Welcome to Throwback Tunesday, where Mashable amplifies the echoes of music past. With genre trends and throwbacks, we synthesize music and nostalgia.
In 1994, fledgling then-duo Deerhoof — drummer Greg Saunier and guitarist Rob Fisk — formed in the San Francisco Bay Area and went on to do weird, wonderful things. The band, now a quartet, has toured with some of the greats (like Sonic Youth and Radiohead), 2004 release Milk Man was made into a children’s ballet and is no stranger to critical acclaim — even from Pitchfork. And, over two decades of bandhood in, Deerhoof is still making some of the most interesting, weird-in-a-good way music out there.
Inconsistency seems to be the constant— the band isn’t exactly constrained by a particular “sound.” In fact, the oft-categorized punk rockers’ latest release, La Isla Bonita, draws inspiration from a quirky meld of sources: Columbia Professor Jonathan Crary’s book 24/7, which is a dark dive into 21st century capitalism, as well as Janet Jackson and Madonna (hence the album title). “We assumed that our musical debt to Janet Jackson and Madonna was obvious on this album,” says Saunier on the inquiries he’d received as to whether the title was meant to be ironic.
One thing that’s unshakably unchanging is Deerhoof’s DIY-infused DNA. Twelve full-length albums in and they’re still at it; La Isla Bonita was recorded over the course of 10 days in lead guitarist Ed Rodriguez’s basement.
In honor of the premiere of Deerhoof’s new animated video for album track “Tiny Bubbles” (watch it above), Mashable hopped on Skype to chat with Deerhoof drummer Greg Saunier. In the eclectic conversation that ensued, Saunier ponders DIY through the ages and the potential perils of creating music in a tech-enhanced landscape.
Q&A with Deerhoof
Editor’s note: This has been pared down for length
What was the process like behind creating the “Tiny Bubbles” video?
You’re going to be terribly disappointed because I have no idea what went into creating it, because I’ve never met the person who made the video …. There’s this label called Joyful Noise that puts out an extremely odd format of our records that’s the flexi disc — you remember flexi discs? It’s like a 7-inch record, but the actual material that it’s pressed on is extremely thin. It’s like the thickness of a paper. It’s a piece of plastic. And these can be made very cheaply and they don’t play very many times before the sound quality is totally destroyed, but it’s a very cool format. On the last couple records they’ve made flexi disc books of the records. So in a sense each record is just like a square that you can put on the turntable, but since each one can only hold one song, they make a book that has turning pages and you put the book on the record player and you can play it, so then that’s like a limited edition format of the record.
So anyway, believe it or not, this is an answer to your question. It was a friend of Joyful Noise that got in touch with them and said he wanted to make a video, and the role that I played in this video was not to say no. I did not prevent this friend of Joyful Noise from making the video — I didn’t have any idea what it would be. I didn’t know the person — I still don’t. Never met them. So when this animated video arrived suddenly one day in my inbox and I watched this thing, I feel that the animator has not only understood the song and the words, but to a level that felt uncanny — you know sometimes you have that feeling where it’s like you meet someone and you’ve known them your whole life. And this kinda felt like that — like he seemed to nail the ethos of what we wanted to do with that song and with the whole record to such a T that it was like — sometimes it’s like an out-of-body experience.
You have that every once in a while in a band. Sometimes I write a song but I don’t have any words, for example, but I have a melody. So I sing it to Satomi [Matsuzaki, Deerhoof lead singer/bassist] and she’ll come back a few days later having written words to this melody, and I’ll realize that she understood the music that I’d written really better than I had. And the words are so perfect that it’s kind of like somebody reaching into your dreams and pulling something out. It’s kind of a neat experience that happens a lot when you’re in a band. It’s not only about your personal expression and just your sort of self fulfillment, but it’s also like sometimes you discover that someone else was thinking along the same lines and that there’s this mutual feeling of mutual puzzle pieces that fit together in a way — I didn’t have any expectations for this video. Like I said I’d never heard of this guy. I didn’t know what was going on. We just didn’t prevent him from doing it. I just found the video so moving and so beautiful and kind of crushing, but oddly also revolutionary. I don’t mean that he’s a revolutionary filmmaker: The theme of the video seemed to be about revolution, which also while it seems kind of dark, revolution is also hopeful so I was also touched by that.
