By Topher Duagay
The always inventive Deerhoof have been around for 20 years and just released their thirteenth album, La Isla Bonita, in November of last year. As they’re coming on June 17th to play at the Winnipeg International Jazz Festival, we asked drummer Greg Saunier to discuss past influences, current inspiration, and the possibility of a Deerhoof musical.
Stylus: Your first tour was with Caroliner, which I just found out yesterday – how was that? They seem like they’d be a big influence on earlier-period Deerhoof stylistically – did they influence you much?
Greg Saunier: They believed in us, which is to say they did one better than influence us. Caroliner was also the connection that brought Satomi and Deerhoof together. When she moved to San Francisco she was staying with them and that happened to be right when Deerhoof was looking for a singer.
Stylus: I really like Milk Man and when I was a lot younger I got a kick out of the album cover. I just found out from doing some research on you all that you’re friends with Ken Kagami. I can see why – the mix of cutesy/gross elements sort of jives with your poppy/noisy tendencies. How’d you get to know him anyway?
GS: Because Ken’s wife is Satomi’s friend from middle school. Milk Man was a character Ken cooked up while they were living in the same building as Satomi and me in San Francisco for a couple of years. Of course he had nothing to do with the lyrics. He just handed us these drawings and called it Milk Man and that was it.
Stylus: Since I’m assuming you’re into the experimental art scene in Japan due to your friendship with Ken Kagami, are you into Japan’s experimental music scene as well? A lot of the stuff coming out of Japan in the 80s and 90s seems like it’d be a pretty blatant predecessor to your music (Picky Picnic and Syzygys both did very experimental/discordant pop, PSF records had a lot of technically talented psychedelic weirdos, etc)
GS: Your assumption is reasonable but untrue. Actually I doubt that Ken is even into that art scene. When we’ve stayed at his apartment his art book collection is all Mike Kelley and Paul McCarthy. He claims Deerhoof is one of his main influences although maybe he’s just being friendly. Those bands are probably awesome. I’ve never heard of them, although I quite like their names. I’m impressed with familiarity with such obscurities, and kind of curious how you accomplished it. There was no internet when Deerhoof started out so what we did know was super random.
Stylus: What are you guys listening to lately? Anything currently striking your interest? I know you said every album is like your debut as whatever band you’re pretending to be at the moment, so are there any bands you’d want to pretend to be right now?
GS: I don’t have a clue what Ed John and Satomi listen to. This past New Year’s Eve I sent them some songs for inspiration – Frida, Springsteen, Olivia Newton John and some other stuff – but they didn’t write me back. One thing I’ve been listening to again and again is an album of Igor Stravinsky’s piano music played by Giacomo Franci, which I found on itunes. His interpretations are a radical creative statement, being neither traditional (which seeks to make Stravinsky’s music ever more palatable) nor in accordance with the composer’s stated preference (that it be performed in a mechanical and impersonal manner), and in so doing brings out some awkward humanity, comedy, grotesqueness, and feeling of absurdly arbitrary improvisation that have been trapped inside the music for too long.
Stylus: I got the impression from other interviews that you all feel like you’re trying to keep up with what’s currently hip to an extent and it’s becoming progressively more fashionable to make music that’s essentially R&B, but since it’s marketed to hipsters, it’s called indie (Autre ne Veut, How to Dress Well, Alunageorge…this is a little less fashionable now but I have a feeling you know what I’m talking about). Was that the reason you were interested in making a super slickly produced record before the actual recording sessions for La Isla Bonita?
GS: I don’t know those bands. You have done your homework. You’re like an encyclopedia my man. I’m not for or against genres. Ever since Satomi joined, I’ve tried to learn to write songs that she wants to sing. When we first started writing songs for La Isla Bonita, I was checking out late 80s and early 90s Madonna and Janet Jackson, because Satomi had said she used to sing their hits at karaoke at the time. So I knew they were good models. I had never heard any of it because I didn’t have a radio in those years. When I heard that production I was like ‘What in the world is this?’ So decadent and avant garde. Not to mention optimistic, like it was the last time American music sounded like it believed in the American dream. I seemed to hear “Anything is possible as long as you have the cash.” It was like aristocrats waltzing their lives away at the end of the Hapsburg Empire, doom and cynicism just around the corner. Deerhoof started the day Kurt died. At least in terms of music we were already in full post-apocalyptic mode. So we were interested in looking back at that seemingly alien time before the fall.
