The sweat on my back, visible when I swipe the back of my hand across the base of my spine, belies the October chill outside, and the drizzle of an evening spent, by many, watching the nation's footballers take themselves top of their World Cup qualifying group. Inside the Highbury Garage, few thoughts are focused on football, and fewer still on the heat that weighs heavily on shoulders decorated with a plethora of backpacks. There's a widespread irritation, you see.
"Shut up!" hollers a voice from the front of the crowd, perfectly vocalising the annoyance of a few hundred Deerhoof fans trying to enjoy a typically peculiar set of skewed pop over a din of persistent bar-side chatter. Some 380 advance tickets were sold for the final date of the ATP Records tour, featuring not only the aforementioned San Francisco quartet, but also British weirdo-folkie Alexander Tucker and Australian outfit The Drones; perhaps a hundred or so attendees may as well have just gone to the pub for all the music they're taking in.
A few hours earlier three members of Deerhoof - Satomi Matsuzaki, Chris Cohen and John Dieterich - sit around a table with DiS; founder member Greg Saunier is shooting the promotional shit with another writer just across the room, and joins us just after we're finished recording our similarly themed chat. The band are in town not only to promote the continued rise of ATP Records (little sister to the All Tomorrow's Parties series of fesivals and live events), but also their new album The Runners Four. People have already labeled the release the band's most concise and considered effort to date, but don't allow its on-paper lack of trademark oddities put you off - Deerhoof remain at the peak of the alternative avant garde, still pushing upwards. One wonders if they'll ever reach a level where altitude sickness will slow them down, such is their commitment to the pursuit of self-satisfaction and audience-splitting opuses. One wonders when the creative juices will run dry. Not this year, that's for sure, and the drought seems a long way off yet.
The Runners Four is the band's second release of the year, following the seven-track EP Green Cosmos, also through ATP. The band's relationship with the label seems perfect on a purely artistic level - both seek to pursue sounds sparkling and new rather than taking the rose-tinted retro approach of should-be-neutered nostalgists - but the three on-tour acts couldn't be more different. Seems a suitable place to begin matters...
How's this tour been for you? Did you know of, or had you met, either of the other acts prior to the tour?
John: It's been really good. The ATP organisers have done everything that we would usually have to do ourselves, normally, so we can relax. Well, not relax, but...
Chris: ...yeah, everything's been done for us. Our friend Andrew, from Leeds, is driving us, and it's the first time we've not driven ourselves on tour here. The other three times we've done it, and we've got so confused and lost.
John: One of my most feared things is, like... we flew into London either the last time or the time before - we were still waiting for Chris who was flying in later - and we got a small rental car that ended up being upgraded to, like, a sports car by accident. So it's a stick shift, on the left hand side, and I'd never driven something like that before, and I was on zero sleep having not slept for, like, 36 hours or something. I was trying to figure out how to drive.
Chris: The streets in England are so beautiful because they're made for people walking, and they look great. It's really great to walk in England, but driving is terrible! I wish we could do a tour on foot, where we could just walk.
John: I know a guy that did a three month horse-and-buggy tour of England, apparently. He wrote a book called The Watkins Objection. He's a famous mathematician.
Chris: Well, he's famous in John's hometown of Stevens Point, Wisconsin.
John: Right. This guy from our hometown, he was my older brother's age, and he would be the Dungeon Master when we played Dungeons & Dragons and stuff. He was incredibly thorough. He did a tour of Europe on horseback, too. He's sort of like a legend, even though I've not seen him for several years. In my mind he's taken on mythical proportions.
So how about the bands on this tour? You're all quite different...
Chris: We didn't know any of them at all, but it's a fun group of people. We're all friends now.
John: We can't complain about touring because The Drones are doing a six-month tour.
Satomi: We can't even go for a month; one month would have already killed us.
So you're heading straight home after this?
Chris: Yeah. We're doing a US tour in November, and then we've got a break.
And that's to promote The Runners Four, which I think is already out in the US? (This interview was conducted the week before the record's UK release, on October 17th)
Chris: Yeah, it came out yesterday.
And how was the writing and recording of the album? I've heard people say it's the calmest record yet, and that it's more concise than previous releases...
Chris: Everyone says something different. We'd be worried if everyone said it was pretty good, or that this is our rock or country album - if everyone unanimously said one thing. Then we'd be looking at we did wrong.
John: We're happy that everyone can't agree.
Is that something you always look to achieve, to have listeners in many different minds? Do you want the songs to be interpreted differently across the board?
Chris: I don't know, I couldn't say...
John: I missed that, I'm sorry.
Chris: He asked if it's something that's happened a lot to Deerhoof in the past, that people don't agree on the records...
John: I think so, yeah. I think that's always been the case.
Satomi: Some people love it, some people hate it.
John: It's funny, I just read the NME review today, and it said that the first track on the album ('Chatterboxes') is basically sequences of noise, and it describes it in sound words, like, onomatopoeic, and it's just two guitars and a voice! It's not distorted and there are no crazy sounds.
Satomi: Maybe it's the lo-fi recording that makes it seem weird? It's not over produced.