You mentioned that synergistic feeling with the rest of the band. Now that you’ve been around for over 20 years, how would you say it’s changed? Is it like you’re all moving as one more so now than ever before?
No. No. [laughter] It’s not like we’re moving as one. We’ve never moved as one. And not even close. Our starting places are all so totally alien to each other. You just take like, “Oh what’ve you been listening to lately?” And it’s always like, “What? You’ve been listening to that? Like, could you find anything I hate more than that?”
And we’ll get together, “Hey guys what should we do for our next record?,” and just be so completely far off from each other — just completely incompatible, mutually exclusive ideas and plans and wishes. And then somebody will write a song — in fact all three of them do this to me all the time. They write some song and they make a demo of it, and even though in reality they all can play drums, for some reason when they write songs and make demos of them they always program the drums, and they always make it some ridiculous beat where there’s no way I could play it. And when it comes time to play they’re always insistent that I duplicate the beat that they made on their computer or phone or drum machine or some other non-human thing that can play anything … unlike me.
So there’s always this incredibly jarring — if anything, your question’s about like after all these years — if anything, it just gets more surprising and more shocking that we could still be so completely off from each other — not on the same wavelength at all about almost anything.
What I think has maybe changed over the years is the muscle that we’ve been working out over the years, the relationship muscle, the collaboration muscle: Where you’re starting on different planets and with no agreement whatsoever and you have the ability to find something in common when there shouldn’t be anything.
Or, to be patient with each other when, for example, one member of the band tends to speak in rambling run-on sentences, whose name I will not name on this moment [laughs], but there’s one out of the four of us who tends to ramble a bit and the other three might be very patient in trying to follow the thread. What a privilege that actually is. The longer it goes on, the longer I think we realize that it’s quite an honor to be with the other three people, and as incompatible as we might look on paper, the essential ingredient is there, which is an open mind and a kind of a grudging respect for each other’s music or something, even if it might not be the first thing we would think of. It’s definitely not like looking in the mirror. This band did not form because we were all big fans of — what was big in ’94? Because we were all big fans of the Stone Temple Pilots or something and we put an ad in the paper saying looking for a drummer who’s a fan of the Stone Temple Pilots … It was extremely accidental that this combination ever ended up together, you know?
One of the defining factors of Deerhoof is that DIY has been a big deal to you — how has that changed over the past 20 years, especially with the rise of social networks where you can connect with fans in new ways? I know DIY recording has kind of been a constant for you.
I think you’re actually asking an extremely wise, insightful question. Because normally it’s assumed DIY means DIY. The definition of DIY doesn’t change over the years, but in fact — and you bring up computers — but in fact DIY has changed. It’s been interesting because if I stand for DIY on principle, and I’m trying to set a good example, like if somebody’s starting a new band and I say, “Well don’t worry about getting a bunch of managers and producers and don’t waste your money. You can make something yourself and you’ll learn more not only about managing and production, but you’ll also even learn more about yourself in the process.”
But it’s actually not that simple, because in fact when Deerhoof started and it was 1994, DIY actually meant a cassette 4-track machine. The first maybe three records we made were all recorded on cassette 4-track and with no Internet. Maybe there was Internet, but I didn’t have it; I didn’t have a computer for another maybe seven or eight years. So how is that different? Basically you are starting from scratch a lot more. I mean recording meant in the early days of Deerhoof, and for any band who was trying to record themselves at that time, going to a garage sale that was happening down the block and somebody was selling some old microphone. Or it meant using our Walkman headphones that we were listening to our tapes with or something.
