Deerhoof - Interview - Winter 2007
20 Dec 2007
"belgium and holland, where we've played so many times, the local sense of humour just is very different from ours. we'll be up there singing about pandas and flowers and stuff, and everyone will have this completely straight face..."
Satomi: "Do you want a beer?"
Rockfeedback: "I'd love a beer, thank you."
Crikey, this is going well! I've made no secret of my love for Deerhoof recently, nor my love for beer. Now here I am talking to the former whilst drinking the latter. Conclusively, I win at life.
RFB: So, since Friend Opportunity came out, how have you guys been spending your time?
Greg: "Something tells me that you already know the answer to that question!"
Well, I could hazard a guess. And if Greg hadn't laughed and smiled and opened my beer before saying that, I might have thought the interview had instantly taken a very sour turn. But he had, and it didn't. Throughout our time together, Deerhoof continue to be simply the most delightful rock stars I've ever met.
RFB: "...Maybe, but I'd like a more in depth answer than the one I could come up with."
Greg: "Well, to a greater degree than Deerhoof has ever previously experienced, we have been travelling. We go back home to San Francisco and different people live in our buildings, the building manager is somebody different and we have to be like 'oh, nice to meet you! We live here!'"
RFB: "How much time do you spend in San Francisco these days?"
Greg: "Nothing. How much have we been there, in San Francisco this year?"
Satomi: "This year? I can't remember. I'll check..."
Satomi pulls out her diary so as to give me a precise answer. It reminds me of a recent talk I did (the fruits of which you'll see soon) with friends of Deerhoof, Battles...
RFB: "I like how precise this is going to be... I did an interview with Battles recently, about a Brian Eno record that was a favourite of theirs, and I asked their bassist if he remembered when he last listened to the album... and he was like, 'Yeah, actually, September the 24th 2007, in the morning..."
Greg unleashes the first of his uproarious laughs at things that aren't particularly funny. He's utterly brilliant and I think more than a small part of me wants to be him.
Greg: "My memory is so terrible for almost anything in the past, but when it's something do to with music, I can remember what song was playing when we shut the car off and arrived in that one parking space in that one city on one day, all sorts of things."
RFB: "Do you have any recent specific musical memories?"
Greg: "Well that's the thing, it doesn't have to be recent. That's why I get so impressed with myself."
Me: "OK, so 2nd of March 2004, what was the first song you heard that day?"
Greg: "2004? I'm not too good with dates. If you could tell me where I was, I can remember what was playing. Somebody will have to tell you where I was.
Occasionally, as she does on record, Satomi will chirp up with a fragment of a sentence, and it'll take you a while to realise what she's doing. She does this now;
Satomi: "Seven weeks!"
I had completely forgotten that she'd been counting time spent in San Francisco in her diary.
RFB: "Seven weeks, from when?"
Satomi: "From January, this year. We've only spent seven weeks in San Francisco. I'm very much looking forward to going back."
RFB: "You must have seen, you know, some stuff, if you've only spent seven weeks in your home town?"
Greg: "Well, we've seen a lot of London. This is our fourth time in London in the last 12 months. And we've played San Francisco once in the last 12 months!"
RFB: "Spending so much time in London, was that planned? I spend most of my time trying to get away!"
Greg: "I don't know why, it's just such a fun place for us to come to and play. We'd travelled continental Europe many times before we'd ever tried to play London, and when there's a language barrier, and sometimes even more of a cultural barrier, I mean I find especially - I don't know if you found this Satomi - but Beligum and Holland, where we've played so many times, the local sense of humour just is very different from ours. We'll be up there singing about pandas and flowers and stuff, and everyone will have this completely straight face. I'm not saying our songs are a joke, but I'm just saying things that I think might induce the slightest hint of a smile... well, we never have that problem in London."
RFB: "Do you think you have a particularly British sense of humour?"
Greg: "Maybe so, Satomi went to school here for a while..."
Satomi: "I went to school in Thorpe. Near the amusement park."
RFB: "That's all I know about Thorpe, the amusement park. I've seen Thorpe from very tell heights for a few seconds, before plummeting down on a rollercoaster... but nothing particularly scenic. Do you think your music requires a sense of humour, to 'get it'?"
