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 two of two of our 90-minute deep dive interview with founding member and drummer Gregory Saunier.
A major music publication once described you, in a review, as “the best band in the world”. How does that label feel from your perspective? And have you felt any weight of expectations in subsequent recording of releases?
Well, I actually, for a long time, I didn’t remember what that was from. And then eventually I figured out what that quote was from. The sentence was not “Deerhoof is the best band in the world”. It was a longer sentence where a reviewer was saying something about like, “well, how do you choose to do some specific thing in the middle of some specific song, when you’re the best band in the world?” I’m not sure he was really saying Deerhoof is the best band in the world.
I think your publicists especially like that quote, though (laughs).
(Laughs) Obviously it’s a nice one. It’s hard for me to imagine that anybody believes in such a thing. I don’t. And I feel this way more and more, actually. I mean, the time when that statement was made happened to be a time in the time span of Deerhoof’s own career that we needed critical praise on the internet in order to, or we felt we needed critical praise from websites on the internet in order to continue playing, and continue touring, and continue putting out records on labels. And so I think that there was a time period when we sort of peaked as far as how much we concerned ourselves with critical reaction. And I’m grateful, we were incredibly lucky. We were critics’ darlings for several years in a row. And that quote is an example of that. And that raised our profile to where we were playing the kind of venues where you get to pick your own colours for lighting gels, you know, that kind of thing. We went from small clubs to medium clubs. And that was a great pleasure for us.
I’d be lying if I said that that had no effect on everything that happened afterwards. But what happened afterwards is that – there are very few, if any, examples of music artists where them being called the best musician on Earth continues to make music websites look cool. If they keep saying it over and over, year after year, particularly when music websites are more and more concerned with – in a sense, they’re playing the same game, trying to keep fresh, trying to keep relevant, trying to look cool, which means discovering new artists, getting rid of the old stuff, like, “Ah, yeah, sure. We discovered that artist two years ago, but you know, we’re over it and we’re onto the next thing now.” They are now disposed of. And like the game, in terms of band confronting music journalism became different, once a couple years had passed since that quote. It became, can we continue as a band now that we’re no longer critics’ darlings? I think people still liked the records the same amount, but understandably, it no longer benefited a music website to give it as glowing a review, because it started to make the music website look redundant, repetitive, or stuck, stuck in old stuff. And so there was some question as to whether we would be able to keep going. And every year since then that we have been able to keep going has felt like a gift from our own listeners. An unexpected and really, really cherished gift.
The goal is to keep attempting to deepen our search for what even is our message, and to listen, and ask questions, and revise our message based on what the world is teaching us every day.
It’s been maybe about 15 years since that particular review, and at this point I think that the feeling is different. And I really don’t think it’s only about Deerhoof. I think that it has a lot to do with the music world that has become impossible to formulate a career within. With the takeover of streaming, one could no longer earn an income from sales of one’s releases. And then the line there, from the Spotifys of the world was always, “well, we’re helping expose your band. And then you can just go out on tour and make it that way”. But guess what, nobody can do that right now. So music no longer being a career possibility for a human being on planet Earth, to continue to do music anyway, is no longer a race to be the best band in the world. It’s a statement that, kind of like what we were saying in “The Perfect Me”. It’s like, well, “wait, I’m here, I’m still here”. The government might not be giving me enough money to survive this pandemic. And they might be telling the children that I know that, and demanding that they return to school while we’re still seeing a rise in the rate of infections, and basically our own leaders are leaving us for dead as a society and literally transferring what little remaining wealth we have to the billionaires of our society. That is literally happening right in front of our eyes. And we’re watching it happen. The whole world is watching it happen. And there’s very little credence that could possibly be given anymore to the notion that the average member of a population of this country has any value whatsoever to its upper echelons. And so, now it feels a bit more like, I think we’ve turned more to the, I mean, I feel like as musicians, we have turned more to the avant-garde survivors from the past who are still going, who’ve had no commercial success in their life, or no big commercial success in their life, but somehow soldier on and are still believing in themselves, believing in their art, spreading a message that is different from what the mainstream’s narrow window will allow.
