Deerhoof is the rare avant-garde schizo-rock band that you don’t have to pretend to like. Unlike others that traffic in deliberate out-thereness—the Boredoms and Acid Mothers Temple come to mind—the music of Deerhoof is anchored by sweet melodies and hypnotic rhythmic movement. Though it veers in and out of pop territory, the California-based quartet is just as betrothed to chance and intuition as their less listenable counterparts.
What fuels the band’s knack for writing songs that will have you pressing the replay button is its intergroup harmony. With Greg Saunier—Deerhoof’s manically inventive and intense drummer—the only remaining founding member, Deerhoof is not encumbered by an agenda-wielding bandleader. It is democratic.
And never has the band coalesced so perfectly as on its newest release, The Runners Four, a 70-minute-plus concept album based on the disturbing artwork of Japanese illustrator and sculptor Ken Kagami. The album finds Deerhoof discarding the cute sonic tricks of their prior albums, fleshing out instead a darker and denser aesthetic. The album has earned the band generous praise from media outlets far and wide, including a gushing review from New York Times critic Ben Ratliff.
When PopMatters spoke to guitarist John Dieterich, we started the conversation by talking about how rock and roll saved him from doing data entry.
Lots of bands as popular as Deerhoof still work day jobs. Why is that?
That’s a good question, and I doubt that anybody really knows the answer. All of us were working different jobs—I was working doing data entry at a law firm, Greg was doing filing, Satomi [Matsuzaki, bassist and vocalist] was an editor for a magazine and Chris Cohen [Deerhoof’s other guitarist] was waiting tables. After awhile, it seemed like we were doing okay on tours, so we wanted to see what would happen if we all just quit our jobs. Basically what we’ve found is there’s a critical amount of touring that we have to do in order to survive in a given year.
Do you have that down to a science?
No, and that’s the thing—it is a science, and it’s a science in which we are not privy to all of the computations. We don’t know what all of the variables are, and we are constantly learning.
You guys opened for Wilco not too long ago. What was that experience like?
That was a new thing for us. We played in venues much bigger and fancier than anything we ever played in before. For us, it was a challenge to try to communicate our music in that sort of environment. Have you ever seen that Led Zeppelin DVD that came out a couple of years ago? It’s quite incredible—here was a band coming of age playing in stadiums. It wasn’t an accident that they sounded that good. Just through trial and error, they learned how to have their music come across in that kind of environment, which is kind of a rarity and difficult to pull off. They were able to respond to their environment and made music that worked like that. I think we sound better in places that aren’t super-tiny or huge.
Do you think that’s a sound issue, or do you think it’s because you don’t play epic, grand-sounding songs?
Well, I think there’s a lot of detail in our songs, and that kind of detail, in a huge environment, gets lost. Through all the reverberation happening, one sound gets confused with the next. If we’re playing in a big place, we try to play a little bit slower. It helps give a sense of the articulation. Whereas if you are playing it fast, it can end up sounding like mush.
You joined the band in 1999. What were you doing until then?
Before I joined I was in two bands, both of which are in Minneapolis, and one of which is still going. It’s called Gorge Trio, an instrumental trio. Chris Cohen and I also have another band, and we haven’t done anything for like two years. We have a record that needs to be mixed, and it’s just kind of been sitting there. We’re going to get moving on that soon, hopefully.
Did your previous experience impact how Deerhoof’s sound has evolved since you joined?
I think the band was already in the midst of some sort of shift before I joined. I was coming from a group where most of what we did was free improvisation. If we did play songs, it was very abstract. When the possibility of joining Deerhoof came up, it was extremely exciting, especially to work in the framework of Satomi’s voice. I was also really attracted to the way melody was used in the band. I had been in a band with a singer before, but a lot of the singing wasn’t very melodic—let’s put it that way.
Having come into it at a time when it was clearly Satomi’s and Greg’s band, how have songwriting roles shifted over the past few years?
When I joined the band, it was with the assumption that everyone is able to be as actively involved in any aspect of it as they want to be. As far as the way the writing process has changed, it’s about how much time the band has together. The way we approached The Runners Four, if I brought in a song, somebody else might write an introduction for it, and somebody else might write lyrics for it, and somebody might write or rewrite my guitar part for it. We were trying to synthesize all of our different styles and see what happened if we spent all of our time together and all of our energy and trying to do that.
Some reviewers see the album as more serious, lacking the childlike quality that marked the previous records. Was that something you intended?
No, and that’s interesting. When we went in to record the album, and we started working through the stuff, we recorded the songs one at a time, basically. And as we started accumulated material, I was thinking, How in the world are we going to turn this into an album? It was just all over the place. The idea that it was “serious” never really occurred to me. People seem to be pulling that mood from it, but I don’t have a sense of where that comes from exactly.
People sometimes have a hard time connecting emotionally with avant-garde music, yet they seem to perceive feelings of loneliness or sadness in this record that they didn’t necessarily hear on previous Deerhoof records.
I would agree that that’s there. I would also say that that’s there on all the albums to varying degrees. It’s just whether or not it’s presented in a format in which it’s understandable. One of the thing we decided to do on this album was to not have tons of overdubs. We made a decision that we weren’t going to use all kinds of sounds to bolster the music. We’ve used a lot of crazy sounds on albums in the past—a compositional tool, and not one that we dislike by any stretch—but we wanted to limit ourselves for this album. We weren’t going to have an orchestra come in just because it sounds good; we were going to keep it stripped down and have it be more about the playing. And I think that allows people to relate more to the songs. Maybe the songs themselves are grounded by the fact that the instrumentation is something comprehensible. It’s not constantly shifting—a brass band and seven synthesizers aren’t all of a sudden going to come in.
The press has been really lavish in praising The Runners Four—
It’s nice that that’s your perspective; that hasn’t been my perspective, but that’s nice.
Were you surprised by The New York Times review?
Yeah, absolutely. Not only was it exciting that we were in The New York Times, but I really appreciated the reviewer’s approach to the album, and he had a really personal idea of what the album meant, and what went into it, and how it was made.
When you get these really glowing reviews from The New York Times, do you start to get the feeling that this could be something bigger?
That doesn’t mean more to me than reading a low-profile review of some other band that I’m in. For me, it’s all about what my relationship is to the music. It’s nice to get a good review in The New York Times, but that doesn’t put that band on another level from other bands. It’s nice, but it’s not what I’m interested in. I’m already paranoid that it’s already too much. It’s a weird thing, when all of the sudden your music leaves you and becomes this public thing. It’s something I’ve been experiencing a lot with The Runners Four. I love feedback, but for me, there’s always this worry. It’s so far beyond my control and my comprehension that I don’t know how I feel about it, and I probably never will.