Friends Opportunities: An Interview with Deerhoof on Record Store Day

Apple O' (LP re-issue)
Kill Rock Stars

It’s the most wonderful time of the year! At least, it’s the most wonderful time of the year for indie music lovers.

Tomorrow, April 17th, indie retailers across the country will celebrate the third annual Record Store Day, and will do so by selling limited-edition materials from bands like Gorillaz, LCD Soundsystem, Modest Mouse, and dozens more, all in the name of helping support the independent music stores across the country. Along with brand new singles, limited edition vinyl, and (in some cases) entire albums getting an exclusive release through these small outlets, Record Store Day allows everyone to rally behind the small record shops that have been struggling in our modern download age, not only introducing new customers to the shops they will soon be frequenting, but also to help establish a sense of community between music retailers and outlets alike.

To help celebrate, I sat down (via e-mail) with Greg Saunier, drummer/vocalist/writer for critically acclaimed experimentalists Deerhoof, who are re-issuing two of their albums — 2003’s Apple O’ and 2005’s previously-hard-to-find Green Cosmos — on blue and green vinyl, respectively, with bonus live tracks and demos. Along the way, Saunier states that he doesn’t know much about the term “accessibility”, the revival of the MIDI format, and what it feels like to be a king in Russia …


Before we get into pressing matters … it appears Deerhoof will be playing in Russia and Denmark this week. Where are you e-mailing from, and, well … what’s new?

Hi, Russian hotel business center. It is 11:35 and check-out is at 12. I am typing as fast as I can! The show in Moscow last night was so beautiful, I’m starting to think that the first show of every tour should be in Russia, the audience just gives so much energy. You feel like a king playing here.

On April 17th, for Record Store Day, you’re re-issuing two albums: 2003’s Apple O’ and 2005’s (once limited edition) EP Green Cosmos, both on vinyl with bonus live tracks and demos. How did Deerhoof get involved with this project?

Oh it’s more like we got Kill Rock Stars involved with our idea. Actually our booking agent Erik, he’s an insane vinyl collector and every time I talk to him on the phone, the first order of business is him pestering me about why Deerhoof doesn’t have more vinyl, then at some later point we say a few words about maybe booking some shows. So really it was his idea that people should be able to buy the records for a normal price instead of paying $80 on ebay or whatever.

I of course wanted to go crazy and remix everything, add new overdubs, generally go the “New Coke” / “new scene with CGI Jabba the Hut” route on these reissues but thankfully everybody talked me out of it. So I just tinkered a little with the mastering and changed the track order for vinyl, and then we added some bonus stuff. Lo-fi live versions and stuff, kind of fan-only things probably, things only a mother could love as it were. Luckily Deerhoof has a lot of mothers.

In your Record Store Day-related note over at the Kill Rock Stars site, you mention all the critical praise thrown at Apple O’ and also the unfortunate promotion of Green Cosmos. Were these the main factors in choosing these two particular releases — to celebrate an acclaimed album and give a second chance to the underdog a lot of people haven’t heard? Is there anything else about them that seemed about appropriate for re-issue?

Ha, the thing about these two was that I liked them, that honestly was the main reason. So I felt like they would be the easiest to deal with, just a few minor tweaks. I also like The Runners Four but there are still a lot of copies of that, so there was no need to reissue. I was only joking around when I said that Green Cosmos wasn’t promoted in that blog. I had jetlag when I wrote that and we were also doing our 2009 taxes so I was in a “mood” let’s say. The kind of mood that makes me want to write blogs, and also the kind of mood where it is probably not advisable for me to write blogs …

Photo: Richard Saunier

Do you plan on re-issuing any of the other albums in the future? Not that The Runners Four isn’t already a long piece of work, but I think we could all dig some unreleased nuggets from those sessions!

Oh well thank you. There are some unreleased things actually, and some really good live versions of some of those, stuff with Chris singing and whatnot. But somebody has to buy up the rest of the copies of the existing LP first! Hopefully we’ll put all of our records on non-limited edition vinyl sometime. I was just listening to some of The Man, The King, The Girl when I was on the plane to Russia. I was a little surprised that I thought it sounded pretty good, like I think people might actually like it. I feel like this kind of more aggressive music might be making a comeback. As much as I love all the acoustic guitars and strings and the love rock stuff I think there’s still a lurking need to bust out a little bit, show how intense music can really be.

