Deerhoof Play Well With Others

Deerhoof Play Well With Others
Photo: Indra Dunis
On a tiny island off the coast of Maine, 300 students from kindergarten to grade 12 are putting on a school musical. There are no painted backdrops or gaudy colours — the cyclorama is lit solid blue, and the stage is draped in white. The only props are balloons and rubber balls, and stage decorations consist of three white orbs hanging above. A live band plays a mix of pop and skronk while kids run, throw, leap and collapse. It’s not an absurdist piece about dodgeball — it’s the Milk Man Ballet, a stage show inspired and accompanied by Deerhoof’s 2004 album of the same name.

While most would consider it a strange novelty, for West coast noise-pop band Deerhoof, the Milk Man Ballet (which took place last October) was the ultimate artistic validation. "This is the kind of thing that we always hoped for, and you can never expect something like this to ever happen,” says drummer and founding member Greg Saunier. "I mean, ‘get album performed as ballet by elementary school in Maine’ — you can’t put that on your list of things to do as a band. You put on stuff like, ‘start playing bigger venues.’ You don’t dare spell out your real dreams.”

The Ballet capped an excellent year for Deerhoof that saw them touring with Radiohead and the Flaming Lips, but buzz about their new album Friend Opportunity has bloggers declaring it the band’s best yet, if not an early contender for album of the year. "My prediction is that Friend Opportunity is going to bomb on all [year-end] lists, because we can’t be on the 2006 list and nobody will remember it on the 2007 list,” Saunier says. "Maybe it will do better, like, 15 years from now — ‘Well, what really was the best album of 2007?’ We might make the top 200.”

Friend Opportunity is another step in an upward trajectory of creative achievements. Deerhoof’s defining characteristic is their ability to reformat conventional pop music, combining visceral noise with catchy hooks. What starts out as anthemic pop-rock runs through off-beat ballads, abstract nursery rhymes and ends with an 11-minute free-form number that could serve as the score for a horror film. While all of these styles have appeared in some form on earlier recordings, never have they been fleshed out so effectively over the course of an album.

Deerhoof serves as a conduit, translating disparate scenes and sounds in fascinating ways: as a noise band, they’re known for their melodic sensibilities; though they can be idiosyncratic and abstruse, time and again listeners understand what they’re going for — and not just those with an ear for the esoteric. They’ve been written about in The New York Times and recently scored a Mandy Moore film vehicle, yet refused to license "Twin Killers” (from their 2005 album The Runners Four) to Payless Shoes for a TV ad. The band gets bigger but egos remain manageable; the most attention their own art receives, the more they appreciate the work of others.

According to Saunier, Deerhoof live a charmed life. "The kind of response our music got always exceeded my expectations. We’d play a show in the early days and I was convinced that no one was going to show up, and lo and behold, five people showed up. Then I’d be convinced, ‘Well, they sure aren’t coming next time,’ but next time, there’d be 15 people.”

The band that spawned Deerhoof was called Nitre Pit, a grunge metal act; Deerhoof’s first show featured Saunier and Nitre Pit band-mate Rob Fist filling in after that band broke up. "We had no repertoire at all. We happened to be vaguely acquainted with Trey [Spruance] — he’s a pretty acclaimed guitar player, he plays in Mr. Bungle, Secret Chiefs, for a short time he played in Faith No More. Our very first show, we said ‘Hey, do you want to come do improvisation with us?’”

Some practice space-recorded demos, along with the only review Nitre Pit ever received, landed Deerhoof a spot on the burgeoning Kill Rock Stars roster. "Just to give you an idea of how lucky we were,” Saunier relates, "Rob was like ‘Let’s send a tape to some labels,’ and the only label we could even think of, or find the address to, was Kill Rock Stars.” Label head Slim Moon caught the band at Olympia, Washington’s Yo-Yo A Go-Go fest, the deal was sealed and Deerhoof soon released their first seven-inch, Return of the Woods M’Lady. But while Fisk (who left the band in 1999) was a KRS fan, Saunier was mostly along for the ride. "It’s 1994, going into 1995, and Kill Rock Stars is just one example of what had been an incredible boom in [independent music], but I lived under a rock or something. I had heard of Nirvana, sure, but mostly I was listening to jazz and classical music, and then my Rolling Stones records. For me, the early ‘90s were all about Voodoo Lounge,” he laughs. "I was the unhippest person imaginable.”

