Art + Music + Deerhoof = Magic
After over 20 years of musical experimentation, spread across over a dozen albums and the occasional lineup change, fans surely would’ve understood if noise pop fixtures Deerhoof slowed down a bit in 2016. Instead of taking a breather, the band has wowed longtime listeners with two disparate releases: a collaboration with a contemporary classical music ensemble issued in April and surprisingly pop accessible studio album The Magic in June.
The first of these two releases, Balter/Sauntier (New Amsterdam Records), pairs the current Deerhoof lineup (guitarist Ed Rodriguez, drummer Greg Saunier, singer and bassist Satomi Matsuzaki, and guitarist John Dieterich) with Chicago’s Ensemble Dal Niente. On paper, it’s an odd marriage – art punks who based a whole album on a character called the Milk Man in 2004 and an ensemble of classical musicians. On record, it’s a beautiful and compelling listen.
Ensemble Dal Niente builds evocative soundscapes across the album, from the upbeat “Meltdown Upshot: No. 3, Ready” to the soothing vibes of “Meltdown Upshot: No. 5, Home.” In both cases, Matsuzaki’s familiar voice duets with the story being told by the instruments. That’s hardly unusual for a Deerhoof song: her vocal delivery often reiterates the sonic experiment in a question’s theme and mood. As the album continues, it starts to sound more like a perfectly normal collaboration and not like unruly avant-garde weirdos crashing the uber-serious orchestral pit. The latter image is a less adorable yet more awesome version of the old Alvin and the Chipmunks cartoon’s opening sequence, after the brothers accidentally slide off the stage during their grand entrance.
“We were fortunate to meet Dal Niente, who are such a talented group of people with a truly adventurous spirit and a love of music,” Rodriguez says. “We clicked right away. Our music was a perfect match for theirs. We’ve played shows together, and it made perfect sense. There were different elements of our technique and approach that we explored during our collaboration, but although the definitions of the genre of music we played would be different, our spirit is the same. To me Dal Niente is very much like us. People that got together to make a noise that no one else was making.”
The Magic (Polyvinyl Records) is a product of just the band, no string sections attached, recording its 13th studio album out in the New Mexico desert. The band was able to work its magic on its own terms, but not without self-imposed deadlines. “We recorded in an office building that was owned by the dad of our friend Jeremy Barnes (Neutral Milk Hotel, A Hawk and A Hacksaw),” Rodriguez says. “All that was in the room was an old desk that was soon covered with guitar pedals and cables. We did give ourselves a deadline. We always shoot for something with whatever we do. We wanted to have The Magic ready for a summer release, to be out on tour when the sun was bright and that summertime everything-is-possible energy was there.”
The idea of a band hiding out in the desert working through its creative process is easy to romanticize – think Desperado-era Eagles, with or without the influence of peyote. For Deerhoof, it was simply a decision born out of convenience. “Our guitarist John lives in Albuquerque, and while New Mexico is definitely beautiful we could record in a mansion or an abandoned semi-truck trailer,” Rodriguez adds. “All that matters is that being together, we’ll make something happen. The setting always influences you, but it’s not our first thought.”
The Magic furthers Deerhoof’s penchant for releasing disparate albums. This time, the band’s focus on guitar-driven indie rock makes its sound more pop accessible than ever. It’s not a completely new approach, with guitars ruling the roost on the band’s first album featuring Rodriguez, 2008’s Offend Maggie. This time, traditional rock elements are louder, bolder, and more effective. “Kafe Mania!,” for instance, flavors the artsy psych-punk listeners have come to expect with fat dad rock riffs. Elsewhere on the album, “Life is Suffering” is propelled by funky, danceable vibes. The band has always scavenged its shared interests for musical inspiration. It turns out there must be mutual (and justified) admiration for dollar bin deep cuts from the 1970s.
Like fellow “deer” prefix band and Atlanta indie rock institution Deerhunter, Deerhoof has drifted toward a more commercially palpable sound without sacrificing its underground cred or experimental allure. In the case of both bands, it’s presumable that these changes are due to a natural sonic evolution instead of an indie rock cash-in. “We constantly work to stay engaged and connected with what we’re doing,” Rodriguez explains. “We take what we’re excited about and bring those elements out more. That’s how we have the energy we do, because we never stop moving. We always look for ways we can make our smiles a little bigger and turn the knobs up a little more.”
The video for album cut “The Devil and his Anarchic Surrealist Retinue” is a thing of beauty. You might’ve seen it on your social media feed earlier this summer – it starts with the weird colored egg-shaped objects you kept seeing before pokeballs make a comeback. It’s little disturbing at moments, but it’s still beautiful nonetheless. Best of all, it adds visual weirdness to music that, even when it’s guitar-driven, is clearly the product of outside-the-box thinkers. The main question, aside from “What the fuck did I just watch?,” is how does the band decide what other art, from album covers to music videos, gets integrated into the Deerhoof cannon? “We’re always on the lookout,” Rodriguez says. “There have been occasions where the artist inspires the music first. Every artist we feel a connection with goes into a little file in our brains with the hopes that we can work with them at some point. That’s a huge part of what we want to do: connect with people. Everyone knows that feeling of hearing music or seeing art that makes you feel like you’ve been looking for that thing your whole life. We love to find those people and bring our worlds together.”
When Deerhoof isn’t looking for collaborators, be it audio-visual allies or orchestral ensembles, they’re constantly writing songs. “Everyone in the band writes so the momentum never stops,” Rodriguez explains. “We all have a different process and are inspired in different ways. If you see us sitting in the van, one of us is asleep, someone is bored out of their mind and someone will be coming up with a song inspired by the sound of the tires on the road. In this scenario, I was probably the sleeping one.”
Deerhoof’s next Georgia stop is Thursday, August 11th at the Georgia Theatre. The show headlines night two of the Athens Popfest and pairs the band with one of the U.K.’s most musically challenging and socially conscious punk bands, Shopping. The multi-day event also features underground rock veterans from near (Elf Power, Love Tractor) and far (Daniel Johnston, His Name is Alive). There’s also a good cross-section of current bands, also from near (Shehehe, Eureka California) and far (Bent Shapes, Basterds of Fate). It’s a large gathering of outside-the-box oddballs who, like fancy orchestra folks, fit right in with Deerhoof.
With so many songs in their arsenal, and the potential for old songs recorded by earlier lineups to sound new again, what might the band’s set list hold in store for festivalgoers? “We try to play at least a song or two from every album so that if someone doesn’t hear their favorite song, at least they get something from their favorite album,” Rodriguez says. “We’re in a constant state of discovery with the material, trying to play it better or different, and trying to finally play something right we can never seem to nail. In that way the oldest song feels like the newest song. It’s just as exciting.”
As Deerhoof continues writing songs and willfully evolving its sound, don’t expect the veteran unit to slow down anytime soon. But even if they are back in Athens or somewhere else in driving distance after two more disparate sounding albums, there’s no guarantee you’ll get another chance to see 2016’s guitar slinging, classical music ensemble collaborating edition of the band’s time-tested art-punk approach.
Photo by Asha Shechter.