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Monday, 24 October 2011 14:34

'What am I not hearing?' An interview with Greg Saunier of Deerhoof

'What am I not hearing?' An interview with Greg Saunier of Deerhoof / Simon Fernandez
Written by Mike Herr
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After playing its first show in St. Louis this past September, Deerhoof was on its way again up to New York state. A few days later, I got a chance to call and talk to founding member of Deerhoof and consistently ecstatic, creative force-of-nature drummer, Greg Saunier.

Our conversation covered a shared favorite album, Tony Williams, making music with the greatest living Congolese musicians and the current state of American music.

Mike Herr: After a long summer and spring abroad, is it good to be back in America?

Greg Saunier: Well, no because I'm just seeing everybody put away their summer clothes basically, which I completely missed. The only summer clothes I saw was us playing to like thousands of people wearing raincoats and holding umbrellas and standing in the mud, you know, over in Europe. I'll never get summer 2011 back again. It's very sad.

Yeah it is kinda sad. You can imagine what it was like though.

[Laughs] Imagination only takes me so far.

I saw you the other night in St. Louis, it was great.

Oh, thank you for coming!

Actually, I was the dude with the "On the Corner" t-shirt on, if you remember that.

Oh yeah! [laughs] Miles Davis. ... It was a funny coincidence. I always bring my iPod, and I've made a special playlist that's always playing at our shows between the bands. And I've got "Black Satin" on there, which is one of the songs on "On the Corner," and it's so funny that you walked over with that shirt on.

I felt like a big dork.

Well, you should've felt authorized! You should've felt vindicated. You should've felt pumped up.

I did feel validated.

Miles ... Many times we've tried to, you know, we've just taken the music of Miles Davis in that period -- from "Bitches Brew" 'til maybe "Get Up With It," that sort of stretch in the early to mid-'70s -- and like if we're working on an album or something, we'll play it back to back with that, and just be like, "What's wrong with ours?" and just try to make it sound more and more like that.

And actually, it was Nels Cline, currently of Wilco, who first noticed that. And he thought that we were gonna, maybe not get sued, but he thought everybody in the universe was gonna be pointing it out. There's this clapping part in one of our new songs, called "I Did Crimes For You," that's almost a complete, direct rip-off of the clapping part in "Black Satin," which is on "On the Corner." It's not exactly the same thing, but it's very close. It's this really awkward-sounding, fast clap thing. The band sounds like it's at the other end of some cavern like the Fillmore or something like that, but then for some reason there's these weird clapping things right in your ear, and it's just the most bizarre overdub.

And there's no way in the world you can imagine Miles Davis having bothered to be the one to go do this clapping overdub. It's like Teo Macero, the producer, or Paul Buckmaster, who did the string arrangements or something. No, there are no strings, I don't know what he did on that thing. I guess he was just helping produce it and add a bunch of weird sounds.

He probably just named the songs or something.

[Laughs] Anyway, "I Did Crimes For You" -- direct "On the Corner" rip-off. It's about a minute and a half into "Black Satin" and it's about fifteen seconds into "I Did Crimes For You," the same clapping part.

Wait, so who's Teo Macero if you guys are always trying to cop that sound?

Any one of us at any given time. Unfortunately we can't afford a real Teo, so we all have to put on the Teo-hat every now and again, because we're just DIY.

I love your drumming. What are some of your influences strictly on the drums?

Well, on the topic of Miles, I do really love Tony Williams -- who played with Miles for about ten years, through most of the '60s. He was maybe eighteen when he joined the group, you know, although he had incredible technical skill for someone who's eighteen. I never know whether it's in spite of the fact that he was eighteen or because of the fact that he was eighteen, he just had an incredibly brash style. He wasn't scared of playing with these older musicians like Miles Davis, who was already a legend at that point. Just was not intimated in the slightest, at least not musically, and was constantly pushing rather than following, ahead of the beat, and throwing in wild things that seemed, at times, almost irrelevant to what was happening. Stuff that's just in a different tempo, or suddenly comes in way too loud or just play these figures on the drums that didn't seem to have any relationship say, to what Miles Davis was playing on the trumpet. But then suddenly, he would anticipate what Miles was about to do, and it sounds like magic when you hear it. He was just very explosive and sort of broken a lot of times: a lot of broken rhythms that would start something and break off in the middle, and incredible syncopation that just sounds so jagged and so rough and ragged and raw.

And you do some of that.

Yeah, I'm a big fan. I don't think that I can play really anything like him. I just really love what my impression of his musical attitude or his attitude on the drums was. He felt that the drums should be loud. Then, you see films of him playing and of course he's really quiet and extremely subtle. Still, it doesn't sound quiet on the records, and that's Teo coming through. The drums sound much more aggressive and violent than other drummers in jazz during the same time period.

