Deerhoof – Trying To Make Performable Music

John Dieterich of Deerhoof talks recording, performing and Spinal Tap moments with Siobhán Kane

The quartet of John Dieterich, Satomi Matsuzaki, Ed Rodriguez and Greg Saunier that make up the brilliant Deerhoof are all very gifted musicians, and their records, from The Man,The King,The Girl – Halfbird (1997) to Friend Opportunity (2007) and last years Deerhoof vs. Evil, have all evidenced a heady inventiveness that is as playful as it is challenging. So much of their energy has come from their expanding and contracting band membership; from the early days of Rob Fisk, to the more settled line-up of the last few years. This restlessness has brought an untidy, but compelling energy not only to recordings, but specifically live shows, which are as magical an experience as they are a thrilling one.

One of the things you sense quite keenly, is the amount of fun they are having together, and there is a certain humour and innocence that runs alongside their musicianship; it is this innocence (along with a curious creativity) that takes them off to other diverse projects, such as collaborating with Xiu Xiu or Busdriver, or creating and performing an alternative soundtrack for Harry Smith’s 1950’s film Heaven and Earth Magic (Flying Lotus has also created and performed an alternative soundtrack), but this is the band who explore time travel (‘Wrong Time Capsule’) as well as delicate love (‘Vivid Cheek Love Song’) or superheroes (‘Super Duper Rescue Heads’) in their work. And because they are never sure where they are going to next, we are never sure where they are going to take us; but it is always to an exciting, unexpected, and ultimately, nourishing place. Siobhán Kane talks to John Dieterich.


Albuquerque is a relatively new home for you, how have you been finding it?
We moved here in August 2010, and it is beautiful – have you ever been to New Mexico? There is definitely nothing like it. It’s a severe place in many ways, but also unbelievably beautiful. Where we live in Albuquerque it’s up about 5,000 ft, so it’s pretty high and surrounded by mountains, it’s this desert landscape, but also a super varied landscape.

I have always liked the way you announce records, so creatively, like with Deerhoof vs. Evil – with the map of the world, where you leaked the record one song at a time in different parts of the world.
Did you like that? I thought it was great too, sorry Dublin wasn’t on there [laughs].

How did you find the process of recording Deerhoof vs. Evil? All of your records are so different and so intuitive, but there is an ever-growing sense of melody coming through, do you see a progression in that way?
I do. For us, we had been in a fairly long period of preparation. When we made the album we were trying to make performable music [laughs] and we often do that, but we often also fail to do that [laughs]. For certain albums, given time constraints or something, we will not worry about whether it’s playable, we will just make a record, and that usually comes back to bite us later [laughs]. A good example was Friend Opportunity, when we went to perform that music live, it was unbelievably difficult, not only had we lost a member right before making it [Chris Cohen], we also went hogwild with overdubs on the record, and then were thinking “how are we going to do this with one guitar, and one drum set?”, you know? So yes, for this album we had it in mind to make it easier to perform, for sure, and that probably has something to do with melody.

We all had been writing separately, and everyone’s process is a little different. I was making demos of things, others were writing. I was working on recording things, and we ended up using little pieces of those things. We had a practice space in Oakland for a month, and we went in every day and brought it altogether. The instrumental tracking took about a month, but that was before Ed and I moved. I went to Albuquerque, and Greg went home to visit his parents and brought the stuff with him and started working on mixes there. After that, we had another couple of weeks of final mixing and vocal recording and then we mastered it ourselves in Oregon, so all told, it was about four months of active work on the album.

There is an innocence about the way you go into recording, without reference necessarily to how it will translate into live performance, yet your last record also includes two live recordings of ‘Pinhead’ and ‘The Perfect Me’, which I thought was interesting, perhaps pointing to how important the live experience is to your entire approach to music.
Let’s see, how do I put it? For me, performing could be playing one concert,but the interesting thing about touring is getting to experience the evolution of the music, and getting to see what happens. We might have this limited idea of what the material is, means, or is capable of doing. What is exciting when we tour is discovering that we haven’t seen the limits of this material yet, and we discover it with the audience. For example, if we record a song we might play it a zillion times, but playing it live, you have that direct experience with an audience, and the music tends to change quite drastically. It’s really incredible. For us it is important to cultivate a situation where we are trying to make something that as a performance people can relate to, that we can relate to, but we also want to leave it open enough so that it can grow – so the improvised aspects of a lot of the stuff is the big question mark, we don’t know in what way this set of material will be malleable, maybe all of it is, and it just needs an imagination big enough to change or react to it it. It’s extremely fun.

How do you find mixing, since you taught yourselves, didn’t you?
I would say it is simple and painstaking, because we are always listening for something that is wrong. One thing we do is that people will bring in songs and we might record the song, so there is the first level, then the next step is to go through things – it is the opposite of hearing it in a fresh way, we listen until we are so sick of it we cannot take it any more [laughs]. We try to find the things that drive us crazy, and then we find the aspects we like and keep them. So it isn’t complex in a way, but the technical aspect of dealing with that can be complex. At this point we have been recording ourselves for a long time and mixing and mastering, sometimes we work with recording engineers, but mostly we do everything ourselves, but even if we go to a studio we only go for a couple of days, then take everything home for a month. You develop tools for dealing with problems – learning how to edit was a good tool [laughs]. It’s a fun process. I am glad that we decided a long time ago that this is stuff we wanted to learn how to do ourselves, so that if we have an idea to change something we can change it, rather than farming out that idea to someone else and hoping it translates.

