John Dieterich (Deerhoof): Interview
“It’s a question not so much of ‘is it good?’ but is it an honest portrayal of this person? Does it communicate something about this person?”

I’m not one to thumb through page upon page of musical-masturbatory magazines like Guitar World and its kind — I let go of those days along with my 12-year-old fantasies of becoming the next Tom Morello. Still, it’s a reasonable travesty a guitar player of John Dieterich’s magnitude is relatively unknown within the so-called “mainstream guitarist community.” Then again, I seriously doubt any member of a band with Deerhoof’s 16-year reputation for exuberant, rewarding, and downright puzzling avant-pop pays much mind to such matters. Still, the inspired musical interplay on latest album Deerhoof vs. Evil (TMT Review) makes me wonder what the world would be like if, upon entering a corporate and emotionally sterile Guitar Center environment, you’d be greeted with the push-pulling, contrapuntal intro to “Qui Dorm, Només Somia” instead of an out-of-tune, poorly executed “Sweet Child o’ Mine.”

But silly-good technique and a sizable bag of mean riffs hardly breaches the surface of what goes on in Dieterich’s musical mind. Here, he discusses with TMT matters of self-recording, Xiu Xiu pal Jamie Stewart, Dobro timbre, Captain Beefheart, Mikis Theodorakis, musical connections, and abstract aesthetics.

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The new album is pretty different than the last album Offend Maggie. I know you guys recorded a lot of these songs on your own. Since you’ve been a band for like 16 years, what were you hoping to be different than your numerous previous albums?

Right. Well, in a way, we approached it exactly the same as we approached the others. How do I put it? Basically, for each album everyone writes for them. And we’re all in different places every time we end up deciding to make a record. So, in a way, it’s unavoidable given the interests of everyone. It kind of tends to go off in a bunch of directions at the same time. The actual challenge is trying to make something coherent out of it, I guess.

I think it’s a lot harder to not change, for us. We usually don’t even know what we’re doing. So, it would be impossible to even recreate what we attempted to do in the past. It’s a mysterious process [Laughs].

Did you record it mostly in Oakland? Where was most of the tracking done?

Yeah, it was in Oakland. Basically, Ed and I had rented a practice space we had been using for various things — for recording, other things, and working on stuff. And we decided to record the Deerhoof album there. So, it was great. We had a room to ourselves and we had our recording stuff set up and we could just go in any time of day or night and work on stuff. The upside of a situation like that being we could: a.) Work whenever we want, a.) We have a lot of time. Basically, we were in there tracking for about a month — for the main tracking portion. Which is, for us, a very long time.

So, we got to experiment with different kinds of things that, maybe in a regular recording studio, we wouldn’t have been able to and/or would’ve been watching the clock, worrying about money. That kind of thing. But yeah, it was in Oakland. Yeah, I don’t know what else I have to say about that…

Oh, one of the funny things about it was that being a regular rehearsal space, there were bands practicing, of course, around us. So, a lot of our time was spent trying to ascertain what the rehearsal schedules of other bands were so we could arrange for lunch breaks or whatever.

Sometimes, when the band next door would be playing would be insanely loud…

You get an extra guitar solo on the album you didn’t necessarily plan on.

Exactly.

Nice.

So, that was fun too. I’m sure that whoever those bands were are probably all over the album, in some sense.

You guys were based in San Francisco for a long time. I’m not even sure where everyone lives now. You’re in Oakland? Where is everybody else at?

Well, actually, everybody’s moved. [Laughs] I’m actually in Albuquerque, New Mexico, now… I moved here in the middle of the summer and my girlfriend’s going to school here. So, it’s completely new to me. I grew up in the Midwest in Wisconsin and moved to California. So, this is a completely new world for me. I really love it. It’s a really weird place.

“I remember seeing The Curtains for the first time and feeling kind of crushed by feeling like that music really meant a lot to me.”

I can imagine. It’s funny, I interviewed Jamie Stewart from Xiu Xiu a little while ago and he was living in North Carolina. I was talking to him about living in the Bay and stuff. I guess you guys are sort of known for being a Bay Area band — Xiu Xiu, too. But I guess everyone’s spreading out a little bit.

Yeah, exactly.

Do you plan on sticking around in Albuquerque for a while?

Well, it’s a PHD program, so, until the program is finished. And so, that could be any number of years depending on when she does her dissertation and all that kind of thing. But yeah, it’s nice. We’ve started to make some friends here and I’ve started playing with some people here. It’s been cool. There’s nothing like it in the US or anywhere else. It’s pretty cool.