Yeah, it doesn't always stay in the pocket.

No, I mean he's pushing the pocket around. And guys that are twenty, thirty years older than him are having to follow his lead because he's just a demon. One of the beautiful things about it is the tension because Miles Davis is not easily moved around, and you feel the tension between the two. Miles Davis says, "No, the beat is here." And he plays a note on the trumpet that puts the beat really square. And you feel this, not with words but with musical interplay, you feel this great tension. It's not really very relaxing music.

You know, sometimes jazz is kind of associated with something you hear in the background at a cocktail bar or something. This is very, very beautiful, but it kinda puts you on the edge of your seat; you don't know what's going to happen all the time. You feel the personalities of the people playing it and that there's a push and pull and almost a power struggle between the simplicity of what Miles is doing, his coolness, no matter how crazy Tony Williams seems like he might get on the drums. Sometimes I feel that the dynamic between Satomi [Matsuzaki], the singer of Deerhoof, and me on the drums is something. She will be the very cool one, the one who won't be influenced by anything that I'm playing.

I saw her motion to you the other night. Did she tell you to quiet down or something?

Probably [laughs]. She does every show. You'd think after this many years ... She's been in the band for sixteen years, and I swear every single show -- before, during, and after -- Satomi is coming to me saying, "Okay Greg, tonight just cool it a little bit. You were too wild or too loud or played too fast." And every night, I'm trying to find the right place to be, the right attitude that's gonna work, and it's always almost right. We always have that feeling of being really close to the target, but never quite hitting it. And it keeps us going, this constant chasing after this impossible balance; impossible because the participants should never have been playing together in the first place. There's a feeling of endlessly renewing the attempt.

Do you feel like you guys are constantly trying to find a middle-ground between tightly-structured pop songs and feeling out songs live?

Not really, no. It's not like that. I don't think anybody in the group -- neither me, nor Satomi, nor Ed [Rodriguez], nor John [Dieterich] -- really thinks of music in those terms, like record store sub-genres or music categories. We don't think in terms of in or out or traditions or breaking traditions because none of us is really capable of playing within any tradition anyway. I think that if anybody in the band said they knew how to play a certain style of music properly, they would totally be lying to you. None of us knows how to do that.

And we don't share any musical tradition that we can pull off together. It's like some bands start that way: "We all really liked AC/DC so we kind of started off as an AC/DC homage, then we started making our own songs and grew from there." We never had much in common to begin with. For us, every single song seems really far out. When one of us tries to present a new song idea to the other three, the other three are normally pretty confused. They don't know what to make of it or how to make any sense of it. No, we're never trying to find a middle ground, we're just trying to find anything that'll make it work. I think that in the end, we do feel like we have some control over what we're doing. Like we've been on this tour, so I feel like onstage we have some control over the dynamic or the feeling or the energy.

There's some kind of thing that goes on between us that we do have some slight handle on. But when we're actually writing songs, it's not like we sit back in our ivory tower and say like, "Oh, let's do more of a dance song." We don't have musical styles just there at our disposal that we can just sort of pull out of a hat. We can't find a middle ground because we're just always trying to find any ground, and basically every song feels like we're staking out new ground that none of us have every tried to play before. We're just waiting for the song to sort of tell us what to do because we don't know.

You've said something before like you don't know how you're still a band or you're kinda still trying to figure how to be a band. Does that extend into the nature of your songs? The structures of your songs?

Yeah, we don't know how to write a song or arrange a song or perform a song. I mean you saw at the show -- even during the show, we're still trying to figure it out. We've still got different members of the band giving instructions to other members of the band during the song as it's happening. I mean, one thing we usually have down by the end of the tour is how to pack the mini van. By the end, we usually have the Tetris of it figured out. Last night was really good: After the show we played in Boston, we packed really fast and everything fit. It sure seemed like we've gotten a system down. ... And then the van itself -- I mean we don't own one, we rent every time. This time we had Stow 'N Go, so that made it a little easier. You know Stow 'N Go, right?

I don't own one, but... .

It's like space under the floor, smuggling pockets.

You could fit some kids in there or something.

And we do [laughs]. Groupies.

When you were playing with Congotronics, were you ever intimidated?

The band would've been ruined if anyone in the band had been intimidated. It wouldn't have worked. There was no time for that. We showed up for the first rehearsal in Brussels a week before we were supposed to play our first show. And nineteen people, all of whom are strangers to each other basically. ... But no one in Deerhoof knew any of the other fifteen people other than this Swedish duo called Wildbirds & Peacedrums that we had shared a bill with a couple times previously. But other than that -- there was nobody in charge, we didn't have any material, the Congolese spoke no English at all. We were set to have these, maybe, fifteen hour-a-day rehearsals for one week; we had to come up with basically two hours of a show somehow.