One great example of a real hero to us is Wadada Leo Smith, a trumpet player. And we also, actually, since ‘Cave Artists’, released another album, a live album that was a collaboration with Wadada. And he’s from an older generation. I mean, he’s, I don’t know how old he is. He’s late seventies, 80, something like that. I just talked to him on Skype a few days ago. He’s like, “oh, this quarantine’s been great for me. I’ve gotten so much done. I get up in the morning, I make myself some food, and I get to work.” And, you know, he’s writing music, and he’s thinking, and he’s practicing the trumpet until he gets exhausted at the end of the day. And he goes to sleep and, the devotion, the dedication level. And I think in society at large, we’re also seeing a return. I mean, police abolition obviously has been a huge topic here. And suddenly it’s like people are having to turn not to any of the voices, the self-appointed prophets of what our society is gonna be, the politicians, the CEOs, the talking heads, the pundits. Instead, because they’ve got nothing to offer, as far as police abolition, they have no solutions. And so, people are turning, like what I’m saying about music, turning to the dismissed avant-garde that has existed from the past.
People have been turning to now aged people, voices who’ve been talking about abolition their whole adult lives. Angela Davis is suddenly a person that people are quoting everywhere. And it’s like these black voices that came to some kind of underground prominence in the ’60s, but whose concepts were constantly ignored by the government, constantly ignored by the mainstream, even by academia, and suddenly there’s this renaissance of not the fake and totally debunked modernism that we were constantly being sold in the postwar years up till now. But finding that all along there were these authentic voices, people who actually planted seeds decades ago, seeds that have grown into trees, where they did the work, and now we can all benefit from it, if we would only listen to the wisdom that they have to offer. And so, I feel much less concerned with being today’s best band in the world, than like trying to just keep watering our tree, and keep trying to grow it into whatever it can become. And even if it gets no validation from whatever, even if it no longer gets reviewed in the New York Times, or it doesn’t kind of get that stamp of approval that we’re still the greatest band in the world, that no longer feels like the goal. The goal is to survive. The goal is to keep going. The goal is to keep attempting to deepen our search for what even is our message, and to listen, and ask questions, and revise our message based on what the world is teaching us every day. And try to find a good next thing to say in that dialogue that we’re having with the world or whatever.
Now, speaking of seeds and trees, I’ve always been intrigued that you have three different songs on three separate albums with the exact same title. I’m wondering what’s the thematic significance or symbolism of ‘flower’?
Well, I mean, who doesn’t like flowers? There’s a guy called Albert Ayler, a legendary saxophonist who pushed jazz to a kind of extreme, to which it had never been pushed before him. And he’s regarded in jazz history as an icon of freedom and of pushing the limits, the possible limits of musical expression on the saxophone and within his compositions and stuff. And in the band, we’re all big fans. The band doesn’t really agree on that much. We don’t have that much musical taste in common, but we all tend to like kind of avant-garde jazz, avant-garde classical music, for whatever reason. That’s like what we connect on. It’s not what we play, but it is what we connect on as far as like being fans. But Albert Ayler had at least three songs called “Ghosts” and at least two songs called “Spirits”. It just seemed like every new song that he would come up with, he would just call it that. And I always thought that was cool, so I thought that our version would be like something cuter like flowers.
The band doesn’t really agree on that much.
From an outsider’s perspective, Deerhoof appears to be just about as DIY as I think you can get. What’s been the hardest or most challenging aspect of carving out your career?
I mean, I really do appreciate that question, but I do also want to say we aren’t the most DIY-imaginable band. We, almost from the beginning, have had an incredible amount of support and continue to have support that we do not take for granted. We’re still on a label. I mean, do you realise how many friends, I mean you must have friends too, how many friends I have, musicians, who just can’t get on a label. They have a totally finished record they made on their own time, on their own dime with their own blood, sweat and tears. Can’t find a label, that’s it. Two years later, still searching for a label, they give up, put it on Bandcamp. That’s a story of almost every musician I know. Not exaggerating. How we got lucky, I mean the timing of how things worked out for us, having started in the mid-’90s, it’s just pure luck. I mean that was a time when there were more labels and they were looking for wacky bands, and in Deerhoof they found one. And then we got a booking agent. We were booking our own shows for a long time. But after about maybe six, seven years, we got a booking agent and, same one we still have today. And again, I mean the luck, it’s unimaginable. I mean, this person is such a gem. I’ve watched musicians around me, all my friends, just go through booking agents. “I had to fire that person, I got a new one this year. I hope it works better. Ah, no, I had to get rid of that person. They were a total deadbeat, they didn’t do anything.” And this person is like an angel that saved us. Our booking agent has stuck by us for like 20 years. And they’re sticking by us now. I mean, if you think we’re not making an income, guess what he does for a living. I mean he’s sitting there, he’s not making a dime. He’s sitting in his house, I mean, he’s got a mortgage or whatever. I mean, it’s just totally ridiculous. But he’s just devoted to his bands. And you know, like this interview we’re having right now did not happen as a result of my DIY effort. It happened because of the label, or it happened because of a publicist, or somebody put somebody in touch with somebody. And I don’t take for granted for one minute all of the really enormous support system that we’ve benefited so intensely from for like most of my adult life, you know?
