When PopMatters catches up over Zoom with Deerhoof‘s drummer and resident storyteller Greg Saunier, he says he leaves tomorrow for the band’s Miracle-Level tour. Panning over with his laptop, he shows me his bass drum case in the corner of his kitchen. He seems excited about the upcoming tour, but he is also sneezing. “Allergies,” he tells me while laughing through tissues.
Saunier, who founded Deerhoof in San Francisco in the mid-1990s, has a quirky, good-natured personality that fans have reveled in over the decades. During live shows, he often “borrows” lead singer/bassist Satomi Matsuzaki’s microphone to deliver a hybrid of philosophical and comical banter. Most importantly, Saunier is known for his boisterous drumming that adds to Deerhoof’s electrifying unpredictability.
Also unpredictable was the move for Deerhoof to forgo their usual DIY home recording techniques to complete their most recent album, Miracle-Level, in a studio. As if that wasn’t enough change, Deerhoof doubled down, and Matsuzaki sings entirely in her native Japanese on the record. Saunier says Matsuzaki when asked about it, said, “‘Well, nobody understands my English anyway.'”
Saunier believes that “Anglophone audience[s] [are] reaching a new level, at least in popular music, of being able to accept and digest and appreciate and really love music that is not in English…” so they gave the all-Japanese album a shot.
However, Saunier is quick to note that Deerhoof has recorded in studios a handful of times, but this is the first album they’ve finished in the studio. “In the past, we’ve always taken it home, and obsessed over it for the next six months, 12 months, two years, four years … on this one [we were] like, ‘Nope! Two weeks, and at the end of the two weeks, we’re walking out with a record!’ We were terrified.”
Saunier, Matsuzaki, and guitarists John Dieterich and Ed Rodriguez were terrified because this new approach to recording meant writing music in each other’s presence. Saunier put it this way: “Everybody’s just kind of shy.”
While it’s difficult to believe, especially when watching them perform together onstage, that any one of them is shy, Saunier says, “In private, [when we’ve] shared home demos, we had all these very ambitious, and very sophisticated ideas, [but] when we’re having to deliver right in front of [each other], maybe, partly we feel intimidated by each other. We just get a little scared. We’re each other’s biggest fans.”
Saunier says allowing producer Mike Bridavsky to record and mix Miracle-Level was like “being given a gift.” The latest album was recorded at No Fun Club, a studio in Winnipeg, last summer. “We’d never met him [Bridavsky] face to face before those two weeks. After we’d recorded it, and it was time to mix, he said, ‘Okay, you guys leave the room.’ I said, ‘Wait, wait, wait, what? No, we mix our records. We’re the only ones who know how to make our songs sound good.'”
Eight hours later, Saunier recalls, Bridavsky invited the band back in. The songs were done, and the next day, the producer mixed them in the same fashion.
The members of Deerhoof were finally relieved of making what Saunier calls “endless recording decisions,” from where to place the microphones to whittling down the highlights of a 15-minute track. “It was incredible to put your feet up and let somebody else sort it out,” says Saunier.
“We weren’t getting it right beforehand,” admits Saunier. “This time, we knew we had to be prepared. We just went crazy with rehearsal. For us, that felt like a revolution. The band has tended to steer away from anything that makes us have to make final decisions in a short period of time.”
One of the decisions, which seemed to deviate from the distinctive Deerhoof fare, was playing in a more mechanical, repetitive way than Saunier typically enjoys. He mentions that at the end of “My Lovely Cat”, a single off the album released last fall, and on another track called “Momentary Art of Soul!” his drumming is uncharacteristically “repetitive”.
“The pleasure of it is playing like a machine. It’s a kind of discipline that I don’t normally submit myself to, [but] it is so expected, like a baseball bat being held over every backing musician’s head, [and] it starts to feel stifling. At the same time, sprinkling it in here and there, your mind can really trip out or whatever, so there is a kind of pleasure that occurs when you do that.”
Even though Saunier tells me that he’s practiced more than he ever does, he still feels nervous for Deerhoof’s tour. “I have more stage fright about this upcoming tour than I ever remember having. I’m worried I’m not gonna be able to play these songs. Now that I’m 53, it’s going to take a little bit more effort on my part to be able to pull off some of our songs, some of them are fast, and some of them are a little tricky.”
He discusses how Deerhoof, in the past, was always “a very mental or an emotional kind of band,” and that’s where all the effort went. “[We were] all trying to comprehend each other’s insane sounding songs — making sure that everybody’s voice [was] heard. The physical always felt just kind of automatic, but now I feel like the physical needs attention.”
Even if Deerhoof is physically aging, like we all are, having watched them perform at Elsewhere in Brooklyn, NY, no one in the audience would ever be able to tell. At this vintage, Deerhoof remains as vibrant, feral, and exciting a band to watch as ever. Don’t believe me? Just ask the middle-aged man who stood by the side of the stage, throwing up metal horns all night long.