About the album, there’s the track “Let’s Dance the Jet,” which I think is from some sort of Greek film score.

Correct, yep.

I’m not familiar with the film. Who brought it to the band?

It’s by a Greek composer named Mikis Theodorakis. Yeah, so we just added it into our repertoire over a year ago or so. Yeah, actually that song, the version of that that’s on the album, we did not record that song ourselves. That was recorded by a friend Eli Cruz at a studio in Oakland, actually, called New And Improved.

There’s also a lot of interesting acoustic stuff going on in the album. On the track “No One Asked to Dance,” what kind of guitar opens up and plays these busy fills throughout? Do you know what I’m talking about?

Yeah, yeah, yeah. That’s Ed’s guitar. Basically, that was one of Ed’s compositions and also is probably the most difficult song to play that we’ve ever played! It’s funny, in some respects, the ideas are very clear but in terms of getting the feeling right on that song, it’s one of the most challenging songs. Probably the most challenging song on the album.

I can imagine, just listening to it — the phrasing for some of those lines. Not that you guys don’t play stuff that’s very technically demanding. But the sound of the guitar was really strange to me. It had this really muted, acoustic sound.

You mean the faster guitar?

Yeah.

Yeah, that’s actually a dobro.

Is that what it is?

It sounds a little bit like a banjo or something. Somewhere in between a guitar and a banjo.

When I interviewed Jamie Stewart a while ago, he was telling me how you guys were going to be doing this live cover of “Unknown Pleasures.” I saw some videos of it online a little while ago. But you and at least Greg Saunier, in particular, have a relationship with him, playing on his album, helping produce stuff, etc. How did you guys become acquainted?

Well, basically, right when I joined the band, about 10 years ago, we went and played — I’m probably going to get this wrong but my memory is — a show in San Jose. And I cannot remember the name of the venue but we were playing and we didn’t know the other bands that were playing but one was called Ten in the Swear Jar. Which was, basically, the band before Xiu Xiu that Jamie was in. And we immediately hit it off and sort of developed a relationship with Jamie. We stayed in touch and played other shows with them. And then when Xiu Xiu started playing shows, we would play shows with them. And sometimes, we also went down to San Jose, which is where Jamie was living at the time. We contributed to a couple things. He helped us work on some things for this album we were working on at the time called Reveille.

Yeah, totally.

So, that’s kind of how it started and we just always stayed in touch. We were lucky enough to get to do a tour with Xiu Xiu a few months ago on the East Coast and in Canada. It was really awesome. They’re amazing and amazing people. So, always fun.

Yeah, all about that band. I really like the last album, too. I think you play on “Cumberland Gap,” right?

Yeah, yeah. That was extremely fun. Speaking of dobro! [Laughs]

Very cool. An obvious question, but you guys had been on the Kill Rock Stars label for a long, long time and I know you’ve made the switch to Polyvinyl. What was the reason for the change?

Well, basically, we have a very good relationship with Kill Rock Stars, and it wasn’t like […] Basically, it was an issue of where we’ve done records with other record labels before. We put two records out on Menlo Park, and I’ve done various other things. We had been talking with Polyvinyl about a 7-inch series and, I don’t know, it just seemed right. It felt right. I just want to say it wasn’t one of the issues where it was like Polyvinyl yanked us away from Kill Rock Stars or something.

Nothing like that whatsoever. We just developed a good relationship with them, and it seemed like a good idea. We have nothing but the best feelings for Kill Rock Stars.

You mentioned your bandmate Ed Rodriguez. I know that you guys had a history even before the band. How long have you guys known each other?

Yeah. We’ve been playing together for probably like 16 years. Basically, my first band ever was with Ed. We started this band called Gorge Trio which is still going but, unfortunately, the drummer lives in Hamburg, Germany, so it makes it difficult. But that was the first band I really played in. I had always been playing kind of by myself and occasionally jamming with people or whatever but that was the first time where it really clicked. I saw those guys play and I could see how much I had to learn from them. [Laughs] And that we could maybe do something cool together.

The three people in that band also played in another band with this guy Nick Sakes called Colosomite. Yeah, I guess that band was maybe going for three or four years. When that band broke up, I moved out here — not here, but out to California — maybe 11 years ago. Gorge Trio has done various tours of the West Coast and in Europe. Actually, we did a tour with Deerhoof in Europe after I joined Deerhoof and stuff.

