Satomi Matsuzaki plays bass and sings, Greg Saunier plays drums, John Dieterich and Ed Rodriguez play guitars. But what is Deerhoof really? Hell if we know. Pitchfork went so far as to label Deerhoof as “the best band in the world.” The New York Times described them as “one of the most original rock bands to have come along in the last decade.” From their humble beginnings as an obscure San Francisco noise act, they’ve become one of indie music’s most influential bands with their ecstatic and unruly take on pop. Todd talked to John at length about the process of writing and the thinking behind their amazing new album, Breakup Song.
TDOA: There was a gap between Offend Maggie and Deerhoof vs. Evil of almost three years. But there’s only a one year gap until you released Breakup Song. Any explanation for why this one together so much faster?
John: The honest answer is that we were asked by our label to leave more space. It drove us crazy. The idea that scarcity is a good thing. This is much more closer to our normal pace.
TDOA: So when you took that break, I assume you were still writing songs, right?
John: Sure, but people all have their other projects. So we just focused on that.
TDOA: Were the songs on the new album all written after Deerhoof vs. Evil or do some date back to that longer break?
John: They’re from within the last two years.
TDOA: I want to ask you about the songwriting process. I want to ask you about some specific songs. I realize that everybody in the band has written their own songs on this record, so I hope I’m picking songs that you’re “invested in”….
John: (interrupts) Oh, I’m invested in all the songs, believe me!
TDOA: My favorite song on this album is The Trouble With Candyhands, which is the eighth song. I guess I’m surprised that a song that far into the album seems to be grabbing me and so many other people. Have you sensed that reaction from other people?
John: I know people are excited about that song, but I’m not sure why they’re gravitating to that one more than others.
TDOA: The song has sort of a Cuban or mariachi riff feel to it at the beginning and your guitar parts in it compliment the overall vibe in a way that really moved me. Can you talk about the genesis of the song?
John: That was a song that Greg wrote. He sent me a rough version of it and I basically recorded the version of the guitar you hear on the album. You know what’s funny is that some of the guitars recorded for the album, he did by taking his electric guitar and literally held it up to the microphone on his computer. It was really guitar heavy and super aggressive. Then we got together in Portland, filtered through the songs and talked about what we wanted to change and we peeled back a little bit and….. it was a lot more aggressive before. We added some horns and trying to make it less thrash out guitar and more horns and more fun sounding.
TDOA: Was it more like the early work that Deerhoof put out?
John: It wasn’t that aggressive. We were just trying to change the mood of it and get a good feel for it.
TDOA: You referenced that some of the music was sent to you ahead of time. Did that happen a lot for this record or did you write it when you were in the studio together?
John: We didn’t record it in the studio. We recorded it all seperately. We live in three different cities now. We all have primitive recording setups and we generally record and produce ourselves. We sent each other really rough ideas of demos. When people liked versions of the demos that we’d go back on work on those. Sometimes the demo version would end up being the best take. It was very much, piece by piece. Then we sat down in Portland for about four days to listen to what we had together. We did final mixes together and work on the song order and master it.
TDOA: How long have you used that process for recording and mixing?
John: Last album we started it that way, but then we still had to come together to finish it. The first album that we’ve all been in different cites and recorded seperately.
TDOA: That’s fascinating. Most of the bands I’ve talked to, prefer to record together so they can feed off each other’s energy and work songs through while they’re in the same building. Were there ever points that you started to doubt this process?
John: You’ll probably get a different answer from each of us. For me, no. I loved it. It suited me very well. I’ve been doing a lot of work with other bands and so people are constantly sending me things. I like working alone in that way in the same way like to compose on their own. Even when they’re collaborating, that initial idea or riff probably came to them when they were alone. In my case, I’m relatively slow and part of my process is the recording itself. I need to figure out how to make it sound like it sounds in my head before I can play it. So if we were in the same room together it would be incredibly time-consuming and annoying because I’d say that I knew what I wanted to do, but I needed to do it before I play it. I can play the idea on a guitar but at home I can construct it and how I want it to sound. If your constructing kind of complicated music where there’s going to be two guitar parts and a syncopated bass part against it and a specific drum best, its hard to convey that, sitting there playing guitar. So I like this process and it works to my strengths.
