KEXP at CMJ, Day 1: Deerhoof

review by Sheryl Witlen
interview by Jim Beckmann
photos by Doron Gild

If a band is lucky, they are signed to a record label that not only assists them in developing their career for a widespread audience but remains their steadfast support beam and confidant. For San Francisco-based Deerhoof and Kill Rock Stars, it is the perfect marriage of creativity and the love of independent thought and music. From the first tinkering sounds of “Return of the Wood M’lady”, the song that started it all up until the release of this, their fourteenth album, Offend Maggie, Deerhoof has refused to follow the traditional path. Through difficult times of low record sales and lost band mates Kill Rock Star stood firmly behind them. Satomi Matsuzaki (vocals and bass), John Dieterich (guitar), Ed Rodriguez (guitar) and Greg Saunier (drums) together create a unique blend of incomprehensible vocals and mad-math stylistics leaving a cautionary tale for any who dare to mimic their outlandish style. Dissonance, disjointed, asymmetrical, negatively conditioned, hyper-expressive; all these are adjectives used to describe one of the most quizzical artists of our generation. Whether or not you understand what they are trying to accomplish you cannot help but become enraptured by their mystique, tip toeing towards the edge, always left feeling accosted and confused. Satomi is the main culprit in this equation taking the songwriting tricks she has learned along her journey along with their past albums to create a more organic sounding album than any of their previous projects. Venturing a long way from her homeland of Tokyo and under Greg’s guidance and inspiration, she has blossomed into her own and embraced the responsibility of vocalist and front woman of the collective. Evaporated into distant memory are her early performances as a timid wayward performer. In the beginning there was Reveille in 2002 which showcases the band’s rustic recordings both in the studio and home churning out the most poised, confident and clairvoyant of all their albums to date until now. On Offend Maggie, listen carefully to the painstakingly composed “Numina O” which highlights the bands strength when it comes to guitar mastery and formation. Since Reveille we have listened and loved Apple O’ (2003), Milk Man (2004), and The Runners Four (2005) all of which have just laid the ground work for Maggie’s wisdom and innocent beauty. With an upcoming tour, a secure and stable label and talent seeping out of their every move Deerhoof is sure to consume, envelop and confuse numerous fans for sometime to come.

After their performance, the band sat down with Jim to talk a bit about their new album, but, as always with Deerhoof, be careful what you believe!

Jim: You mentioned “failure” a whole bunch of times during the studio session, but obviously with you just having released another album you are enjoying a bit of success. How many is it, by the way? Someone today said nine.

Greg: I don’t think so. We started in 94′ our first album was in ’95 it was an LP only. I believe it sold eight copies. We’ve always been on Kill Rock Stars, but we’ve also done projects with other labels intermittently. We had a live album that was released in Australia only, we’ve done one full length album with a New York label called Menlo Park, and then we did something with a Menlo Park label called New York. Just kidding. And then we did another EP called “Green Cosmos,” which I never know whether to count that one.

Jim: It seems like you’ve released something every year though. How did you keep it fresh and different over all that time?

Greg: Is it different?!

Satomi: We try on purpose to do different things and listen to our past albums.

Jim: You go back and listen to your past albums when you are working on recording a new one?

Satomi: I do.

Greg: You do?!

Satomi: I do because otherwise we are repeating the same thing.

Jim: That doesn’t make you repeat it when you hear it?

(Everyone laughs)

Satomi: Well, we repeat them all at the shows. We don’t need to repeat them when we record.

Jim: I disagree with Cheryl in her interview today in that I thought this album was a little bit more “bombastic.” I even read that someone categorize it as “prog.” Was that your intention going in?

Greg: To be prog? Absolutely. In fact, that was the whole premise. Before we even started the band we didn’t have a name, we didn’t have any songs, we didn’t even know the members of the band… but we knew we wanted it to be prog.

(Everyone laughs)

John: We had robes.

Greg: We had robes and we had strobe lights.

Jim: Didn’t you need a bigger drum set though?

Greg: No, we didn’t have a drumset. I was tapping on my knees with drumsticks.

