We’ve Got A File On You: Deerhoof’s Greg Saunier

Sophie Daws

We’ve Got A File On You: Deerhoof’s Greg Saunier

Sophie Daws

We’ve Got A File On You features interviews in which artists share the stories behind the extracurricular activities that dot their careers: acting gigs, guest appearances, random internet ephemera, etc.

It seems almost unbelievable that Greg Saunier never released a single record under his own name before 2024. The Tucson-based drummer and composer has an almost absurdly vast list of credits as a producer and collaborator, from mixing records for small indie bands to producing some of Xiu Xiu’s best albums (The Air Force, Always) to playing in bands with a head-boggling list of luminaries from Joanna Newsom to Mike Watt to Sean Lennon. His place in underground rock history would be guaranteed even if all he’d done was founded the great Bay Area band Deerhoof. It’d also probably be guaranteed if he’d never founded Deerhoof in the first place but had still done everything else he’s done in his three-plus decades as an active musician.

His solo debut We Sang, Therefore We Were is as polyrhythmically rewarding and puckishly anti-corporate as anything he’s recorded. Saunier’s self-described “whisper-voice” barely rises above the music, but that’s all the more apt for an album whose protagonist is helplessly watching humans march towards their doom in disbelief. The apocalypse weighs heavy on Saunier’s mind; if Deerhoof’s great 2020 album Teenage Cave Artists imagined a ruined future, We Sang, Therefore We Were casts a despairing eye and cracks dark jokes at the capitalist impulses driving the planet to the brink of destruction.

Saunier’s earliest inspiration was the Rolling Stones, and when he heard their newest album Hackney Diamonds would be “angry,” his curiosity was piqued. The resulting album was yet another drab dispatch from the Stones’ endless amusement-park era, but it’s not hard to see the scabrous guitars and bitter humor of We Sang, Therefore We Were as a corrective: the musical equivalent of the director’s maxim about the best way to criticize a film being to make another film. Another inspiration for the record was Nirvana, whom Saunier began imitating in his ’90s grunge band Nitre Pit before turning Deerhoof into enough of a distinctive project to earn a shout-out from Dave Grohl himself.

Stereogum spoke with Saunier to discuss a handful of the many projects he’s been involved in over the years, including his solo debut.

We Sang, Therefore We Were (2024)

What took you so long to make a solo album?

GREG SAUNIER: Well, I was busy, you know? It never even occurred to me. It was my bandmates who gave me the idea. I made a bunch of demos, and we were chatting in December between some shows, talking about what we wanted to do next. We’re all living in different cities, and we’re prevented from being able to get together simultaneously as a band, so we’ve gotten good at this workaround of sending each other files.

I think Satomi [Matsuzaki, lead singer of Deerhoof] was suspecting that it was gonna start being another email record. She’s like, I don’t wanna do that, I want to all play together. I wanna do songs we can actually play in our concerts, and it’s more fun anyway to actually meet up and work the songs out with our instruments in hand while we’re face to face.

So all three of them are really like, I think maybe these demos — this isn’t the vibe, you know? Why don’t you just do a solo record and then we’ll just keep making new song ideas for a new Deerhoof record. I was like, solo record, what are you talking about, huh? But then they were very encouraging and supportive and have been so every step of the way, and that just made me really grateful towards them.

And it was fun. Maybe the reason I wouldn’t do it too often is because it’s a little too easy to get used to it, of being in control of everything and not getting pushback, you know? And there’s always pushback, you know, all four of us have a lot of opinions.

You were underwhelmed by the Rolling Stones’ Hackney Diamonds. What’s your relationship with the Stones?

SAUNIER: The first LP I ever bought in my life was Tattoo You. I was so fascinated by the interplay. I had no idea that improvisation was playing any role in why it sounded so loose. I thought that Charlie Watts had sat there and planned out every drum fill and Keith Richards and Ron Wood had composed every little lick and every variation. I sat there with a piece of notebook paper, mapping out every single thing that Keith and Ronnie played on “Start Me Up.”

I remember like a year later they had a live album that was called Still Life, and “Start Me Up” was on Still Life. I walked into a record store at the mall, and it just so happened that they were playing Still Life, and “Start Me Up” came on. I was absolutely horrified. What happened to all of Charlie’s fills? Why are Keith and Ronnie playing all this other stuff? That’s when I think it started to dawn on me. This band is improvising. That’s why everything’s so jagged. And that was a completely formative aesthetic idea that still gets the adrenaline going whenever I’m playing in a band.