In that same, previously-mentioned note, you discuss your first experience at an indie record store, purchasing a Keith Richards solo album. I think anyone who frequents an indie retailer has had a comparable experience. I also remember that uncomfortable and exciting combination of awe and embarrassment while walking to the counter. It’s a humbling experience understanding that no matter how much you think you listen to, someone listens to more.

I have that humbling experience all the time. The weird thing is especially when we are outside the US, that’s when everybody is asking me “do you know such-and-such American band” and of course I have no idea what they’re talking about.

Why re-issue these albums on vinyl? Is it just simply due to personal preferences to vinyl? Also, a lot of bands are noted for being “better on vinyl”. Do you think there is any relevance to this, and if so, do you think Deerhoof is a band that simply “works better” on vinyl?

I don’t know – I think the sound of the vinyl has perhaps only a little to do with it. More like you can listen to half and then decide whether to listen to the other half. And even then, you get several songs, so it’s not like shuffling on an mp3 player. But for me it’s never been about format, I’m happy to be a “vinyl band” but only if I can also be a “CD band” and an “mp3 band” too.

Speaking of vinyl, there has obviously been a huge resurgence of the medium in the last 10 years or so. People are attached to the large artwork, the cracks and pops of playback — even the sense of an exclusive community that comes from it. Listening to vinyl is obviously a different experience than listening to a CD. Are you a “vinyl” kind of guy? What do you think has caused this recent trend? And is it a passing fad?

No, I think it shows that CDs were a passing fad! I think everybody suspected this anyway from the beginning. I think the next big format is going to be MIDI. Stuff that your computer plays for you, and that if you have the right program, you can change the speed or the pitch or the instruments. MIDI is really fun, I’ve been getting into it in the past 2 months. Also the file sizes are ridiculous, like a Beethoven symphony is smaller than this email …

Let’s look at the actual music…

Let’s look at the actual music, shall we? “Apple Bomb” is such a beautiful song, almost a ballad, in the midst of all the chaos of Apple O’. Can you provide a little insight into its inception and/or recording?

Oh I’m so happy you like it. John made up the guitar intro and I wrote the rest of it. I’m not sure how… I was trying to write something from the point of view Satomi talking about her mother, who is old enough to remember the immediate aftermath of the atomic bomb in Japan. Many of the lyrics I wrote for this album were written from Satomi’s point of view. “Apple Bomb” was recorded just like the rest of Apple O’, just a one-take run-through where we all played in the same room at the same time.

Photo: Dennis Stempher

For me, “Sealed with a Kiss” is one of the finest tracks from Apple O’. The instruments are so drenched in effects, it’s almost hard to tell what instruments are producing what sounds. It also directly foreshadows some of the playfulness and experimentation of Friend Opportunity. Any reflections on this song? How did it originally hold up live?

Ah, it’s all samples! Live it was completely different-sounding although the notes are exactly the same. We just released the “band” version actually, on a 7″ in Australia. I was deliberately trying to copy the style of one of my favorite artists, Dymaxion, whose music is almost completely made of samples. Since the rest of Apple O’ is so live and we didn’t give in to the temptation of using overdubs and samples and computer tricks, I thought it would be funny to have one song be sort of breaking the rules, to sort of represent the “forbidden fruit”. All the samples are from songs about apples.

It is interesting to listen to these two albums back-to-back. They seem to represent sort of the two generically labeled “sounds of Deerhoof”– Apple O’ shows the more abrasive, reckless, explosive side of the band, while Green Cosmos demonstrates the more instrumentally diverse, textural, slightly more accessible side of things. Did you have a similar experience while listening to the re-issues?

Thank you for listening to them, that is wonderful to hear. I am now in the Moscow airport. I am in the Classic Lounge. Yes, membership has its privileges. You fly around the world enough and you can get a free donut and some internet time. I should have done this whole interview here actually, that hour in the hotel’s business center cost me about $30, which must be a new record. PopMatters is breaking the bank at DH HQ.

I don’t have a similar experience listening to them. Every album we made has felt more reckless than the one before it, so Green Cosmos was two notches more reckless than Apple O’. In the sense that we might alienate our listeners by changing our style. The funny thing about our listeners though is that they don’t want us to repeat ourselves, so actually the more reckless the better. The main difference in making those records for me was that we had a rule about overdubs on Apple O’ and we just went wild on Green Cosmos.

As far as it being accessible I have to admit I’ve never understood the term.

