Progress Report: Deerhoof
Progress Report: World’s most unpredictable noise pop band chat about the making of Breakup Song.
I had no idea what to expect when I turned up to interview Deerhoof’s Satomi Matsuzaki and Greg Saunier, but I sort of anticipated a conversational experience that would be likely just as funny and unpredictable as the music their band makes — and that’s pretty much how it turned out. On one of the hottest days of the summer the three of us crowded around the air conditioner in Matsuzaki’s tiny Brooklyn bedroom to talk about their band’s wily new album, Breakup Song, and the method — or lack of method — behind their madness.
SAUNIER: Will your digital recorder change all of my rambling and stammering into perfectly composed sentences?
STEREOGUM: It will.
SAUNIER: Great! I’m ready to talk then.
STEREOGUM: So what have you been doing? You literally just finished the record, right?
SAUNIER: It’s been a busy time. I’m mixing a few different albums right now — one by a local band here in NYC called Celestial Shore and then a band in Louisiana that named themselves after a Deerhoof song called Twin Killers.
STEREOGUM: What do they sound like?
SAUNIER: I’ve been telling people that they sound a lot like Kansas. You know, “Dust In The Wind” and all that? And then I listened to “Dust In The Wind” the other day and … and yeah, I guess that’s what they sound like. Really long songs, strings, fifty layers of guitars. I’m also mixing a record by Marc Ribot, he’s one of my favorite guitarists in the world. He’s played with everyone from Tom Waits to Robert Plant to Elvis Costello. So, I’ve been busy with those three things. That’s what I’ve been doing since we finished our own record, which is done now.
STEREOGUM: Where did you record the new Deerhoof record?
MATSUZAKI: We recorded it here, but it was made all over the place. I live here in New York now and so does Greg, but the other guys live in different cities. So, we would all just work on things and then send them to each other — here is a bit of a song, here is a bit of a song — until we all got together here in NYC to record. We spent about seven days recording the record while everyone was here.
SAUNIER: We’ve always recorded ourselves and made our own records, but this was more extreme because for most of the time we were writing songs, all four of us were in four different cities. So there was even less of a plan this time when it came to who played what instrument. We all played drums on various songs and all the instruments were pretty mixed up. We were collaborating with each other over great distances, so there was a lot of back and forth, lots of sharing files.
MATSUZAKI: It was actually pretty confusing. Trying to keep track of all the stuff we’d be sending back and forth. When everyone was here to record, we basically spent 24 hours a day together, all of us taking turns playing, cooking food, sitting at the computer and mixing things. There was no sleeping.
STEREOGUM: Where were you recording?
SAUNIER: At a place in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. I was subletting a place from the keyboard player in the Rapture while he was away on tour, so we worked there.
STEREOGUM: So, after months of sharing files and trading ideas, did you guys pretty much have the songs figured out by the time you got together to record them?
SAUNIER: I don’t think we have ever really had songs figured out before we record them. Usually it’s like, OK, the record label needs the album from us in about five minutes, and at that point it starts to come together. It usually looks like a complete mess — everything is in pieces, we haven’t chosen the final songs — and in the final hour we make sense of it all. We don’t really work songs out by playing them, so it’s like we are assembling pieces of songs — pieces float around. This could be the chorus of that song … or it could be the bridge in this song.
MATSUZAKI: We just try everything we can to make it sound good. Sometimes it’s easy and we all agree that it sounds awesome, sometimes it takes longer.
STEREOGUM: Has it always been that way?
SAUNIER: You mean, have we always agreed when things sound good? Nope. I know what you mean, though. We’ve always kind of worked in this way, which is really proof that we have no actual method for making songs … or that having no method is somehow our method. I was just thinking about this on the way over. I was walking by the park and wondering what time of year it usually is in NYC when they put the pianos out in public places for people to play, and then I wondered what I’d do if there happened to be a piano in the park today. I’d probably sit down and play “Hey Jude” … and then I was thinking about how that song sounds like it was written by someone who sat down and just played it all the way through from beginning to end, perfect. It doesn’t sound like a song that was created by shuffling around different modules and song bits, which is how we do it. It just sounds like a perfect composition. We’ve had a few songs that flirt with good composition, but mostly it’s just the best we can do. When we have songs that are kind of “assembled” out of all these different musical ideas, we often don’t even try to cover up the seams. You can hear the moments of discontinuity in the songs, which is part of what makes them good. I hope.
STEREOGUM: Yes, that’s part of the charm!
SAUNIER: Oh, so you’ve heard Deerhoof before then?
MATSUZAKI: But have you heard our new record yet?
STEREOGUM: Not the entire thing, just a little bit of it.
MATSUZAKI: Oh, that’s too bad. It’s pretty good.
STEREOGUM: What does it sound like?
MATSUZAKI: A party.
SAUNIER: I think the sound of it has to do with the four of us moving to four different cities. It was like we split up in a way, even though we weren’t breaking up the band. When you have less time together, you want the time you do have to be more important. You want to make the most of it. I was listening to this thing on BBC radio — a show about the Rolling Stones and this show they played back in the ‘60s for the BBC that was never released for some reason. During that time all these bands were in a constant rush to get out new singles all the time, like they could barely keep up with the demand. Keith Richards was saying how they were working so quickly that there wasn’t even time for the band to even really theorize or start to figure out what their own songs were actually about. They were just running with it, just producing more songs as quickly as they could, without too much thought intervening. Sometimes I feel like our career has been the reverse of that. Over time I feel like we’ve gotten more like those British invasion bands during the ‘60s, we’ve learned to move more quickly. In the beginning of Deerhoof everything happened so slowly. It took us years to make the first album. No one cared what we were doing. Everyone was living in the same city — often in the same house — and we had a lot of time on our hands to overthink everything we did. I don’t regret that time though. We sort of conceptually cut our teeth during that period of time. We cooked up the idea of what we wanted to be, even before we actually had songs to back that idea up. Now things are really sped up. The times that the four of us are together in the same place are usually very brief, so we have to decide very quickly what is the best use of our time and then just run with that. After that initial decision is made, we don’t have the luxury of overthinking it. Otherwise, yeah the record sounds like … well, like what Satomi said. Party.