Greg:"It's not that, I didn't mean to imply that, because we've also had very wonderful experiences playing to Dutch and Belgian people who don't laugh at all. But still, at the end of the show, you could tell that they really were listening and they really enjoyed it and it really meant a lot to them. I don't mean to complain, one of the reasons I wanted to do a band was that you never know what people are going to hear in your music, do you know what I mean? I like the idea that music, any art, is ambiguous enough that there are so many possible ways that it can be apprehended or even heard. I feel like sometimes two groups of people are listening to the same music and really hearing two completely different things. Going back to thing about remembering what was playing on this day or that day, some people have a really good thing for melody for instance, somebody can start singing a tune from some Eighties hit and another person is like 'oh yeah, that one'! We have this all the time in Deerhoof, John (guitars) and Satomi, one of them will start singing some song that they remember from the Top 40 and if it's John singing, Satomi will be like 'yeah I know that!' and start singing along. And I'll go 'what are you singing?!', and they'll go on and they'll go on, verse after verse, and I do not know that song. Then if they manage to find a recording of it, they can play half a second of it and I can go 'ooh, that one'. I'm listening more to the sound of the instruments, the production, the amount of reverb on the snare drum or something like that is what my brain automatically focuses on. Lyrics are not so important, I was very slow in learning to appreciate lyrics.
RFB: "I guess that's what makes it great, all of you coming from different places..."
Greg: "Exactly, exactly."
RFB: "You said you played in Europe a lot before you played in the UK at all, was playing in the here something to do with the people from All Tomorrow's Parties getting involved?"
Greg: "I think we did one UK tour before we came to know Barry Hogan (ATP founder and all round genius). We did one first, is that right? How did we book it then?!"
Satomi: "We had a British booker, do you remember, what was his name?"
Greg: "You know my memory, just tell me what song was playing!"
Satomi: "We had no driving directions, we didn't know anything about it..."
Greg: "I just remember, we rented a car after we landed at Heathrow, it took us about 2 hours to get through customs, then it's like, 'ah, time to relax", but no its not, John's got to learn to drive on the wrong side of the road with no practice! It was the most nerve racking thing, really, we crashed about 15 times before we had left the grounds of Heathrow. He's sitting at the wheel, and he wants to be on the left side of his lane. It's not that he wants to be in the other lane, but he wants himself, the driver, to be on the left side of our lane. He didn't get confused about the lanes, just his placement in the lane. So we were always a hair away from crashing in to some wall and we came so close to scratching this perfect next year's model rental car and having to pay a fortune. And we had no directions."
RFB: "What was the extent of the tour, what venues did you play?"
Satomi: "We played upstairs at a restaurant here."
Greg: "The Spitz!"
RFB: "That's closed now actually!"
Greg: "Really? I can't say I'm terribly upset... nah, the Spitz is alright, we played there a couple of times. It was Upset The Rhythm, that's who put us on! Actually, they were real sweet, the two we met first were living together in Islington, and they introduced us to bubble and scrape (sic). They were like, 'what do you want to eat for breakfast?', and we were like, 'I don't know, British food?' Last time we ever make that decision! It was just some green, stuff, grease..."
Greg: Actually that was a really fun tour, a lot of really small places. We played for a guy named Andy Brown, Andy Brown (second time, he says it in a thick Scottish accent), he was Scottish but living in Leeds. He set us up in this place called the Cardigan Arms, and then we played with a band called Brown Owl that day, a Leeds band. Then, next time we played, one of the guys from Brown Owl was the guy who would set up our Leeds shows, and he became our driver."
RFB: "So no more harrowing road experiences..."
Greg: "Exactly! By now we've been back a zillion times. We did a tour with The Flaming Lips, probably three or four of our own. Sometimes it's a matter of just doing London..."
Satomi: "Last year at Christmas we did ATP."
Greg: "We've done quite a few ATPs."
RFB: "They release your records too, they must be quite big fans..."
Greg: "Oh I don't know!"
The probably are, Greg...
RFB: "How did they get involved, how did they approach you?"
Satomi chirps in with another fragment.
Greg: "Yeah, Thurston (Moore, of Sonic Youth). Sonic Youth curated an ATP in Los Angeles, that we were on... no, that isn't it... it was the second ATP festival where we started talking to Barry... the first ATP I don't think we even met Barry."
