15 Sep 2009: Le Poisson Rouge New York
I’m no astrologist. I’ve never actively pursued my horoscope in daily news feeds, or online hemispheres, or alternative psychic boulevards. But I meet people. And one of the unique opportunities I’ve always taken from newfound social exchanges has been the avid astrological enthusiasts who emphatically proclaim, “You’re a Gemini? I knew it!” And it’s always after the fact that I’ve told them, ‘Yes, I am a Gemini’, and they react as though this revelatory conclusion has been discovered by them, negating the reminder that I’ve just explained to them what astrological star placement I’ve been appointed.
Simply put, I didn’t ask to be a Gemini, the same way no one asks to be a Capricorn, a Leo, or a Brangelina. It was a label put on me by label-makers who enjoy the user-friendly familiarity of compartmentalization. We can’t help but consign our surroundings to fit our memory’s diorama. We are private detectives in many respects; we love figuring out mysteries, whether we realize it or not.
This brings me to the engaging mystique of Deerhoof. This San Francisco band has been putting on the mystery, nice and thick-like, for many moons now. They inhabit a musical Rorschach of sorts. On a case-by-case basis, how one discovers their sound would be a very interesting analysis (cue grad student thesis project).
Though the band has been steadily gaining followers, they still hover on the outskirts of mass appeal, and their fans appreciate such fringes. I sense that the people who’ve taken the time to embrace the band’s catalogue have a strong belief in magical healing powers, yet there are other people in this world (other than Geminis, I suppose) who drive a car to work, and their favorite radio station prevents them from hearing Deerhoof.
Ironically, Deerhoof are not a radio-friendly band, and yet, they produce some of the catchiest hooks, ideal for open road excursions; until, that is, they abruptly halt their momentum, shift gears, and offer a wildly different perspective on musical arrangement. It’s brilliant, because it happens at the exact moment where you felt like you had a certain song or structure all figured out. It’s non-confrontational sound that provokes a reaction.
Sound has to start and, suggesting contrast, stop somewhere else. Whether it be a momentum thing, or gravity, or animalistic inclination to harbor a roar, a shriek, or a whisper; we all know sound arrives and eventually departs, and if it does its job – which is to somehow make a connection – the rest is then left up to the individual’s imagination.
Deerhoof inhabit bubbling inconsistencies, and I celebrate that. The satisfying nonsensicality is its own beautiful, comforting bubble. That bassist/vocalist Satomi Matsuzaki sings many songs in her native Japanese only perpetuates its resonance. My ears simply want to find the next gear that fits in place, which is a big part of their allure. Such layering in musical progression should be exploited more often, and Deerhoof recognize that in their own unique way. Their sound exists on its own spastic, playful, unconventional trajectory: Always veering, sidestepping, bobbing and weaving. Arrhythmic interludes, jerky chord progression and tempo-shifting shapes; angular, mashed potatoes and gravy with some 1960s garage dust. Incorporating chronology into their schematics may be something they aspire to achieve, but if it’s an accident, it’s well-played.
The Deerhoof show at le Poisson Rouge was my first glimpse at a live interpretation of this enigmatic band. I was first impressed by their stage placement. The venue’s stage operates on a half-moon angle, and instead of having a lead singer spaced in the front, each of the four members had a spot, left to right, that rested stage-front, offering the impression the band operates as a solitary device, allowing each member moments in the spotlight.
A film installation, evoking images of lava, vampires, currency, broken glass, UFOs, beach blanket bingo dancers, along with Deerhoof band members, ran on two projection screens, giving one the impression of an art gallery showcase. The venue is responsible for some of the more forward-thinking art/music movements going in New York and they bill themselves that way, thus making Deerhoof and their artistic sensibilities a good fit for the evening.
The band played assorted tracks from their ever-expanding catalogue, with more attention paid to Offend Maggie, their latest album release. Peppered throughout the set were instrumental songs devoted to more playful, slightly improvisational tones, which suits them. Matsuzaki’s impassive voice carried over the jagged soundwaves, bird-like, while operating on lullaby intervals. It truly complements the non-conformist chord progressions and is what ultimately separates Deerhoof from many of their contemporaries. Each band member wields the capacity to alter the sound direction, but their impromptu, jazz-friendly cohesiveness maintains its own unique balance.
Their set retained an atmospheric, tangential and, best of all, unpredictable trajectory, evidenced by a cover of Canned Heat’s “Goin’ Up The Country”, in which the band rotated instruments. It was a great sign of a band having fun without pandering to the audience. Given Woodstock’s recent anniversary/revival, it was a sound homage to an event bands like Deerhoof would flourish in.
The stage, however, was far too low, and using the wide open cabaret space for a rock and roll show left much to be desired for live music effect. I’m six-foot-two, and even I felt humbled by the limited vantage points, though Deerhoof, as I said, made the best of those limitations. Apart from the stage obstructions, Deerhoof did not fail to impress. They convey a band clearly celebrating their chances. They remain convulsively rhapsodic. Or rhapsodically convulsive. I can’t make up my mind. I’m going to re-listen to their track, “Twin Killers”, which is clearly a deliberate song to Gemini Nation, and make a decision. I’m just not sure which of my twins deserves to die.