“Chris and I had Natural Dreamers together and then Chris joined Deerhoof, and then Satomi and Greg joined The Curtains, which was Chris’s band that he had going at the time. And then, Satomi wasn’t in The Curtains for that long and then Greg was in it for a couple of years. And then, he left The Curtains and then Chris left Deerhoof.”

Cool. I need to check out the Gorge Trio stuff. I don’t have any the albums. Is it mostly instrumental music?

Mostly, yeah. Occasionally, we have some guests. But, yeah, usually. We’re actually working on a new album right now. When we had that practice space in Oakland, the drummer came from Hamburg and we started the recordings for a new album. So, it’s just a matter of finishing it. We’re very slow. The last album took us like four years to make.

How was playing with Ed in Deerhoof compared to playing with Chris Cohen of Cryptacize?

When I joined Deerhoof?

Yeah, you played with Chris Cohen when he was in the band, right?

Yeah, we had another band called The Natural Dreamers. But, it’s funny though, basically, there were so many different relationships going on. Chris and I had Natural Dreamers together and then Chris joined Deerhoof, and then Satomi and Greg joined The Curtains, which was Chris’s band that he had going at the time. And then, Satomi wasn’t in The Curtains for that long and then Greg was in it for a couple of years. And then, he left The Curtains and then Chris left Deerhoof. [Laughs] It’s just funny. There were just lots of musical relationships happening.

That can be exciting though, too, when everyone has a hand in the pot and moves around.

Yeah, yeah. I remember seeing The Curtains for the first time and feeling kind of crushed by feeling like that music really meant a lot to me. I think we all felt the same way. It was like we really, really related to Chris and his ideas. Immediately, I went up to him after the show and was like, “Do you want to play music, please?” [Laughs]

[Laughs] I can understand that. I saw him play with his band Cryptacize with Nedelle Torrissi. It was just an amazing performance. They played with WHY? at this really tiny cafeteria in Ann Arbor, when I was in school at Michigan.

Yeah, the last time I saw them, it was definitely one of those shows I’ll never forget. They were playing with The Fiery Furnaces and they played, I think, the last show of the tour. They played in San Francisco. It was just absolutely ridiculous how good it was. What a great new band.

Do you keep in contact with Chris pretty often?

Yeah, yeah, totally. Actually, we just saw him maybe a month ago. He was playing drums in White Magic. [Laughs] We were playing a festival in Europe and they were playing together. It was cool, I’d seen him play drums many times but in Deerhoof, you know, he played guitar. It was fun seeing him on stage playing drums. It was really amazing.

Deerhoof has been going for 16 years. Since you’ve been a part of the band — I know you said each album starts in a different place and you guys don’t know where it’s going — has it gotten easier as far as being familiar with each other’s musical vocabulary and language? Is it still surprising what other people like?

Right. What can I say? I’d say yes, there’s a certain level on which we’ve learned each other’s vocabulary. But it is always surprising, too. I think the difficult part isn’t adjusting to vocabulary. In a way, vocabulary is our least or smallest problem. [Laughs] It’s more a matter of just the issues that every band has. Like, communication and finding a way to fit everyone into each others visions, y’know? And make something that actually makes any sense whatsoever. Because, basically, the band as a unit or even as people, I don’t feel like we have a vocabulary, in a way. I’m sure I’m wrong but maybe I just don’t want to admit it.

It just seems that vocabulary isn’t so much the issue, it’s just a matter of speaking the same language, y’know?

Seems that’s always the ongoing process, for any band, I suppose.

Yeah, exactly. You always imagine it gets easier but in some ways it does and some ways it doesn’t.

Well, that’s kind of what makes it interesting, too. If it was too easy, maybe it wouldn’t be worth the while.

Right, that’s probably true. Yeah.

I saw you guys in Nashville and that was really cool. But I really wanted to see you when you opened for Yoko Ono Plastic Ono Band at Noise Pop a little while ago.

Oh, yeah. We did.

How did that come about? Was it anyone, in particular, that approached you guys?

To be honest, I don’t know. Because I don’t think Yoko Ono had any idea who Deerhoof was — Sean Lennon did. And, also, we had planned to do a tour with Cornelius on the West Coast maybe a year ago and it fell apart. Basically, they couldn’t do it, so they never came over. So, my guess it was either Cornelius or Sean Lennon, I’m not totally sure. But it was an amazing experience. It was so cool. My funny story from that experience was that I actually never met her, even after the show. Except for playing on stage with her. [Laughs]

They asked us to play a song with them at the end of their set. Basically, we listened to the song and figured it out in the meantime. So, we went out and they had amplifiers for us and everything. We just plugged in. I’d never met her before. As far as I know, she’d never laid eyes on me before. And it was just very fun. She was extremely funny — not “funny,” but fun and interactive. Improvising a lot. We were playing, I think it’s called “Don’t Worry Kyoko.” It was just an amazing experience. An amazing way to meet someone, just purely musical interaction. She was just amazing.

