Dynamic and mysterious, Deerhoof’s discography is commendable for rifling through an expansive library of concepts.
Guitarist John Dieterich’s home in Albuquerque, New Mexico might be a thousand miles away from fellow guitarist Ed Rodriguez’s base in Portland, Oregon, but the band maintains a synergy that flows throughout their work. Since the mid nineties, they have crafted a sonic which constantly shapeshifts and morphs into different versions of itself, but maintains a soundscape that is distinctly Deerhoof. A carousel of gritty metaphors spawned by Satomi Matsuzaki’s saccharine vocals and punctuated by drummer Greg Saunier’s syncopated rhythms, Deerhoof’s offerings continue to revolve in all its warping, sweetly-dystopian, conflict-ridden glory.
“This is the closest I’ve been to seeing Ed’s house in a long time!” Dieterich tells me. “We are always a bit scattered. Greg now lives in Tucson and Satomi is in Brooklyn.” No strangers to collaborating long-distance, Deerhoof’s latest record Actually, You Can, was conceived before and during the Covid outbreak, totalling their eighteenth album to date. “Is that true?” Dieterich laughs. “None of us can keep track anymore! All of us probably have different album totals at this point.” Actually, You Can honours vintage Deerhoof; a feast of twinkling, erratic melodies lashed with abrasive guitar tones and syrupy vocals, at its core the thematics of the record explore societal destruction through love and optimism with a refreshingly joyous stance.
“We approach every album in the same and [yet] in a completely different way, in the sense that we don’t know what the album is going to be” Dieterich explains. “We don’t ever have a clear idea in advance. It’s a case of always taking everything into stock - whether that’s the previous albums or what's going on in the world. But we were pretty prepared to make a record during quarantine because we’ve been doing this already for a long time. Even our last record, which was finished pre-Covid, was essentially made separately but we met together at the very end to do some work. But I don’t even remember making it. Do you, Ed?”
“At this point, to me it really feels like making our twenty-thousandth breakfast," replied Rodriguez. "It's inevitable, you know it’s going to happen again at some point. That’s why I don’t think any of us keep track. Every record will be surprising because I have no, or minimal, memory of it. Instead my memories are of our time together, of John making breakfast burritos, and of the process; that John’s guitar sections were too difficult to play and work his pedals at the same time, so Satomi stepped in to do his pedals. But when I listen back a lot of the time I think wow, how did that happen? The experience doesn’t connect to the end result.”
Despite Dieterich and Rodriguez’s disconnect with the process which undoubtedly becomes blurry as their discography piles ever higher, the band are assiduously aligned with one another, as well as the external factors which play a fundamental role in their music’s development. “We discussed the new record a month before we even started, asking; What are you thinking about a lot right now? What are the things going on in the world that are on your mind? How are you feeling? What have we been doing that you really enjoy? What’s happening right now that you would like more of in your life? Or it might just be, I’m really into this kind of music right now, I’ve been writing a lot of this style. It’s all very internal in the way that the world plays a part in our music, but it’s a case of how the world affects us and how we process everything.”
After 27 years of operating and creating as Deerhoof, the band have established what it means for them to be able to work and produce music they love and feel pride for, rejecting the incessant quest for popularity and relevance in the process. Rather than turning to the trends to pursue and renew creativity, the band turn inwards and seek internal approval. Experience, Rodriguez tells me, allows them the freedom to explore the avenues they desire, answering to no one but themselves and finding solace in that. “It’s never a case of what’s hot right now,” Rodriguez admits. “So I think that’s how we all stay really engaged and how it stays fun, that’s how we can keep going for 18 albums. I think that’s why a lot of the bands that have been around for even half of the amount of time that we have burn out. They’re trying to figure out how to stay relevant - this [search for] popularity becomes the focus as opposed to anything about the music. They end up chasing something that they’re not even a part of anymore.”
In discussion of the new record, Dieterich highlights the ways that, for him, this album is set apart from the rest of Deerhoof’s discography. “In the past we’ve been touring for months, playing a record along with all kinds of other [material], seeing how that feels and what works," he tells me. "It’s weird but it’s constantly shifting - not just the new material, but everyone with it. Something which we play really well in June, we can’t play well at all in August. Every night we’re playing with other bands too, so you’re constantly getting input. One of the nice things we have in the US is [the abundance of] local opening bands which you never would have had the chance to see before. Since Covid there’s suddenly none of that. We only have what we’re intentionally exposing ourselves to.”
