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Deep dive with Deerhoof: Greg Saunier talks sleep deprivation, Iraq War & Elton John

Dan Webb
With their strangely unique and enthralling music, American experimental rock outfit Deerhoof have garnered an underground cult following and, chances are, influenced some of your favourite artists along the way. More than a quarter of a century into their career, they show no signs of slowing down, having just released their fifteenth studio album, Future Teenage Cave Artists, in addition to a live album featuring trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith. This is part one of two of our 90-minute deep dive interview with founding member and drummer Gregory Saunier.

Hey! Cool glasses.
These glasses don’t quite fit. They might have to come off at some point. They’re a little tight, they crush my brain.

Very Elton.
(Laughs) Yeah, exactly. I read that autobiography, my mom gave me the autobiography for Christmas, and I read it and I have to say, I didn’t think all that much of it. I mean, it was okay but it was funny to read about like, you know, like pop music careers at the top, from the ’70s. It’s like everything about the world of music feels like it’s been completely inverted from that time, you know? And everything about whatever career Deerhoof has had just feels like it, just couldn’t be more different. And the kind of personality that that sort of life of excess attracts is definitely Elton’s personality. And the kind of like, I just, you know, somebody like that, I don’t think the world can really afford to have, to reward that type of personality anymore.

Cool, well, thanks very much for your time today, Greg.
It’s been a great interview. And so yeah, cool, I hope you got what you needed (laughs)…

Should we jump into the prepared questions?
Oh, you have prepared questions?

I do have some prepared questions.
Yeah, yeah, absolutely, let her rip. What do you got?

You’ve just released a new album, Future Teenage Cave Artists. Congratulations, it’s an excellent album.
Thank you, thank you.

Being a non-racist is not the same thing as being an anti-racist… the mainstream has comforted itself for many decades with the false idea that those two things are the same.

Review: Deerhoof – Future Teenage Cave Artists

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Now I’ve noticed that you’ve increasingly been voicing political opinions on social media. And the new album tackles some quite heavy themes. I was just wondering if you’d categorise it as a political album?
I don’t think I believe in the category. So, no, I don’t because I don’t think that there’s any, I mean, what record would you propose as a nonpolitical album, you know? It’s like politics is like, I mean, I guess it means a lot of things. It’s like, how do people interact with each other? How do they organise each other? Or, how do they take care of each other? That could be what politics is. And, you know, I think that there’s nothing you can really do, in music as a musician, or [as] a listener, that doesn’t touch on all of those things thoroughly. So, and I think that’s been one of the big kind of new delineations that has come to mainstream awareness, which is that being a non-racist is not the same thing as being an anti-racist. Whereas, I think that, at least in the US, that the mainstream has comforted itself for many decades with the false idea that those two things are the same. And that it’s enough to simply not be a racist, but to not bother to actively fight it. And so, that’s sort of how I feel about the definition of political. It’s only pretending if you’re saying your record is not political. And if you choose to carefully avoid touchy subjects for fear of whatever, could be that you think that you’re not qualified to speak on them, it could be that you’re afraid that you’ll alienate certain elements of your fan base, or it could be that you really aren’t interested.

But you can’t, I think it’s becoming more difficult, and I would assume it’d be the same in the field of music journalism, as much as for a musician, or a music fan, it’s becoming more difficult to soothe yourself with the line that you’re being nonpolitical, because that’s a choice too. That’s a political choice too. And silence is a choice. And silence is, as many are saying now, voicing support for whatever exists now, silence is tacit approval… I think it’s the same with social media too. I mean, it’s not just music… social media is maybe even more overt a form of people choosing how to interact with each other. How to, or choosing what attitudes to adopt towards each other. That is the definition of politics, whether or not your tweet is about some presidential candidate or whatever, you are engaging in political activity by tweeting.

We’re in a dialogue, an unreciprocated dialogue, often with power that doesn’t hear us, and doesn’t care to hear us. But we still make the effort to be heard.

Sure. Now I note that the narrator of “The Perfect Me” from your 2007 album Friend Opportunity returns on this album. Is it your intention as songwriters that all of Deerhoof’s songs live within the same constructed universe, so to speak?
Yeah, that’s a nice question. I think that, to me the persona that you’re describing as a narrator, to me is more of a character, than a narrator. Like it’s a participant in the narrative, rather than someone standing outside it. And I think that the characters, I think this is true of a lot of bands. The character is not entirely a fictional character. It’s us, you know, it’s the actual us. And when Satomi (Matsuzaki)’s singing a song, she’s often singing, she’s playing herself in the narrative. She’s playing herself as a member of the band. She’s playing herself as a member of a friendship, group, or romantic relationship. And she’s playing herself as a member of a society.

