Photo credit: Kinoshita Nobuyo
Deerhoof’s experimental, prog, noise-rock could oddly enough appeal to even the unhippest of concertgoers. They rock out like Sonic Youth while simultaneously traveling otherworldly landscapes like Yoko Ono, and sometimes slip in a fairly traditional melody to break up the din. But beneath whatever artifices they choose to wear runs a current of infectious energy that would speak to a Yes fan (an apparent direct influence on the band) as much as it would to a Motorhead fan—it goes without saying that übercool New Yorkers eat it up. Their previous work favored the cacophony of screeching guitars and heavy drums, and the songs from their newest album Milk Man employ those same principles but intersperse them with languorous bits of electro-pop. Art rock need not be just for art people any longer.
The main stage at the Knitting Factory was packed like a little black box of sardines—and just as hot as what you might expect such a ventilation-free space to be. Deerhoof took the stage and immediately began their aural assault, heads in the crowd began bobbing up and down and for a second it seemed a good old-fashioned mosh could very well ensue (but dancing at shows in any manner has ludicrously become passé so the bobbing was ultimately fruitless). Singer and bassist Satomi Matsuzaki, at what must be at least an inch under 5 feet tall, absolutely owns the stage. Drummer Greg Saunier may be wildly flailing and pounding on the drums behind her but Matsuzaki’s impossibly adorable, dare I say Hello Kitty, persona, tight bass playing and squeaky vocals inevitably propel her into the spotlight. She puts her index and middle fingers together over her eye and clips them up and down like scissors, dances around for a few seconds then gets back into bass player position—this is more than just music, it’s part of a broader artistic effort. The parallel to Yoko Ono, since they are both Japanese, female, avant-garde, conceptual rock artists, may on the surface be as accurate as such things come but it may also be unfair—- perhaps the similarities are not as close as they appear to be (nationality and sex are coincidental, after all). Ono’s influence is but one small part of Deerhoof’s vast panorama. Matsuzaki doesn’t so much sing as she well squeaks. Her English is heavily accented so only occasionally are her words intelligible (also the music is damn loud), and her vocals wind up becoming not unlike another instrument in Deerhoof’s delightfully strange repertoire.
The brash nature of their sound might infer that the structure is haphazard, but it quickly becomes clear the opposite is true. Distortion and frenzied strumming give way at just the right moments to difficult changes, which often include forays into theatrical prog-rock keyboards. And, while sonically much different, their ambling compositions mirror the long jams also common to prog-rock, but Deerhoof is far more economical as each song usually comes in at no more than three or four minutes. The refrain, if it can be called that, of Matsuzaki chirping “Panda Panda Panda”, one of her few intelligible moments, is cutely inane but in an ironic, creepy, giant panda bear coming-to-attack-you sort of way. There is definitely darkness lurking behind the sweet exterior. The title track of Milk Man centers around a child-stealing creature—terrifyingly portrayed by Ken Kagami (whose art inspired many of the songs) on the cover of the album as a smiling, psychotic, Pac-Man ghost head sporting a bleeding strawberry atop a sexless body, a bleeding banana in his butt and another in his armpit; Matsuzaki’s eerie, childlike singing completes the baleful tone. This ended their set—quite short at about ten songs altogether without an encore.
So how can music so conceptual and complex, influenced by such disparate artists as Rush and Yoko Ono not be art rock for art people? The fact remains that once the intellectual veneer, superimposed by critics like myself, is lifted, what we’re left with is still some great, pretty, noisy, rock music you can bang your head to—ust don’t be surprised when you look up at the stage and see a small woman holding a plush strawberry to her head and a banana to her side, chirping like a mechanical doll.