Satomi: "We did, he gave us posters."
Greg: "He gave us posters? Maybe you're right... in any case, one of those times..."
RFB: "I'm beginning to understand what you mean with your memory!"
Greg: "Yeah! We came to be in any way involved in ATP because some band had requested us, it wasn't to do with being asked by ATP or them liking our music or them having heard of us. I mean, I'd heard of ATP festival actually - I was like oh, God, we'll never be hip enough to get in to that thing - and then when we were invited in I was like, wow, cool, you know? Then a couple of years later I actually met Barry and found out he wasn't hip at all!"
RFB: "I always thought of him as quite an imposing gentleman, but I met him and he's just not like that whatsoever..."
Greg: "He's so funny. They've always just been so kind to us, always so much support, so far beyond we ever feel like what we deserve..."
Satomi: "He invited us to play at their wedding!"
Greg: "We played their wedding! I'm still trying to find the footage."
Satomi: "It was in Australia, and they were like, OK, let's organise an Australian tour around the wedding! And so we stayed, and the next day we went to the wedding, met their families, played at the reception..."
RFB: "How did you go down?"
Greg: "Same way we always go down, half of 'em love it, half of 'em hate it."
RFB: "I can imagine it was probably a more receptive crowd than your average wedding crowd."
Greg: "Yeah, probably. It was cool. I want to get the footage."
We begin to discuss Release The Bats, the ATP-organised gig that Deerhoof are here to headline, with a fine supporting cast of Fuck Buttons, Black Lips, Deerhunter and Liars at the Forum in London this very evening.
RFB: "Obviously, you're over here for the hallowe'en gig, so you missed hallowe'en in the 'States - it's a very different thing in the UK..."
Greg: "Yeah, what's it like here?"
RFB: "It's been and gone without much fanfare"
Greg: "Well, it's mostly for kids in the U.S."
Satomi: "But also the hippies in San Francisco, the hippies are so excited, because they want free food!"
RFB: "They embrace Satan for food?"
Satomi: "Yeah! They ring every door bell, pretending they're kids, then I go down there and its hippies..."
Chris unleashes an amazing laugh. We both ponder whether Satomi actually means hippies, or something else...
RFB: "Hippies is weird, you expect to see some kids dressed up..."
Satomi: "They're like, 'can I have money, or does it have to be food'? I try to give food, and they're like, 'do you have beer'?
Greg: "What do you call them, hippies?"
Satomi: "You know, they've got, long hair... they sleep on the streets, a lot of them are young kids."
Greg: "It's strange, I think of 1960s flower power children..."
RFB: "That's what I think of when I think of hippies..."
Greg: "I think you mean bums."
Satomi: "No, not the pop star thing, real hippies."
Greg: "Maybe it's a San Francisco thing, more than anywhere else there are people who are still dressed in tie dies who look very shaggy or whatever, and they like The Grateful Dead... but actually, hands up who doesn't like the Grateful Dead?"
There follows a pause.
RFB: "Nobody's put their hand up."
Greg: "Everyone's a fan!"
RFB: "Can you tell me a bit about the other bands playing tonight, I assume you've played with a few of them?"
Greg: Well, The Grateful Dead have been around for...!"
Satomi: "Come on, we played with Deerhunter many times."
Greg: "Many times. They were always following us. We've always played the same venues all the time. So yeah, they're old pals. But I haven't seen them since (current LP) Cryptograms so I'm kind of excited to see it. I think it sounds very different than it used to, it's a different line up. But I'm really excited to see the whole show, it's going to be fun."
RFB: "Have you played with Liars before?"
Satomi: "No, never!"
RFB: "Really? I would have thought you might have shared a bill somewhere along the way."
Satomi: "No, but I'm so excited. I've never even seen them before."
Greg: "I'm really excited too."
RFB: "I spoke to them not long ago, and they spent a long time talking about how they didn't really think they could play their instruments...".
I continue, whilst Greg chuckles at high volume to himself. Did he think I was joking, or just find the idea that Liars can't play their instruments hilarious?
RFB: "...it seems as though even though Deerhoof and Liars have some common ground, hence why bills like this work so well, that you guys never shy away from being actually really good at playing your instruments..."
