Even after another deranged outburst in the form of Friend Opportunity earlier this year, Deerhoof remain a distinctly peripheral act despite the stretch of time that the San Francisco beat-merchants have now been leaning out a hand to hold. So, a time for reflection. As the avant-garde pop minstrels remain one of the most relentlessly refreshing outfits around, DiS meets guitarist John Dieterich to ruminate over the life that Deerhoof has lead to date, under its various guises, spanning the genres and deadening the brain. So, forever billed as a new act for each album, is it that Deerhoof feel eternal nearly men? Not so.
“For us it would be strange either way. It’s like when you have your birthday and you feel both incredibly young and incredibly old at the same time. If we were billed as an age-old band that’s been around, that would feel just as odd.”
The act was initially a vehicle for lonely noisenik Rob Fisk’s solo bass improvisation project. Under the Deerhoof moniker some 16 years later, they resemble a somewhat different beast. After little in the way of productivity on his own, in 1995 Fisk came in to contact with drummer Greg Saunier, recently out of conservatory, whose jarring percussion Fisk saw as complementing his curtailing improvisation. The pair promptly began writing material together, releasing their debut 7”, ‘Return Of The Wood M’Lady’, later that year; five winding instrumentals recorded on a 4-track for Kill Rock Stars’ imprint 5RC – a label centred on supporting leftfield acts and ensuring they retain a pivotal role in the release of their records. Nine records in, Deerhoof continue to release material through the Washington based outfit.
In 1996, as the pair searched for a vocalist to develop their sound, they came across Tokyo balladeer Satomi Matsuzaki, an untrained musician whose ramshackle melody brought a calming influence to the pair’s frenetic output and immediately became a central character to Deerhoof’s increasingly charismatic identity. Within one week of joining the pair, Matsuzaki – who is now married to Saunier – had left for a tour, clutching the makeshift paper-maché microphone that she used for the initial batch of her incredibly anxiety-ridden performances. With the release of the act’s debut record The Man, The King, The Girl in 1997, her contribution marked a dramatic transition into a more melodic terrain of no-wave.
‘Gore In A Rut’ (from The Man, The King, The Girl; dir: Children of Hoof Education Centre)
By 1999 keyboardist Kelly Goode had joined the Deerhoof roster adding yet another dimension to the group to incorporate into Holdypaws. But, with poor sales a factor, midway through writing Halfbird (later released in 2001) Fisk left the act, along with Goode, to pursue alternative avenues. (Now married, the pair perform in 7 Year Rabbit Cycle with Xiu Xiu’s Jamie Stewart among others, and also run the Free Porcupine Society label). The departure of Fisk, a central character to Deerhoof, cast doubts over the future of the act. But, after a chance encounter, former Colossamite guitarist Dieterich came to join the Deerhoof ranks and tack changed again.
“For me, discovering Deerhoof and Deerhoof’s music and then getting to know Greg and Satomi and then starting to play with them, that entire period was maybe one month. I had never heard of Deerhoof before I moved to Oakland just eight years ago. Greg and I had a class together just at a time when Rob and Kelly were moving to Alaska so nobody really knew what was going to happen.
“The space of time before discovering the band for the first time and the playing with them was so short that I didn’t have a whole lot of preconceptions about what the band was. I had heard one CD the night before I went to the see them play for the first time. I had known Greg a couple of days at that point, and then went to see them play and immediately though I could relate. There wasn’t a lot of deep consideration, especially on my part; I just though how much I would love to play with these musicians and I can relate to their aesthetic, and I just felt it was an opportunity that I hadn’t had up to that point musically. Basically the possibility of having melody, real melody, co-existing with all these other musical elements that often don’t co-exist – to me the possibilities were very exciting.”
Though still with a strong focus on instrumental compositions, Reveille was a potent indication to the increasing pop sensibility Deerhoof were employing, a move “incidental” by Dieterich’s accounts but one that marked a significant spread in critical praise for the act. Joined by Chris Cohen a year later, the act have released successive bouts of skewed experimental pop since, ranging from 2002’s modestly orchestral rummage round the Garden of Eden with Apple O', past Milk Man’s surreal shenanigans through to the 20-track pop battalion of The Runners Four. Though Cohen left in 2006 to pursue his own musical ventures, Deerhoof returned earlier this year with Friend Opportunity, the most rounded and universally lauded release from the act yet, as genuine moments of melancholy (‘Wither the Invisible Birds’) were met in equal parts by spiralling nonsensical noise (‘Look Away’) and the exuberant childish quality to their music running amok (‘+81’).
‘Wrong Time Capsule’ (from The Runners Four; dir: Martha Colburn)
Members, both past and present, have continually involved themselves in a range of side-projects and collaborations. From the current line-up Saunier previously contributed to Cohen’s awkward pop project The Curtains, and also participated in the previous outing with Tudorian mistress Joanna Newsom and Hella’s Zach Hill as Nervous Cop, among other projects. Dieterich has also had his share of holding hands with Cohen outside of Deerhoof, partnering up his former band mate and Dilute drummer Jay Pellucci for the instrumental act Natural Dreamers, as well as Oakland experimentalists Gorge Trio. Dieterich identifies this autonomy to the group as central to each member of Deerhoof feeling able to develop their own distinct direction as each individual drags the act in a different direction.
