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Cabin Fervor

Lost in the Studio, Deerhoof Swerves Between Impulse and Control

EARBUDS: Deerhoof (featuring Greg Saunier, blurring in the back) stopped making sense for its new album.

By Marc Masters | Posted 1/25/2006

Deerhoof plays the Ottobar on Jan. 27.

“We think of the ideal version of any song as very simple,” says drummer Greg Saunier of art-pop quartet Deerhoof, speaking via phone from his San Francisco home. “It’s not improvised or loose—it’s totally etched in stone. But that version never actually gets played. We play around it, and all kinds of surprises come out.”

Built on those surprises, Deerhoof’s sharp, swerving music sticks out like a broken bone through the skin of today’s retro-centric indie rock. Saunier’s head-shaking beats, bassist Satomi Matsuzaki’s wide-eyed singing, and guitarists John Dieterich and Chris Cohen’s sloping riffs create the seemingly impossible—a taut splatter—full of epileptic rhythms and sticky melodies. This frenetic fusion of control and impulse has few peers currently, closer to the twisted logic of Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band than anything else around in 2005.

That legendary group rarely left its practice space, and Deerhoof took a similar tack when recording its 2005 album, The Runners Four (Kill Rock Stars). Wedged inside its homemade Oakland studio, the band purposefully cultivated insularity.

“We wanted to get the dusty, dark sound of four people in their basement, sealed off from outside influences,” Saunier explains. “There was no voice of reason saying, Don’t worry about this . . . this isn’t something really important. We tried to go in the opposite direction, and follow our intuition whether it made sense or not.”

The result of this voluntary mania is Deerhoof’s longest and most ambitious album. Sprinkled in among 20 tireless songs are percussion-free ballads, multivoiced harmonies, and jazzy diversions. Led by Matsuzaki's purr, which pours like syrup over the slanted arrangements, The Runners Four’s sprightly tunes are oddly familiar and tantalizingly unpredictable.

The foursome’s inspiration actually wasn’t the Magic Band but another notoriously meticulous collective. “I thought of Sly and the Family Stone’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On, which was recorded in Sly’s home studio in Oakland,” Saunier says. “It sounds extremely odd, because they worked on it so obsessively, just nonstop tinkering. For us, by the end, there wasn’t any night and day anymore. At one point I mixed for 36 hours straight. I’ve never done anything like that.”

Deerhoof began in 1994, and the next year the nascent duo of Saunier and guitarist Rob Fisk caught the ear of Slim Moon, whose Kill Rock Stars imprint became the group’s permanent home. Matsuzaki and guitarist Kelly Goode soon joined, and two records of rough, angular rock were forged before Fisk and Goode departed in 1999. “We had shows booked and records planned, so Satomi and I decided to do it ourselves,” Saunier recalls. “The opportunity to have a band just felt so precious that I never considered giving up.”

Dieterich and Cohen joined by 2001, and soon all four members quit their day jobs and started touring relentlessly, opening for bands as diverse (and high profile) as Wilco and the Roots and becoming a staple at festivals such as All Tomorrow’s Parties.

“When you don’t play often, it can be hard to refine what you’re doing,” Saunier says. “The good thing about that is unexpected things will happen. Now that we play a lot, the challenge is to keep that same risk factor. So a lot is left up to chance and interaction. Somebody hits a funny note, and somebody else reacts to it, and then a third person reacts to that.”

Churning out sunny tunes like a toy factory in overdrive, Deerhoof has released four albums in as many years, each widening the band’s glowing palette: 2002’s Reveille centered around guitar-heavy stomps; 2003’s Apple 0’ steered toward cheery, simpler songs; 2004’s keyboard-happy Milk Man wove a prog-rock inspired tale of a child-catching wizard; and 2005 brought The Runners Four. While Deerhoof’s inimitable personality is all over the four albums, the quartet still manages to excavate new sonic territory each time out.

For Saunier, this progress is often a matter of getting out of his own way. “When I play, I try not to think about the drums or my arms or fingers or whatever,” he says. “The less I do that, the more likely I am to play something I didn’t know I could play. It’s a weird thing to try to cultivate—how do you make a concerted effort not to pay attention?”

Deerhoof’s current U.S. tour will be followed by treks to Australia, Japan, and Europe, and Saunier welcomes the chance to continue shedding the group’s studio shell. “What I love about touring is that suddenly these songs we’ve been obsessed with for months are not just ours anymore,” he says. “It makes me realize what was missing from the experience of making the music—people outside the band. The music isn’t finished until that final element comes in, and turns it from a fantasy into a real thing. It’s like getting a new set of ears.”

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