Interview: Deerhoof Drummer Greg Saunier

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Deerhoof had a busy 2006. Between opening for the Flaming Lips, the Fiery Furnaces and some band called Radiohead, the toast of San Francisco somehow found time to score a film, record a new album and witness a middle school ballet based on their 2004 album, Milk Man. In a recent phone interview, drummer Greg Saunier reflected on the band’s exhausting and rewarding year and discussed their latest effort, Friend Opportunity, which hits stores tomorrow.

The Daily Californian: I guess you’ve been expecting my call.

Greg Saunier: Yes, I am. I’m expecting this at this very moment. The phone was in my hand.

DC: Well, cool. How was your day?

GS: How was my day? That’s your first question?

DC: Oh man.

GS: My day was event-filled. Lot of e-mails. A great deal of e-mails about … oh man, we got this, um … so Kill Rock Stars and Deerhoof decided to hire a marketing company to help marketing the album which means basically “Okay we’re gonna make some video and post it on some website or something” or play in a store somewhere. It’s funny, cause we’re already a month into the campaign, and we’re starting to get some results back, and they’re like “Okay we’ve got a lot of interest in after-parties.” After-parties? We don’t wanna do after-parties! We’re totally sweating buckets and you don’t have an ounce of energy left after banging on the drums for a couple hours, and they want you to do these after-parties at hip new bars.

DC: Huh. Okay. So um, the new album is called Friend Opportunity …

GS: I believe it is.

DC: Well, I believe that too. And the refrain of the first song is "Meet the Perfect Me” …

GS: So you can understand it. Didn’t use a cheat sheet?

DC: I understood that one. It comes and goes. So there’s this presentation going on. Meet me. Making new friends. It’s certainly more digestible than The Runners Four. Did you guys sit down and say, let’s make something for folks who haven’t heard us?

GS: Actually, we always say that. We always try to imagine what the music would sound like to someone who hasn’t heard us. I see what you’re saying though, this “Introducing Deerhoof” thing, and that was definitely intended. But it’s not only that. The person singing isn’t just Satomi, it’s also a persona, a character crying out, almost in desperation, trying to find someone. That’s someone who feels alienation and is desperately seeking communication with a like-minded human being.

I think I made the lyrics on that song, and I was thinking, y’know, what in the world is this country doing? Just feeling no connection whatsoever to what everybody around me is attempting. “Oh I feel so unsafe. We gotta destroy this country. My life is wrapped up in a need for vengeance against terrorists” Is there anybody out there that not only disagrees with the troop surge or wants the war to be over? But beyond that, just a total sense of, maybe Osama bin Laden has a point. Just because he’s participated in horrible things doesn’t mean that some of the things he’s saying might not be true.

There might be some role that the U.S. plays in other parts of the world that don’t benefit that country. And just feeling, am I stupid? Is there anyone else that sees the absurdity of, of even our mainstream political conversations. The furthest left you go, people are saying “I think we should take our troops out today.” Nobody says that the terrorists have a point, maybe we should give up, maybe we should lose on purpose, maybe we were wrong in the first place and maybe they have a genuine complaint. So it’s that feeling of alienation. I think all the songs are cute and friendly on the one hand, but if you look closely at the artwork and the lyrics, to the extent that you can understand them, you see that the friend opportunity doesn’t always come to fruition. It’s often spoiled. And loneliness is often the end result of a lot of these songs.

DC: The album certainly ends on a melancholy note.

GS: Yeah, I think of that song as a deranged person. They’ve been lonely for so long that they’re in this delusional state about what the world is or what’s important in life, so we were painting a very pathetic picture of someone who ended up in that world.

DC: Those ‘mi mi mi’s’ Satomi sings are really haunting.

GS: Oh cool, I’m glad you think so. That’s exactly the portrait we were trying to paint. Someone just lost. The ‘mi mi mi’s’ sound like a scale, but it’s also the ‘me me me’ from the first song. There’s a flaw in that persona that Satomi is playing in the first song of someone who’s alienated from others, but they have this flaw that leads to them finding no one.

DC: Is that the flaw you’re pointing out? That there’s this degree of self-interest in a lot of people in today’s society?

GS: No, it’s not that preachy. Our music isn’t meant to be an accusation. It comes from somewhere that’s beyond our ability to calculate or control.

The ideas come the way they come, and sometimes they’re angry or depressing, but that’s what they are. It’s a painting of a picture that we saw in our minds.