Every record that we make is adding to a narrative, it’s adding to a conversation, and it’s another attempt at breaking through some seemingly impenetrable wall to our own masters.

Yeah, so really to answer your actual question, yes, I do think that it’s not just us narrating a story. We are actors in the story, and among the other actors in the story are everyone who listens. And the dialogue is taking place not just in Satomi’s head or even between Satomi and her bandmates, us, but also between Deerhoof and Deerhoof’s listeners. And sometimes it’s – I think we often all feel at times as though we are shouting into a void. So there’s a dialogue with people even who aren’t listening to you, you know? We’re in a dialogue, an unreciprocated dialogue, often with power that doesn’t hear us, and doesn’t care to hear us. But we still make the effort to be heard. And I think a lot of people are finding a lot of what is considered recently, at least in our country, to be beyond the bounds of propriety, oh, somebody put graffiti on a monument, on a statue, or something, or somebody toppled a statue of some racist from history, is an escalation of the attempt to get the dialogue started, because the officially sanctioned channels of communication have proven completely useless. Not just for a few months, but we’re talking for generations. We’re talking for centuries. And so, every record that we make is adding to a narrative, it’s adding to a conversation, and it’s another attempt at breaking through some seemingly impenetrable wall to our own masters.

Like, you know, I mean “The Perfect Me”, I remember when we wrote that song and it was sort of like, it’s like the lyrics are like, you know that album’s called Friend Opportunity, and that was something that – that was a phrase that Satomi said spontaneously in the middle of a casual conversation we were having over breakfast or something. And she was saying that a friend of a friend had just moved to San Francisco or something, where we were living at the time, and that this person seemed cool. And maybe it would be a friend opportunity. Maybe it’d be somebody that she would end up meeting and becoming friends with. And I just thought that that was such a charming phrase. Then I wrote it down right away and we just kept coming back to it and thought that that was a really fantastic, novel, new title, but kind of a theme that a lot of the songs seemed to be touching on. And “The Perfect Me”, she’s sort of introducing herself and describing herself, sort of like “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”. She may have been like, she may have had painful memories or experiences or traumas in the past, but she’s like, come out of it like royalty, and being a musician and a singer is kind of like a celebration of your survival and of your existence and saying, “look, I’m here, I’m still at it, I’ve got a song to sing, I’ve got my own voice to celebrate, and I thought of these funny melodies in my mind, and I’m gonna make my dreams come true, and I’m gonna sing them out loud and see if anybody hears it.” It’s like calling out to her sisters and those metaphorical sisters could be anybody. And also asking and seeing if anyone can hear or can connect to her question, which is “what’s that war for?”

At the time we were a couple of years into the Iraq invasion, and it was amazing how you could feel that everyone around you in your real life, your friendship group was like, “obviously we shouldn’t have invaded Iraq. Obviously this war is wrong on every level and bungled, immoral, illegal, achieving the opposite of its stated goals, et cetera.” And yet, you know, if you dare to take a peek into whatever the dominant media has to say about it, it’s as if there’s no opposition. And you’re like, “are you kidding me?” There’s what, everybody I know, literally, every person I know is opposed to this war and they’re making it seem like there is no opposition. And so you’re calling out like, “can I get a witness? Does anybody hear me here? Aren’t we pretty much all in agreement, like this war shouldn’t be happening, it’s wrong.” And yeah, that’s kind of what the song was about. And yeah, I suppose it’s like we’ve always tried to do that in our songs, or in our albums, to kind of, kinda like “can anybody hear me? Is anybody out there that might feel similarly to me?” And it’s not just metaphorical, because then there’s a reply. And people do listen to the record and people do come to our concerts and sing along and know the words. And it’s kinda like an incredibly moving experience to realize that what you were, you know, when it can happen, when you successfully are able to connect with something that you’ve been trying to say.

You mentioned that the four of you were previously living in San Francisco. But for the past eight years or so, I believe that you’ve all been living in separate cities…
I live in Melbourne. I’m right next door to you.

Really? (Laughs) You should come over for a drink.
(Laughs) I wish. Melbourne’s like the most beautiful place. We love going there. If we could go more often, man, we would. It’s not gonna happen anytime soon, obviously, But wow, we’ve always had the most wonderful experiences playing in Australia. Of course, we always come in what’s winter for us. Anyway, you were asking?

So, how on Earth does it work, living in separate cities?
Yeah, well, I mean…

Do you do a lot of like Skype calls, like this one? Or like, sharing playlists?
Yes. We do Skype calls. When things start to get dark in the call I just put on the sunglasses, Elton glasses help lighten the mood. Sometimes I go for little like stuff like that, little filters to like change the mood a little bit. They’re lighting gels samples. With a number, can you see any of that? Maybe it’s hard to see. But these are like standardised lighting gel variations that many of the sort of medium-sized venues that we play have on file. And so I actually, at this point, things have started to switch to like, everybody’s doing LEDs. But before LEDs were really big and everybody had replaced their lighting system with LEDs, you had to like specify, “I want number 44, middle rose. And I want that pointed at my hair,” or something like that (laughs). And then the person goes up there and puts this gel inside this incandescent bulb, and then your hair looks medium rose or whatever.

