and the two things clashing up against each other. I feel like when I watch the movie, and I have many times, it’s kind of like, ‘Whoa, the moral is what? The conclusion is what?’ it’s very bizarre.”
Of course, Deerhoof are not the Stones. They don’t mean to be either. This is part of Pendelton’s reason for their casting. Intercut with actual Black Panther documentation rather than rehearsed scenes, vocalist Satomi Matsuzaki sings Godard’s script back to him, “I did crimes for you, they’re coming true.”
Considering the unease brought forth by Godard’s film, Saunier remarks, “I think [Pendelton’s] movie comes across in the same way. It’s like, you know, here we are: we get shipped off to Toronto in this really nice studio on someone else’s dime and get to play around in the studio and make this song while Adam shoots everything, and then it’s interspersed with a sort of under-reported, lost history of a completely misrepresented movement from history being given a chance to speak in its own words.” The privilege of the art makers is forced to confront the dire action of pure necessity.
To make sense of this, it might help to consider a thought Saunier raised about movies after telling me that on two occasions new bandmates have momentarily felt like poor fits for Saunier because of enflamed arguments over specific films: “It’s more like trying to judge somebody’s personality based on what type of movies they say they like, or what their reasoning is… It’s so hard to judge a person’s fitness to be your creative collaborator. I mean, how do you know? It’s so intangible… It’s so much about the deepest part of people, the part that makes or breaks a band, the most mysterious part, and of course you don’t see it until you’ve been on tour with each other for 24 hours a day for weeks or months that they start to appear. I feel like I can’t even describe to you how lucky I feel that it has turned out that the people in Deerhoof are people that even at their worst — and even at my worst — we can still find a way to make it work, and even if we can’t stand each other, we still find a way to stand each other. We find ways to overcome whatever the conflicts and difficulties or pain are in relating to each other or trying to collaborate or trying to understand each other even.”
Maybe a band like Deerhoof — in their escapism and abstraction — becomes a sort of mediator, a conduit of relation, or a Rorschach test that defines its viewer more than itself. Maybe Deerhoof is an interruption. Or maybe Deerhoof can just ease some tension.