“For me, it is absolutely necessary. Whether or not it is happening within the band at that moment or not, I sometimes find that if I am finding myself musically frustrated the first place I will go is to liberate. I think music needs to have an element of freedom and even musicians who are not playing improvised, in order to be able to communicate anything, need to feel free. So even if playing the most tightly composed music, there needs to be an element of freedom.”
So is there anything planned either within or outside of Deerhoof’s confines now that touring Friend Opportunity is out the way?
“There’s a possible collaboration with this guy Busdriver who we toured with in the US and really admire. We have made some tentative approaches but it is only in the preliminary stages and we have no idea what that will end up being, if anything. And then beyond that, everything is really open; we don’t know what next year will be like apart from recording at some point.
“Other than that the only other thing I’ve cued up, musically, is with these three musicians I meet up with every three months. It’s an improvisational recording project – we have no idea what form it is going to take other than it is loosely based around the Ocean's Eleven series of movies. That’s all we know for the moment with what we’re going to do with it.”
Though forever littered with peculiarities, this was never more the case than after receiving a call from enthusiast Courtney Naliboff in 2005 who voiced a dream she had had to the band of adapting Milk Man for the stage. Taken with a pinch of salt the act politely replied how great that sounded and left the woman to find her own way back to sanity. But, in late 2006, Deerhoof were going to the ballet.“It was a random brainstorm that this woman had. Basically, she had this idea and e-mailed us about it long before she had the ability to put it on; she wasn’t affiliated with any theatre group, or anything. She was living in Boston at the time and had just finished journalism school and had this idea whilst lying in bed at night. We thought it sounded great but had no idea how it would ever happen. But then six months later she was offered a job as the theatre and musical director on this island off the coast of Maine. She though that maybe we could do this, which was huge risk for her being a new teacher and pushing something so conceptual, but it turned out amazing and was an amazing experience for us.”
As school children manically pirouetted on stage beside the local bluegrass collective, the island’s church reverend and the neighbouring island’s reverend played trumpet and clarinet respectively. Alongside a host of other musical accompaniments, put together by Naliboff and P.E. teacher Ken Jones, it brought an entirely new meaning to ‘Giga Dance’.
“If only the mothers could have gone. The experience of being there – you can get the DVD – but the experience of going there, taking the ferry to the island, driving off the ferry and then looking out to the parking lot where you get off the ferry and there’s all these kids in white costumes jumping up and down welcoming us to the island. It was just like ‘this is totally not real’ and it only got more surreal just getting to know these people who had put so much time and energy into creating this new work of art that completely inspiring for me.”
North Haven Community School and Deerhoof
Deerhoof have always remained a visually exciting prospect. Having previously had record artwork designed by Trevor Shimizu (The Runners Four) and Ken Kagami (Milk Man), as well as Fisk and Matsuzaki’s occasional contributions, Friend Opportunity took its props from Sonic Youth’s Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star as twelve various covers were designed to accompany the record, designed by absurd Glaswegian David Shrigley (more).
“It was just amazing luck. Basically Tomlab, they had released the original Worried Noodles and they showed us copies of it and we got completely in and when talking about artwork for the record were immediately taken with working with him. He basically came up with the twelve covers and we loved all of them.”
‘Perfect Me’(from Friend Opportunity; dir: Eric Landmark)
Conversation drifts on to Dieterich’s favourite records from the year. Immediately he enquires whether I have heard Dirty Projectors Rise Above, after which he then proceeds to gush about the “crushing” brilliance of the Dave Longstreth’s Black Flag-molesting project before describing how excited he is to be heading home over the next week and finally getting round to getting his head round trying to download In Rainbows. Recently having made an array of tracks available for free download from their website (here), it seems that Deerhoof are as eager as any act to embrace such opportunities to get people listening to their music. Dieterich is keen to explain that the group are all but cynical about the possibilities and the horizons the modern media poses.
“For me it [In Rainbows’ method of release] was an incredibly good idea. As far as whether or not it’s manipulating, from my perspective it was a way of allowing people, anyone, to hear the music and to decide for themselves.
“I think that we’re lucky in the sense that if we think something is cool, or worth listening to, it is this incredible way of asking what others think, and ultimately that’s what it’s about. It’s much easier than any other format that I know. I guess we can do a Deerhoof radio station.”
Taking one step up each time but with no particular direction, Deerhoof is just a constant in broken-brained brilliance.
“We are definitely in an enviable position. People aren’t expecting anything specific from us. We could do absolutely anything...”
You can vote for Friend Opportunity in our readers’ poll of 2007's best albums here, and check out Deerhoof on MySpace here. They can be seen in London, at the Royal Festival Hall, on December 31 supporting Super Furry Animals.