Did it work?

It definitely really worked. Even that question, in a way, is hard to answer because I can say that for myself there were a lot of times when it worked or a lot of times it was really hard. But at the same time, I would talk to a member of Kasai All Stars, a band from Kinshasa in the Congo, and they'd say it didn't work, this song was too slow. And then I would talk to a member of Konono No. 1, a different band from Kinshasa, and they would say it didn't work because this song was too fast, the same song. Even they didn't agree. Or it would be like one person would look so happy, and the next person has this huge frown. Or two people would be fighting or one person would be crying or two people would be hugging. It would just be really, really intense. Kind of a free-for-all.

It wasn't a free-for-all in terms of the objective, it wasn't trying trying to be a free-for-all. We were trying to be very disciplined and very rigorous and rehearsed and make it as perfect as we could. Trust me, every one of the bands in this sort of superband is a total perfectionist. I think of Deerhoof that way, but we were nothing compared to Konono, nothing compared to Juana Molina, nothing compared to Wildbirds & Peacedrums or Skeletons or Kasai All Stars. All of these bands were extremely perfectionistic normally. Everybody was really, really having to open their hearts and their brains to incredible levels of inaccuracy and inability to communicate or not knowing how to make it lock in like they've never experienced in their whole careers. And it was just really causing nervous breakdown after nervous breakdown for everybody. To try to figure out a way to make this work was so much harder than anything any of us had ever done.

I mean the whole thing, especially with the Congolese, was like a game of chicken. They would definitely try to intimidate. For instance, the leader of Konono -- absolutely beautiful guy named Augustan. You would talk to him, say, "Hey that sounded great!" and just get no response at all. He would just have this frown and not say a word. "Hey, do you wanna play a solo on this song?" No response, wouldn't say a word. Maybe after two hours of him just frowning and sitting there, he'd be like, "Go get me a coffee," or something like that -- all in French of course.

He was just one example. Nine of the 10 Congolese were men, and there was a style; they had not gone through -- well, I'm putting words in their mouths and making assumptions -- but my assumption is that in the Congo, they in their lives had not gone through this sort of identity-politics crisis or sort of P.C. retraining that we went through in the United States in the '90s. I was in college in the '90s. Nor had they been trained by the Oprah Winfreys of the world or just our mainstream. It doesn't have to be Oprah. Another thing you could name that was near and dear to most the people's hearts in this band other than people from the Congo was just this sort of indie rock universe and what it means to be a nice guy and to be somewhat wimpy and to express your feeling in a nice way and to always be polite and accommodating with everybody. And it was just a completely different vibe with these guys. It was always sort of a face-off or practical jokes or teasing each other or testing each other like, who's gonna be brave enough or who's gonna be man enough to pull this off or take charge?

Like musically or in other ways too?

Both! There was no separation because we were together constantly: in the van or at catering or backstage or just goofing around at the hotel or just whatever it was. Culturally, there was just such a huge gap between what we were used to and what they were used to. I mean some of these guys had multiple wives, or even if they had one wife and kids, they were still totally macking every single city we went to, any girls they could find. It just wasn't like the typical indie rock nice guy kind of approach that I feel like is around me all the time, and I just loved it.

Was it refreshing?

So much. I mean "refreshing" is a good word. It reminded me of almost back to grade school was the last time I felt some kind of feeling like this before it had been trained out of me by the American mainstream and a kind of guilt -- male guilt or whatever it is. And I thought I related to them in a very deep way. So, your question was was I intimidated: I found almost instantly that if I was intimidated, then nothing worked, everything fell apart. It was a test of character and a test of personal authority and strength. And I mean, I keep speaking of this in gender terms, but it actually had nothing to do with gender. There were quite a few women in the group, and they had to pass the exact same test. Everybody had to be brave, everybody had to be strong, everybody had to get through what was just impossible and totally stressful.

Actually, after the last show with this band, it just so happened that Deerhoof and Konono No. 1 both had shows on the same random festival in Poland like a week later. And I felt that something very dear was communicated to me when Konono invited us to play with them on their show at this Polish festival. In that case, there was nothing on paper, nothing contractual saying you guys are supposed to be playing together. This was purely because they wanted to. And I asked Augustan, "When do you want us to come on, which song do you want us to play?" And he's like, "Well, come on in the first song and play til the end." [laughs] And I didn't know their whole repertoire, I'm just sitting there playing drums, no rehearsal, in front of thousands of people. And suddenly B.C. gets up and he goes to the front of the stage and starts dancing and singing, which he never gets to do because he's always in the back, playing drums. Suddenly it's like I'm being trusted to totally do the drum part! And just to see the smiles on their faces looking back at me while I'm playing, and to feel that I've sort of earned some right to hold it down through this Konono No. 1 song, the moment was unforgettable to me. I think we'll have a record come out next year with this band. I'm really excited about it.