Do you fear at all that write ups of your work to date - saying "quirky", "zany", whatever - have an effect on reviews this time around? Do you worry that articles will be preoccupied with the past, rather than the new record itself, which is quite different to the album before it, Milk Man?
Chris: I guess we really hope that people would listen to the record before they reviewed it! But you never know... I dunno...
John: What control do we have over that? None, we don't.
Satomi: People have said that [The Runners Four] is a long album, but I don't think it's long at all.
Chris: It's totally normal. We didn't want to make something where you could skip over tracks. I have some double albums that I know I don't listen to every song on. I hope that people don't think that it's too long.
Satmoi: We have a friend, and he said he wanted a Deerhoof album that lasted longer than his shower.
The records before The Runners Four pack a lot of diversity into individual releases, and the new one does too, but does that ever lead to sequencing headaches?
John: I guess whatever it is, it can be a problem. Basically, the challenge is to make a record that's interesting for us.
Chris: You could make a record where all the songs sound the same and it's really short, but to me that... well, it might be fun to make a record where all the songs sounded the same, and I wouldn't rule that out as something Deerhoof might want to do in the future.
John: To me, in some ways, the songs on the new album do sound the same. There's something relatively constant about the production, although the content of the music varies widely.
Chris: We definitely never set out to make every song sound like it's completely different. We wanted different kinds of ideas in there, but technically [The Runners Four is] exactly the same from beginning to end. That was something we'd never specifically tried to do before, and it was fun.
Did you have a specific number of songs you wanted on the record (The Runners Four features twenty tracks), or did you just record until you felt it was finished?
Satomi: We only had a specific time in the studio, and we went on as long we could. We had a deadline, and we did whatever we could before it. Our ideas are so intertwined so we could make it sound like we wanted.
Do you still find songwriting a challenge? You're all clearly full of ideas, as The Runners Four demonstrates, but do you slip into autopilot when in the studio at all?
Chris: It probably gets less and less... oh, I don't know...
John: I think that if you look for a formula in there, you'll find one. You do have to make a decision to do something different, and like in any relationship you're trying... you want to... well, you don't want a surprise, but you want to up the ante, and constantly keep everyone on their toes. You want to show a different side of yourself, and everyone has infinite sides, so it was actually difficult to filter out what we weren't going to use. There's tonnes of stuff that we didn't use on this record. Everyone goes through that, y'know, but we ended up with a distillation of what we needed to say.
Chris: I think we always ask ourselves what we're doing. If we suddenly didn't know, and found ourselves doing this for no reason, then we wouldn't want to do it anymore.
Milk Man had quite a thread running through it, lyrically - there was a story that unraveled itself from start to finish. Is The Runners Four similar in that respect?
Chris: Well, everything has a thread.
Satomi: Milk Man was a visual thing - we had the Milk Man already, and that's where we started. The Runners Four is a collection of ideas, that we put all together, so it's very different.
John: There's a thread to it that we didn't know about. We were trying to find it.
I guess working in different ways from record to record - The Runners Four was recorded quickly while Green Cosmos was done over a much longer period and with bigger production - keeps you on your toes?
Chris: Yeah, we're not interested in doing the same thing over and over again. We've never worked with any producer - we do it all ourselves - although we might be interested someday. John has a computer...
John: My computer drives to our practice space every day - Chris had to put it on his lap in the car. We just got a practice space in January, for the first time in years, so we've now got the opportunity to leave stuff set up, so we can very quickly work out songs. The way we worked on these songs was very sequential, the first time we've ever recorded that way - we finished one song before working on the next song.
Chris: Some songs took one day, some songs took five days. To go back to the subject of the length of it, it was less to do with the minutes and seconds of the record, and more to do with the time we had to record it. It had to be done six months in advance of its release, and we worked backwards from when we wanted to go on tour. We knew basically how much time we had. We didn't go out and play the songs live until the album was done, so we had to go back and learn the songs from the record. It's like we're a covers band right now: we learned our own songs from the CD.
John: We did a US tour playing all old songs, so by the time we got back I couldn't wait to learn the new ones. I was so excited. It's really fun, as we're still riding on the high of the new songs, and we will be for a while too. And they're evolving as we go, too; that's always been the case in the past, but I feel it's happening more with this material than in the past. We can interpret the songs in different ways every night.
The more attentive ears a little later are treated to an array of highlights from The Runners Four; indeed, new songs make up all but a tiny percentage of the band's set. The new record is unlikely to convert those that haven't taken a particular shine to Deerhoof's work to date - like Satomi says, they're a band that is both loved and hated - but long-standing followers will find much to treasure across The Runners Four's 56-minute length. The album may not be the surreal high point of the band's career so far - far from it - but it's undeniably their strongest collection of work to date when treated as a single entity. It's coherency is immediately apparent, and the flexibility of the songs, born from their relative on-record simplicity, should ensure that future gigs remain as bizarre and entrancing as those witnessed 'til now. Polarise opinion they may, but Deerhoof remain pioneers among their alternative sphere peers, and long may their quest for the gloriously unconventional continue.