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All These Years Later, Deerhoof Still Crave the ‘Human Connection’ of Live Music

Rolling Stone AU/NZ catches up with the enduring experimental band’s drummer Greg Saunier to discuss their Australian tour and Vivid Sydney appearance



For Greg Saunier, drummer, vocalist and founding member of Deerhoof, the motivation to return to Australia to play for the first time in ten years is a simple matter: sharing a musical moment with strangers on the other side of the planet can be a magical experience.

Deerhoof, comprised of Saunier, bassist/vocalist Satomi Masuzaki, and guitarists John Dietrich and Ed Rodriguez, are here to tour their 19th studio album Miracle-Level – a record which brought a number of firsts for the band last year.

For one, Matsuzaki penned the entire record in her native Japanese, and the band also recorded the entire album all together from start to finish in a studio for the first time.

Rolling Stone AU/NZ had an opportunity to talk with Saunier ahead of their Australian tour, which continues tonight, June 13th, at Machine Hall as a part of the annual Vivid Sydney festival. His candour and humour were on full display through an engaging conversation that ranged from Deerhoof’s creative process to the transformative power of art.

Deerhoof play at Vivid Sydney on Thursday, June 13th, followed by shows in Brisbane, Adelaide, and Perth over the weekend. 

Rolling Stone AU/NZ: Miracle-Level was recorded start to finish in the studio – does that make those songs easier to approach in a live setting?

Greg Saunier: Absolutely. The version on the record is basically a live performance. We’re not like Fleetwood Mac, you know, making Tusk or something – we don’t have a year in the studio. We have one week to record and one week to mix. And we’d never done anything like that before!

We had always recorded on a budget of $0 but with a year to do it, sending each other different parts and discussing them. This was the opposite for us – it was a real challenge. We were going crazy with rehearsals leading up to the trip to the studio, because we knew there would be no time for variables.

The studio was fancy – there were so many instruments in there. We knew we couldn’t afford to get distracted with all their vintage synthesisers, and that organ in the corner, and the collections of guitars and drums. We’d never get anything done if we started treating it like a candy store.

We had to limit ourselves – every song’s going to use the same two guitars, the same bass, the same drum set. We’re not going to be moving the instruments around to all different rooms. We just keep it real and really straightforward so that we can get through it. But even though we had rehearsed these songs a lot, and they’re on our setlist now, they continue to change every night.

Do songs tend to change every night? You have a huge catalogue of records to select from – how do you decide what goes on the setlist?

We try to play songs from almost every one of our records – whichever songs yield a different result every night. We’re pretty loose and rough when we play concerts. We might have some songs that we could really practice and play perfectly, exactly the same every time, but I think we might end up not having as much fun!

It’s almost like the version that’s on the record is just the score, you know? It’s like a rough template from which you can create interpretations. Of course, we think about which songs we think other people might want to hear, but really a big part of it is just which ones are still so fun to play.

Speaking of the catalogue, you’ve been pretty tireless in your output across 30 years. You (Saunier) engineer, produce, and collaborate with so many artists constantly – and you also have recently released your debut solo record, We Sang, Therefore We Were. What is behind that work ethic?

The glib answer is: I gotta pay my rent. I have to pay my bills, I have to eat, I have to stay alive. So work is demanded. I don’t think that the amount of labour I put into a week is more than anybody else. I feel incredibly privileged to be able to be doing creative work – the kind of work that I actually want to do, rather than just taking orders from a boss somewhere. I feel like the luckiest person on Earth.

The real answer concerns something I discovered in 2020. We had just put out a record called Future Teenage Cave Artists and had a whole entire tour planned for the release. [With the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic] we had to cancel it, and everybody had to stay home. There was an incredibly brief moment when at least some corner of the ruling class actually recommended that everybody needs to stop working, to stop leaving your house, to stop driving to an office. A tranquillity came over the planet – I remember seeing videos of monkeys running around in these deserted cities. It was kind of beautiful to see.

I’ve always thought that by far the simplest way to address the oncoming climate disaster is simply for everybody to stop working. But it was at that time that I realised, work for me is not about a work ethic – like it’s a reason to give me compliments like it’s some feather in my cap. It’s just a coping mechanism. It’s the way I deal with stress.

Some people shut down. Some people become very frantic. Some people become sad, some become angry. Some giggle a lot. Some suppress any feelings of stress. I’ve become quite frantic with work and so I really don’t judge. As much fun as it is, for my ego, to listen to people describing me as someone with a work ethic, I wouldn’t advise people who don’t cope with stress by working to suddenly start doing so. Every psyche is different. Music, to me, is a way to process my own feelings and thoughts.

Do you think you would return to the studio and record another album that way again?

How we operate is circumstantial, and it has so much to do with a plan for what kind of music we think is missing in the world. It seems to change from day-to-day and the way current events go; we all feel it. It’s like every day brings new shocks and surprises and you have to be agile. I think agility is really valuable – being ready on a dime to completely change course and to change your strategy or tactics.

It’s maybe a harsh-sounding metaphor, but it’s like being in a war. Some incredibly tiny minority of rich and powerful people are attacking you, regardless of whether or not you want that. This war has everything to do with feints, decoys, misdirections, being ungovernable and uncontrollable. This became Deerhoof’s style from the early days – from record to record, or show to show, we might drastically change.

