The Deerhoof Puzzle

The Deerhoof Puzzle
Oakland's Deerhoof is one hell of a creative beast, charging forward at an astounding pace that cannot be deterred. It's hard to believe it's only been three years since this one-time agit-rock entity embraced the tuneful heart of pop music on Reveille, their breakthrough fourth album. In the short time that's followed, Deerhoof have established themselves as true innovators, effectively closing the gap between experimental and popular forms, where catchy melodies and challenging structures collide into one cute yet ballsy animal.

The Runners Four, Deerhoof's seventh full-length, could be their finest and most ambitious effort to date. An album virtually overflowing with expert musical articulation, The Runners Four sounds spacious and spare in comparison to their recent studio-fried releases, Milk Man and the Japan-only Green Cosmos EP.

"Our idea with this last batch of songs was that the parts be like little tiny fragments that you could play in a lot of different ways, and you could shift them," says bassist Chris Cohen. "If you wanted to listen to only one instrument or one person, you could focus in on that one instrument or person. We wanted to make something where each part would be interesting on its own. If you sort of had a multi-channel version of it, you could just turn all the other people off in your mind and move around from person to person within the music. We wanted to at least make it possible for people to listen to our music that way."

As a result, The Runners Four is Deerhoof's warmest, most human record. Their goal of expressing each of the individual members through their chosen instruments — singer Satomi Matsuzaki, guitarist John Dieterich, drummer Greg Saunier and bassist Cohen — is wholeheartedly achieved. Often times, you'd swear you were right there in the room with the band, watching 'em hammer out their sonic waves of catchy aggression.

But the ambitious ideas that inform The Runners Four hardly end there. The band went so far as to make many of the instrumental lines they were recording interchangeable — within different songs! "Everything was completely mobile within the album," says Cohen. "We were trying to think of it as tape music or musique concrète or whatever. We treated it like the guitar track was one composition and the bass track was one composition, and the drums and vocals as well, and then we would move things around and try different combinations, like ‘Maybe this guitar part works well over this thing.' You could almost imagine like if it were a movie, it would be a split-screen movie where you might be able to watch all these different things happening simultaneously. You might think like, ‘Whoa, what a weird coincidence that all this stuff happened to line up,' like sort of this chance meeting experience where something really amazing happens just randomly by coincidence."

This complex and unique approach made sure the album was a work in constant flux, to the point where they took it back into the studio for reworking "about five times. Not necessarily re-recording," says Cohen, "just changing things around with the sounds, or the structure of the songs, because even as we performed them and rehearsed them nothing was completely finished. The songs never really stop, they're never completely written."

So what about the final copy of the album? "That was just the version we had at that moment," says Cohen. "Instead of being like classical music where every single note is notated and there's a very specific way of playing it, we've left it a little bit more open."