Dieterich and Rodriguez bring a conversation to the fore - one which thousands of bands worldwide seek to achieve and yet so often fail - the issue of longevity. With consumption habits turning evermore digital, streaming becoming king and with the potential to consume almost anything at the touch of a button, long-term creation is often such an arduous pursuit that many fall by the wayside. “All of us look at what we’re doing as a continually changing thing, there’s no end goal,” Rodriguez muses. “Personally, I look at music as a means to be a better person, you constantly learn about yourself. In that way I think our relationship to what we do is exciting. It’s immediate, it’s constantly relevant and we’re never trying to recreate something. In the scene we’ve always been in, there is no formula. It’s such a crapshoot now that you might as well be yourself and do whatever your heart wants.”
“We’ve been uncompromising and try to all stay happy and engaged and make ourselves happy first. Who that connects with is generally people who we connect with. By just being ourselves, everybody we meet on tour are just the best people ever.” Rodriguez muses: “I feel sorry for bands that are generic catch-alls, because you see it all the time where a band will post something and all the comments are the most racist vile things full of trolling. It must be heartbreaking to glance at that and think your fans are horrible. With us, if there’s 100 comments on a video, and one person makes a comment that’s misogynistic or racist, I want to say something but [instead] I just sit back. Because guaranteed our listeners will pounce on them. It’s great to have this environment where we’re being totally rewarded just for doing what we want to be doing and being ourselves. We’re ridiculously lucky.”
“I feel like we’ve created our own tradition over time, whether or not it’s intentional,” Dieterich adds. “There’s all these mysterious things inside our heads individually and collectively, but these are complicated systems that are semi-consistent over time. We are growing together as people even if we’re doing things separately from the band. But ultimately, just the fact that it goes through these imaginations and bodies, is what defines that consistency.”
Thriving and surviving in a niche genre comes with its challenges, but, Rodriguez tells me, in the same breath, also brings an abundance of positives that are invaluable in today’s inward and isolated society. “For a lot of the music I've been involved with, I’ve realised from an early point that it’s going to be a very specific type of person who will like it. Nobody in my family has ever liked our music! Anywhere I lived you’d always see the same 20 people at shows, you might not have ever [spoken] but you would recognise their faces. Everyone needs a community of supportive people and that’s what I like to see online. I’m really happy I’m in the music scene because I think that’s really prominent here. It’s the sense that we have each other, that you’re doing great and you’re reminded that what you just created is important to someone and made their day better. It’s so meaningful, especially as the years go on and after years of no feedback. It’s easy to ask yourself, does what I’m doing have any meaning at all?”
“It’s not even the validation of the quality of it, it’s almost a validation of the right for [our music] to exist,” Dieterich explains. “For me it isn’t to feel like I'm making the best thing in the world. But to hear someone say, I'm glad you made it and that the world is a little bit better for it to exist? That’s all I need.”
One of the most eccentric aspects of Deerhoof’s music is arguably their one liners, which span from 2020's Future Teenage Cave Artists’ “Why would you shoot my bambis?” and “Cowboys were just a corporate invention” to “Milk Man sleeps on the roof in the noon.” “I’ve contributed in the sense that it will be an eye test - like option one or two? But I feel very uncomfortable with words,” Rodriguez tells me. “You wouldn’t think so, given the fact that I really don’t ever shut up!”
Matsuzaki and Saunier take the reins when writing the majority of the lyrics, sculpting worlds from everyday inspiration, Rodriguez explains. “Even though we live in different cities, we try to have weekly calls, and we’re best friends so that helps [our process]. Everyone is always very aware of politics and so a lot of Greg’s lyrics are connected to everything he’s been reading. In that way it’s always very ahead of the curve on what’s about to happen in the world. Satomi has an almost folkloric aspect to her storytelling. She can create a world so easily and simply; she’s very direct but also somehow magical at the same time. It’s a combination of Greg’s hyper-futurism and Satomi’s abstract, fanciful view of the world.”