Greg: "I don't know about good or bad, I don't know whether they're bad and we're good, but what I like about their approach to instruments and music in general is that it seems like every time they decide to make a song it's as if they're starting totally from scratch. I mean, obviously I think they do know, quote unquote 'know', how to play their instruments, but it's all a question of your attitude. You can make a conscious decision to say 'what's this weird thing in my hand that has four strings on it, what does it do? I don't know...' and not have any preconceived idea or formula of what a song is supposed to sound like or what constitutes a tempo or a verse or a chorus or a melody or drum beat, what the correct length of a song is or how loud drums are meant to be in the mix of a song... I mean, anything. It's just a DIY approach. I think DIY has come to mean something a lot more fun and profound than it may have meant in the early days of Kill Rock Stars, the label that we're on in the States. It used to be that bands who had had, like, 2 lessons on guitar and 2 lessons on drums stopped there and played actually very conventional sounding music in a very sloppy kinda way, but it was still the case that the drums play drum beats, the guitar plays a chord progression and there's a melody done over the top of it by the lead vocalist, there's a verse and there's a chorus and the songs are this length... nowadays I feel like there are these DIY groups - and Liars is one that I respect a lot - where for them it's like 'no, DIY means I'm going to invent music from scratch, and I'm going to record myself and I'm not going to trust anybody to tell me what the rules of music are and what it's supposed to sound like'. It opens up so many chances, and it's a great way to trick yourself in to being very creative.
RFB: "So how similar is that to your approach to songwriting?."
Greg: "We, like, have to have a manual! We go to a library and get out a book that says 'this is how you write a song'!
RFB: "So why do they always sound so weird?!"
Big, big laughter ensues again. I'm just glad they're not insulted.
RFB: "Let me clarify a bit... especially on Friend Opportunity, I was amazed by just how much there was going on in every song..."
Greg: "Oh, wow! That's so kind!"
Satomi: Thank you so much!
RFB: "...and how many ideas there were flying about the place, fun idea after fun idea..."
Greg: "That's very nice."
RFB: "Do you ever feel like you have too many ideas to make a coherent song, that you have to tone it down, or do you just throw them all in to the mix? I'm totally fascinated by the way you write songs..."
Greg: "The thing is, even within the band it's hard to answer because Satomi writes songs, I write songs, John writes songs, and each of us writes separately. We work on things together too but most of it is written separately, and frankly I don't know how John or Satomi writes songs, come up with their ideas, and I don't know what their method is, if they have one... maybe John can tell you himself..."
At this point, John briefly walks in to the room, shakes my hand and smiles.
Satomi: "Hey John, how do you write songs?"
John: "You know how to write songs, Satomi."
John grabs a banana and exits. What an excellent misunderstanding of that question, thought I.
Greg: "I was thinking about this the other day, for some reason I flash back to some conversation about the Royal Trux, and someone said 'they're so great because they did everything intuitively'. And at the time I was like, yeah, but then for some reason the other day that conversation came in to my head and I was like, of course, what does that even mean? Who doesn't do something intuitively? It's tantamount to saying nothing."
RFB: "But it sounds impressive!"
Greg: "Yeah! But I guess that's how I feel to be perfectly honest, nothing's according to any plan."
RFB: "On your Wikipedia page, you're described as creatively restless..."
Greg: "What a pair of words!"
RFB: "There's something else, I took this out of the newspaper today, they had a description of yourselves that I just thought was so funny..."
I hand Greg, first, and then Satomi a cutting from that morning's London Metro paper, in which they were featured as part of an article previewing tonight's Release The Bats show.
Greg: "'San Francisco metallers'! I looked at The Forum's website this morning, it said we were Eighties electro with really great synth washes and dance guitar, and I was like... alright. And the picture was a picture of John, some bus drivers and this guy who created a lights show that we used on a tour, and they're in front of a big phoney volcano at a miniature golf park... and I was like, OK, I hope nobody's buying these tickets on the basis of that write up! It was the most extreme inaccuracy!
RFB: "What's the most wrong anyone's ever got it?"
Greg: "Well that's a good point, I guess it begs the question..."
Satomi starts laughing and nobody's sure why...
RFB: "I'd like to meet the guy who could come up with an accurate description to be honest! When I review your records I find I just walk round in circles..."
Greg: "Did you write the review that's on your website?"