Deerhoof found its stride with the addition of Satomi Matsuzaki, whose childlike, staccato voice gave the band a distinctive stamp. A Japanese transplant to San Francisco, Matsuzaki joined for fun after a mutual friend played her the band’s first seven-inch. "It sounded like a noise record,” Matsuzaki says. "I had just moved here and I didn’t have friends. I was sure I could play some noise; I wouldn’t need to be able to play any instrument.” Her first experiences with Deerhoof are a further example of the band’s joie de vivre: "I talked to Deerhoof on the phone, and they’re like ‘Oh great! Come over, and we’ll make bread and chili beans for you.’ Then I went to their practice and they really made chili beans and bread for me, and I thought ‘This band is so cool! They make food!” she laughs. "It was very fun, very nice and warm. In Japan, noise bands are so serious — they really like black clothes and long hair and strange electronics, so it was really surprising.” (Matsuzaki and Saunier eventually got married.)

The band underwent a series of line-up changes, culminating in Fisk’s departure after 1999’s Holdypaws and the addition of guitar virtuoso John Dietrich, who debuted on 2002's Reveille. Having carved out their musical niche, Reveille was the first Deerhoof record to be fully self-contained and thematically mapped from start to finish, a process that took two years. Reveille served as the band's critical breakthrough, but Dietrich humbly denies any responsibility. "I heard the band for the first time — I'm not joking — a month and a half before I joined,” he says. "I moved to Oakland to go to music school, and I was in a class with Greg. One day he played a Deerhoof thing; I immediately was like, ‘Wow! I can relate to that.’” It was perfect timing — the departure of Fisk and keyboardist Kelly Goode had left a considerable hole in the band's line-up, and Dietrich (who shares Saunier's jazz background) was clearly perfect for the job.

The albums that followed established Deerhoof as a fascinating band with admirable vision and ambition. Reveille is cryptic and grandiose; the first 30 seconds of almost-opener "The Magnificent Bird Will Rise” are comparable to the chandelier drop in Phantom of the Opera. The band recruited guitarist/bassist Chris Cohen for Apple O, a concept album about the Garden of Eden, released in 2003. Using mythology as an underlying concept and featuring lyrics that are sometimes poetic, sometimes cutesy and sometimes absurd, the album cleared up any doubt that Deerhoof were "just for fun” — they certainly dealt with deeper concepts and themes.

Milk Man, released in 2004, saw the band delving further into conceptual album writing, having more fun and taking new liberties. A dark fairytale inspired by its own cover art, its narrative is established through both lyrics and eerie instrumentals. Rather than using brute force to establish macabre themes (which, with a drummer like Saunier, the band is fully capable of), they chose subtlety — songs like "Desapareceré” are soft and slow and arguably more unsettling than cacophony. The album that followed, Runners Four, switched its emphasis back on the songs, reminding listeners that Deerhoof’s music was just as clever and meticulous as their narrative themes. Six months after its release, Cohen quit the band to focus on his own project, Curtains.

Deerhoof aren’t a myopic band obsessed with their own artistry; they actively cultivate symbiotic relationships with other artists in different media. They’ve solicited cover art from several of their favourite illustrators: Ken Kagami made the artwork for Milk Man; Trevor Shimizu (who plays in Curtains) designed the cover of Runners Four; and Glaswegian artist David Shrigley made 12 paintings for Friend Opportunity. The band was surprised to find that Shrigley was a Deerhoof fan, having admired his work from afar.

It was not the only instance of mutual fandom turned artistic collaboration. After "sheepishly” getting in touch with Daniel Smith (aka Danielson) in order to share a few concert bills, Deerhoof were recruited to back several songs on last year’s fantastic Ships album. ("I was so proud to have even played a tiny role in it,” Saunier says.) Actor Justin Theroux — David Lynch player and one-time premature ejaculator on Sex and the City — sought out the band to score his directorial debut, Dedication (an "OCD rom-com,” in Saunier’s words). "It was totally amazing when we first met him — he claims to be a Deerhoof fan, we were just like, ‘What?!’ I saw Mulholland Drive several times in the theatre. Just totally loved this movie, thought about it all the time, particularly loved his character — I couldn’t believe he had even heard of us, let alone liked our music.” Coincidentally, through Dedication, Theroux put Deerhoof’s music to its initial, though unstated purpose — he drew largely from Reveille, which was partly conceptualised as a film soundtrack. "We felt like Reveille was meant to be cinema,” Saunier explains. "We had so much trouble putting it together, and figuring it out… I just remember trying to think of it like a movie, a cinematic story, with different scenes and a flow to the plot. So it’s kind of uncanny how he’s making this movie and he wants to use these songs.”

They’re not using these opportunities to climb a ladder to fame; Deerhoof believe that their creation is only half the experience of being artists. "For me, the music isn’t finished until the listener fills in their piece of the puzzle,” Saunier says, "I desperately want to hear our music through other peoples’ ears, just as an exercise in my own open-mindedness.”