“Whenever I’ve written lyrics it tends to be very heart-on-my-sleeve style, because I write like I'm journaling in high school,” Dieterich adds. “I’m somebody who almost doesn’t hear lyrics, it’s the last thing for me. There are exceptions, but for the most part, even music I’ve listened to a hundred thousand times, I have no idea what they’re talking about. Left to my own devices, what I'm most interested in is mining non-specific feelings. A lot of the art I really love does that - it brings out feelings that are hard to verbalise or that maybe there are no words for. Feelings that are conflict-ridden and impossible to nail down.”
Rippling throughout Deerhoof’s discography is an interwoven expression of bittersweet dystopia. Whether it be lyrically, exploring themes of art-filled lands peppered with senseless murder, extinction and nuclear holocaust, or through the atonal grooves that punctuate their work. A sentiment of comfort resides in the soft lull of Satomi Matsuzaki’s vocals, but this is often underpinned by a sense of unease. “There’s maybe a tension between some of the ideas about dystopia and the way that the music sounds,” Dieterich muses. “I actually think that that tension exists within the music itself, there’s a feeling of things being built and destroyed at the same time. That’s something musically which we’re all interested in. Things that are being built sometimes even sound like they’re being destroyed. In the sense that you can create systems or musical ideas that are jarring or it just looks unique - unlike how other things look. It doesn't feel like a logical construction, it feels like a different kind of fixture?”
"It’s an undeniable, different sort of magic that happens when we are all together and each giving our little take on everything." - Ed Rodriguez
The chaotic, arpeggiated guitar melodies in latest single "Scarcity is Manufactured" help to paint the record with a sanguine, summery tint. Rodriguez takes a moment to brief me on the songwriting process, which pays homage to his upbringing. “I usually have some sort of theme or a story in mind when I write music. I grew up mainly listening to Mexican music, as my dad had a band playing Mexican boleros - but I didn’t really feel connected, because of assimilation and because of, well, America. For ‘Scarcity is Manufactured’, I started with the chord structure of ‘La Bamba’ by Richie Valens. That was a big song, because it was the 50s and traditional songs from Veracruz were unheard of. He originally thought it would be disrespectful to do this song, so he didn’t play it traditionally, but in exactly the same rock style [in which] he played the rest of his music - by just strumming chords. It was a huge deal to have this declaration to 50s White America where segregation was still in full swing.”
“For this album,” Rodriguez informs me, “It was never about being better, which is how we were looking at stuff for a long time, it was just [about being] different. It’s an undeniable, different sort of magic that happens when we are all together and each giving our little take on everything. This was the approximation of what Satomi wanted, which was to play together live.” Dieterich laughs, “It’s like a normal band! Could you imagine?” “It’s funny because it’s like a revolutionary idea that we had,” Rodriguez adds, “But really the way we’ve been doing things for so long is just forgetting that idea.”
Deerhoof, in many ways, reject the conventions of stereotypes and as they highlight, have taken time to work on their own schedule, extending feelers to what they love and what calls to them. Atonality is a part of the band’s DNA and courses throughout most aspects of their sound. It’s yet another element that brands them as Deerhoof, integral to their warping, dystopian soundscape. “It’s something that’s completely natural for all of us,” Rodriguez considers. “I think all of us love a feeling of tension and release. Personally, the music that has always been the most exciting to me is when I hear music that makes me ask, what is this?! It happens less as you get older, but it’s still such an amazing feeling. You become aware of the possibilities. It’s a big driving force in my attraction to music.”
“To a lot of people whose exposure might be more limited, a lot of our music might not even sound like music, just noise. It still blows me away that we’ll put out an album and to me it will be full of pretty songs, and reviews will say it’s pure noise. But you’re just a sum of your parts. Every time I write a song, I try to bring in a new structural idea or something that I hadn’t done before. It’s not to freak people out or to get a reaction or anything, but [from a place of personal] interest. On a regular basis, I look back at every song I write and ask - how did I write this? A part of me isn’t there when I write, a part of me is discovering while it’s happening. Writing songs in that way, at least for me, is an adventure.” Dieterich agrees: “That is the way you can continue to be creative, it’s [a peg] to hang your creativity on. You get to play around in this weird zone.”