Terror strikes. Not only have they actually read my work, but they want to talk about it. Thank God I gave it full marks.
Greg:"I was just so flattered! I mean, this is getting in to conflict of interest here...."
RFB: "No, I'll probably give this bit lead!"
Greg: "Haha! Well, it goes back to what I was saying about how we're compelled to make this so called music, but I'm at a total loss when it comes to predicting what anybody's going to think of it. I always try to imagine what they're going to think and I love the idea of trying to put their ears on and hear it through the ears of somebody else, but the way that I learn to do that is by, partly, having somebody basically tell me what they heard when they listen to it, which is basically what a review is."
RFB: "So you do read your own reviews?"
Greg: "I do read them, yeah, I know Satomi doesn't read them."
Satomi: "Never! But it's nothing personal!"
Greg: "So she didn't read your review, but I told her about it! John and I did."
RFB: "When writing, I never think anyone reads them. It's just way of sorting out my own thoughts on a record a lot of the time."
Greg: "Yeah, well that's cool, and I like that approach too, I think that's the funnest type of review, where it doesn't necessarily pretend to be a description which is going to be right or wrong, just you can see that it caused some process to happen in the person's mind, or feelings, or toes or something, and they work it out in words. I think that's fun, it's a great honour for me to think that until today you were a total stranger, somebody across a huge ocean, and to know that this person that I don't know actually sat there and had this much of a thought and this much of a feeling about something that came from who knows where, the back of our minds somewhere, and we feel like we don't even know what we're doing, somebody else spending time with it still kind of shocks me."
RFB: "It's far more fun for you, you actually get to make the record! Don't worry so much! Satomi, I know that on some of your records you sing in Japanese, your native language, but more often than not it's in English..."
Satomi: "Uh huh, yeah."
RFB: "Why? I wondered..."
Greg: "I've always wondered that too..."
Cool. Let's find out...
Satomi: "Well, English is more universal. We tour worldwide, and I guess I just want to communicate. I get more reaction when I sing in English, even though my English is kinda broken. But when I sing in Japanese, only Japanese people will understand. I like the sound of Japanese, but I also think it's interesting that I have a Japanese accent in English. So, nobody says 'pahn-dah' like me. I like that kind of twitch, that kind of twist.
Greg: "I think a lot of English speakers can't actually understand your English."
Satomi: "That's true."
Greg: "A lot of the time. But it is really interesting that when she does sing in Japanese, it's often mistaken for nonsense. Complete nonsense. You get that many times. Sometimes just from the reviews you can tell that someone is asserting that she's singing nonsense syllables but in fact it's the Japanese part and they just don't know what it is.
RFB: "You say your English is broken, but you seem fine in conversation, do you ever find that limits the amount of topics you can cover in songs?"
Satomi: "Vocabulary, I'm not limited. I can always look stuff up. But sometimes I just like to break language down. In Japan, it's not strange to break the Japanese words, the sentences, to totally make it nonsense, but you can still get the feeling, the plan, or something. But in English, I think, I don't know, but maybe people don't try to break the language down so much."
Greg: "You mean like fragments, or...?"
Satomi: "Yeah, fragments!"
One gets the impression that in song and in normal conversation, Satomi is fascinated by fragments.
RFB: "You were saying earlier on about how everyone who'd listened to the album could have a different thought about it, does using fragments help that? They can fill in their own crossword puzzle..."
Satomi: "Yeah. To me, it's not strange."
RFB:"One of my favourite things about Deerhoof, favourite songs I've heard a billion times, could be about something different every time I listen to them..."
Greg: "Oh, thanks!"
RFB: "I was a bit worried about saying that because I thought you might think I just wasn't getting the point at all..."
Satomi: "No, I like it like that."
Greg: "To me, that's about the highest compliment, because to me what you're saying is that you'd like to listen to it again! And for myself, just to prove your point even more, I'm just re-reading a book I found in a thrift store...
He pulls out a book called '3001'.
RFB: "Three thousand and one?"
Greg: It reminded me of course of 2001: A Space Odyssey, the movie. Someone was talking about that one, and yes I've watched it many many times, but I find myself, even when I'm not watching it, I'll think back to it, and it'll hit me one day - BAM! (slaps hands) - this is what it's about! I'll just be sitting in my seat or something like that, and randomly... something will click.
