Greg Saunier, the drummer behind the frenetic noise-pop band Deerhoof, tends to speak in the manner that he drums: inexhaustibly, with idiom, but with a flourish that’s unmistakably his own. He’s translated those qualities of percussion to the current project of our focus, Mystical Weapons, a psych-jam free-jazz odyssey consisting of Saunier and the de-facto legendary Sean Lennon, occasionally with Shahzad Ismaily. It is this trio that performs on Friday, December 5 at Union Pool. It is also this assembly–with the sounds of a projector run by Martha Colburn–that appear on the group’s second album of the year, out today, Black Friday, on Northern Spy records. It’s called Crotesque, was recorded for a WNYC live session, and it’s an exploratory freak-out odyssey with crossover appeal in circles of rock, psych, and improv. Saunier took a few minutes to chat with us.
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How are you?
Better than yesterday. It was freezing yesterday! I had a show last night at this restaurant called Manhattan Inn that’s in Greenpoint, where they started doing shows once or twice week in a little dining room. It’s a crazy place to have concerts with drums and amps and everything. But I took a car over with my drums and just the walk from my front door to the cab’s door three times to put the drums in there was so cold. And then the driver said, “Why didn’t you bring a jacket?” And I said, “I suppose I forgot my jacket.”
What did you play at Manhattan Inn? I’ve seen a couple shows there. It seems crazy to have you simply drumming there.
I played with two friends of mine. We have another improv group called Aye Aye Rabbit [with Indigo Street on guitar and Ed Pastorini on keys]. It’s sort of like the thing I do with Sean. I actually have a lot of these improv groups that play once in awhile and really don’t rehearse, really hardly ever see each other except for when we have a show. It’ll be once a month or once every couple months. We never talk about it. It’s just a really interesting way to have a friendship with people. Doing something like a full-time band, which I also do, and Sean also does of course, where you’re talking about a lot of rehearsal and pressure and expenses are being expended on our behalf and there’s a hope of it being recouped… this kind of thing becomes more of the friendship. It’s not that it’s not important but in a way it becomes secondary at times because it’s like a real job. You have to be willing to sacrifice something, like any job, your leisure time or your leisure attitude. But it’s fun doing these improv shows with people because it’s a great way to be friends with somebody. And of course, the audience might not see it that way. Like the show we’re doing at Union Pool with Sean and Shahzad [Ismaily] there will be a paying audience. They’re expecting to get something for their money. But honestly the feeling on stage is so much a conversation.
Like, OK, maybe I haven’t seen Sean in a month or two. It’s a good way to catch up. Sometimes it feels like musical conversation can be more fluid and less awkward than a word conversation, depending on peoples’ moods. It has a similar quality of banter and flirtation or sometimes teasing each other. Sometimes I’ll go up there with Sean and I’ll be playing something and it gets into a heavy beat and he’ll suddenly charge out with a heavy metal riff that goes right with what I’m doing. So of course I’ll immediately stop what I’m doing and it leaves him totally exposed and embarrassed to be playing this riff by himself. These kinds of constant throwing the ball back and forth sometimes gets emotional and tense and sometimes it’s very fun and sometimes you’re searching for a topic. But with Sean, sometimes we play just as a duo and sometimes we play with Shahzad, but always with those guys it’s not like improvising with any other people that I play with. With Sean he just has no shame about playing something that’s just really, really rock. And I almost think of him, even when he’s improvising, as a songwriter. Sometimes you play these improvisation shows and the music just sounds like improvisation.
But with Sean, and I noticed this from the very first time we every played together, which was the sound check of our first show. Sure, we had been talking. He had all these time structures he wanted to do and all these things he had been planning. The second we start playing, all of it was completely forgotten. He would just play in such a way that it sounded like he was composing a song on the spot. I think that is a very special kind of improvisation that not many people do, at least the ones that I play with. He doesn’t have the avant-garde pre-improv cliché grab bag that you might often hear with people. Instead, he’s got a language on the guitar or bass or keyboard that has much more to do with psychedelic rock. It’s really fun to try and build these massive, mountainous-sounding songs with him on the spot. In a weird way, you see a band that has been rehearsing their material and there’s something so powerful about a group of people who are really hot because they’ve been getting their songs down and they can just pull it off so well. But then, there’s something too where you feel like you’re seeing the real person in improv. You’re seeing the real person when it’s rehearsed as well, but a version of the real person. In Sean’s case, he’ll always want to discuss what we’re going to play before shows, but as soon as we hit the downbeat, it all goes out the window.
