A little bit of independence makes a band merry and keeps the threat of splitting up away.
Words and Interview by Shirine Saad.
Cult rockers Deerhoof are legendary for their loud and noisy performances. It doesn’t hurt that their lead singer Satomi Matsuzaki has a deadpan Lolita voice. But that’s neither here nor there. They prefer to celebrate pop music, breakups and playing for a live audience who sing and dance to their tunes, like most especially on their Breakup Songtour which is currently underway. Greg Saunier, the band’s drummer, spills the beans.
You’ve been touring to promote your latest album, Breakup Song. How have the songs evolved throughout the performances?
We just finished the first leg of the tour and we’re going to Japan in a week. It’s been even better than we could have expected. Part of the reason that we made this particular record is that we tour so much, and we started to notice the audience’s reactions to different songs. We found that when we played something danceable people wanted to dance, and when the melodies were clear people wanted to sing along. We’re happy with the way the record turned out and part of why we made it is to have songs to play on tour. This was the real test. Even at the beginning of the tour, when the album had been out for one day, people were reacting to the new songs more than the old songs.
The hardest part about touring is driving seven hours and waiting for the show. I want to play. It really is like love; We’re filled with desire. I love rehearsing too. It’s our chance to argue within the band over the finer points. But I could also tell you that we’re primarily a songwriting band. Songwriting is so satisfying because one moment there’s nothing there and then the next moment you have an idea.
Why do you want people to dance to your music?
You can have something melodic and dissonant at the same time. And danceable doesn’t mean simple. The rhythms [that] can be extremely complicated can be danceable. When we decided we wanted to do danceable music, this time the most obvious idea was this sort of disco punk style, like Gang of Four or something, where it’s basically disco but it sounds very raw and someone is scratching their guitar. But that’s not the way we play because we don’t like regularity much. We started looking at James Brown, or Mambo, where the rhythms are more complicated. I also think of hard rock or heavy metal from the eighties. I was thinking about the Scorpions or AC/DC. Of course, it is danceable. I wouldn’t say that our new record is more melodic, but the melodies are shorter.
But why is it important to you that people dance?
We have been much more successful than we ever thought we would be. In doing so well with reviewers it becomes your reputation too, you become critics’ darlings. While we’ve been so grateful that there have been writers to have chosen our music, we kept thinking that our music wasn’t meant for music critics. It was meant for real life. We tried to make that point more clear. It’s music for a person who may have just had a breakup. We wanted it to be something that would make you feel better and give you a boost of energy. It’s meant to inspire anyone. We don’t intend it to be not understood.
You are known to improvise a lot during shows.
We’ve never played without improvisation. It would almost be interesting to play a song totally straight. It means that you know how the song is and you’ve finished writing it. Every night is another way to try to figure out how to play the song, and we feel that we’re constantly getting close to the target. We’re a very ragged band and we sound different every night. Nobody’s really trained — we don’t play jazz and we can’t play jazz, which I consider very sophisticated. What we do is a loose way of playing songs, more like the Rolling Stones — you see them playing “Satisfaction” again, and it still seems that he’s almost figured out how to play it right and the joy on his face is pure and innocent.
You often say you want to make pop. Why?
Honestly, when I’m making music the last thing in the world I think about is what section of the record store I would put it in. But if I get asked what kind of music I play, I say pop because it’s not really a style or a sound. It’s just music that kids like, music that’s popular. It could be electronic dance music, heavy metal, something that has an orchestra in it. It could be slow, fast. That’s why I think it’s cool. Also, it changes every week. I kind of like that because we also change a lot and we’re always looking for something fresh. Pop music doesn’t tell your imagination anything — you just have to imagine what people are going to like one year from now.
You’ve worked and played with some great bands, including Radiohead, The Roots and David Byrne. How have those exchanges influenced you?
We were always a DIY band — we would write, record, mix and master the CD without it ever leaving home, without help from anyone — and that’s very easy to do nowadays, anybody can do it. I would just take a mix I was working on and then play it, and then play a Radiohead song and then I would just hang my head in shame because I thought our stuff was so weak in comparison. And then I’d just go back and start over again. At a certain point when we were invited with them on tour, I felt that my conversation with them had gone full circle. What I thought my insane mind made out to be a conversation with them turned out to be a real conversation. It was even beyond my fantasy that anything like that would ever happen.
So tell me about those breakups!
The band actually split up. We had been living in the San Francisco area for years and suddenly, in a brief period of time, we ended up in four different cities: New York, London, Albuquerque and Portland. There was a different kind of feeling once everybody was split up. So people started doing other stuff on their own and the result was that we got a bit stronger and more confident. We now each have this feeling of being able to assert our individual voice in a stronger way. We wanted to show the positive side of what a breakup can do, where you learn independence and self-respect. That’s why the record sounds happy and playful. We wanted to make our contribution to the genre, that when you feel down, you can listen to our music and feel energetic.