Artists can often be their own worst enemies. Musicians, painters, sculptors—nearly anyone engaged in the creative process knows that writers’ block doesn’t apply only to harried hacks. In the long run, no one wants to follow in the footsteps of Ralph Ellison or Brian Wilson. They want to be the next Graham Greene or Robert Pollard, perennially pumping out new work. Very few want to run the risk of jinxing themselves by discussing how their work gets done, where their inspiration comes from and definitely not what their work means. For most artists, the fact that anything worthwhile comes of their efforts is enough.
With Greg Saunier, one of Deerhoof’s multi-instrumentalist songwriters (though at concerts he stays mostly behind the drumkit), he’s perfected his blind eye to the roots of where his inspiration comes from. Saunier has mastered the art of the sidelong glance, the studied disinterest for what he’s doing, and how or why he might be doing it.
“Something comes to you out of the blue,” he says. “The idea maybe is to just somehow be sort of prepared if this cloud of a vague idea happens to drift by. You happen to be paying enough attention to notice that it’s there. I find that to be more challenging than actually deciding what note to use I’ve been trying to train myself to give those clouds of an idea a little bit of respect and the benefit of the doubt.”
His ability to chat unguardedly about the difficult act of creation comes at a price: he remains happily in the dark about the source of the inspiration behind his band’s poppy, noisy, lightning-bug rock. Yet over the years, he’s done his best to learn to let it arrive on its own time and accept it once it has.
When I spoke to him earlier this summer, Saunier was still putting the finishing touches on a split record with the Japanese band 5471, due out in Japan in October. He felt fairly certain that it wasn’t going to be much like Milk Man, their widely praised full-length from 2003, but still he wasn’t sure exactly how to describe what he had been recording vocals for earlier that day.
“Sometimes you get so into working on something you lose the sense of what it sounds like,” he says. “Even before it’s done, we’re always trying to stop listening to it, even for a few days, because I’ll always get surprised. I’ll suddenly hear something that I want to change.”
This stop-start method of recording is what caused Milk Man to take two years to complete. The band does all their own mixing and overdubs, repeatedly tweaking and reordering the briefest of recordings, and can summon reservoirs of patience while making certain that the final release is just right.
“After recording for one evening we’ll spend the next four months mixing it at home,” he says.
But once the album is finished and the tour begins there’s no chance that what the band performs live will follow the patterns set by the record. Most of the songs have never even been tried out live before they start up their tour. Not only does their guitarist Chris Cohen live in Los Angeles while the rest of the live in San Francisco, but for years Deerhoof has gotten by without a rehearsal space.
The solution? “It’s sort of a pantomime kind of practice,” Saunier explains. “Maybe [Cohen and John Dietrich] have their guitars and Satomi [Matsuzaki]‘s got her bass and I’ll just like tap on my knees. The sound of the instruments is just like icing on the cake.
“A lot of times at the very beginning of a tour, my apologies to who’s ever at the first one or two days of a tour for us,” Saunier says. “I always feel like right at the beginning we get on stage and I feel like I’m just freaking out I’ll get an idea for a lick I want to play on the drums and I won’t be able to actually do it, but then once we’ve been playing for a few days in a row it’s like I’ll think of an idea and there might actually be the odd time when I can actually pull it off.
“What’s really fun is when a group is all doing that together. It’s not like ‘Oh I want to play my one fancy lick on the drums.’ It’s like everybody’s mind is collaborating together on the sound.”
Their upcoming Japanese release will be a departure, in that for first time all the songs have been played live before they were recorded. It also is one of their least concept-driven records yet, partly because the record is split with another band. When it comes to their full-length albums, long before any music is even written, the members of Deerhoof are busy creating a grand theory that will guide them through the album’s creation.
“On tour there’s lots of time for band meetings,” says Saunier. “If you talk to the other guys, they always start moaning and groaning because it’s like we’ll start out in the morning and within a few minutes of us starting I’ll be like, ‘Ok guys, band meeting.’ Which will inevitably go on continuously until the moment we pull up to the club.”
For Milk Man, they drew their inspiration from the artwork of their friend Ken Kagami. For years Kagami had been producing drawings of the androgynous, white-suited character, with its head like a Pac-man ghost and its body gored by a few pieces of fruit, that would eventually become the centerpiece of the album artwork and even the lyrics.
“One of the things that drew us to [Kagami], that makes us feel related to him in a way, is that for him the medium is not that important,” says Saunier. “The technical execution might be kind of simple, or might be kind of crude, but he just wanted to express the idea, this image that he had. I felt like I could really connect to that.”
Though all of Deerhoof’s members contribute music and lyrics, Matsuzaki wrote the majority of the Milk Man lyrics. Reviews of the band have occasionally speculated on how well Matsuzaki speaks and understands English. Saunier contends that this mistake might spring from listeners not realizing that she often has sung in Japanese.
“I think basically what’s happened is people have thought that she was singing nonsense syllables and they just don’t recognize it because they don’t speak the language,” he says.
Though Matsuzaki might speak English flawlessly, when she joined the band she was not nearly so fluent a musician. Whereas Saunier had played in bands since high school and even studied composition, Matsuzaki hadn’t sung or played an instrument “since grade school.” Still, Saunier thinks that this is all the education she—or anyone else—needs.
“Everybody’s musically trained, because everybody hears music all the time,” he says. “It doesn’t matter what century you’re from or what country you’re from. There’s no such thing as somebody who doesn’t know what they’re doing and there’s no such thing as somebody who knows what they’re doing. It’s not a math problem, it’s Milkman, it’s a flight of fancy and who knows what you’re going to end up with.
“I can sit there and slave over a song or a mix or something for days and days and play it for her and instantly she’ll realize the parts that are wrong. And a lot of times it’s ‘Hey Greg, the drums are too loud.’”