Chris’s demo of “The Forbidden Fruits” sounds drastically different from the album version — more fractured and synth-heavy, while the album version has a leaner structure and a more prominent lounge-y vibe. Sure, it’s a demo; things change. But can you give some insight into the transformation process from demo to full-band version? Does the rest of the band simply show up and fill in their own parts?

That’s funny, to me it doesn’t even sound that different. He played all the instruments on the demo and when I heard it again I realized I think he is a better drummer, he more style and a better sound. I wasn’t really trying to change it, I just can’t play the same. The main difference for me is that a melody was added in the record version, and I remember the four of us playing the song over and over in my bedroom — no drums, I just sat there — and Satomi played this melody on a Casio and we all thought it was funny, so that became the vocal melody. Other than that we didn’t fill in our own parts, I think we took some away actually, we didn’t have the synthesizer for example.

You guys added a lot of interesting material to the re-issues. What is it about these particular live performances and demos that stood out for you? Is there a warehouse somewhere filled with hard drives of Deerhoof b-sides? In other words, are you sitting on a wealth of unreleased gems?

Ha, there was until it got stolen a few weeks ago in New Zealand… I had a hard drive with all this junk on it including a partly finished new Deerhoof album which we will now start over. My bag was stolen right out of my hotel room!

Photo: David Garland

Listening to the live bonus tracks of both albums, the thing that strikes me the most is how they sound pretty much the same. I think this speaks to the raw nature of some of the tracks. Is there a particular aspect of the live recordings that you feel shows a different side of the band or the band’s sound? Is it just a matter of capturing the energy of the performances?

Hmm, now I’m starting to wonder why did the bonus tracks… Maybe you’re right, they’re not so different… I remember at KRS they were emailing that they were so excited to hear what bonus stuff I’d come up with and then when I sent it to them there suddenly weren’t any emails anymore… I don’t what to say other than that I like them.

From the opening beats and colors of “Green Cosmos”, it is clear we are listening to a different Deerhoof than that of Apple O’ or even Milk Man, which bridges the two albums. At the very least, we are listening to Deerhoof in a different headspace. From the production quality to the funky instrumentation, Cosmos is more surprising than what preceded it. Does it simply come down to money or studio time? Does it boil down to just trying new things?

Oh no, there was no money. We recorded some drums and guitars on “Byun” “Koneko” and “Hot Mint Air Balloon” at our friend’s studio (New Improved Recording) but I don’t think he charged us. 95% of it was done at home, no budget whatsoever. There was no budget on Apple O’ either, our friend Jay Pellicci had some free time saved up at a studio where he worked, we were in there about 9 hours recording basic tracks. Most of the work on both albums was done on home computer, in the free download version of Pro Tools.

I’m not sure there’d be any way of making something like Green Cosmos in a studio anyway. Instead of spending money on our records, we choose to spend a lot of time, do it at home where there’s no time limit on it.

Before, I mentioned that I listened to the albums back-to-back. It was quite an interesting experience. Another observation I had was that, even though Satomi sings in Japanese for part of Green Cosmos, it’s kind of hard to notice the difference between those tracks and those in English. This can probably be attributed to her unique, chirping/singing style. It also made me realize that lyrics have never really been an important issue for me when listening to Deerhoof. Any thoughts? Also, how much Japanese did you sing on the album?

I sang Japanese on “Koneko Kitten” backup vocals. “ko-ne-ko…” It wasn’t so difficult language-wise I guess, not exactly a tour-de-force of multilingualism on my part, although I have to say the second verse was in Spanish. (“ko-ne-jo…”)

About the lyrics, I don’t really know what to say, different people focus on different things. I think sometimes the lyrics are hard to hear, but it’s maybe less because of Satomi’s singing style than because the vocal sound is not always clear or trebly, and sometimes it’s mixed a little on the low side (the so-called “Jagger Mix” a la Exile on Main St.). But Satomi’s lyrics on the song “Green Cosmos” for example bring a tear to my eye, I think they are so beautiful and match the music in such a magical way. And I’ll admit to feeling some pride in Apple O’s lyrics too, thematically they really hold together for me.

“Come See the Duck” randomly quotes “Deck the Halls” on the synthesizer toward the beginning of the track. Who, what, when, where, and why?

Me, string samples not synthesizer, late in the game, bedroom, I don’t know because I didn’t know it quoted “Deck the Halls.”



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