Our booking agent has stuck by us for like 20 years. And they’re sticking by us now. I mean, if you think we’re not making an income, guess what he does for a living.
But yes, there are some things that we do that are DIY. And it’s funny because I don’t think we really necessarily wanted to be DIY. I mean, I remember the band started in maybe ’94 or something, Nirvana was huge. Everything was about, you know, In Utero had come out a year before. The confrontation between the underground music scene and the mainstream music scene was poetically summed up by Nirvana going with Steve Albini, making this somewhat ugly sounding record, and then being on a major label, and they won hits. Is this playable on the radio, et cetera. And so the conversation was all about creative control. In other words, if not DIY, it was at least creative control, where you don’t have people in suits, execs in suits telling you what to do on your record, telling you how to mix your record, telling you this song shouldn’t go on the record, telling you to get a different producer, et cetera. And that whole saga played out in public for everybody to read in Spin magazine, Rolling Stone magazine.
And when Deerhoof started, the irony for me was we were recording everything that we did on my cassette four-track machine with one microphone that my bandmate had gotten for 50 cents at a garage sale, at a lawn sale, a half of a pair of broken Walkman headphones as the second mic, a borrowed, bottom-of-the-line microphone, actual microphone, from the store, cheapest one you could get as the third microphone, and maybe the last thing plugged in direct or something. I mean, I didn’t want creative control. And we were trying so hard to make this stuff sound like Nirvana, actually. I mean, I would sit there for, I mean it would go on, not exaggerating, go for years. I would remix – I mean, the songs on our first record, I tried mixing them again, and again, and again for two years. Every day, sitting there on headphones, whatever, trying to get this song to sound like “Smells Like Teen Spirit” or something. Try to get the kick drum to sound the same, try to get the guitar to sound as big, try to get the reverb to sound – I didn’t have reverb, actually, so I couldn’t do anything with reverb. But with the lack of equipment that I had, all I had was just simple EQ.
I didn’t want creative control. And we were trying so hard to make this stuff sound like Nirvana, actually.
Our first record still has not broken even, and that’s mainly because we took it to get it mastered and then I wasn’t satisfied with how the mastering sounded. So we went back again. We went to a professional mastering house and they charged a lot of money and we spent hours there, because I was like begging this old industry man, who’d mastered records for Simon & Garfunkel and stuff like, “please fix this horrible-sounding record, make it sound like something. Can you make it sound big, and sound produced, and sound slick? That’s all I want. I don’t want creative control.” I’m asking the label, “what can we do? Is this song good? Should we dump this one? Does this song need better lyrics?” I’m begging this mastering guy, like “do anything, whatever magic wand you can wave to make this thing sound better.” And you know, it just, luck of the draw, it so happened that in the Bay Area, the San Francisco Bay Area, the mastering house, the only game in town was this one guy, George Horn. And he was like really unhelpful. And he was not willing to do much in the way of drastic alteration to the sound of whatever audio you were giving him. He would do a little light bit of this, a little touch of that, say, “okay, I’m done.” He was not willing to really sculpt the sound and alter it in any kind of radical way. It just wasn’t his mindset. He was lazy, he was on a salary, he was getting big pay cheque, he didn’t need to mess with that. And then it just so happened the label we were on, luck of the draw, Kill Rock Stars, the most hands-off label in the history of the universe. They’re like, “no, cool, everything cool, all right. Yeah, no, we’ll put it down, great, sounds awesome.” No help whatsoever. And of course, looking back at it now, this is what taught us to be DIY, was the fact that even if we wanted to sell out, we were literally unable to. We didn’t have talent enough to make sell-out music. And we didn’t have the kind of support system that wanted to sprinkle that kind of fairy dust on us. They left us to our own devices and left our music the way it was. And so we had to just kind of figure it out. And of course, now it’s like, I can’t imagine life having been any other way. And I mean, now it’s like, several of us in the band, you know, for instance, like mix records for other people. We mix records for our friends or people hire us or whatever. And it’s great to have taught yourself something that, as you were teaching yourself, the skill of how to mix Deerhoof, it seemed like the most utterly useless skill imaginable, but it has turned out to be useful and helpful for other people. And people who like the sound of Deerhoof records have then been like, “hey, well, would you mix my record? You know, I like the way your record sounds.” I’m like, “wow, cool, yeah, totally I’ll mix your record.” And that’s really fun.