It’s no surprise that Deerhoof’s music has yielded some great interpretations, of which the Milk Man Ballet is a perfect example. "Courtney [Naliboff] knew Deerhoof and came up with the idea for the Milk Man Ballet long before she had the ability or the means to actually put it on,” Dietrich explains. "She presented us with the idea, and we were like ‘Oh, sounds great,’ not really expecting it would actually happen. We got an email six months later saying ‘I’m now teaching drama and music on this island [North Haven], and we’re going to put on the Milk Man Ballet.’ And we’re like, ‘What?!’” Naliboff wrote arrangements for the production, and the school’s gym teacher — who had never heard of the band — took over choreography. While the idea of your gym teacher choreographing anything — much less a song entitled "Rainbow Silhouette of the Milky Man” — might seem ridiculous, Naliboff and company were very serious about it. "To [Courtney], Milk Man was clearly a kind of music theatre story in the vein of West Side Story or A Chorus Line,” Saunier says. "She was right, in her way — she saw a side of the music that we hoped people would see, which was something theatrical, something campy, something slightly unreal.”

The last 12 months saw Deerhoof not just in community theatre but in large arenas, on tours with much bigger bands — in both fame and stage presence — Radiohead and the Flaming Lips. "We’re a physically small band; we have a small presence on a stage,” Dietrich says. "It’s been an interesting process of figuring out how you make a musical gesture that carries in an environment like that. It’s not like we’re competing with them. I don’t know if it would work if we blasted everyone with light shows.”

It’s worth mentioning that Deerhoof has, in fact, been blasting everyone with light shows. Toronto artist Peter Venuto has been touring with the band along with his homemade Trashlights. "He’s recently created and constructed a newer and more ambitious light called the Electric Rainbow Machine,” Saunier enthuses. "It’s this totally wild, spinning, six-foot-diameter crazy LED thing that responds to sound and reacts to decibels and sound variations which, if all goes according to plan, will have a home on our stage.”

The Electric Rainbow Machine is ambitious and extravagant, but it’s still the handiwork of a friend and fellow artist, which is where Deerhoof’s allegiances lie. Despite playing for fans of the world’s biggest, and most respected bands, "probably the most nervous I was of all the last six months [of tour] was when we played a benefit for a friend in San Francisco, at a club of 120 people,” Dietrich says. "It was nerve-wracking because it was all of our friends — they hadn’t seen us in awhile, we were doing a lot of touring and it was like, ‘Ah, what if we don’t sound good?’ It was also the first time Chris [Cohen] had seen us play since he left.”

As Deerhoof embarks upon a world tour in support of their eighth full-length, Friend Opportunity, it’s not just the stage show that’s feeling the impact of last year’s stadium-sized jaunts. "Playing in those big venues, it works a lot better if you leave space in the music,” Dietrich says. "Then the actual ideas are expressed a lot clearer. One thing we did with Friend Opportunity was peel away sound — try to create as much space in the music as possible. When Chris left and we started rehearsing, we noticed how much emptier sounding [it was]. With one less instrument, we [thought] ‘What would it be like if we emptied it out even further?’ I think with the recording of the album, we wanted to continue with that, and take it even further.”

Further collaborations are also already in the works. "On this upcoming tour, a huge chunk is going to be with Busdriver, an L.A. hip-hop MC,” Saunier says. "I can’t even find the right words to describe how blown away I was when I saw him perform. I had never seen somebody rap like this. He was switching between these kinds of voices, almost like different personas — it was sort of like watching Jack Nicholson in The Shining. Just this incredible tour de force of acting.” Of course Busdriver turned out to be a Deerhoof fan too. "Who knows, maybe it could work out to record together a little bit, because I would be so humbled by being connected to him in any way,” Saunier adds. Making artistic alliances seems to be the band’s forte, but Saunier still thinks he’s just fortunate. "You say we’ve made them, I say we’ve fallen into them out of pure luck.”

The Milk Man Ballet was a turning point, not necessarily career-wise, but in realising the band’s ambitions. "It was like the music graduated from being Deerhoof music to being just music that somebody could use for whatever purpose,” Saunier says. "Somebody walking down the sidewalk, humming one of our songs — to me, that’s the ultimate use. Music has so many uses, but one that I feel particularly happy about has come to pass: that people make it their own. Even the idea that somebody listens to our music at home — they’re not doing it to make us feel better, they’re not doing it to be cool or impress anyone else, they’re doing it because that’s what they wanted to hear. It’s actually something of use in their normal daily life — I just feel like that’s pretty wild.”