“Mishearing music is another way to get new musical ideas,” he explains. “For example if you’re hearing the one beat in the wrong place - something might be playing in the other room and you think wow, this is the weirdest music i’ve ever heard! I’ll try to hold onto that feeling for as long as possible, because I know I'm mishearing it. Finally my brain will register it and I’ll realise that it’s actually boring.” Rodriguez adds: “My favourite bands I’ve ever heard are when I accidentally hear three bands at the practice space. Then you realise one guitarist is one side playing a Soundgarden song and another is playing Hendrix. What I write doesn’t have to be groundbreaking but I always try to make certain new chord progressions. That one thing that nobody else in the world will have noticed, will have made the journey really exciting for me.”
"We’ve never missed a deadline, no matter how much it destroys us!" - Ed Rodriguez
The pandemic has brought with it changes for the band, not in the way that they operate, but in their pacing and approach to their own work. Dieterich describes his experience during this period without life on the road. “Since [touring has been delayed] this is the most consistent [length of] home time I've had in my adult life. I’ve given myself the patience I’ve never allowed myself to with my own music; I’ll take a breather and relisten to it later. It’s been a really pleasurable experience, allowing myself to not understand what I'm doing in a very deep way. I’m just playing around with these weird tools that happen to make sound, trying to be very free and not stressing out about having to present it to someone.”
Actually, You Can was a smooth process with few obstacles, Dieterich explains. Though they don’t march to the beat of anyone’s drum but their own, Deerhoof have a penchant for punctuality and reminisce on some of their previous album releases. “We’ve never missed a deadline, no matter how much it destroys us!” Rodriguez laughs. “ It’s funny because the labels we’ve worked with always had deadlines assuming every band is going to be late, but we always take the actual deadline as a hard deadline. For Breakup Song, we all met at Greg’s apartment to finish it and we didn’t sleep for three days. Someone was always at the computer and we were all lying around on the floor seemingly asleep. Somebody would pipe up - the bass drum’s too loud and meanwhile Satomi figuring out how to do the album artwork because it fell through - everything was just a whirlwind. We were so determined to get it in on the first and we did. And then the label said, if you need a few more days it’s fine! We pretended we didn’t hear that. It’s so easy to get caught up in the constant hustle but that’s not how we operate. It’s not good for you. After all this time our happiness is number one, and then everything else comes after that. It’s hard enough to do when it’s fun, you know? Why would you want to do it when it’s not?”
On burnout, Dieterich ponders how he prevents this from stifling his creative flow: “It’s usually losing confidence in my ability to judge my own ideas. This was discovered accidentally, but working with other people is a wonderful way to not get into those patterns and to not hold onto your ideas too closely. There’s no telling what’s going to work [in terms of] what people can connect with in any given moment. It’s such a dynamic process. I’ve learned that sometimes I have to take breaks, but I'm getting to the point where it’s becoming less painful, and I don't hate myself. Instead I’ll just go and make a pizza.
"These are all different techniques to trick yourself into being creative in a fun way. When you’re really struggling with creativity you don’t see any of [these solutions], so for me being creative is just having a box full of tools I can use to trick myself into not hating what I’m doing.”
"Being creative is somewhat a solitary function,” Rodriguez continues. “If you’re a writer, or if you work on music, or art, it’s going to involve being by yourself for long periods. Just like everybody in normal life, sometimes it’s easy to forget that you have people and there’s something outside of yourself - especially if you are even remotely a solitary person.”
Our conversation finalises with some final highlights from Actually, You Can. “We had this period of isolation and started reconnecting and it was a case of realising how much value this adds to our lives, going from nothing to an environment of genuine deep caring and everybody listening to each other.” Rogriguez muses: “Even Satomi’s suggestion of everybody playing their parts made us all feel so involved. It’s so easy to go on autopilot throughout your life, especially if something’s there all of the time.” “I can relate to that,” Dieterich agrees. “For me though, the best memory [from this record] is trying to learn the stuff that Ed wrote for ‘Scarcity is Manufactured.’ It’s so insane, I didn’t think I would be able to play it and I’m still a little bit behind Ed on everything. It’s exactly at the limit of my ability, so I’m exclaiming the whole time because my brain is shutting down. It’s not even that my fingers can’t do it, it's that my brain can’t.”