Even if we wanted to sell out, we were literally unable to.
How would you like to be remembered individually as a musician, and collectively as band?
I mean, remembered by whom? I mean, I think that if we’re going to be remembered at all, and that’s in doubt because, I mean, you’re even younger than I am. It’s well within the realm of possibility that human civilisation collapses within our lifetime. I mean, that’s the scientific projection. It’s not coming in 2120, it’s coming in 2050, it’s coming 2060. Large sections of the inhabited Earth are going to no longer be inhabitable. The power grid will no longer work. We will not be having a Skype conversation. The coronavirus will not be, “Thank God, that’s over, the last of the pandemics.” This is the opening, this is the beginning of a wave of pandemics. Food, water will no longer be guaranteed to be locatable for your digestive system. Infrastructure will have completely collapsed, and you won’t be able to travel easily. You’ll be on foot, looking for food in a desert. You know, something like that. Envisioning it becomes very overwhelming, you know? And so there’s no guarantee that any of us are gonna be remembered because there might not be anybody to remember us. And we’re talking kinda short term. If there are stragglers, then I think that’s kind of what we were writing songs about on this record that you’re interviewing me about. I think we were talking about survivors. And I think that I’d like to be remembered, if any remnant of our music is discovered in the wasteland, in the wreckage, I imagine it being a bit like cave art, a mysterious discovery that you’re trying to figure out what it means, and you sort of puzzle over it. And you try to imagine the people who made it. Something about finding cave art inspires you. A lot of it is like hands, or it’s drawings of animals. And oddly enough, in the rare instances that humans appear in this incredibly ancient cave art, they’re always like stick figures, or they look really crude for some reason. Even when the animal drawings are like really sophisticated, the humans always appear as some kind of joke. I think, yeah, that’s like something that I think has been like part of our vibe since the beginning, is sorta like celebrating the natural world, celebrating animals and plants, flowers, and like seeing the human only as some very humble, minor participant, kind of a joke, off in the corner of the vastness that is nature, you know? And so that feeling that you get from cave art, I think maybe that’s – at least that’s what maybe we were sort of proposing as the theme on this record is like, this record is about that question. Like how might, or how could music be, music of this time, be remembered in a post-apocalyptic environment?
So just about every Deerhoof fan that I speak to has a different favourite album of yours, given that you’ve covered so many different styles of music, and you’ve explored so many different ideas, I suppose. I can appreciate that it’s probably a little bit like picking a favourite child, but I’m wondering if there’s an album that you’re particularly fond or proud of in your catalogue?
There’s one that’s coming out in a couple months. The next one, and I think this is my favourite. Maybe I’ll listen to it again just to make sure, I’m not sure. I think this one might be, I think I’m really proud of this one. This next one is coming. It doesn’t have a title yet, but I think the music is done. We’re really, really struggling with the title right now.
Maybe you should call it Elton Glasses.
Huh? Yeah, Elton Glasses, exactly (laughs). That’s what it’s all about. Yeah, we need the right title, but I don’t know, it feels a little bit like a sequel to ‘Cave Artists’, but it also has one element of it that makes it very, very different. And you’ll find out about that when it comes out, but, there’s, in several ways, it’s the exact opposite of ‘Cave Artists’, but in other ways it’s sort of a sequel, or it’s maybe a different answer to the same set of questions, or something. And we’ve just finished it, the audio of it, and I’m really excited about it. So I think maybe that this mystery title next-thing-a-ma-bob, I think that one’s my favourite. And it’s not like picking my favourite babies. I don’t have any babies, these are my babies. This is, in fact, picking my favourite children. And this is my favourite child, right here. The next one, it’s about to be born. We’re getting close to birthday here. It’s starting to kick.
