Try to explain Deerhoof to your non-initiated friends, and you’ll find yourself at a loss for words: “It’s this kickass rock band, see, and the lead singer is this Japanese woman, and she sort of chirps rather than sings, and it’s not clear how well she really understands English, and their songs are about, uh, pandas. And flowers. But they rock, I swear it!” My friends thought that my inarticulate description was a joke—and I must admit that I’ve never been quite sure myself whether or not Deerhoof were for real. I’ve always had a latent notion that the members of Deerhoof were enjoying a huge, Andy Kaufmanesque joke at my expense.
After seeing their recent show at Ithaca, New York’s Robert Purcell Center, I’m still not sure. But I’ve come to the conclusion that it doesn’t matter. Musical pranksters and masters of the incongruous they might be, but their frenzied, hour-long set made it abundantly clear that, when it comes to beautiful, heart-stopping rock, Deerhoof is no joke.
27 Apr 2003: Robert Purcell Center Ithaca, New York
Although it was a nice night in Ithaca, only about 25 people were there to hear local openers Idols of Perversity and Josh Malamy. As Deerhoof took the stage around ten o’clock, the number had grown to around 60 people—pretty much every indie kid in Ithaca, filled with the visible ennui that comes from living in a place where life revolves around umbrellas, double coupons, and patchouli. Still, Deerhoof played like they were headlining at a packed club instead of a sparsely-filled student union multipurpose room. Their short set drew on songs from their entire catalogue. They opened with an inspired version of Apple O‘s “Panda Panda Panda”, which rocked harder than any song whose lyrics consist of the words “panda panda panda” has a right to. The rest of the show continued in a similar vein as Deerhoof explored the boundaries of their singularly original fusion of inspired noise and Hello-Kitty-chic. Guitarists Chris Cohen and John Dietrich tore through Reveille‘s “This Magnificent Bird Will Rise” with punk-rock gusto as Satomi Matsuzaki’s sweetly disarming vocals chimed in counterpoint. Cohen and Dietrich’s strings kept on breaking throughout the set, but this didn’t slow them down at all—the string was hanging off of Dietrich’s guitar during “Dummy Discards A Heart” for what seemed like hours, yet he still coaxed enough rock out of the remaining strings to more than make up for the loss of the other one. The show featured some calmer moments, too—during “Exploding Candlelight”, drummer Greg Saunier and Matsuzaki traded places, and it made for a sweetly strange contrast as Saunier mimicked Matsuzaki’s guileless chirp while she gently tapped the drums.
Deerhoof’s slightly surreal stage presence seems to be an extension of their musical absurdism. Flanking Saunier and Matsuzaki, guitarists Cohen and Dietrich looked like sleepwalking rock-and-roll-bots as they stoically tore through their parts. Behind the kit, Saunier rivals John Vanderslice sideman Christopher McGuire as the wildest drummer in indie rock. Sitting on a milk crate with a minimal snare-bass-ride setup, with a tambourine strapped to the bass drum doubling as a hi-hat, Saunier thrashed spastically throughout the night, beating the shit out of the drums while sporadically using his head as a third stick. A study in explosive contrast, Saunier often seemed to fall asleep for a second, immediately afterwards jerking back up with a grin, all the while pounding away. Satomi Matsuzaki, in comparison, was an oasis of calm. Her bass playing was mindlessly hypnotic as she plucked out one note over and over again, and her singing was agreeably chipper. The combination of the four musicians sounds strange—and it is, undeniably—but it works. Watching Matsuzaki drop her bass and hopscotch around the stage, singing “Come See The Duck” as the rest of the band rocks out behind her is weird, yet it’s immensely entertaining and musically gratifying.
Their instrumental closer was a fitting summation of the evening. Lined up across the stage, the band played a song that sounded like a cross between an Ennio Morricone theme and a car wreck, gradually building in intensity until Matsuzaki stepped up to the microphone and, in denouement, sang “Penny penny penny penny penny.” As the song ended, she spoke her first words of the evening: “We have CDs.”
It might be a joke, but who cares. Like the best jokes, Deerhoof make you smile, and make you feel good inside.
// Notes from the Road
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