And it’s something that everyone sees. Everyone knows that that’s one possible end to your life. It’s not a terribly obscure or original theme. “Matchbook Seeks Maniac” was a little bit, when we first made it I was thinking of certain powerful people, but I also wanted it to be applicable to everyone. I think if we’re pointing the finger at anyone we’re pointing it at ourselves. And not even on purpose. The themes are only starting to gel for me after the fact, and even this conversation with you is starting to reveal one possible interpretation. We really don’t know what we’re doing. We make our music and write our lyrics, but there’s no real plan. It comes out the way it comes out.

DC: You’ve mentioned before that it’s really difficult for the band to agree on anything. Is that what creates this jagged sound and these movements within songs? ‘Okay we’ll do this, but then we gotta do this.’

GS: Actually, no. I appreciate that you would take the time to think about that though. The truth of it is we don’t really run that way. ‘Okay, we’ll do my part that you don’t like and then we’ll do your part that I don’t like.’ We actually like all the parts, which makes the process borderline excruciating. Somebody is pouring their heart out, it’s their testament to life or whatever, and someone says ‘Oh that sounds like smooth jazz.’ It’s pretty crushing.

Every idea we come up with is totally embarrassing, like ‘um, I had this dream last night and in the dream this person is singing this melody and it has all these pretty chords.’ And John and I will be sitting there strumming guitars, singing in high falsetto voices. It’s nothing but awkwardness from beginning to end. You’re taking a risk, and sure not everyone’s going to like it, but you’ve found these bandmates, these partners in crime who are willing to go down that dark road with you and play songs that maybe Deerhoof shouldn’t play or some proper indie-rock band should play. A song that might not get to the top of the charts or prove your manhood or your hipness, but you can’t argue with the ideas, y’know? We’ve got to do it. I can’t pretend like the ideas that I have aren’t embarrassing or easy to swallow or in the perfect trendy style, because we don’t really have any ideas like that. I wouldn’t have it any other way though. It’s the fun of it. I can never predict what in the world John and Satomi are going to come up with next. It’s very exciting.

DC: Was the recording process more manageable this time around?

GS: You sound like you were there.

DC: Well, I’ve just read about how redid The Runners Four four times, and Friend Opportunity is a lot shorter and all that…

GS: This time we only remastered it three times. We’re really getting somewhere. In terms of recording, I dunno. It feels like it gets more awkward every time. I wrote this song, ‘Whither the Invisible Birds’, that I never would have shown to anyone before, just because it’s so wrong. It doesn’t belong on a rock record. And you just know you’re gonna get laughed out of the room, but still. But I also think having one less person made it a bit easier for us to reach the sort of consensus we require. That’s not a slight on Chris at all, it’s just math. We also had no choice. We had all these great opportunities this summer; opening for Radiohead, scoring a film, opening for the Flaming Lips. These were once-in-a-lifetime opportunities, but it ate into our recording time.

DC: Yeah, you wrote a little on your blog about the effect opening for Radiohead had on making the album. You’d think you’d have something right, and then you’d hear something from Amnesiac and you’d ‘head back to the drawing board,’ as it were. What is it about these guys that you seek to emulate?

GS: I wouldn’t say emulate. The main thing we get from Radiohead is the whole vision of it. Their music is just so huge and momentous and grand and sad…we didn’t want to emulate that, we want to have a conversation with that. It’s gonna sound corny and pretentious, but we had already set our sights on creating music that could respond to Radiohead albums. The harshest test for a rock band making a CD is to put on Amnesiac and then listen to your songs. Other songs just sound thin, the universe is just small and flimsy by comparison. Our music is meant to sound good after Radiohead. We can’t do something better, but we can try to pick up the pieces of this universe that’s just been shattered for us, and try to cobble together some sort of response.

DC: Jeez. You must have been terrified.

GS: Oh no, it was a lot of fun. The Greek Theatre, which is where we started the tour, is such a fun venue. The shows were general admission, which meant everyone got there so early. So we played to a full house, which was great, and the terraced seating there lets you see people, and I got such a kick out of that. Those Greeks know what they’re doing. But it’s also a different challenge, because opening for a band means 99 percent of the people probably haven’t even heard of you. So you’ve got to do the whole “meet me” thing.

DC: Deerhoof recently composed the score for this movie called “Dedication”. How was that compared to putting out proper albums?

