For 23 years, the members of mercurial quartet Deerhoof have shaped their angular art-rock into a singular sound, a living organism running strong on compositional collaboration and sheer willpower. After 14 LPs and seemingly ceaseless touring, Satomi Matsuzaki, John Dieterich, Ed Rodriguez, and Greg Saunier have established themselves as fervent DIY self-starters: a living, breathing, ever-creating remedy to the mechanized infrastructures and cottage industries that increasingly stand to profit from artists’ need to promote and distribute their work.
The band’s latest LP, Mountain Moves, poses many questions about what life in America looks like in this world post-November 2016, when Cheeto-dusted powers-that-be propose defunding the NEA, tech oligopolies affect working musicians, and creative individualism can reach only so far across the aisle. Mountain Moves was born from what Deerhoof describes as “emergency mode”—a post-election impetus to create, and to transform dread into tangible empowerment.
It’s all the more impressive considering that Deerhoof reached out to the album’s eight featured guests largely via email, deploying a tool that lets people connect over distances for a record of joyous, genre-hopping collaboration. Matsuzaki’s opening invocation, “Slow Motion Detonation,” is augmented by Argentine singer-songwriter Juana Molina’s repetition of a one word mantra: celebrate. Wye Oak’s Jen Wasner joins in on “I Will Spite Survive,” an earnest, chugging rock and roll rave-up. Rapper Awkwafina’s rhymes on “Your Distopic Creation Doesn’t Fear You” make for a full-on Deerhoof hip-hop number that truly bumps. Xenia Rubios contributes to the triumphant comedown “Singalong Junk” with a series of wordless “la la las” that telegraph a memory.
In the wake of the album’s arrival, and ahead of an Oct. 7 show at Brooklyn Bazaar, Deerhoof drummer Greg Saunier and guitarist John Dieterich spoke with The Log about the merits and dangers of communal composition, the universal logic in lyrical abstraction, and what creative survival looks like in the modern world.
THE LOG JOURNAL: Does recording so much of this record with remote guests count as a communal approach?
SAUNIER: I’m just laughing trying to imagine us and all of our guests living together in a commune. That would be something indeed. In fact this was probably the least communal LP Deerhoof’s ever done. We made it so fast, there wasn’t even time to get the band in one place together until a few days before we turned it in and everything was pretty much done. We wrote and recorded in emergency mode, each of us working independently in different cities and emailing stuff to each other. Same story for the guests, but even more, so since we’d never even met some of them.
How did you stay open to collaborating with your friends on this record, and find communal catharsis in being together?
SAUNIER: Catharsis isn’t really our vibe, to be honest. We’re more into things like teasing, and pep talks. More into the buildup of energy and strength and tension than their release in some orgasmic Hollywooden “Götterdämmerung.”
Is collaborating with friends who embrace so many different styles a sustainable solution for breaking our identity-driven marketed media out of the echo chambers?
SAUNIER: You make a good point about collaborating with friends who embrace different styles.
DIETERICH: The times we find ourselves in require rethinking our roles in society and the way we do things. To be clear, I think there’s great value in not collaborating with people, as well, forcing yourself to inhabit the imaginations of other people, trying to embody their beliefs, in order to access new ideas and grow. But it’s also true that we are much stronger when we are together.
I think we as a culture have been pretty successfully indoctrinated to believe that individualism is the be-all end-all, in the arts especially, and I think we are seeing the limits of that. I personally got to a point several years ago where I just craved human contact. So many of us spend ridiculous amounts of time alone in front of computers, it feels like a revolutionary act to get in a room and play with people. And there’s something to that. I don’t actually think the people we collaborated with on the album are so different. We asked them because we can relate to them and have a connection.
How is the idea of structuring each song around a simple melody or riff a way to facilitate that more cleanly?
DIETERICH: As for the structure of the songs, I think if there is a difference [on Mountain Moves], it’s more about allowing ideas to develop in an organic way, being a little less impatient.
What do you have to say about the systems of technological consumption that bands are increasingly pressured to play into, and how has Deerhoof managed to thrive without fully submitting to that infrastructure?
SAUNIER: I don’t think it’s only bands that are pressured. It’s everyone. And pressure is too mild a word. Everyone is compelled to submit, not just to an infrastructure, but to being an unpaid booster of that infrastructure. Facebook and Google make their billions from only one thing: eyeballs.
Every time we use them—”we” being everyone, since there is no choice—we add another reason for advertisers to pay more. The tech monopolies’ business model is selling the population of Earth, who volunteer historically unprecedented details of their personal data and consumption histories, to advertisers. To tell ourselves that we haven’t fully submitted is a joke.
