After a recent boisterous and discordant performance at the Music Hall of Williamsburg, Deerhoof’s dressing room briefly felt like the center of the indie universe. Hanging out and sipping on the beer and wine that usually go to waste (Deerhoof is more of a tea-swilling bunch) were members of The Dirty Projectors, Yeasayer, The Fiery Furnaces, The Soft Circle, and Lichens—young, boundary-pushing musicians at the heart of their scene, all ardent admirers of a band whose music usually belies a greater sense of calamity then cool. Before the impromptu after-show party took off, though, two other sets of visitors popped backstage to gleefully meet the band: a pair of wide-eyed stoner adolescents, and Kronos Quartet violinist David Harrington and a friend. The amazement and appreciation on all the visitors’ faces was far from dissimilar.
That broad-ranging appeal has allowed Deerhoof to continue to make challenging music the way they like, even if they admittedly never have any idea what they want to create. Having recently completed a tour of Europe and Japan with Congotronics Vs. Rockers—an African street music meets American avant-garde collaboration between Deerhoof, Konono #1, Kasai Allstars, Juana Molina, Wildbirds and Peacedrums, and Skeletons—the band’s own U.S. tour continues with an appearance at this weekend’s ATP I’ll Be Your Mirror Festival in Asbury Park. Deerhoof’s free, just-released live album, 99% Upset Feeling, captures the mystifying urgency of their performances; it also contains covers that illustrate the band’s devotion to both childlike bliss (Canned Heat’s “Going Up to the Country”) and caustic uproar (The Ramones’ “Pinhead”). Drummer and recent Brooklyn transplant Greg Saunier talked with us about the lack of structure and prognostication in his band’s creative endeavors, the coolness of Jeff Tweedy’s offspring, the chaotic beauty of helming a 19-piece band, and whether or not one can have a perfect New York moment.
You’ve been in New York for a little bit. Does it feel like home yet?
It would be going too far to say that I was a New Yorker, but actually it’s funny because it always felt a little like home because of all the people who moved here from all of my previous homes. By the time I arrived, it felt like the gang was already here.
Have you had any iconic or indelible New York moments? Something where you thought, “Wow, welcome to New York”?
Well, according to all of my friends, no. In other words, they are all trying to drive my optimism out of me, they’re just like, “Give it another year in New York; you’ll understand how hard it is,” and I say, “I like it—I think it’s nice. All of my friends are here!” There’s something for every interest. I almost don’t believe in there being an iconic New York moment. Maybe I’m not familiar enough with popular culture to know what it would have been. For me it’s just constant surprise and constant variety. Every walk of life and every type of person. I did ride bikes through Brooklyn the past couple of days, and that was fun. I’ve never ridden a bicycle in that kind of traffic before.
Since you’ve been here and Ed [Rodriguez] and John [Dieterich] have moved out of San Francisco, the group has been quite spread apart. How do you keep the lines of creativity and communication open over such a big distance?
First of all, we just got home from an eight-month tour, so to make it sound like it’s hard for us to stay in touch wouldn’t be entirely accurate. Being on tour is being with someone 24 hours a day, and in our case it’s been years—it’s just constantly being together. That said, we did just set up a once-a-week Skype chat to keep the lines of communication open.
Creatively, I don’t know. It remains to be seen. The question assumes we had a pattern. As many years as it may have been, I’m not sure we ever fell into any kind of routine. I don’t know how we are going to do it starting now but I never did, really. The whole time it’s been something where I never could see a feasible way for us to work together, actually. It’s never really been that natural. Every time we have come up with something, it’s felt like a surprise—a miracle that we got a song together.
Does that keep you motivated? The unknown?
No. I don’t think it does at all. I think it repels us from each other and makes it that much harder to work together. Since I’ve come to New York, I’ve started playing in three other bands. One is with Sean Lennon that’s just improv, [called] Consortium Musicum. The second we sat down together and played it was instant chemistry. Everything else feels much easier compared to Deerhoof. I started this other band, Les Bon Hommes, with Bill [William Kuehn] from Rainer Maria and my friend Deron [Pulley]. And I’ll start playing something on the guitar and immediately they pick it up, and five seconds later we have a song. It never happens with Deerhoof. It’s always this crazy struggle; we always have to overthink things. Or someone will play something and the other three will have a blank stare, like I don’t get it all, what in the world are you playing, it doesn’t even sound like music!
What’s motivated us, to be really honest about it, is the fact that people listen to us. I think we have fans, which is the most incredible motivation in the universe. It’s not that we know what the fans want, and it’s not even that the fans know what they want us to do, or that we even care, but it’s the fact that they are there. The fact that they exist makes us feel so lucky. We get so much encouragement that we feel that we gotta do it.