“I just want to say it wasn’t one of the issues where it was like Polyvinyl yanked us away from Kill Rock Stars or something.”

That’s cool. For whatever reason, it sounds sort of like this weird dream or something — you guys playing with her. Not that that’s the most unrealistic thing in the world but I just wish I could’ve been there to see it. That’s so wild.

Yeah, it was very cool.

Just to end on another guitar-geek question, is there any sort of up-and-coming guitar player that you’ve been impressed by. Maybe in the same way of when you first saw Chris Cohen play?

Oh, right. Actually, I’ve been playing music here in Albuquerque with this guy Jeremy Barnes who plays in a band called A Hawk and a Hacksaw. And they’re really great and we’ve just become extremely good friends and we’ve been playing a lot of music together. But in A Hawk and a Hacksaw, he plays mostly accordion or sometimes accordion and maybe bass drum or something. But when we’ve been playing, we’ve been doing all these duets playing drums and guitar. He plays drums and I play guitar. But we, occasionally, experiment with switching. Which is really fun because neither of us feels confident whatsoever on either of our instruments. But the thing is, I love the way he plays guitar so much. And actually, the way he plays bass. He has this extremely odd kind of vocabulary that comes out when he switches. It’s really cool.

One thing I’ve really learned over the years, for myself anyway, it’s that in the abstract, if you’re sitting in a blank room and someone puts on some music, I might have an aesthetic reaction to it. I might relate to it. I might not relate to it. I might judge it based on these kinds of reactions I have. But when you’re in a room with someone and you’ve spent some time with that person, and you start to learn who that person is, you develop a relationship with them. And it doesn’t have to be someone you know. It can also be a band that maybe you’ve seen many times or something. But, in a way, what becomes your sense — how do I say it? It’s a question not so much of “is it good?” or something that’s this very abstract sort of question. But is it an honest portrayal of this person? Does it communicate something about this person?

I remember, actually, Chris Cohen saying something like this years ago to me. It really hit me at the time that I hadn’t been able to articulate it, but I really related to that way of thinking. In a way, it’s just very natural for humans to do. We want to connect to each other. We don’t want to let some petty fact that we don’t particularly like this guitar tone color our relationship to something that actually we could learn a lot from. So, I think the wonderful thing about live music is that you have some context, especially if you can go up and talk to the person and talk to them after the show. You develop a relationship. I think, ultimately, it’s just a matter of communicating, y’know? If something is communicated, sent and received, I think mission accomplished, y’know? [Laughs].

Some of my favorite albums or bands or whatever I initially don’t like. There’s some sort of a seed that gets planted when you hear an album that’s unfamiliar, y’know what I mean?

No, for me too. I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately because Captain Beefheart died a few weeks ago. I remember the first time I heard Captain Beefheart. I never heard his name or anything. My freshman year in college, I joined one of these mail-order music services where you could get albums for a dollar — and then you’d end up paying probably 20 dollars each over the years because you’d have to pay them off slowly. But you could get a bunch of music. So, I would just read the descriptions of things and then just order it. One of the first things I ordered was Captain Beefheart’s Lick My Decals Off, Baby. Talk about the most confusing music […] out of context, the most confusing music in the universe, potentially. It’s like, “What?! What in God’s name is happening here?”

I really knew there was something there, y’know? At the same time, it took me a couple of years to really get to a point where I could really say that I like this. Then, it got to the point where it really became my favorite music in the world. Some of my favorite music in the world. I still go back to that music so much. There’s so much spirit, it’s so inspiring. It’s music that can’t be co-opted by anybody. It’s so strong and has so much spirit it can’t be bought or something, y’know? [Laughs]

He quit music to become a painter, right?

Oh, yeah, yeah. Definitely. A very successful one at that.

I was just at the De Young, yesterday, seeing post-impressionist stuff and I’ve had painting on my brain. I’d love to see some of his paintings though.

Yeah, you should definitely check it out. He actually did some of their covers as well. I think he did Doc at the Radar Station and […] I’m probably proving my ignorance here! [Laughs]

[Photo: Michael Morel]