MATSUZAKI: The record is really a reflection of that week we spent together putting it together. Even the artwork came together at the last minute. I came back to my apartment at three or four in the morning to sleep for a couple of hours and take a shower. On my way home I saw this truck that was full of trash or something, but it just looked like some kind of party machine … so I took a photo of it and now that’s the album cover. Everything got done within this very intense week. It was cool.
STEREOGUM: When you are under such a crazy time-constraint it kind of forces results, I guess. You don’t have much time to fuck around.
SAUNIER: It really was like being together 24/7 for the better part of two weeks. There would be days when I’d be at the computer for, like, fifteen hours or something … when I finally got too tired someone else would take over and I’d lie down.
MATSUZAKI: I’d be on the couch sort of semi-conscious, half asleep but still listening to the mixes. Every few minutes someone would ask me what I thought and I’d answer without opening my eyes “Sounds good, maybe the drums are too loud.” Sometimes when you are that tired, your senses become heightened. It actually helps.
SAUNIER: That’s kind of what this record is about: parties, nighttime, sleeplessness. We often experience that same feeling when we play a show in some other country and we show up totally jetlagged. You almost feel like you are hallucinating. Anyway, we have been together so long, it’s no longer a mystery as to whether or not we can get along. We know we can. Things like spending 24 hours a day together for seven or eight days … I wouldn’t subject anyone to that, other than my bandmates.
MATSUZAKI: It’s like family.
SAUNIER: I actually meet all these younger bands that have been robbed of that kind of experience. Bands who have huge success early on and are suddenly thrown into this position of having managers and lawyers and fancy tour buses and separate hotel rooms — all these things that kind of insulate you from having to really deal with each other. All those years of sharing hotel rooms and sleeping on floors and driving long hours together — those are the things that test you as a band, but they also bond you and help you figure out who you really are. I can only speak to my own experience of being in this band, but I see these other bands and I feel kind of bad for them.
STEREOGUM: It’s hard to maintain that kind of success right out of the box. I can think of countless “buzz bands” that imploded pretty quickly once the initial press attention went away. Not that sleeping on floors or touring in a van are always so wonderful — in fact, I think the only people who tend to romanticize that experience are those who’ve never actually done it — but those shared experiences really are a test of your metal.
SAUNIER: Deerhoof had been a band for nearly seven years before we released any music or did a tour that didn’t lose money. Not seven months, seven years.
STEREOGUM: You guys will be touring soon. In addition to working out all these new songs live, how do you decide which old songs to play … considering you now have a pretty enormous back catalog to dip into? Will you spend a lot of time rehearsing?
MATSUZAKI: We don’t really spend that much time rehearsing.
SAUNIER: It’s kind of the same thing as when we record, the time is very concentrated. We’ll do a very endless — but very concentrated –period of rehearsal. I actually think rehearsal is one of the most fun parts of being in a band. Practice is the place where you can see what it would sound like if you just play a little bit faster or a little bit slower, or where you can decide how to combine songs or cut out parts that are boring.
MATSUZAKI: We know how to play the songs, but we don’t want to provide people the same thing they can get from iTunes or just playing the record at home. We want to always mix it up and change things, which keeps it exciting.
SAUNIER: We try to keep a very minimal live set up with no gadgets or anything. Bass, guitar, drums. It gives us room to improvise. You just never know what’s going to happen when you play live, but something always happens that changes it. These weird moments always happen with us — maybe everyone slows down for no reason whatsoever, or someone stops playing altogether. We get lost sometimes during our set, we make mistakes. Working it out live — when you are in the hot seat in front of the audience — is part of the fun of it for us.
MATSUZAKI: We never talk about things beforehand, but then onstage they will often just do things, like speed up really fast, just to see how I will react. I enjoy it.
STEREOGUM: Is playing live your favorite part of being in the band?
SAUNIER: I’d be sad if any part of it were taken away, to be honest. I really like making songs. There is something really internal and peaceful about that process. On this album, John would often send me these really great instrumental parts that were almost finished songs, then I’d sit there and try to come up with melodies. I could do that for hours, just coming up with endless permutations. I love that. You’re always looking for the perfect melody — the one that sounds like it was etched in stone, the one that sounds like it was there forever. I love that.
MATSUZAKI: The recording is fun. We’d record through a computer and it would get really hot, so we’d end up putting it on top of books or pillows when it got too hot to keep holding it, but then the jacks would keep coming unplugged, so sometimes I’d be recording vocals and the music would be going in and out of my headphones. Everything was always just about to fall apart, but it was what made it good … and that was so much like us, whether it is onstage or recording. Everything is always held together by a thread, just about to come apart, but then it doesn’t, which is what makes it good.
SAUNIER: What else do you like about recording?
MATSUZAKI: I like the cooking. I think it’s good when the band all eat together — that’s where we have all of our warmest communications as a band. Then you eat this good food and feel good about getting up and going back to work. It makes the music sound better too.
Deerhoof’s Breakup Song is out 9/4 on Polyvinyl.