We email each other MP3 ideas a lot. We really ought to mail each other lossless WAV files, or something higher quality, but those don’t fit in an email. So it’s an extra step of admin for us to have to send those. So we’ll send MP3s and very much of Future Teenage Cave Artists was created by a process of one person emailing an MP3, some rough idea that they’d come up with at home. Maybe they made up a little guitar part or they’d played a drum beat or sang a melody into their phone or something. They’d email it to everybody else. And then somebody else is like, oh yeah, I like that. Here, let me try something. And then they add another instrument to it. Or they add their voice to it, send an MP3 back. I was like, “wow, cool.” And then somebody else had something else. And all of this, all of this process was intended to be creating demos that we were then going to meet and record together. But over the process, this often happens to us, and it’s one of maybe the landmines of being completely self-produced, you know, DIY, is that, and sort of having unlimited time, we’re not on the clock. And so as the months pass, you’re kind of like, you know, “I’m kind of getting attached to this rough demo version, there’s some magic in there that I don’t think we’re gonna be able to recreate if we try to meet up.” And it’s like, “okay, we’ve got two days and we’re gonna record all these songs over again.”

There were so many little accidents and funny noises, and just, you know, there’s a certain feeling that can happen when somebody’s recording something and no one’s watching them. They’re at home and it’s the middle of the night. And their mood is a little different than it would be if they’re being watched and somebody sitting there with a red light record button on, or pressing a space bar and saying, okay, go… and so I think something maybe more intimate happens when you’re recording, but you don’t think it’s gonna be for the real record. You’re just, you’re kind of, it’s warts and all. Some flaws come out and idiosyncrasies come out that you imagined that you’re gonna fix later. And then after a while, we started to realise it was that very presence of unselfconscious, idiosyncratic personal expression passed around between us and filled with flaws, and with, you know, lo-fi that became the quality of the songs that we were working on, that we kept being haunted by. That started to become not just an accidental feature of the record, but it started to become the record. In fact, it helped to generate the theme of the record. And lyrics often came later, and I feel like that feeling of isolation and kind of self doubt, self questioning, wondering if anyone is hearing what you’re doing, and you feel like you’re just alone in your little cave, that kind of ended up developing into what the lyrics were about.

Now I need to pull you up on that, cos you just mentioned isolation. In my research that I did earlier, in a 2012 interview, you said that “an attitude of being isolated as an artist is completely unhelpful”. So what would you say now, given the current situation that we find ourselves in, and indeed the fact that you’re all based in different cities?
I said that? I wonder what I meant, I wonder what context I was referring to. I mean, I think that isolation alone is unhelpful. I think isolation alternating with confrontation with other human beings, with the world, with actual sound blaring through speakers is also, you’re lost without that. And I mean, I think even Elton John could probably agree that one aspect of the lifestyle of many musicians is this alternation between the isolation and privacy of songwriting, and the semi-isolation of recording, and then the total opposite, the public display and mutual celebration of touring. And where at one point you’re trying to face or even gain access to unconscious thoughts and feelings in the process of trying to write something, which can be tricky. Like if you’re a guitar player, it’s like a lot of times your hand, your fingers just have habits and they end up kinda just playing the same stuff a lot. And you wanna like go deeper into your self, and into your own unconscious, and into your own dreams, and try and find something, not just a shallow habit of your fingers, but like what are my real desires? What are my real fears?

All four of us can say with total confidence about ourselves and each other, that none of us has a method that we can rely on.

How do you actually, like, what’s your process for actually breaking free of that constraint?
I mean, I was taught a long time ago that by now I was supposed to be able to have an answer to a question like that but, and at some point, any artist can say definitively what their method is. But a weird coincidence, I think about Deerhoof, is that, I think across the board, all four of us can say with total confidence about ourselves and each other, that none of us has a method that we can rely on. And what worked yesterday does not seem to work tomorrow. And I find that every time we try to make something, we have to, it’s always about changing our method.