So you don’t think about what fans might appreciate when you’re making the music?
Actually I do. I find it a game of trying to figure out what they like even when it’s not what they say they like. Sometimes it’s interesting to read reviews from music journalists, but it’s very rare when a person is self-aware enough to understand and be able to express their real fantasies. I don’t take anything that anybody says at face value. I feel like when I am writing songs or playing the drums, I’m trying to reach some point inside another person, and I say this because I’ve been on the other end too. I’ve been a music fan my whole life and I go to concerts. The concerts I love are when the band doesn’t play what I want or expect them to play; it’s when they might do something that might cause some pain or suffering. You were describing to me earlier today the first time you saw Sonic Youth, and your experience with the amount of noise and amount of craziness. At the time, being a young person you didn’t know what to make of it, you wouldn’t necessarily say, “I liked it,” but in the end you did, and it reached some deep point in you that you didn’t know was there. That’s the point that I’m interested in reaching. I do want to please them [the fans] very much and I think about them all of the time when making music but, at the same time I don’t trust them to know.
Deerhoof is playing ATP’s North American festival this year. Who are you most looking forward to seeing?
I’m looking forward to Ceramic Dog. That’s Marc Ribot, with my friends Shazad [Ismaily] and Ches [Smith] on bass and drums, who we’ve toured with before. I just saw Marc Ribot in Japan recently, with a different group, at the Fuji Rock Festival. He’s just always been a huge hero of mine. Portishead I can’t wait to hear because when Third came out, I really found myself listening to it over and over and over, and every time I listened to it, I still felt like it was such a tough nut to crack. It was so mystifying the way it was put together and produced and exactly what mood to be able to call it. I was just fascinated. So ever since then I’ve wanted to actually see them play, and now I have my chance. Courtesy of them! [laughs]
You’ve done a lot of outside projects this year. Is that going to have an affect on your or the group’s output when Deerhoof get back together to record?
I never know what’s coming next with Deerhoof. As much as any collaborations I’ve done have been unpredictable, they’ve never been as unpredictable as Deerhoof. The members of Deerhoof and the music that comes out of them, when Ed or John or Satomi writes a song, even when I write a song, I feel like I can never predict what it’s going to be. One thing I can definitely say about Deerhoof is it’s an eternal source of surprise to me.
I’m sure the fans will be eagerly waiting for it.
Me too! I like us!
Deerhoof just completed the Congotronics Vs. Rockers tour. Was participating in that project an extension of the exploration of new musical genres on the band’s last album? It other words was it a continued, concerted effort to expand Deerhoof’s musical oeuvre?
Actually, I think it was a coincidence. All four of us had been listening closely to the some of music on the Congotronics series that [Belgian record label] Crammed Discs had been putting out, and we did end up recording a cover of this song by Kasai Allstars from that series for a compilation. And then right after we recorded that cover, we were feeling so good when we were playing that the same day, just the next minute [we thought], “Quick, let’s record some Deerhoof stuff, because we’re really getting a good feel right now.” And so we recorded big chunks of two of the songs from our last album that same day. So it was a big deal.
But we would never have guessed that we would be invited to do that, or that a band like this would be formed. Because it was kind of a crazy idea. It was so many bands combined into one who had almost nothing in common with each other. We wouldn’t have dreamed it up, let alone dreamed of getting invited to participate, so no, it came as a total surprise. It wasn’t part of our plan. It totally fouled up our plans. We had planned a summer tour in Europe, and suddenly it was like, wait, now we can’t book our summer tour because we were trying to book these other tours instead. So it turned out to be a real organizational puzzle.
Was it a rewarding experience ultimately though?
The puzzle wasn’t [laughs]. But I don’t even where to start as far as playing in the group. [laughs] In some ways it did kind of mirror the Deerhoof experience of nobody being in charge and just chaos and anarchy the whole time, and not having any idea how to proceed. And just feeling like there was no rulebook that you could follow that would assure any kind of success. We all showed up in Brussels one day in May and had one week until our debut show that was going to be in front of 2000 people or something like that, and had no material and no idea what to do, and no one in charge and no one to tell us what do to. So we’d just sit there for 12, 15 hours a day and just play, all 19 of us. And none of the musicians from the Congo spoke a word of English, so verbal communication was pretty much out. And we had to figure out a way to basically write songs and arrange them and figure out what was working and what wasn’t.