John: Any prog that is there is residue or some sort of accident, for myself anyway. I am writing things that sound really natural to me.

Greg: That’s what all the prog rockers say.

John: But I’m just saying, that when I hear things I say, “This just sounds like music” and discover later that something that someone else hears reminds them of prog.

Greg: I don’t mind if someone calls us prog… if they like prog!

Jim: I don’t know if that was intended to be an insult or what.

John: But it has been brought up a lot.

Greg: But you can equally see other musical sub-genres brought up

John: But people are repeating that right now.

Satomi: When we are making songs and repeating sections over and over, we get tired of the repeating. So we make them shorter and shorter, so maybe at the end, a ten minute song becomes a three minute song and that section just repeats four times.

John: Or there’s no repetition sometimes too. You might have a section that just happens once and then you return, and sometimes that turns out to be prog-like to some people.

Jim: So how would you describe it?

Greg: I would describe it more as art rock. Like King Crimson and Yes.

Jim: Nu prog?

John: Nu Lite Prog.

Greg: I liked Kucinich.

Ed: What?

Greg: But he was too progressive. Too prog.

Jim: So how do you write songs? (to Greg) You’ve been the longest person in the band.

Greg: I have! I am the longest band member.

Jim: Yes, physically and temporally. But it seems like there has been a continuing thread through the band, even while band members have changed. How does that work?

Greg: Every time we add a new member of the band, the continuing thread, which is me, gets more threadbare.

John: It kinda makes sense.

Jim: Do you feel like you are less of an influence as the band has gone on? (Greg laughs) I don’t mean that as an insult, but as people are added to the band don’t they contribute more to the sound? John, you’ve been in the band…

John: Nine years.

Jim: Ed, you were just added.

Ed: Yeah, in January.

John: Everyone contributes, everyone is immediately brought into new songs, but it is not like it means that it lowers someone else’s contribution.

Ed: Nobody brings a song and says, “This is a song. It’s done.” Someone would bring a song in and it’s complete open to somebody else going, “This part’s great, but this part’s not so good.” The second it comes in, everybody’s open for it to change and become something else. It is not like there is one person who is really strongly controlling the process. I don’t think there is anything that in the whole vein of the band could have been done without a lot of people.

Greg: You can’t really take the band and divide it up into one fourth, one fourth, one fourth, one fourth. That excludes the factor of time. Just because another person joins doesn’t mean that the three previous members do less. It just means that that much more thought goes into it.

Jim: But there is a new influence, right?

Greg: It’s true, but it’s not that mathematical either. It’s not exactly an influence. It’s not like, add salt, add pepper. Ed also changed. In addition to Deerhoof changing because of Ed, Ed also changed because we told him to!

Ed: I think that everyone who had joined was familiar with the band and the band was also familiar with what they were asking of a new member.

John: To complicate it even further, Ed and I had been playing together in a previous band for a long time. The second Ed decided to join, all of the sudden it completely changed the way I was thinking about writing for this album. It wasn’t that he brought in his own thing. I knew that he was joining and all of the sudden a whole bunch of new ideas started coming in, based on the fact that I know him so well and was imaging his compositional place.

Jim: And it’s not like Ed would come in and say, “Hey, I’ve got this new song and it’s kind of twang, a little bit.”

Greg: It is actually kinda twangy.

(Everyone laughs)

Greg: Probably the twangiest moment on Offend Maggie is the second verse of Snoopy. Which was composed by Ed. It is a little twangier in the live version. On the recorded version, John’s guitar was put through a few odd stomp boxes and reduced the twang. If you come to a show and hear the second verse of Snoopy waves and you turn all the effects off and it is completely clean, you hear the twang.

Jim laughs

Greg: What? You all keep laughing! You know, we’ve been traveling through middle America and let me tell you, on the radio, you got a lot of country music to choose from. I’ve really been getting into it. And I think Offend Maggie does sound western, and I think that Snoopy might be my favorite track on the album.

Jim: So where are you guys playing during CMJ?

Greg: We know we are playing The Filmore at Irving Plaza on Wednesday night.

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