Widely known for reinventing themselves with every new record, San Francisco’s Deerhoof continues to merge the far-flung and the unexpected in their new album Breakup Song, which they describe as “Cuban-flavored party-noise-energy music.” Now well into their 11th album, Deerhoof occupies the curious space of a big-name band within a very specific slice of noise meets danceable pop music meets art rock meets garage. Really, though, none of these labels satisfy.
The one constant in Deerhoof’s sound is a lack of such constants that bands tend to build on as their signature. There is some familiarity in the chimes of Satomi Matsuzaki’s girlish and distant intonations of simple lyrics and in the fleeting synths, layered chip music and strangely catchy off-tunes, but even this familiarity is a tenuous one. When asked to self-identify, Deerhoof naturally chose the one classification that hardly classifies anything at all. That is, pop music. In a phone interview with me, drummer Greg Saunier rejected the adoption of genres as “cool” but ultimately a “put-on, an act … a series of reenactments.” Thus, in saying that “pop has always marked the spot on the Deerhoof treasure map,” Saunier contends that “the way pop music sounds now is not only different from how it sounded decades ago, but it’s even different from how it sounded a couple of weeks ago. Pop music is like a genre meant for explorers.”
This exploration is evident in Breakup Song, from the catchy beat-driven guitars of the first two tracks to the slinky Japanese hook in “Mothball the Fleet” to the Cuban mambo of “The Trouble with Candyhands.” It’s clear that there is no one musical well to draw from, and part of this is rooted in embracing an amalgam of disparate influences. Of course there are the explicit ideas floating around a certain record, but “that’s only the conscious ones” according to Saunier. Perhaps it is Deerhoof’s awareness of the futility in articulating a particular musical genealogy that makes their music sound so complex and liberating on the listener’s end.
It’s also clear in the resulting mish-mash that the band has not one songwriter but four. This might sound like it would create a disjointed record but Saunier argues that having “four picky, headstrong musicians all with veto power, holding our veto stamps constantly at the ready like a bludgeon over your head every time you have an idea actually kind of narrows down what we’re doing … And that’s why I think that deep in the background it does cohere, and there is some solid kind of attitude that we share from beginning to end.”
Weaned on the independence of the laissez-faire, “just-do-your-thing” ethic of Kill Rock Stars, the Olympia record label known for signing a number of 90s riot grrrl acts like Bikini Kill and Bratmobile, Deerhoof found from the start a label whose DIY approach to music lined up with their own. This room for experimentation is what has kept their releases innovative across a span of 11 albums and growing acclaim.
In response to all the good press and even being hailed as “the best band in the world” by Pitchfork, Saunier clarifies that “a record review … is not love. It’s a victory — it’s a business victory — which of course we’re very happy about.” The kind of “love” that the band is hungry for is what Saunier calls the “hungry feeling that you want to climb on stage, and you want to destroy, and you want to, like, unleash this sound onto the audience.” It’s this “feeling of being reborn” that creates the electricity in their live shows.
As a veteran pop band, Saunier recognizes that Deerhoof may have reached that “frustrating point in your career as a live band where your devoted audience is really devoted mostly to you repeating your own hits. And your hits weren’t from your new album; they’re from three albums ago”.
Fortunately for Deerhoof, however, their current tour seems to be flipping the pattern on its head. This time around, the band is taking the traditional “bathroom break” new record songs and playing them first rather than sprinkling them in the middle of the set list between past hits. Saunier says they are receiving a tremendous audience response that he attributes to the new songs being much more danceable. “It’s much harder for us to take ourselves too seriously because they just have this slightly flirtatious, slightly sassy kind of mood to them,” he said.
“It’s not like Deerhoof has some kind of monopoly on unhappiness, or Deerhoof knows what breakups are like and we’re going to spell it out for you. Everyone knows what that’s like.” Promising the opposite of “Grammy-baiting sob stories,” the album opens with the lyrics “When you say it’s all over / Hell yeah / Hell yeah…” Saunier talks about looking closely at the kind of music that would compound the feeling of wanting to “stay inside or hibernate or hide in the womb” in the face of a sensitive emotional state and seeking instead to make the kind of music that would give the listener the highest kind of energy. Deerhoof’s particular spin of the “breakup song” is more about lighting a big fire under misery’s ass and going out to dance in the wake up of mope opportunities.
What: Deerhoof Concert
When: Monday, Oct. 1
When: 8 p.m.
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