At the same time we don’t need to treat tech companies like they’re “not evil,” to borrow Google’s ludicrous motto. We don’t need to invite their CEOs onto Fresh Air to talk about self-driving cars and how wonderful the future is going to be once all creative work of humanity is finally stolen and digitized then offered back to humanity without the creative people being paid, in return for surveillance of our every word and activity, for the purpose of wealth extraction from the poor to the rich. We need to update our laws to regulate Google, Amazon, and Facebook the same way we should regulate any other sleazy, greedy, uber-capitalist, chauvinist corporation.
Every musician knows what this means for their livelihood, and it’s not even that line they always repeat in the press about how musicians can’t earn a living off of recording anymore, that it’s all about tour. It’s that we can’t earn a living off of tour either. We earn it largely off of t-shirt sales.
What do “Sea Moves” and “Mountain Moves” look like, in either the abstract or practical sense? As creatives, are we making the most of engaging the more off-the-grid places? What could we be doing differently/better in that respect?
SAUNIER: You’ve hit on a problematic one there for sure. Deerhoof has always prided ourselves on being DIY, but at what cost? Do we overdo it? By always being so gung-ho about recording and mixing everything ourselves, are we just championing the demise of recording studios? By always playing everything ourselves, are we robbing ourselves and our friends of chances to collaborate? By always doing everything no-budget are we aligning ourselves with those who would rather the NEA just shrivel up and die?
Rejecting all authority sounds nice in principle, but what about when it becomes the excuse for lawmakers to ignore climate scientists, or atomic specialists? These are questions we’ve started to try and ask ourselves with this record. It’s also something I’ve personally tried to address by recording and mixing other artists more often.
We talked before about how Deerhoof got out of feeling insular and shy about the social component of self-promotion and opened up to new experiences and collaborations with Mountain Moves. What advice would you give to more inwardly focused artists and composers on how to stay open to collaboration in a city where everyone’s got to focus focused on their own grind just to make ends meet?
SAUNIER: I guess my advice relates to the last question, and is potentially problematic in exactly the same way. Try doing things yourself. Don’t get too many managers and middlemen who see their job as buffering you from reality, by playing Bad Cop to your Good. Don’t rob yourself of the experience of learning on your own, through trial and error, how you’d like your sound to be mixed, or your publicity blurb to be written, or your stage lighting to look. Touring is not about sightseeing, because there’s no time for that. It’s about meeting people around the world at your merch table, learning a little bit about how other people feel and live.
Society’s speeding up in our age of information overload, 24-hour news cycles and unrepentant capitalist villainy. But is this media overload a non-issue for Deerhoof? You’ve long operated at a breakneck pace, with new releases almost annually and seemingly constant touring schedules. How can an artist or band harness the external pressure to speed up into a positive disruption?
DIETERICH: There’s a limit to the degree to which our brains can actually process the overload and starts to only process the presence or texture of the information, rather than the information itself. By that I just mean that information overload can have a kind of calming effect on people. It sates a desire for something, fills holes. Its mind-numbing regularity renders it potentially borderline contentless.
I think creative work is the opposite feeling: You feel every nuance, you are searching through every nook and cranny for possible meanings. It energizes and inflects. If anything, to me the desire would be to bring the kind of presence that is possible in creative work to every other aspect of your life, bring that presence of mind and creative fire to relationships, politics, etc.
SAUNIER: Trust me, we are under no pressure to speed up. Every label we’ve ever been on has told us to slow down. They say they could promote our records better if we didn’t release them so often. Probably true, but we don’t care, because we’ve got four composers in the band—releasing 10 minutes of your music per year each is not that much output. We’ve [also] got rent to pay and vegetables to obtain, so that means taking the show on the road, which means having a new record.
Lyrically, how do you all trust your audience to sit with such abstraction? Are you inspired by the “make of this what you will” approach of Zen koans? Why does this album sound so lyrically distinct from the rest of the hyper-topical protest music coming out these days?
SAUNIER: I can’t compare our goals to anyone else’s, but yes, we’ve always been into koans as a model for lyrics. One reason is that we play all over the world, and we’d like our lyrics to be simple enough for non-native English speakers to muse on.
One thing I thought about when writing lyrics for this record was the paradoxical spirit of the koan: addressing [lyrics] to two opposite imagined recipients at the same time. Anger and love together. Optimism about, and acceptance of, humanity’s fate at the same time. Finding words you could either shout to a large group or whisper in someone’s ear. Or singing something meant to tear down a solipsistic figure celebrating their own money and power, that’s also promoting the voice of an underdog speaking the truth.
Deerhoof performs with Sad13 and Lily On Horn Horse at Brooklyn Bazaar on Oct. 7 at 9pm; ticketfly.com