Since forming in the San Francisco Bay Area nearly 30 years ago, elastic art-rock stalwarts Deerhoof have built one of the most trusted brands in punk music.
The joyously experimental quartet has spent the better part of these last three decades finding new ways into their singular sound, marrying smash cut riffs with earworm melodies and frenetic, freak-out polyrhythms that scramble the boundaries of genre to dizzying effect. The result is a deep discography as varied as it is consistent, with a loyal fanbase forged the old-fashioned way through non-stop touring and recording.
Now Deerhoof returns with a new LP, Actually, You Can, inspired by a contemporary spirit of revolution and the funk-forward flavors of Mexican rock. The band’s latest for Joyful Noise Recordings meditates on themes of liberation, with an essence described by drummer and co-founder Greg Saunier as “an angelic, glamorous prison bust”.
Hailed by Rolling Stone as a leader among “a generation of trailblazing 21st-century avant-rock percussionists”, the 52-year-old drummer — who shares songwriting and production duties with his bandmates — has seen Deerhoof through multiple iterations, weathering the ups and downs of a rapidly changing industry. PopMatters spoke with Saunier from his home in Tucson, Arizona, about the band’s staying power, their new album, the state of the world, and more.
So, the new record is your 18th as Deerhoof, if my math is correct. How are you feeling, now that it’s out?
Honestly, it’s a bit staggering to imagine that we still get to do this. I’m feeling really happy. I’m feeling relieved, too. How it appears on the surface to the public is like, “Oh, new thing! New record.” But of course, it’s [the result of] a year’s worth of work for us. We spent the last year making it and figuring out things like titles, artwork, videos, and who should do the bio. Now it’s a wrap, you know? It’s a huge feeling of relief. I feel really happy about it.
It’s maybe a strange sensation to realize that a band like ours, which has toured a lot, has suddenly not been able to see each other at all for nearly two years. We’re getting along better than we ever have. [laughs] So it feels really good. I’m just so grateful. I feel like the luckiest person in the world to be in Deerhoof right now.
I’m curious about how that experience of putting out an album has changed for you over the years. What is different about release day in 2021 versus, say, 2001?
It’s definitely different. I mean, releasing an album in 2001– this is maybe not the easiest thing to say in a PopMatters interview. But back then, in order to do well or get much of a profile as a somewhat unknown band, we had to get a good response from PopMatters and Pitchfork. That was actually kind of a heavy anxiety-producing factor of being an indie band in those years.
We became critics’ darlings for a brief period right around that time. We were doing really well in the critical realm, but it wasn’t like this across-the-board thing. It was a very small handful of very heavily read websites and music blogs that had a sort of outsized influence over what people listened to and what people thought was cool.
I think, inevitably, that’s changed, and not just for Deerhoof. The landscape has changed. Power doesn’t feel quite as concentrated in the hands of just a few editorial staff who are sort of tastemaking for everybody else. It feels much more chaotic now, at least to me.
At some point a few years ago, we got over a hump in our career nervousness. Stuff like reviews started not to matter as much because we’d been around a long time, and that longevity started to take precedence over this or that review being career suicide like it felt in the early 2000s. We saw that happen to so many friends who accidentally made one wrong move, which the tastemakers thought was not to their taste that day. So I feel like we sort of dodged a bullet.
We’ve got a lot of very devoted listeners, who still like us after many years, and they’re still excited when we have something new. We feel like a lot of them have become personal friends. We have a relationship with our listeners that is not as much based on trendiness or coolness and more based on actual feelings of friendship. So, it feels kind of amazing to be releasing something in 2021 and to be able to kind of have this long development period where our relationships have deepened.
It’s funny you mention that feeling of friendship. Can I share a quick story on that note?
Yeah, go for it!
The first time I saw Deerhoof was in 2005 or something, at The Conservatory in Oklahoma City. I guess it was around Runners Four …
First off, the fact that you’ve ever seen Deerhoof — thank you very much.
A few times! But on the way to this show, my friend and I got pulled over and hassled by a cop, and we nearly missed the set. We mentioned it to you at the merch table in passing, and you very kindly offered to put us on the list in Dallas the next night.
What a sweetheart I am! [laughs] You have to also factor in the calculation that I knew literally no one in Dallas, and I probably wanted to pad out our guest list.
But that story seems to link up with what you’re saying about forging a more personal relationship with the people who love your music. That moment has always stuck with me. When I see Deerhoof in the press, I’m like, “Oh yeah, Greg — solid dude.”
I don’t know what to say. We didn’t know what we were doing in 1994 or 2001, nor 2021. But I think we’ve always had an intuition that we were never going to have a hit. Deerhoof was not a band that would ever be forced down anyone’s throat. No writer is going to be forced to do pieces on our group because of our sales or because of this corporate marketing machine. It’s not going to be compulsory for commercial radio to play our latest hit, “Panda Panda Panda”, you know? We just had an intuition that was never going to be the vibe.
So instead, it’s like, why not rejoice in the fact that we’re not going to be tied down to one particular song or style, to an audience that always has the same fashion, or always has the same associations? The only way we would have any hope of survival was to forge real relationships instead of forced, artificial ones. It’s why I try to make friends with the person who does lights at the venue because then they’re going to be excited when you come back next time. It’s like, “Oh, man. I saw you guys on the calendar, and I was like, ‘I gotta work this show!'”
I feel like that intuition has served us well. We’re still together. We survived this far, and I think part of it is due to the fact that my bandmates are just very cheerful and kind-hearted people. That probably counts for more than anything.