I know Deerhoof has composed music via file trading before, but I understand this is the longest you’ve gone without physically playing together. How did that affect the way you approached putting together the songs on Actually, You Can?
I mean, we were doing probably 100 shows a year for like 20 years. We were together non-stop: in each other’s faces and at each other’s throats. So this has just been very odd. We did it similarly last year with Future Teenage Cave Artists (2020). That one was remote as well, for the most part, but we always knew that we could all get together in the end. We had this safety valve. In the end, we could get together and laugh. I could look at Ed [Rodriguez]’s reaction when I’m playing. I could see him cringe and think, “Well then, obviously, the drums are too loud.” We had that cushion of knowing that we’d be together at some point in the process, even if it were largely remote.
When we decided to do this one, we were already deep into the isolation [due to COVID-19]. We knew there was no cushion this time. We weren’t getting together at any point in the process of making this. So it was a very odd combination of knowing that we were not going to be together, and therefore wanting to create an imaginary experience for ourselves, of being together. I think John [Dieterich] and Ed and I were assuming, “OK. Well, let’s go hog wild on this one and do all kinds of overdubs. We’ll simulate the string section using keyboards and all this stuff.”
But Satomi [Matsuzaki] was like, “No, we gotta do a live record! I’m sick of doing records we can’t play.” She has done this occasionally over the years. It happened on Apple O (2003) and Offend Maggie (2008), where she just insisted on things being raw: two guitars, bass, and drums — that’s it. And a lot of the demos we were writing were totally not that. They had too many instruments on them. It became a question of how we were going to pare this down. Which notes are the ones we’re going to cut, and which ones are we going to keep? It became this process of trying to streamline it.
The lion’s share of the labor ends up getting done by John and Ed, who have to cover multiple parts on the guitar at once. They have to sound like two guitar players a lot of the time. The process involved emailing these demos back and forth, and something about the fact that we weren’t together kind of changed my mindset a little bit — knowing that we were not going to be able to haggle and process the grueling decision making together in the same room.
I was getting MP3s in my inbox over a period of weeks and months, and I just started organizing them. I was like, “Well, let’s take the chorus from John’s demo with two of these sections from Ed’s demo, and I’ll change the speed and pitch-shift it, so they’re in the same key.” They weren’t meant to go together, but I’ll try Frankensteining a bunch of stuff together and think of a baseline for it. I’ll think of a melody or a drumbeat that ties it together.
It was very strange. It was very smooth. I might have expected that having to do all of that arrangement stuff without meeting would have made it more awkward and fraught with email miscommunications and tension and stuff. But because I knew I had to come up with ideas that they were going to go for, I just did it. It had this magic feeling. Like, “Oh, I know they’re gonna like this,” and then they would like it. It was very odd. This was probably the easiest record Deerhoof has ever made. It was the smoothest and had the least amount of conflict and agonizing decisions.
Tell me about the dream you had about playing arenas. How did that inform your thinking on this record?
That was a big moment for me. I woke up from a vivid dream, at like three in the morning or something, and was so excited I had to get out of bed. I dreamed we were back on tour with Radiohead, and we were playing big outdoor Greek Theater-type places with them, way bigger than what we would normally play. The audience doesn’t know us, or maybe a handful who do are sprinkled in. But basically, it was a really large audience that didn’t know us. We go on stage in the dream, and it works. It clicks. Somehow it connects with this very large audience of strangers. Then suddenly I woke up.
This dream happened to hit at just the right moment. Everybody’s demos were kind of there, and I had started trying to figure out what part went with which, whose bit went with who else’s bit. It was starting to feel like it was turning into something. Then I had this dream, and I sat down with a notebook. It was like, ‘I got it,’ you know? All of the songs suddenly made sense. I just imagined us playing it in that context on this big stage in front of Radiohead’s audience or [fellow former tourmates] Red Hot Chili Peppers’ audience, or just some other really large audience of strangers we’ve played to before.