I mean, we’re working on new songs now for a new record, and all of those Skype calls that you were referring to before, they’re all about what we need to change about our method. What was wrong with our method last time? What was unsatisfying, what didn’t work? A lot of times, it’s just about tricking each other and tricking ourselves. And I think there’s a long history of creative processes where you have to somehow short circuit the habits of the rational mind in order to access the fun stuff. And I mean, I know that for myself, I mean, I’ve got lots of tricks that I try. Sometimes I’ll listen to a bunch of music online. I usually use the iTunes Music Store. I don’t think anybody even remembers what that is anymore, but there’s this funny thing where you can buy music, which is how I buy music and you can listen to previews. And I mean, you just go and listen to previews, I’ll listen to an hour of previews of stuff. And then at the end of the hour, it’s like, I’ve got snippets of totally random stuff just in my head. And then like, I pull out a piece of like manuscript paper or something. And I start to hear like little music ideas and they might be kind of influenced by what I heard. They could be continuations of what I heard. They could be some kind of mashed together imagination of several of things, several of the things that I heard smooshed into one. But mostly they’re just coming from inside, but hearing all those snippets of random and totally unfamiliar music got the juices flowing.

Sometimes I’ll try sleep deprivation. It’s like if I do an all-nighter, I mean, I think everybody has this. If you end up having to do an all-nighter for whatever, flying to Australia, I mean, is a great example (laughs). I get no sleep on the plane. By the time I arrive in Australia, I’m borderline hallucinating, cos it’s been 30 hours of being awake, more than 30 hours because I was awake before I got on the plane. And so, 30 hours of being awake and you just start, I start hearing music a lot of times. And I mean, it’s unhealthy to do that a lot, but I can get away with it sometimes. And sometimes it’s incredible, like I can write five songs in one sitting when I’m sort of in that state. I don’t know, I’m always searching for ways and you never know. I mean, it’s sorta like the phrase ‘friend opportunity’. You never know when the germ of an idea is just gonna appear out of nowhere. I think a big part of being a creative person is not that you’re banging your head against a wall, trying, trying, trying to create, it’s also listening, being ready. It’s sort of like having an open question, or set of questions, you’ve just got a big question mark. And everything you see and hear around you is a potential answer to your questions. And if you’re asking questions, then answers will appear from unexpected sources. And that, to me, being open to the possibility that something is the beginning of a new idea is maybe the biggest part of creativity.

I don’t believe in a good song… when the definition of a good song becomes a proscription, it’s completely useless. You want the opposite. What you want is a good song to become undefined.

Deep dive with Deerhoof: Greg Saunier reveals ‘sequel to Cave Artists’ out ‘in a couple months’

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What, in your opinion, makes a good song? Would you place more value on say, the melody, or the rhythm, or like the overall performance as a whole, or something entirely different. Production maybe?
Well, I mean, I don’t believe in a good song. And the reason I say that is because I think that the idea has been abused as a, what do you call it? Is the word like a proscription? Wait, I’m gonna use my dictionary program for a second and see if that’s even a word. Yes, a proscription, abandoning, forbidding, prohibition, barring disbarment, vetoing interdiction, and the outlawing. I’m sorry I was in the thesaurus. Yes, when the definition of a good song becomes a proscription, it’s completely useless. You want the opposite. What you want is a good song to become undefined. So that everything that has been proscribed is now allowed. Everything that has been unheard, can now be heard. And I think that, I don’t think the music journalism community is as guilty of it as more like the, maybe when it comes to like ratings, rankings, awards, you know, history books. There can be a tendency to over define what a good song is, or a good movie, or a good book, or TV show, or whatever it is.

And the reality is, in my opinion, or as far as I know, that the definition of a song around this globe throughout the millennia, has changed so many times, and has varied from culture to culture in such incredibly radical ways. And within one culture, in so many radical ways. I mean, I could say in my culture, the definition of a good song could be everything you just named, that was already five or six things there. It had a good melody, had a good rhythm, good production, good lyrics. It could be a million other things. It could be it was good to dance to, that makes a good song, could be, it was good to have sex to. It could be that it made a lot of money. It could be that it had an important message.

It’s subjective.
Exactly, it’s entirely subjective. And there are many agreed upon, and also not agreed upon uses to which music has been put down through the ages. And I think a great power lies, not just with the quote unquote creator of music, who gets to decide on new definitions of what makes a good song. But of course, even more so, on the listener, who gets to decide what, not just the, I mean, deciding whether a song is good or bad is the least interesting role that a describer of a song could play. It gets more interesting as you go deeper into it. It’s like, well, how does it make me feel? How would I use it? Is it something I wanna listen to while I’m cooking? Is it something that plays well in the background when I’m having a conversation or making a painting, is it something that helps me exercise? You know, all of this stuff, and the listener can change the meaning of the song from what the author might have intended. And I think that that happens more than we think. And I think that it’s beautiful that the listener has that power. And I think that we should celebrate that power. And of course I love it if lots of people say, hey, Deerhoof, your song is good, but I love it even more when somebody writes me and says, “I wake up to this track on this album every morning,” or “this song really helped me through a hard patch in my life”. Or, “my dog sure gets excited whenever this song comes on”, or, you know, this kind of stuff.

Read part two of our interview here