I know with Deerhoof's records, you guys spend a lot of time on them, and you especially do a lot of tweaking of the percussion. Do you kind of look at the records -- for example "Friend Opportunity" -- as a document, like where you guys are, or as this piece you're gonna make, this piece of art?

No, it's definitely thinking of it as the piece. Of course, after a few years have passed it starts to seem like a document. You look back at it as some kind of quaint artifact, but at the time no way. I mean we're just trying to make it something that ... I don't even know how to describe what we're doing.

When you said we spend a lot of time on it, part of spending a lot of time on it is testing to see if you get sick of it, you know? So the parts you're getting sick of you cut out or fix or whatever, and the parts that you like six months later, maybe that's saying something. If I'm not tired of listening to it after the 600th time, then maybe it's worth keeping, maybe it's worth playing for somebody else, maybe it's worth selling to somebody else. If it were just a document, that's cool too, but then I'd maybe feel a little more hard-pressed to justify charging money basically for somebody to get like my iPhoto files or something like that.

No, we're trying to make it something that reads on multiple levels. You could take it really seriously, or you could listen to really closely or just put it on in the background, or maybe you could dance to it, or you just take one song from it and it'd work on its own or listen to the whole thing as one big concept album, or how does it sound on the radio between other hit bands or whatever. You kind of put it through every possible test you think it might get put to, and you of course don't know what that's gonna be. And things are always changing. The way music gets used is just endlessly varying itself. And that's part of the fun of it. You never really know what the future's gonna be, and you never really know if your music's gonna be relevant in any way.

Deerhoof is put into the indie rock universe. Do you guys ever find yourselves making the music you do or just trying to search for different sounds that aren't out there already just to do that?

Well, not exactly. It's a good question, but it assumes that we're familiar with what's out there. That would be a bit of a stretch. I mean, it's incredible. We spent so much time in Europe this summer, and every show I've got Danish kids and Polish kids and French kids and Spanish kids coming up to me asking do I know about this such-and-such band from Brooklyn -- where I live -- and of course I've never heard of them, you know. There's no way to keep up. I don't really think of us as indie rock, and I don't think of myself as a member of some kind of indie rock army.

I'm glad you don't, by the way.

I'm just as likely to be searching for music in other sections of the record store or whatever. There's no way anybody can be caught up with everything that's coming out, and that's fine, who cares. So I'm not really trying to take a survey of what's out there and fill some missing hole. Although, I can say that it's true, I'm always looking for tricks to trick myself into being creative. I can say that one trick that I do sometimes try to use is: Out of everything that I'm hearing, what am I not hearing? What's missing? And sometimes that will spark an idea. One thing I've noticed: Like today, we were driving from Boston to New York, I'm shuffling through the radio, and I feel this way about almost any station that comes on because it's just sort of the nature of the sound of the radio is that it sounds like this big wall of sound. Especially any kind of recent music. It's incredible how much of it is just such a wall of sound. In the last ten years, it's almost become a rule that there can be no break in the sound at any point in anyone's song.

People are ADD.

I don't think it's ADD Oddly, I think that it's almost the opposite. It dulls your senses very quickly. Ironically, it's begging for your attention and all-supplicating and kneeling down or whining, but it's giving away the store. It's like trying to give you everything at once. There's sort of pleading sounds to vocals, I think. Maybe not so much in hip hop. Certainly not in ... What's the guy who just put out his record, he's always on the radio now, the guy with all the tattoos and dreadlocks?

Lil' Wayne.

He actually is somebody who sounds like he's not ingratiating. He sounds very proud. He's not on his knees begging. But almost everything else has what I associate with an American mood at this period in time, which is this kind of slightly whining, petulance. You can see the culture declining and the power of the country going down the tubes. It's just lost pride, this spoiled child that suddenly is getting everything taken away from them, and it has that kind of sound to it. There's no self-respect in the sound. It's trying as hard as it can to get your attention by crying, by whining, by screaming like a spoiled brat. The irony of it is that it becomes a wall of sound that is just so easy to tune out. And I just wanna press the OFF button on the radio after two or three minutes flipping through the dial.

The overall attitude of it is unattractive. No mystery. Everything all the time, everything out front. So, in a sense, it starts to spark ideas. And I'm not saying that Deerhoof is therefore the perfect answer. We struggle with the exact same issues, but it just gives me an idea like: What's the way out? How do you get yourself out of this cul-de-sac? How do you find a way to grab attention, or do you stop trying? I don't know the answer, but it's part of the process creatively, for us. Whatever everybody else is doing poses a question, that then I feel like it's our job to answer.

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