Stylus: Do you think you’ll ever plan on making that Jimmy Jam producing Janet Jackson record after all? I’d be super down to hear Deerhoof vs. R&B.
GS: Well that’s what we were trying to make. We just didn’t have that budget, or any budget.
Stylus: I noticed that all of your albums seem to be getting progressively, but incrementally poppier – but still pretty weird. I know you’ve said you guys start over from scratch whenever you start recording but have you noticed this yourselves?
GS: You pit poppy and weird against each other. To me that doesn’t seem quite right. Anything sounds like gibberish or like some bad joke when you don’t understand it. And I find that happening all the time when I hear some trendy new singer or trendy new style. It takes a few repeats to wrap your head around it. If you started reciting Greek poetry to me I could say it was weird but then again it might just be the minor quibble that I don’t speak Greek. When you’re a DIY band that means you spend a lot of time with your music. Writing, recording, mixing, touring. It actually is the most familiar music in your life.
Stylus: Since you mentioned all your albums are basically like your debut what do you think was your best…er… debut?
GS: It takes two or three years of not hearing it before I can hear any of our records fresh. For now Breakup Songs is my favorite but ask me again in a couple years and it might be La Isla Bonita.
Stylus: You toured with Caroliner and mentioned David Bowie as an influence – two of the most theatrical people in the rock game. Any chance of Deerhoof developing a more theatrical live show?
GS: A performer on stage is already theatrical by definition. We think of it that way and feel privileged to do so. What happens during a concert is a human story unfolding. The thing with Caroliner and Bowie is the artificiality and self-awareness. Costumes and props. Deerhoof’s aesthetic is about this juxtaposition of artificial and real, or constant alternations between going wild and animalistic and then stopping and making fun of it, revising it. Actually I think most music is like that. At least that’s the way I listen to it.
Stylus: What about a Deerhoof Musical?
GS: There was one. The Milk Man Ballet was a children’s music theater piece with singing and dancing, performed by the children of the North Haven Community School in North Haven, Maine. They performed the album song by song. It was released on DVD but you can also see excerpts online. We were there for the premier and it was one of the high points of my life.
Stylus: Where’d you get the idea for the “Mirror Monster” video? It’s such a simple concept and executed really effectively.
GS: For several years my friend Todd Chandler has put on these drive-in theater installations called Empire Drive-In in various cities around the world. Everyone sits in or on top of cars taken from a local junkyard and watches movies. In the summer 2013, opening night of the New York edition of Empire Drive-In had silent movies scored with an orchestra of 20 casios playing music I composed. At the end of the summer he shot this slow motion footage of the cars being gathered back up to return to the junkyard, and he showed it to me around the time Deerhoof was starting to put together new songs for a record. I actually wrote “Mirror Monster” to match the video, not the other way around.
Stylus: Why did you pick the name La Isla Bonita? I know Milk Man was named because of the Milk Man on the cover, and Deerhoof Vs. Evil was named because you were making a joke about how you felt like you weren’t able to affect any real social chance, so does La Isla Bonita have any special significance?
GS: The deadline to turn the record in happened to be when we were on tour in Asia. After our show in Bangkok we stayed up late at the hotel finishing the mastering, and sent it to Polyvinyl. It still didn’t have a title, nor did most of the individual songs. The next morning from the Bangkok airport Ed texted his wife to get some of her ideas, she being a master of words. Five minutes later an enormous text came back with tons of suggestions. All the way to Kuala Lumpur on the plane we were passing Ed’s phone around and dying laughing because we thought these names were so good. Most of the song titles on the record are hers, and La Isla Bonita was just too perfect not to use for the album title. It was exactly what we were looking for; the Madonna reference, the lyrical connection of the American Empire selling this image of false paradise to itself, an image that now seems laughable. Sara Cwynar had already created the photos for the album art and they included that one of the burning island.