Speaking of all going out the window, I saw you guys play at 285 Kent recently, for the Northern Spy Records celebration. He had some gear problems.
[Laughs.] Yeah, well, he always has gear problems. He’s just asking for it. Did you see the number of pedals and stuff he brings? And every single one is some crazy boutique thing that maybe had been given to him or he had a friend build for him. He’s got so much custom stuff. It all sounds incredible, but you know. It’s not just him. I’ve always got cymbals falling over and sticks breaking. It’s probably a clichéd way to say it, that’s violent music. But in a way it is. Especially when it’s with Shahzad it’s sort of three cavemen just pounding away. His setup is very engineered. But when the time comes to play the music it feels primal. I’m always ready for things to go wrong, but sometimes things need to be destroyed. Sometimes it’s technical or something with the equipment, but also there are a lot of ideas that get destroyed, musical passages that are trying to happen that then get obliterated. It’s tumultuous-sounding music. If everything just went smoothly from beginning to end it wouldn’t feel like the same band.
Even in that case, though, it’s interesting to hear you call him a composer. He was throwing his guitars down and he ended up with just a box with some buttons on it. And you guys managed to come up with a song at the time.
Yes exactly. The other thing about Sean, which is not always the case with improvisers is that he has so much charisma on stage. He just looks fantastic with his long hair and everything. Sometimes with improvisation the great temptations are for a person to become either very self-absorbed with their own technique. And often they are very good instrumentalists or very practiced instrumentalists and so they become fascinated with their own technical abilities and vocabulary. The other thing is, which connects to what I was saying early, is that often times improvisers might be a little bit awkward in person if you’re having a conversation with them, but then it’s sort of like the way they are able to express themselves very fluidly is when they are playing their instrument. It seems like an easy improviser’s stereotype.
But in Sean’s case, he’s an incredibly friendly and warm person when you talk to him. He’s not awkward at all. He’s got a huge charisma. He isn’t all that obsessed with his own technique on instruments. Like you described that weird box that had the buttons on it. There is no technique to it. There’s nothing fancy you can do. You either press the button or you don’t. He has a sense of humor and he understands this feeling of not just performing but also meta-performing. There’s a kind-of campiness that takes over sometimes with him that I think we’re almost over-doing it. It’s like we play versions of ourselves. We’re almost acting, it’s nearly theatrical. I’m Greg but I’m pretending to be Greg. I’m pretending to be that drummer Greg so I’m kind-of overdoing it sometimes. It’s kind of like a Shatner-esque approach to musical improvisation, which I love that he has the willingness to go that far with it. He’s really into these psychedelic kind-of images and archetypes and musical styles. But part of that clearly is a deliberate over-the-top totally lacking in subtlety mindset, where you’re willing to almost push it so far that you’re almost… not quite mocking yourself but just pushing it to where you might be in danger of overdoing it.
The cover of your new record, for example. It’s a classic psychedelic trope.
Exactly. Sean was like, maybe we can get this person to do the cover, or we can get that person. I’m like, Sean. Your drawings are so cool. He’ll send me these drawings sometimes, these doodles that he’s doing maybe in the middle of mixing a Ghost of the Saber Tooth Tiger record, when he’s got some free time just sitting in a chair. He’s such a good illustrator and he draws these crazy pictures that all have this pseudo-religious, pseudo-ancient, pseudo-sexual but also kind-of goofy psychedelic lettering. It’s a bit like, there was surrealism during the beginning of the 20th century, and then psychedelia was a kind of cheapened version of that that came back in the ’60s that had a lot of similar aims but in a way was just coopting it and didn’t have as much of a deep social or human program to it, other than sheer pleasure. But now the idea of psychedelia is another step removed, where now it’s even a kind of a reference to a reference. He is a genuine fan of psychedelia and he is a genuine fan of surrealism. It’s something that he actually is grappling with, because he’s still trying to figure out what he thinks is so cool about it. For me, it’s great. He makes a very big sound and there’s a lot of opportunity. Many of the bands I play in, the big challenge is to be not too loud on the drums. I mean, think of Manhattan Inn. It is so tiny. And I’m playing there with a guy on the Casio last night and Indigo playing guitar and they can only go so loud. Not to mention there’s a guy eating a salad two feet to my left. You just can’t wail. It’s going to kill everybody’s ears and I’m going to overbalance my band mates. But with Sean, it always feel like just the opposite. No amount of wildness on my part is ever enough to match the monstrous sounds he’s making. I think that’s a really fun challenge and for me rare mental space to be pushed into.