I felt like I had a really strong sense of what would go over with that dream audience, and I just suddenly had all these arrangements. It was really strange because every song pretty much stayed almost exactly the way it was from that little moment. That’s just sort of how they ended up, and everybody felt good about it. It’s not like a process where you could say we’ll sit down and do that next time. So many random circumstances happened to fall into play.
Let’s shift a little more to the lyrical content of these songs — themes of scarcity and abundance pop up throughout. I’m thinking here about the opening image of the well-stocked refrigerator (“Be Unbarred, O’ Ye Gates of Hell”), and of course, the album centerpiece “Scarcity is Manufactured”. Why was this on your mind, and what do these songs have to say about it?
It was on my mind because of Black Lives Matter. Because it’s like, what can you say? After a couple of weeks [of protests] had passed, the media had finally come up with a strategy for how to misrepresent it. It’s basically people who love breaking windows and setting cars on fire. But in reality, here you are in the middle of a global pandemic responding to police murders, where skin pigmentation is causing a ranking system of which murders you can get away with more easily.
The pandemic is causing the bleakest imaginable situation. I mean, one idea of “scarcity” it has revealed, which I think most of our population already suspected, is there is no way to hide it anymore: Our masters, be they political or corporate, do not care if we live or die. That became clear when we saw friends in other countries where the government paid people to stay home, to stay alive. In America, we chose not to do that. We’re not going to pay people to stay home, and we’re not going to take it seriously. We’re just going to let people die.
So we’re all desperately scrambling for what few crumbs will dribble out. You know, maybe we’ll get this one stimulus check or something. Or we just pray that if we’re Black and we drive, we aren’t going to get shot. We just have these teeny little hope-against-hope chances of survival. When in reality, going to a march is a huge outpouring and infusion of love and care for each other. I’m saying, “Look at this abundance! Look how much soul everybody has. Look at how much everybody cares about each other when they’re being taught not to their whole lives.”
That potential for change and transformation seems to be an essential piece of your music. Are you optimistic we can make a better world?
I mean, people already are making a better world every day, in their relationships and at large. Basically, since last summer — not this past summer, but the one before — it’s like, when’s the strike going to happen? This is the only possible way to shut everything down. We have to strike. The whole population has to go on strike. Now suddenly, we’re seeing this incredible number of different strikes happening all over the country this month. There is obviously revolutionary energy out there.
There’s also revolutionary energy coming from the fascist far right. I mean, from them almost as much as anyone. Unfortunately, they’re misguided, and their hero is someone who could not possibly be more about maintaining the status quo where the rich should get richer and the poor should get poorer. The people on top should be more on top, and the people on the bottom should be more on the bottom, and he should be personally allowed to continue living his comfortable life. They’ve been fooled. But it’s clear that revolution is in the air. Anything I say will sound too general and vague, but the current systems are not sustainable. It’s going to break down — either via revolution, or it will just break itself.
But at the same time, I am optimistic. I mean, it’s not like either of us wants to stress out your readers, but there is a kind of time limit on this. The clock is ticking. That’s clear in several very obvious ways having to do with climate, but also having to do with the number of nuclear bombs pointed at people around the globe and the continuing widening of wealth inequality. It’s not going to go on. At some point, too many people are going to be too poor. It’s just not going to fly anymore. Either the workforce that the corporations are exploiting is not going to survive, and they won’t have a workforce anymore, or they’re going to revolt.
So, I can’t make any predictions, but I’m optimistic in the grand scheme of things. You were relating it back to Deerhoof, and I was touched by that. I think that that’s a charming way to think of it. I don’t feel that Deerhoof or I have much control over climate change or much control over Joe Biden or anything like that. We don’t have some gargantuan corporate backing behind us. We aren’t a giant force.
But we think we have the greatest fans of any band on Earth, and there’s enough of them that we can keep making our music, and they can keep listening to it. On the scale of communities or friendship groups or families and stuff, I don’t even have to be optimistic. I see people taking care of each other. I see it working. Case after case, people are supporting each other and reaching out to help fund each other when the government fails us. That’s how it feels: It’s smaller scale, it’s beautiful, and it’s working.