Part of it’s because we never had a hit! We never had a built-in audience that expected us to sound like a cartoon version of ourselves. We don’t have record labels or millions of fans pressuring us to make a song like the one that sold a million copies. If anything, we have the opposite pressure! Our fans seem to really like getting surprised.

The powers that be, and all of their cheerleaders and trolls, will find a way to destroy your first tactic. You gotta find new tactics. I feel that we’ve always had to be ready to change course. The funny thing about it is that that’s creative, too. Creativity isn’t just coming up with a cool drum beat or a catchy melody; it’s also realising that your two-thirds finished album isn’t gonna work.

Many of our albums ended up like the opposite of what we intended – like an album that was meant to be really hi-fi would end up being the most lo-fi or vice versa. Or an album that was going to be all slow songs ends up nothing but distortion and noise. You have to be ready to go with anything – creativity means letting go of the plan, of the fixed idea of what the record was going to be.

For lack of a better term, a ‘political edge’ has always been part of Deerhoof, and you’ve mentioned before that Miracle-Level is partially about how it will be a miracle if we survive the current forecast for the world. Do you think music and art truly has the power to be transformative?

The purpose of music could be transformation. That could mean anything – the musicians set out to transform the audience, or people who are bored and waiting to be entertained into people who are now satisfactorily entertained. It could be a little less commerce-oriented – art can model new or alternate ways for humans to organise themselves.

Someone who is simply reporting on their own imagination, reporting on their creative visions can be transformative in the sense that it shatters [our limits of perception]. I mean, sometimes I have that feeling as a music fan that I [press play] on my music collection because of a desire to have my limited view of my purpose as a member of humanity shattered and expanded.

I listen to humanity and I listen to other species, and I listen to children. And it occurs to me that music and really all of art is play. We have a tendency to describe [childhood] as a time of fertile imaginations that are at a peak of activity. And I see that as a natural state.

The transformation that takes place is one of societal violence – by people whose priorities are the efficient running of capitalism. The transformation is that the capitalist machine has to drive your imagination out of you. It has to crush it, because it will only distract from the profits that need to be made by your labour. So I think that art often, for me, feels like a remembering – who you were before you were forcibly transformed into something else against your will.

So perhaps it’s not so much transformative as disruptive?

If society doesn’t value communality, creativity, and imagination that serves no obvious purpose at the bottom of anyones’ balance sheet, then yeah, it’s necessarily disruptive. I do think that it gets complicated because in the past 100 years we’ve found a way to turn music into a commodity, into something that you buy and sell, particularly recorded music. In fact, now you don’t even buy it and sell it – you just stream it as a way for a corporation to spy on you and your habits so that it can more effectively advertise to you. It’s like data mining. Music has been sort of co-opted as a tool for corporate commerce.

The theme of this year’s Vivid Sydney is “humanity” – it seems very apt for Deerhoof, doesn’t it?

I would have thought that a band that was more openly and overtly part of the homo sapiens species would be maybe a more obvious choice. I’m not sure how we made the cut, considering we’re sort of animal-themed and may not be members of humanity. I often thought as a kid I was from outer space – like Sun Ra, a big influence for us all. A big inspiration. He says, “No – I’m part of the Angel race! I came from Saturn.” Humanity is definitely interesting, and a lot of trouble, but I’m not part of it.

You’ll be playing a relatively new venue, Machine Hall. Have you checked it out – what did you think?

From the look of it, it’s the kind of venue that can strike terror in the hearts of bands who are in the habit of playing very loudly because it looks like a concrete box, completely untreated.

I just sort of have to, like, run back and forth from the stage to the soundboard and see how it’s working. We work really hard to be the kind of musical group that kind of mixes itself, you know, like you could almost just stick one microphone in front of the whole band at the front of the stage – that, plus the vocals, maybe should be enough. We try to have good balance between us, that doesn’t need a tonne of surgery, constantly turning faders up and down to make it work.

It should be a blast! A final question: Deerhoof are obviously interested in more than music – you are interested in doing good in the world. And you come all the way to the other side of the world to play for people – is there some hope that people will connect with it on that deeper level?

I’m glad you asked! It’s difficult for us to really know what anyone experienced or thought after the show. We see the audience for about an hour or an hour and a half. Sometimes we get so busy trying to play the right notes that we forget to look up – that moment of togetherness is so brief! My wish is always to savour the experience for myself, to savour the experience with a group of total strangers.

It’s hard to explain to someone who has never experienced it but suppose you’re drifting off to sleep, and you get a vague idea for a melody, so you write it down or sing it into your phone. Then you just start snoring or whatever. It feels insignificant – it’s just a passing thought bubble that lasted for five seconds. Then a couple months later, you’re going through your memos, and you remember, “This was pretty good!”

Then you work on it some more, maybe you have a chorus for it. Then you get up the nerve to show it to your bandmates and they like it. And somehow it makes the cut and ends up on the record. You cannot imagine how surreal and tremendous it feels to be playing that song that was just an accident in your barely conscious mind, and people are singing it back to you out loud. It is the strangest and most beautiful experience.

You could be literally as far away from your home as possible on this planet and there could still be a group of people who you’ve never met personally and they are somehow connecting on this record of the subconscious. It’s an irreplaceable experience – I think it’s the reason that we keep wanting to tour. We all know what it’s like to play or attend a concert and you feel that human connection for a second – it’s unbelievable.