If you could collaborate with any artist in any medium, past or present, who would it be and what would you ideally create?
I hope this doesn’t sound like a cop out answer, but there are, in fact, people that I do want to collaborate with. And I think, I feel it’s sort of related to the previous question about how do I feel about like making an effort to maintain the status as some kind of great band, and how my attitude, and I think the attitude of my bandmates too, has kind of shifted to, it’s just sort of amazing to even survive. And that applies to collaboration as well, because I think we’re all kind of feeling like do or die. It feels like, we all feel like short-timers. I feel like I have so much left to learn. And collaboration for me is only partially about getting a 10 out of 10 on the result of the collaboration from a music website. It’s more to do with the alive feeling, the sense of thriving that occurs during collaboration. And for me, I would have to say that the people that I have the most desire to collaborate with are the people that I find myself learning from the most, at present. The people who are shocking me and teaching me the most every day. And those are kind of legendary voices from the past. Not from the past, because they still exist in the present, but they began to offer their wisdom long ago and have been neglected, and are now becoming discovered. And I think of Wadada Leo Smith as just such a person, who has incredibly valuable things to offer the human race. And the act of collaborating with Wadada and amplifying his point of view and drawing attention to his wisdom is like very much something that if I have a chance to do something like that, then I wanna do it.
And then too, the other maybe type of collaboration that I really have a strong urgent desire to undertake would be with young musicians who are in the generation whose politics I agree with the most, and who are the ones who will either benefit or suffer the most from whatever choices we make now, whatever trees we decide to plant or not plant now. They’re the ones who are gonna have to live or die with that, and they’re the ones who are teaching. I feel in some sense, they also have become like the parents, they’ve been revealed as the parents, or the professors. So they’re the voices that have already devoted their adult life to real solutions that suddenly we urgently need. In the US, it’s a lot to do with, now that white people also realise they’re gonna fall through the cracks too. It was like, “oh, wait a second, well, ah.” Or they’re being targeted by the police, by the government, by Homeland Security, whatever, by billionaires. They’re among the targeted, it’s suddenly dawning on them. They’re not immune to this oppression, that they thought they had a get-out-of-jail-free card. They’re panicking and casting around, “what do we do, what do we do?” And it turns out there’s this whole literature of wisdom, solutions, ideas, analysis, data-driven analysis, careful intellectual work that’s been done for decades, that was written by people who actually are still there. Many of them still alive, many dead, but many alive as older, wise, older people, you know? And then there’s this younger generation that is the most receptive to that wisdom, that has not built up, it doesn’t have as much indoctrination built up inside of them that teaches them to dismiss, ignore, or crush those voices. So they’re open to it. And it’s that younger generation, it’s like, “yeah, no, capitalism is wrong. I don’t want capitalism, I want it to be over.” They are the ones leading the revolution. And so those are my heroes. And so, those are the people that I would wanna collaborate with.
I know you were probably hoping for a specific name, Elton John, or something, but to me, it’s like the person I wanna collaborate with is the person who are my own heroes. And I’m happy to say that that’s what I’m doing. And it makes life exciting every day… I mean, this next album that’s coming out that I told you about, I contacted, just cold-called somebody on Instagram, I think. I saw something they wrote on Instagram that really moved me. And I just wrote to them. And I connected to it a lot. And I thought it had a lot to do with what our next album was about. And I asked them if they would want to write our press release, and so we’ve been in touch every day and it’s not a musical collaboration, but like I sent this person the record, we’re talking every day about themes. He’s giving me new ideas. That’s helping us come up with our work. And this type of dialogue is very exciting. And I think that the kind of collaboration I wanna have is not necessarily a pipe dream collaboration. It’s more like an essential collaboration that we should all be having, that we should all be open to. And none of us should be afraid to try to begin. That we should be having a collaboration with our elders who turned out to be the only ones who were telling the truth. And we should be having a collaboration with the young folks who really know what’s up and don’t have all of this conditioning that needs to be unlearned. They are helping us unlearn our conditioning. That’s who I wanna collaborate with and who I think we should all try to collaborate with.