I was hoping for the roughest of all the Rolling Stones records, they promised this new Rolling Stones record [Hackney Diamonds] was gonna be something about anger. And I was thinking about how much rage I feel towards the empire, towards colonialism, towards this sort of phony democratic fascism that has consumed the power in the country I live in and the atrocities it seems perfectly happy to commit. What they meant by angry is like, you know, you forgot to put the cap back on the toothpaste or something, and now I’m mad at you and won’t you have sex with me again? It was fine, I’m not putting the record down, but it’s not what my soul was crying out for.

New Mom, His New Improvisational Duo With His Partner Sophie Daws

SAUNIER: We haven’t recorded anything yet. New Mom is actually a bit like what Rob [Fisk, co-founding member of Deerhoof] and I first did. It continues all these years later to feel extremely liberating as a practice to sit down with your instrument and have no picture of what you’re about to do but you find it en route with another person.

Sophie sings and I play drums in New Mom. She’s very physical when she performs. She’s also a poet, so she’s often able to either use texts that she’s already working on or she’s able to come up with words on the spot, which to me is like the most amazing thing. That’s the level of genius that I really admire. I think the biggest creative risk is to actually come up with words with no plan, especially in front of an audience. It’s kind of mind-blowing and takes a lot of nerve, so I have a lot of admiration for her in that way.

New American Songbooks, Vol. 1 With Mary Halvorson And Ron Miles (2019)

SAUNIER: It was the label [Sound American] that had the vision of supplementing standards with other songs that have been written since the era of Irving Berlin and George Gershwin and Jerome Kern that are good material to get chewed on by musicians with an experimental appetite. The surprise for me was to be invited to do so.

Mary Halvorson, who very soon after that time was to receive a MacArthur Genius Grant — we’re talking about an extremely high-level professional composer. And then Ron Miles, rest in peace, an absolute legend. He was on his way from that session to the next thing he was gonna do with the Joshua Redman Quartet that then recorded an album I’ve listened to so many times [Still Dreaming], just a total masterpiece of contemporary jazz. Brian Blade did the drums, he’s one of my absolute great favorites.

My fear was intense, but almost immediately erased upon meeting because they were the most easygoing [people]. I was trying to be prepared in advance with all these chords and set aside a three-hour rehearsaI. But Ron just started going through his bag and just pulled out some random stuff and he’s like, oh, I thought it’d be cool to play this song from The Partridge Family. My mind was completely blown at how relaxed they both were, particularly Ron.

I love the idea of songs from Star Wars or the Beach Boys being recast as songbook standards.

SAUNIER: One of my favorite melodies from the Star Wars trilogy was the Luke and Leia theme. When it’s been my task to write a melody over some instrumental part, I think about John Williams because the melodies that he wrote for a lot of blockbusters are so easy to remember. You hear them once or twice and they sound like they were etched in stone at the beginning of the universe. And then if you check out some John Williams interviews and find out more about his process, it’s not like that at all. He, like any other human being, has to revise a million times. That being the case, I thought this would make a really good ballad. This is a very harmonically juicy, sophisticated song that I bet Ron and Mary could really sink their teeth into.

Another one I thought would be interesting was a slow movement from this piece for wind band [Symphony No. 6] that I had played in high school by Vincent Persichetti, an American composer. I think I was looking for stuff that was really not jazz and had never been covered, but ironically in a way it turned out to be a standard, because when I showed it to Ron, he’s like, oh, I remember this, I played it in high school too. It didn’t matter what the material was in the end—it just ended up being a chance to go nuts.

Playing Arenas With The Red Hot Chili Peppers (2016)

SAUNIER: We’ve played with a few big bands: the Roots, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, the Flaming Lips, Radiohead, Wilco. Radiohead was actually doing underplays on that tour. We played maybe nine shows with them, some in California and some in Europe, and they were all in venues that were definitely too small for Radiohead in the sense that they probably put it on sale and it sold out in five minutes. They could’ve played to an audience five times the size and it still would’ve been full.

The Chili Peppers on the other hand — we were definitely playing at their size venue, and they were almost all indoors. You have not experienced acoustical challenges until you’ve tried to play a 20,000-seat indoor arena. I hit the snare drum once, and it took forever for the reverb to finally die out, it was just absolute mud. We’re also in the 20-minute slot while most of the arena is empty, or there’s a few people filing in. They didn’t even know that there was gonna be an opening band, let alone who we were.

We played the first show somewhere in Europe, and the audience was booing, they hated it. It wasn’t that we played differently than we usually play. It’s just there was no way for the kind of music that we play to land in this cavernous thing where you’re an ant on the stage. You start to realize where arena rock came from and why it sounds the way it does. It’s typically referred to as some kind of corny aesthetic choice, but when you’re the one who’s actually on stage playing in an arena, you realize you’ve gotta do it big or it just sounds like nothing happened.