You are such intuitive musicians, that to give aspects of it to others to work on would seem so wrong, but did you find the technological tools hard to master?
The technology is quite arbitrary. I don’t know anything about computers, but I have learned with one particular program to help with the kind of ideas that in the abstract sound mad. Sometimes this recording stuff is clouded in mystery, because historically it was something unattainable to people who didn’t have a lot of money, but now things can be done very cheaply. It is very intuitive. The kind of thing that in the past would have been a major process that would have required one engineer who knew their stuff to cut and paste, is now fairly simple to do yourself, the interface has become more accessible. It was important for us to figure out how we could do these simple things. When we started using software to record it was extremely liberating, knowing that we wouldn’t have to wait for an “expert” to do these things for us. It’s good because all of us to varying degrees feel comfortable working at this stuff, we take turns, so when one of us is totally fried, another takes over [laughs].

This idea you have of a songs evolution, that no song is finite, was really explored in your remix project and website in 2005 for The Runners Four record.
I guess for us, the logical answer is basically that we never feel that any version we come up with is some definitive version. Our recorded versions are one of an infinite amount of versions, there is no “proper” one. It’s great that we can see on Youtube a Swedish kid doing a cover of one of our songs and making it go to a place we hadn’t thought of.

Did you enjoy creating the alternative soundtrack for Heaven and Earth Magic [commissioned by the San Francisco International Film Festival] in 2006?
Yes. In a way I felt like it was just…easier. The visual feedback element of it certainly was. I hadn’t worked in that way in a while, and it was unbelievably liberating. That movie is unbelievably strong, it is a really powerful movie, you don’t have to make anything up. Another thing I liked is that the mood was incredibly ambiguous, it is very funny, but also extremely dark, and there is also this magical element, this sort of magic realism, like a dream narrative. It has that feeling of dreams, where something can happen in a dream and be funny and sad and scary, you can recognise all of those things, and one of those emotions doesn’t cloud the other, they strengthen each other. When I was working on that film score, I could make these decisions and anything I would try would support another element of it. One of the difficult aspects of course was that movie had an original soundtrack by Harry Smith, and it is incredible, so going through it the first time, I played it with the volume completely off to see what I could develop – my idea of the structural narrative, and in a larger context, the shape of the story – and map that out.

Would you like to work more in that field?
Oh yes, I really would. I hope we can perform it again someday too, or other things like that. The trick there is that we worked so hard on it, and performed it once, and then said goodbye to it. I hope it will have another life.

Performing Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures in its entirety with Xiu Xiu [in 2010 at the Donaufen Festival in Austria] must have been quite an interesting project, also?
Yes, very much so. It ended up being that way. The funny thing I have to admit is that I had never heard the record until then [laughs], I was completely ignorant of the record. Of course I had heard of Joy Division, but I have these extremely grey areas in my musical knowledge. But it’s funny, because it was a big record for my brother, and a lot of people I know, and we actually got to perform it once in Austria and once in New York, and it was an extremely strange feeling. I had never done something like that, where you are not doing a cold recreation of this thing, but we were trying to create in the spirit of the music, while also remaining true to ourselves, I don’t even know what that means [laughs], but I suppose we were trying to stay true to both. It was a challenge, and so much fun, and it was amazing working with Angela [Seo] and Jamie [Stewart]. One other thing that was a complete blast about it, was that as a touring band [Deerhoof] we had been shrinking, so that we could tour more easily, so we have small amplifiers that aren’t very loud, but on stage we have monitors so we can hear very well, but in that situation when we played in Austria, they had a huge setup, and Jamie kept saying “turn it up, turn it up!” and I think it was the loudest show I ever played in my life, it was deafening. That aspect was ridiculous and fun [laughs], it was a total Spinal Tap moment, where your hair goes flying.

How did playing Milk Man in its entirety at ATP last year come about?
ATP actually suggested it all to us, as that record is really special for them, I think that really it was an introduction to them to our music many years ago, and there are songs on that record that we hadn’t played live.

How did you find the experience of the Peel Session in April 2004? It seemed to go on to form a lot of Bibidi Babidi Boo.
It was so great, but you know, we never actually never got to meet John Peel, but just the experience of doing a Peel session was totally amazing, and going to the BBC. We have been back several times and developed a rapport with some of the engineers, which has been really neat. There is no equivalent in the US or anywhere else in the world, really. The engineers are masters. A lot of them have been there forever, and they are the most skilled, and in our case, the way we tend to like things mixed isn’t exactly the orthodox way, although it might be closer to orthodoxy to the BBC engineers minds, than in the US. The style of mix that we tend to go for often gets a glazed over look from engineers, and you get the feeling that they are saying they get it, but they don’t really get it. Our mix isn’t complicated, it’s simple, but with the BBC they got it instantly upon hearing the music, so it was a great honour to do the Peel Session, and it is something I never ever thought I would get to do.

What else have you been working on the past while?
Since I moved to Albuquerque I have been working with Jeremy Barnes a lot [A Hawk and a Hacksaw], and in this configuration [Tone Team] we are just doing a drums and guitar duo which has been a lot of fun. I do some improvised things as well, and am working with a pianist called Thollem McDonas, and he plays all sorts of things.

What are you listening to at the moment?
This is older music, but was new to me, but I can’t stop listening to it – a classical guitarist from Uruguay – Abel Carlevaro. He is almost unknown here in America, and his records are quite hard to get. He was really something. I think he was very well known in Uruguay. I have been listening to him a lot, and I am really inspired by him. I don’t really do solo music, but there is this part of me that always wants to put something together.

Perhaps Abel Carlevaro will inspire you to do it?
Maybe someday [laughs], but he was a real master, so it is hard to get too excited about it yet [laughs].

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