About three months we were touring together, on and off through the summer. We only played in Europe and Japan, but for anyone that was able to see it, they got to see how insane it was. When stuff would gel, it was just like a bomb going off. It was just so powerful. And yeah, it was definitely the most stressful, struggling, kind of musical experience that any of the four of us in Deerhoof have tried to do. It was just constant nervous breakdowns between band members, and fights and makeups and hugging and crying and misunderstandings, and cultural gaps that seemed totally unbridgeable. And then just feeling the triumph when stuff would actually work out. It ended up that by the last show that we played, in Japan, it really felt like this was a real band. It wasn’t just showcasing minibands inside of it, it was like no, this is the 19 of us, the 19 musketeers. [laughs]
You had mentioned in chatting the kind of rigid structure that the African musicians wanted Deerhoof to adhere to. How did you guys manage to impart your own character and your own style into the music?
I was making no attempt to impart my own style. There were going to be so many drummers in this group; I thought I was going to show up and once in a while do a fill, or just throw in some decoration, but something happened. Basically, we started playing, and almost immediately everybody started looking over at me, and they were like “Greg, no, this is how it goes.” Usually in French. But they didn’t even know my name, or they couldn’t even pronounce my name. At least the Congolese guys. But suddenly, and [being] totally unprepared, I was in the hot seat from the first five minutes. Definitely in a way of playing the drums that I’m not used to playing, or that I don’t naturally play. Maybe I get humored in Deerhoof, they allow me a lot of leeway to speed up, slow down, get loud, get quiet, play kind of unpredictable, wild. And I can kind of let it go. This was like no, the tempo had to be completely unvarying,
I had to play at a medium volume the whole time, and nothing surprising, not too many fills. But it’s not even as simple as that. Because when you said, “Oh, the African musicians, what they want me to do…” No, no, no. I mean, one guy from Kasai Allstars would be telling me, “That’s too slow,” and then the guy from Konono #1 would say, “That’s too fast.” One would come up to me and say it, and then three seconds later the other guy would come and say the opposite. And actually Kasai Allstars and Konono #1, although they both are from the same town in the Congo, Kinshasa, they had never played together before, and in fact had no idea how to play with each other. They actually had incredible difficulty playing each other’s music. They couldn’t get each other’s rhythms either (laughs). It wasn’t just me who was having a hard time. So it was just constant fights and battles. There’s also a slightly bittersweet feeling at the end, where I felt like the band really did hit some kind of stride, and get a groove and a rhythm that everyone seemed happy with. But in the back of your mind, you kind of have to know that the 10 members of the band who were coming from the Congo are not well off, and really had to say yes to this invitation to be in this band. And not because they thought it would be a great idea to collaborate with Deerhoof, who they’d never heard of, but because they needed to get paid. So there’s just that slight feeling of no matter how much I enjoyed it, I feel like I’ll never really know, or it may take many years. If this band continues into the future, then maybe it would start to reach that level where you really do know you can trust… you can feel that the other person really did love what we were doing together.
Even within the framework that you described, of keeping it simple and keeping along the lines of more traditional African music, when I saw the group perform it felt tripped out, expansive and noisy, and I definitely still felt like there was Deerhoof’s imprint on it. Were [the other musicians] excited when you guys pulled out some of your ideas, a musical language that was so foreign to them?
Well somehow it didn’t end up seeming that foreign, I don’t know why. Almost as an accident one day, it was like, “Oh, maybe we should try a Deerhoof song.” And it just so happened to be one that was in the key of A, and all the thumb pianos were tuned in the key of A so it worked perfectly. This was a song from our last album called “Super Duper Rescue Heads,” and at that point it was still the first week, and my three month crash course in speaking French, I was only two days into it. But just in my broken French, I tried to lead the group and explain how it went, and it as amazing. It came together so quick, the thrill that I felt hearing all of us playing that song I had written, most of whom who were total strangers to me at that time, and I could tell that on some level, they really related to it, and they really liked the song. They’d come up to me during dinner and they’d start singing the melody to me, or they’d start doing Satomi’s dance in the hotel. And I could tell that somehow it had… (pauses) it felt like the band seemed to like the song. I can’t describe to you what the thrill was like. I’ll never forget it.
Speaking of another notable collaboration, Deerhoof just released a 7-inch with Jeff Tweedy.
It seems Deerhoof is perhaps breaking out of its insular bubble a little more—
Tell me how that’s developing, and if it’s something you want to continue.
Maybe it’s just accidental. I think that sometimes, at least in the past, it’s been people coming to us. We got invited to do the Congotronics Vs. Rockers band, it wasn’t our idea. But the Jeff Tweedy thing was our idea, and I think after having done a few… it’s just that we rehearse so much and were together so much—just the four of us, for so long—that yeah, it starts to feel like how can we be able to play with anybody else? But a couple times we’ve tried to do it. Busdriver, the rapper from Los Angeles, was a really big turning point for us.
