Babbling On About Deerhoof
In the same instant Deerhoof co-founder and drummer Greg Saunier
laughed and said, "I'm really babbling now," what he had
previously "babbled" became crystal clear.
Sure, he had slightly rambled on about Bach, Wendy Carlos, Tom
Cruise and Stanley Kubrick, and breezed over the San Francisco
experimental foursome's third longplayer Apple O', released in
March on Kill Rock Stars. But, stringing it all together in
summation, it all made perfect sense: Deerhoof's music-making
approach knows no restrictions. Deerhoof's music chooses its own path.
The band's sporadically childlike, unpredictably colorful sound
shapes and reshapes itself according to the setting, whether it's a
mood, time or place. "What you actually hear on the surface is coming
from the people rather than the song because there's so much in the
songs that's left up to the people," Saunier explained during a
recent phone interview.
"The songs don't tell you, 'Now you're supposed to feel sad when you
do this part or go crazy in this part,'" he continued. "Any part of
any song could be the go crazy part ... whatever that means."
Setting The Songs Free
Deerhoof let the mood of a particular performance space influence how
their songs are performed. "The songs we write tend to be very
simple," Saunier said. "There was a time in European music history
where people would compose their music. Say, Bach he'd write
out his pieces and you look at the score and it's just notes and
rhythms and there's nothing else. If you look at it, it all looks
sort of the same and it all looks kind of plain.
"'And the further forward you go in history, there's more and more of
a tendency to have more and more markings in the score," he
continued. "So, you'll end up looking at a score of somebody writing
music in the '50s, the thing is absolutely filled with an incredibly
detailed profusion of instructions. Every note has its own volume
that it's supposed to be played at this note is supposed to be
played quiet but getting this much louder towards the end of the
note. And you're supposed to play it with no vibrato, with a mute
stuck into your instrument and then you take the mute out after this
note is over. It's really, really controlled. The point being, when
somebody plays that, there's so little chance that it's going to
sound different from person to person. There's so little chance that
whatever group that is playing this music is going to be able to put
its group stamp on this piece, because it's controlled. Almost any
performance is going to sound identical."
Lacking this sort of confinement, Deerhoof intend, like 18th century
composers, to leave their tunes as open to interpretation as any
abstract piece of art. "A lot of times [Bach] would write pieces
where he didn't say what instrument it's for," Saunier said. "So then
you get somebody playing the piece on the piano, harpsichord or
organ, or they arrange it for a string quartet. It can sound so
different. There's no tempo marking, you don't know how fast you're
supposed to play, you can play it any tempo. And you don't know if
you're supposed to play it smooth or choppy. You're just seeing this
row of notes, and you don't know where one phrase ends and the next
one begins. It's up to the performer to decide what the phrasing is."
By listening to Deerhoof's latest album repeatedly, you can
experience the freedom within their sweet yet damaged sound
with each listen you are discovering a mood or part that previously
went unnoticed. Apple O' comes across as more of an art
project than just an album. Songs build from quiet and minimal,
playful and tickling to bang-'em-out explosive, with the complexities
of an onslaught of instrumentation.
"Apple Bomb" teases its listener with heavenly, sweet-as-rhubarb-pie
cooing and fragile snail's-paced playing before bursting into a
temporary loss of sanity with high-pitched squeals and evil,
punishing drums. While most of the 13 tracks on the album contain
just a few lines of poetic, playful lyrics, "Apple Bomb" features the
most ample quantity and cutely impassioned lines at that:
"Marry me lucky tree/ You're my tree/ And you're my three/ When you
burn/ Now I'm free/ To find me number four/ And number four can marry
me." Opener "Dummy Discards a Heart" features a loveable, squalling
Sonic Youth-ish guitar line and tapping, fluttering beats. The very
non-Go Go's-like "Sealed With a Kiss" may be the album's most
simplistic for its drum-machine beat, trumpet burps and horn cries.