And we really felt like we had to kind of figure out a new way to play, and our only chance to practice our new way of playing was literally during the show every night. We started slowing the tempo down. We had to make the improvisation really bold and in broad strokes and make it visually big. You really had to swing your arms.

Because it was the Chili Peppers, it was like, three days off, show, three days, off show. And we never do it like that for us. It’s like show, show, show, show, show with barely any days off. So we ended up booking our own shows on the off days, and we found that everything that we were learning in the arena still worked in the small venue. Not everything that we learned in the small venue worked in the arena, but the other way around, it really stuck with us.

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Working With Bay Area Artists

SAUNIER: I’m about to mix a Gumby’s Junk record. They seem really nice and really funny. They just reached out kinda cold and were like, “Here’s a song of ours, you wanna mix our next record?” I was like, “Yes.” They haven’t finished recording yet, so I have no comment to make about the future next record mixed by me.

Mayya opened up for Deerhoof several times in various cities. I mastered one of her records, and just a few months ago, it was this year, this was her first show in San Francisco since the LP version had been manufactured and available, she’s like, “Greg, you gotta come out, you can play second drums or cowbell or something.”

Was this the show opening for Shannon Shaw at the Rickshaw Stop?

SAUNIER: Yes, exactly.

I was there! One of the members of Shannon’s band had her dog onstage.

SAUNIER: They also had the dog backstage. Trust me, they all did vocal warmups together, Shannon and her band. Even when I was in conservatory, I didn’t see people do this level of warmups. They clearly did this every night, just like [imitates harmony vocal sounds]. We were all sitting backstage at the Rickshaw Stop doing these vocal warmups.

As many times as Deerhoof has been back to the Bay Area since moving away, we’re almost always playing in the same handful of venues. But the way tour is, it’s like your time in any given city is so brief, and with a city where we all used to live there for years, it always feels like this sort of tragic missed opportunity.

His Relationship With Fellow Drummers Brian Chippendale (Lightning Bolt) And Zach Hill (Hella/Death Grips), Including The Band Nervous Cop With Hill And A Pre-Fame Joanna Newsom

SAUNIER: For whatever random accidents of fortune, I happened to meet each of them in their original bands, which is Lightning Bolt and Hella. Hella was semi-local, they were from Sacramento, so they would come to the Bay Area all the time. Deerhoof’s first show in Providence was at the warehouse where Lightning Bolt lived and worked, which was called Fort Thunder. They were doing silk-screening all the time. Brian was doodling and making comics, and the whole thing seemed to be like they were collecting trash and toys. It was utter madness, it was like walking through a black hole into a different dimension.

Once Hella first started appearing in the Bay Area, same thing. We just hit it off right away. I ended up recording with Zach and we started a band called Nervous Cop. We maybe only ever had one show, but we recorded a few times and turned the recordings into two different releases, one of which he had this friend that he went to high school with, some obscure harp player friend of his called Joanna Newsom. So she ended up on the first recording.

[Brian and Zach] are nothing alike. Brian is, I don’t know how to explain, we always loved him because he always teased us. We’d be finishing our set, and of course they don’t set up on the stage, so as we’re finishing our last song, they like start mocking us. He’s got the microphone duct-taped to his mouth and he starts like imitating Satomi into his microphone and he starts playing the drums the way I was playing.

Zach is the opposite. He’s the most earnest, heart-on-sleeve, really kind of very genuine and emotional kind of person. Very sensitive, you know? I can’t imagine Zach making fun of me or anybody in a million years, that is really not his personality, he’s got this incredible sweetness.

It’s been a couple years since I’ve talked to either one, and I definitely would love to find out how they’re doing. When I think of players like Zach and Brian, I’m curious how they’re holding up physically just from how many notes per minute they pummeled. I was borrowing Zach’s drum set for one show, which I almost never do, and then I go to sit behind the drums and every head is completely covered in dents, and I hit it and it sounds like a piece of notebook paper. And I’m like, wait, how am I gonna do this show? And then I tried hitting a little harder, and it still sounds like notebook paper. Then I hit the drum as hard as physically I could hit it, and then it made a sound. And I realized like every one of those quadrillion notes Zach is playing per second he’s hitting as hard as he possibly can.

The three of us are pretty good as far as stamina, but I sometimes worry if their own fans expect the two of them to go absolutely ape on the drums every night if that does sometimes take a physical toll on their tendons and on their muscles and even on their bones.

We Sang, Therefore We Were is out now via Joyful Noise.

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