GS: Well we had done it once before, actually. Every year the San Francisco Film Festival invites one band to do a live score for a silent movie, and we did that in 2005. Actually, that last song from Friend Opportunity, “Look Away”, is mostly from that score, which was from a Harry Smith movie called “Heaven and Earth Magic”. But it’s definitely one thing to take an extremely abstract movie from a dead director and be given the license to do whatever you want, versus doing something that’s very much in the service of the director. It’s a lot more made-to-order. ‘We need something sad for this part’. It was so unlike anything that we’d ever done, but it was really a wonderful challenge. Our way of doing music is so random and happenstance. I’m quite astounded with people who can create music to fit a specific need. The process wasn’t as simple as ‘Oh, we’ve scored the movie.’ There was already a rough cut that had a lot of old Deerhoof songs on it, and it was cool because it wasn’t just 10 seconds or something. It was one or two minutes with no dialogue over it, just a photo montage. And the director, Justin, it was as if he’d reached into the music and drawn out the meaning that even we couldn’t see. And then he had us record some weird rumbles and squeaks and stuff. Mental sound that express the feelings going on inside the character’s minds. We recorded this version of the “Little Drummer Boy” that was so perfect for this one scene, but apparently that’s one of those songs like “Happy Birthday” that you have to pay a huge amount of money to use, which is why you never hear “Happy Birthday” in the movies. So we had to ax the song.

DC: That’s too bad. The movie’s about a misogynistic children’s book author, apparently?

GS: I was trying to think of a pithy description of it the other day. OCD Rom-Com? It’s such a good movie. Very touching. It’s romantic, but not in the way you normally see. We’re a very lucky band, to be able to participate in something like this.

DC: Deerhoof has participated in a couple really neat projects recently. How did you even get involved in that elementary school ballet?

GS: It just happened! We got an e-mail! It wasn’t even as auspicious as a phone call. Basically when Milk Man came out, we got this e-mail saying it would make a good ballet. It was a very nice e-mail, and I appreciated that this woman named Courtney would bother to think that and write to us. It was so sweet and kind and generous. I didn’t take it seriously! And then two years later I get this email from Courtney saying “I’m ready to do the ballet now!”. She had gotten this job as a schoolteacher in Maine at this really small schoolhouse in this place called North Haven. Just one classroom. She was hired as the music, drama, songwriting, chorus, band and rock band teacher of the school. And it was her job to put on three productions a year at the community theater, and they had just finished “Pirates of Penzance” so she figured, “Hey let’s do the Deerhoof ballet.” So she transcribed the album into this ballet and made it available for any kid who wanted to dance. We had nothing to do with it other than providing the source material. We couldn’t even begin to imagine what we were going to see! But we showed up and saw this thing, and it was like seeing your baby all grown up! This thing had just taken on a life of its own. It wasn’t an homage to Deerhoof, it was their show! You can only dream that your music will create that sort of response. And the dancing was just stunning. A lot of these things weren’t exactly choreographed, but these kids are mostly like six years old and the moves they were doing were just so appropriate. An adult never could have done all those crazy jumps and stuff. We’d be in the hospital! There’s going to be a DVD soon, I believe. It was just so great. The church reverend was on trumpet, Courtney’s boyfriend was writhing around with his guitar noise with this six year old girl just flailing her arms in front of them. So wonderful. Some of the dance moves looked like the moves Satomi does at our shows, it was so bizarre!

DC: Yeah, it seemed like such a perfect combination. You make youthful music, I think. A lot of your stuff sort of reminds me of a little kid’s inner monologue.

GS: Well, it’s not like we set out to do that. When you’re making music you’re just struggling to get it out and remember what the idea was. But then later on we do put it to certain tests. We often ask ourselves what a certain song would sound like to a child, if he or she would get bored or would it mean anything to them. But I’d never want to boil down our artistic intent to something like music for kids. I like the idea of our music meaning one thing to kids and another to adults, or one thing to a man and one to a woman, or one to an indie-rocker and another to a reggae fan, or the same person at two different times. This happens to Deerhoof a lot, y’know, someone will hear us and it’ll just grate on their nerves. But then you go back and you think “Well, maybe”. And then you go back and maybe you love it because you’ve gone through this growing pain, and it sort of feels like a reward. I like that the same person can react to something completely differently on two different occasions. That’s why I love times like right now, when people are just starting to respond to your album, and some website will say one thing and another will say the exact opposite. It cracks me up! Not because I’m laughing at them, but because I’m so happy. That’s what I hoped it would turn out like. I like that the role of the listener is enlarged in conversations like these.

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