Fun and Interesting Places: An Interview with Deerhoof’s John Dieterich

It’s almost de facto that a new Deerhoof album will show a willingness to experiment with form while always preserving a sound that is quintessentially its own. This is in addition to being ridiculously good. This trait has continued on the group’s new album Deerhoof vs Evil, a texturally denser yet no less visceral album than those that have come before. I spoke to guitarist (or should that be frustrated drummer?) John Dieterich about the album and current state of the group, finding out the band’s opinion of the new record as well as some of the surprise influences that led to the album’s sound.

* * *

I see you’ve just started your US tour [Deerhoof is touring the US from January 27th to February 26th with a European tour following in March]. How did the first dates go?

It depends on who you ask in the band. It was a little nerve-racking. I felt really comfortable playing the new material but we’re still focusing on the surface aspects of the songs. You can play the notes but it’s just too new, but it was exhilarating and extremely fun to play these new songs to people for the first time. We played all but one song from the new album.

Is this something that the band normally experiences when it comes to playing new songs live?

With the last album, Offend Maggie, part of the intention was for it be playable live. The funny thing is, in the end, it’s no different. It’s a little less nerve-racking because it’s just guitar and drums but on this album there’s a lot of other sounds, but I think ultimately when it comes to making something that the four of us can play and be expressive is always hard. Even old songs that we’ve played ten million times can get to a point all of a sudden where it’s like we’ve lost it and we have to either reinvent the song or can it.

Was there a particular ambition or aim with the new album?

For us personally, in the last year and a half, all four of us have moved and we’re now all in completely different cities and different parts of the country, so with that there was an element of just being separate. We see each other a lot because we practice a lot but we might have two months off or something, whereas if we were at home we’d still see each other and have interactions about what we’re listening to or what we’re thinking about but in this case we were really quite separate. So I think everyone was on a different pages, and in the end we were all just really happy that everything worked together.

You make it sound like the recording for this one was quite painful . . .

Well, it always is on some level, but it’s also extremely fun. In this case Ed [Rodriguez, second guitarist] and I had got a practice space near where we were living in Oakland. At that point we were the only two staying in the Bay Area. We had got it because we were working with other bands, but then we both decided that for the Deerhoof album it would make the most sense to just do it there because we had already got some familiarity with the room and treated it.

I have been listening to the album a lot since I got a copy, and can’t help but think there’s some Brazilian influence on there, especially on the opening track “Qui Dorm, Només Somia”. Was this something intentional?

I wish I could say that that was just a complete and absolute coincidence but unfortunately it’s not. I’ve been listening to a lot of Brazilian music in the last year. I’ve been listening to things like Tom Zé–especially his old records–Caetano Veloso, and other stuff for the past couple of years, and in terms of recording I have been obsessing over the Tom Zé records. For me these early recordings are just completely incredible and accomplished. I just have no idea how they did what they were doing. Musically I think it’s just off-the-charts, just some of the most interesting music I’ve ever heard. First off, the instruments are acoustic, using a lot of string instruments and there’s a lot of life and brightness to it. Acoustic music doesn’t have to be a downer. This music is so high energy but acoustic, and for me, that was just a light going off.

Yet it would be impossible for us to be an acoustic band unless we were going to have acoustic drums and that just wouldn’t work, so for us we wanted to capture something closer to what the instrument is actually doing. Electric guitars are essentially designed to get rid of most of the sound that the guitar is actually making. Guitar pick-ups are designed to pick up the vibrations of the strings but ignore the vibration of the instrument itself. So when I’m playing acoustically it vibrates my body, it vibrates the room, and all of that is lost if you’re only using electric so we tried to come up with different ways of recording the instruments, to try and make them come alive and bring out aspects of these instruments that get neglected.

I’ve read that you guys have a tendency to switch instruments on a regular basis. I was wondering if you could tell us a little about who’s playing what on this album.

Yeah, well we switched around a lot. On the song “Secret Mobilisation” Ed’s playing drums and Greg [Saunier, drummer] is on guitar. In any situation whatever instrument you happen to be holding we just try and work with it. Also, I wrote a lot of things on a sampler when writing for this album and so I would play drums and sampler at the same time and use that as a tool for coming up with ideas. I love playing drums.

I’ve been harboring this idea of myself as a frustrated drummer and that if I put some time and effort into it it will come together. A lot of my approach to guitar is based on rhythm but it’s harder to get rhythm across on an instrument like that rather than drums, obviously. A lot of the times with guitar I resort to slashing the strings in order to get this attack and create these relationships between instruments, but when you’re on drums you’re creating clear relationships between multiple instruments, you have the bass drum, floor tom, etc., and I think there’s just some pleasure center in my brain that just goes crazy when I play drums, it’s just so fun! I go completely outside of myself–it’s a strange feeling, completely new to me.

So where do you think this frustration will take you? Any plans for a drumming project?

We’ll we’ve actually moved to New Mexico recently and I’ve been playing with Jeremy Barnes (of A Hawk and a Hacksaw fame). We’ve become good friends and started playing together. It’s great because we switch instruments and both of us are pretty rough on our new instruments, but at the same time be has a real style on the guitar. We both sound like parodies of ourselves!

How much do you think about people’s reactions when you’re recording an album, and also once it’s been released and you send it off into the world?

When we make an album we definitely think about the trajectory of the band and the history of the band. From a creative perspective we don’t want this album to be just another Deerhoof album, we want it to sparkle, we want each one to sparkle. But also we don’t want the album to just go off and be relevant for a few years, we want them to be relevant for a long time. That’s probably an over-optimistic goal but that’s what we want, and whether it is or not is another thing.

So it must have felt pretty good when the reviews started rolling in? It seems as if your last few albums have all been getting rave reviews across the board.

When all of these first reviews came in we were just sitting there and there was this collective smile. To us, it just felt fun and an interesting place to go, but you have no idea how anyone else is going to react.