TDOA: When you say you want to get it to the point where it sounds like it does in your head, are you talking sonically, as in what guitar, amp, effects you’re using or are you talking about note progression?
John: Both. Sometimes I’ll make a demo of something. I think I’m kind of famous within the band of having this old, broken cassette player that I like to use. I’ll play it back for everyone and it’s warbling and not even in the same key and everything is changing constantly. I’ll ask for feedback from everyone and they’ll say, “What are you talking about. That’s a complete mess”. A lot of times, they’ll like it and say let’s use it just like that. I’ll say, no that’s just the idea for the song, not the actual song, but they’ll want to use it. In this case, it’s the opposite. I can refine the idea before I present it.
TDOA: One of the things I read most about Deerhoof is how different each album sounds and how you must be making a concerted effort to accomplish this. Some musicians would be bothered by that assumption while others would revel in it. Where do you sit?
John: It’s a little of both. Each album is something of a response to the previous album. We make an album and it comes out and we go on tour. We play those songs every night for six months. In that period, you change. You see new flaws, you hear things differently. I wouldn’t describe as flaws necessarily, but they’re flaws: things you’d do differently. You hear the way you play it and wish you’d played it differently. Each of us is listening to different things and changing. We’ve learned something and instead of ignoring it, we’re going to use it. So we’re not going to make the same record as the last time. There is also some element of it, where it’s a response to the last record. We aren’t trying to create a polar opposite, but it’s like a conversation with the last record. You’re trying to create a response that to us is interesting in relation to the previous record. Part of it too, is looking at the historical arc of the record and what would be the next stroke that would make it interesting.
TDOA: That’s such a healthy way of viewing your older work. That way you aren’t going to be tired of your old records.
John: Oh yeah! Well, we love playing our old songs. It took a while for me. I have no preference. Right now, I’m excited about doing the new material. A lot of it is extremely hard in a new way. We’re pushing ourselves in a way that I don’t think we have. But when it comes down to it, I love playing our old music. There’s times where you get tired of something, but that’s when you come up with a new arrangement or you can it for a while. And that does happen. It seems like it’s completely independant of us, but I’m sure it isn’t. There’s just so many variables. One time, it’ll be working like clockwork. Then 3/4 of the way through the tour, this song is terrible now. So we may let it go and come back to it later.
TDOA: Are you influenced by the records you’re listening to when you’re writing?
John: We went through so many permutations of what we wanted to do. We were sending each other lists after lists on what we wanted to do. When it got down to the process of figuring out songs to work with. If anything the songs are a result of taking material that I had and trying to twist it to make sense within the concept of the album. So it had less to do with anything I had heard. If it did have anything to do with something I’d heard, it became so twisted, I couldn’t even remember what I’d heard that made me think of it.
TDOA: I listened to an interview with The XX where they said they had zero plan on what they were going to do when they went into the studio to record. Honestly, it came of as a bit insincere. And it doesn’t even closely resemble your approach, does it?
John: It starts on tour for us. We’ll be on a tour and nobody wants to broach the topic of the next album yet. It’d be like that thing nobody in the family wants to talk about. The bathroom is getting dirty and somebody needs to clean it, but nobody wants to bring it up. While we’re driving, we start talking about it. What do we think of the last album? What’s working live and what do people want to do? We end up talking about release dates before we talk about anything else. We know from experience that we need deadlines so that we’ll do it. Everybody’s writing on their own. We could probably do an album every four months if we didn’t have to worry about release timing. We finished the master for this album on May 1st and it came out in September.
TDOA: Wow, that’s fast!
John: Nooooo, it seems so slow!
TDOA: Ha ha, you could have had another whole album done in that time, couldn’t you?
John: Yes, exactly. Well maybe we couldn’t. Maybe this was a good thing. But it shows you the pace that we write things.