RFB: "And the next time you watch it you'll be completely wrong."
Greg: "Completely wrong, and I'll start over from scratch again. But with lots of movies, the things that I most like about them are that there seems to be no final answer. You can't just reduce them to one meaning, one point, one moral, one summary. Like Satomi's describing her use of language, it's just, almost like a montage. Montage just means edit I guess in film terminology, but the idea of this image, and then this image, you know...
RFB: "As much as they can be interpreted differently by the same person listening to them differently at different times, given that you write them as fragments, do they mean different things every time you sing them to you, or is that completely defying the concept?"
Satomi: "Sometimes when my friends come to me after the show they're like, 'does this thing mean this?', and they'll make me think. Sometimes I'll be so convinced in one way, but I'm flexible. Their minds are different, but the songs are different to me when we're in Japan when I sing, a word can remind you of different thing in different cultures, and that's fun for me."
RFB: "So you do change your own mindset about what the songs are about? That's fascinating..."
Satomi: "I guess I do, yeah!"
Greg: "I mean, that's just the lyrics - having the chance to go on tour, it's really fun sometimes to go back to hear old versions of songs that we're still playing now, and it used to be like a slow song and now it's a fast song, a song that used to be a loud song is now a quiet song, a song that used to be a happy song is now a sad song..."
At this point, another interviewer from a widely available and very fashionable magazine informs us our time is up, as she wants a chat. Deerhoof warm me to my very core by saying that they don't want to talk to her, as they're talking to me. I was meant to have fifteen minutes with them, and we're here an hour later. And they still want to talk. Satomi offers me a beer.
Satomi: "Do you want to stay for another one'?
RFB: "I'd love to, though I feel like I'm turning in to a San Francisco hippie... I guess to finish I'd just like to know what you plan to do next, I'm excited!"
Satomi: "We're playing this art far in Miami, it's like a Frieze thing. We have a Milk Man stage! (Based on a previous album of the band's) And a huge, room sized banana and strawberries stuffed soft sculpture...we've got someone dressing up as a Milk Man, dancing and stuff."
RFB: That sounds amazing... you guys worked with (David) Shrigley too, didn't you? How that come about? Is there some cross beneficial relationship going on there, you write him songs, he does you drawings, or...
Satomi: "I think we just found out he likes our music through mutual friends, and we asked him, and he said 'let's do it'."
RFB: "I think they compliment each other really well, your music and his drawings..."
Greg: "Yeah, but we got the best end of that deal. We got very lucky. He's so funny, he's the nicest guy."
Satomi: "The best sense of humour."
Greg: "But he's incredibly quiet and mild mannered, yet he's got the quickest wit you've ever seen in your life."
RFB: "I actually talked with Liars about him as well, they were already talking about supposedly not being able to play their instruments and then saying 'my favourite artist is David Shrigley, he does these amazing cartoons but he can't draw for shit!' They seemed to think that that was a really great thing, his supposed inability to draw."
Greg: "Hah! Well, I'm not necessarily saying this is what Deerhoof does, but I think in Shrigley's case it's actually a very difficult skill. It's not that he can't draw, it's just that he has a hand and he has a voice and he has a message and it's very specific. It requires as much precision and refinement just so as it works and it's magic, and that comes through as much as the work of anyone who looks like they've been to school or whatever. You could easily do a failed David Shrigley drawing, it's not like there's no such thing as a mistake in his world. I think it's actually in a way quite the opposite, in a way they're quite precious, very refined, very specific. But I mean, I love that tension between what can seem half assed or random or improvised or as if it was a mistake or couldn't have been predicted... for us, it's perfectionism and poring over and over and making sure it's exactly right, and what do those two things mean, and how do they interact... I definitely think those are two forces for us that are constantly battling. Not because one person is right and one is wrong, but there's always that tension.
At this point I begin to feel like the girl from Big National Publication outside probably deserves to talk to the band too, and I reluctantly exit after profusely thanking Greg and Satomi for their time and genuine hospitality. I leave safe in the knowledge that Deerhoof will continue to mine that middle ground between the improvised and the perfected to stunning effect, and even more concrete in my belief that this is one of the most important bands in the world at the moment - one I'll follow the fortunes of for as long as they make music together, and I continue to have functioning ears on the side of my head.