Yes exactly. Because he was not afraid to try it with us. And he was one of the first people to ask, or maybe we invited him, but we were at some festival together, and maybe I went and asked him if he’d come on stage with us and do the last song. We had no plan at all, we were just improvising. And suddenly we also didn’t know what do to, and it was a huge thrill. We had to wing it all and make it work. Another big experience was playing with Wadada Leo Smith, the trumpet player from Los Angeles. I invited him to open for us in LA one time, and he said, “No! I’ll just play with you guys.” And I was like, “OK…” (laughs) It was maybe two years ago. It wasn’t just any old random element; he’s a real master improviser and somebody with absolutely no fear at all, and he didn’t know the songs and it didn’t matter to him, he was going to go for it. All our music suddenly became totally new to us, and we started to really get into this experience.
Then we started doing this thing with the band Xiu Xiu where we covered a whole Joy Division album with them, and then that even involved actual rehearsals. So it was like pulling this whole other side of yourself out of yourself. So to what you were asking before, about trying to imprint Deerhoof into these other projects. To me, the excitement is exactly the opposite, to be able to forget whatever you think your personality is, and be willing to take a risk and do something you don’t know how to do. That’s actually when the real you comes out. The other stuff is just habits, and I find that’s not the real you. That’s just sort of a boring memory. It’s when you’re forced to do something that you have absolutely no idea how to do, that suddenly, you realize who you are. So we’ve been very lucky. So then I got up the nerve to ask Jeff Tweedy if he wanted to sing this song on our 7-inch, and I was so happy.
Did you produce the Raccoonists [a band with Tweedy and his two sons, who appear on the flip side of the single]?
No he [Tweedy] did.
His kids are awesome.
I know. I had met [his son] Spencer before, when Deerhoof toured with Wilco several years ago. He came up during the soundcheck one time when we were in Chicago, and sat in on drums while I watched, because he’s a really good drummer. And that was years ago, and he was tiny. Of course he already had a music blog by that time. He’s advanced.
So it seems like collaboration is something you want to continue. Do you, or maybe the band has discussed this, do you have any ideal, dream collaborations with other musicians that you admire?
We have a lot more 7-inches planned in the series that Jeff Tweedy was a part of, but I don’t want to say the names yet until it’s confirmed that they are going to happen.
What about going forward with the band’s new music?
There was a guy in the Metropolitan G train stop the other day, playing cello. And I thought I had caught his name, but when I went and looked it up I couldn’t find any evidence of this person, so I must have heard it wrong. And this guy was just the most beautiful cello player. When I walked on to the platform he had a music stand in front of him, and he was playing classical music, reading if off the page. And the G train is very slow, so I had about 10 or 15 minutes to listen to him. And he was seamless, after a few minutes here he was singing what must have been an original pop song that he’d written with vocals. He was singing with the most beautiful voice, and really good lyrics that almost brought a tear to me eyes, actually. And I was very impressed with the way that for him, there was no border between this kind of classical, rubato style—it wasn’t a Bach cello suite, but it kind of had that sound to it—and this very straightforward pop music that he was playing. I just instantly felt some aesthetic rapport with this guy.
He was deconstructing pop?
I didn’t feel that it was deconstructed. His vision of music was constructed differently to begin with, where there were no seams, or if there were seams, I mean he does see seems—I’m putting a lot of words in the mouth of a guy whose music I heard on the subway platform for 10 minutes—but I had the impression of a kindred spirit who may in fact see some kind of borders in music, but not the borders in music that are in a record store. Not music genres—it’s not about that. Here, it goes into a waltz rhythm, or here, it goes from D minor to D major, and there’s this very dramatic moment when suddenly it changes to major and it’s like this ray of sunshine comes through the subway station. And those are the kind of seams that concern him. Or the structure of his verses and choruses…
It definitely seems very similar to Deerhoof’s approach.
I thought so. I actually think it takes a much more rigorous approach to try and divide music. I think that everybody growing up in this day and age is hearing so many different quote-unquote genres of music that it actually would take a lot of effort to force yourself to learn to do only one. And I felt that those kind of social constraints on his music making had not succeeded in beating him down, and I really admired him for that.
It sounds like that might have been your quintessential New York moment right there.
Yeah, there it is! That’s beautiful.
Deerhoof play the I’ll Be Your Mirror Festival in Asbury Park on Sunday.