It is perhaps also the most touching for its words: "Stop the man at
the top/ Stop the flag at the top/ Stop the drop on the map/ Stop the
drop of the mop." Playing like kindergarten, nah-nah-nah's and
exposed, pointy tongues, "Flower" feels as innocent and fearless as a
Deerhoof are not a band experimenting purely for the sake of being
different. Apple O' reveals a group that spits parts around
not only to explore immense areas of musical opportunity (piecing
highly original and intricate soundscapes together all the while),
but also to offer their audience a colorful canvas they could gaze
upon time and time again, pulling out a different picture each time.
Saunier co-founded the band with Seattle electronica experimentalist
Rob Fisk (also formerly of Pell Mell) in '94 and has since seen a
somewhat heavy rotation of members. Deerhoof's current lineup is
Saunier, vocalist/bassist Satomi Matsuzaki, guitarist Chris Cohen and
guitarist John Dieterich.
The band recorded Apple O' (its artwork drawn by Fisk) live,
all in one day with Dilute's Jay Pellicci (who's currently working
with Erase Errata on their second album). Pellicci first worked with
Deerhoof when he recorded five tracks that appeared on their last
full-length, 2002's Reveille. The band put out their first
album, The Man, The King, The Girl in '97, following it with
"It was this real swanky studio where Jay works, and he had amassed
some free hours there, and that's how we were able to get in there to
record for free," Saunier said.
Being short on cash, the band chose to lay down Apple O's 13
engaging, curious tracks in one day, often without their
producer/engineer altogether there. "He had been spending the
previous week up until three in the morning recording this band from
Portland (Ore.) called 31 Knots,'" Saunier said. "We would be in
there recording and you could look into the control booth and he'd be
completely nodded out."
The recording session went smoothly, with only an obstacle or two.
"Chris only threatened to quit the band about once in the evening
after somebody else in the band, who has a tendency to
nit-pick, was giving him a hard time over playing his part just
right." Course, the snickering, self-proclaimed nitpicker Saunier was
referring to himself.
Still, how can Saunier whose eye for detail cannot be escaped
not pick things apart? "The more times you play, the more
you're noticing the finer points," he said. "I really get a kick out
of the details of things. Sometimes those little things can really
change how something sounds."
Doing It Their Rule-free Way
Deerhoof retain openness in their songs, many times by not writing
their own parts, sidestepping the imprint of an individual
bandmember's specific playing technique. "Suppose Satomi has an idea
for what the drum part should be," Saunier explained. "So she'll sing
me this drum beat, but it's not like her style of playing the drums
is ingrained in the song; it's more just an idea. She has an idea, so
there's a lot of different ways you can do the idea, because you have
these notes or rhythms, but you haven't determined something about
So Deerhoof's songs without particular playing styles
ingrained are allowed a certain fluidity to change, mature,
grow and breathe lives of their own separate from whomever plays
them. "This might sound weird and I might be going out on a limb here
but if you make up your own part jamming then it's very natural to
keep playing the way you naturally played," Saunier said. "But if
you're having a part handed to you, that isn't a part you would've
written, and also isn't a part that you did write, by somebody who
plays the guitar a different way, then it's not like, 'Well, now I'm
just gonna put my stamp on this guitar part.'
"It's not exactly clear right away what your stamp would be in
relation to this foreign material," he continued. "You have to figure
out a way to make it yours, and a lot of times it may take playing it
again and again and again before somebody feels like they are playing
something that feels like them, that doesn't just feel like reading a
Still, the uniqueness of the individual is not lost, because
eventually they can make the idea that is handed to them their own.
"There's a certain thing that comes out of a person that's unique,"
Saunier said. "So, if John or Chris is playing these notes and
rhythms that I wrote, as if these notes and rhythms are sitting there
on music paper, there's an infinite number of ways that those notes
and rhythms can come out.
"We're singer/songwriters. That's what I'm trying to tell you
it's a singer/songwriter-type band," Saunier said, sounding quite
proud of his simple but fitting conclusion. Jenny Tatone
[Thursday, June 12, 2003]