The point of which is … I was just telling you how my bandmates make these demos that have insane drumbeats, and one of the ways they might do that is with their phones. So Satomi has this app on her phone where you can make music, and one of the songs she made on her phone was a demo of “Big House Waltz” on our new record. And she can spend five minutes coming up with a drumbeat using pull-down menus on this app on her phone and email it to us. And five minutes later, I’m hearing this thing and the drums sound perfect. Perfect drum sounds already. You don’t have to do anything else to it. It’s ready for the dance floor.
The distance there is that when I used to record a bass drum with broken Walkman headphones, it was about as far from a perfect bass drum sound as you can imagine. Like, everything you imagine you want from a bass drum sound is exactly what was absent from the bass drum sound that we actually had. And we had to figure it out — and I didn’t have a “How to record a bass drum sound with broken Walkman headphones and make it sound like a professional bass drum sound” website I could go to. It was completely trial and error, and so eventually when the day came that we could record a bass drum with a bass drum microphone, suddenly I already knew the sound I wanted because I had struggled with it so insanely, so obsessively to the point of my own sanity for years. When I am now confronted with a pull-down menu of bass drum sounds in a computer, I don’t choose one at random like I would if I were starting today. If I wanted to be DIY and wanted to start recording today, March 4, 2015, and I had a pull-down menu of bass drum sounds, I’d be like, “Well I dunno, this one sounds pretty cool, that one sounds pretty good.”
So, I’m just saying the process of DIY is on the one hand maybe easier, but also maybe it’s easy for a lot of what I consider to be the value of it to be robbed because you don’t have to — you can do DIY now without necessarily having to struggle so much with certain aspects of the process.
We used to talk about weird things like writing sounds, but now we talk about generating content or something like that. And there’s always an app there to help you generate another minute of content, or to loop something, or make it simply repeat or play longer. Just make it repeat and mute the high hat or something. There’s a flip side to it, too. It doesn’t have anything necessarily to do with computers. I think it has more to do with No Child Left Behind and this test-oriented nonsense that’s taken over education in America. When I grew up, I had music class and I sang in the chorus; I played in the band. And when the school band was short a string bass player and I was in the percussion section, I was like, “Oh I’ll figure out how to play bass.” I played guitar in middle school, in our middle school music class, so I know where the notes are. It’s not that different.
Nowadays, you’re lucky to have even the slightest mention of anything related to art or music in public school, so as a result, I think kids are really desperate to do something on their own so it becomes DIY in another sense. They’ve got absolutely no model, no teacher, nothing to follow. So in a sense they’re more independent now. There’s no authority figure teaching them any rules that they could then break. It’s interesting because I grew up with a desire to break the rules. It became like central to anybody who was learning music in school or had a teacher of any kind. When you don’t have a teacher, you aren’t pushing against something anymore.
Also, for DIY I’m wondering if social networks make for totally a different way of connecting with fans. You might not need a street team or flyers?
I’m glad that it seems that way, but let me ask you this: Did we set up this interview because you happened to cross Deerhoof’s Facebook page and said, “Oh this guy looks fun, why don’t I interview him?” Or did Deerhoof, in this amazing social network DIY computerized world, have to go find a label to put out our record — that label is Polyvinyl. Then I have a Skype conversation with Polyvinyl, and we mutually decide that I better hire a publicist for this record, and so then we hired Girlie Action, and so that’s when someone at Girlie Action starts pestering people like you until they finally get broken down that you agree to do the interview. So in actual fact, no.
But doesn’t this make for a different form of communication? Has there been an evolution of how you connect to fans/accessibility? Not necessarily journalists … the ways you can connect with your fans now vs. 20 years ago?
I don’t disagree, and I see the difference, and frankly I think it’s fun and I think the four of us actually have a pretty good time of it. Ed is an absolute genius on our Instagram page, and every time he puts something up I take a look at it and it’s so funny. If you ever are bored for a few seconds, go to Deerhoof’s Instagram page because Ed’s pictures are really funny. And we definitely have a lot of ongoing conversation, but that does not mean that before those Harvard goofballs invented Facebook, that music fans never had a connection to their band.