Deerhoof: A Living Miracle

It’s become increasingly apparent over my many years of interacting with people about Deerhoof that there isn’t such a thing as a casual Deerhoof fan – either you’re out of the loop entirely or have devoted yourself to following their every move since you first discovered them. The epitome of ‘cultish’, Deerhoof have cultivated legions of disciples that revel in nerding out about the deep cuts of their vast discography across four decades. There are also no true favourites in the world of Deerhoof; each new album is treated like one of 19 beloved children, all with their own quirks, imperfections and reasons to be adored. It comes with great pleasure to say that I’m one of these devotees, and that Deerhoof appreciation is always welcomed with open arms in my company.

As they draw closer to 30 years as a group, their inventiveness and reluctance to ever conform to a singular sound still lives strong at the heart of everything they do, and their latest album Miracle-Level couldn’t be a finer example of a band who have never been toppled from their creative peak. Combining their unpredictable melodies and free-spirited experimentation alongside a strong embrace of vocalist/bassist Satomi Matsuzaki’s Japanese heritage, the album feels far from an aging band forging one last-ditch attempt to recapture the spirit of their halcyon days, simply because they’ve ardently stuck to their core belief of pushing themselves to continually create challenging and thought-provoking music.

While there have been many lineup changes throughout their existence, their one sole constant has been drummer and now de facto leader, Greg Saunier. A titan of the tubs; his feverish style often feels akin to a windmill of limbs somehow managing to stay in sync with one another, whether through unfathomable levels of skill or sheer willpower. On guitar duties, the pairing of Ed Rodriguez and John Dieterich is a constant battle of frenzied noodling against ugly, dissonant chords that collide in unthinkable ways to produce a singular beauty. Tying the ensemble together is Matsuzaki; steadfast on her instrument like the glue that holds the band together, while her singing possesses a naïveté that on the surface seems childlike, but upon deeper listening reveals itself to be tackling pertinent subject matters with a conscious worldview. Sure, it’s possible to listen to Deerhoof and simply find reward in the fun aspects of their music, but there’s so much to relish when you truly immerse yourself in their unique world.

Having released Miracle-Level at the tail end of March this year, the group are now set to embark on a string of European tour dates as well as reissuing their 2005 classic (and joint 19th best album) The Runners Four via Joyful Noise Recordings. I spoke to Greg and John in the middle of this routinely busy year to discuss all things relating to their latest release, their history as a group and the evolution of their ethos. While I was told I’d only be treated to a regimented 45 minutes via Zoom call with the pair, things quickly derailed due to unexpected left-turns in the conversation and went on for double the allotted time. 

With plenty of discussion to sift through, there were many topics that unfortunately didn’t make the cut such as tangents about Steve Albini’s guitar straps, worshipping the Rolling Stones from the age of 12 and John being attacked by an Indonesian shadow puppet mid-call, but that still left enough room for us to speak at length about existentialist worries about the impending fate of our planet, listening to Rosalía’s Motomami on repeat and artificial intelligence lacking everything the human touch provides. It’s probably worth noting that their eloquent digressions should probably also demand a glossary of terms to be printed alongside them, but their insights made for a lengthy yet thought-provoking interview.

Deerhoof (l-r; Greg Saunier, Satomi Matsuzaki, John Dieterich, Ed Rodriguez)

You release at a pretty great rate and have had all sorts of responses to albums in the past. What would you say has been the most refreshing response from anyone to Miracle-Level so far?  

Greg: My favorite response – and the fact that it keeps repeating only increases my pleasure upon seeing it – when you go on Instagram and find ‘My Lovely Cat’, so many people post where it goes right to the B part, and Ed plays the slide guitar, and then put some little emoji of some cat clawing or something. I swear it is the cutest thing I’ve ever seen. It fits so well. I made up that little melody, but I was never thinking of it in terms of slide guitar. That was something Ed came up with when we were rehearsing it, and I certainly never knew that Satomi was going to write a song about a cat. Once it all fused together with the lyrics and the slide and the emojis, it’s just like – I actually think that we might retire. I think that we’ve reached the peak of a possible response to anything we’ve done with that. It’s just pure poetry.  

In some ways, I feel like this is an album full of firsts, and I guess the first of those is to ask why did you choose now to be the first time to do an album fully in Japanese? It’s been a strong part of your identity as a group since the beginning, so what about now made it the right time?

Greg: First of all, the fact that you even know that we’ve had other songs in Japanese in the past – thank you. In a way it was a trick to see which journalists did their homework. I don’t know. What do you think, John? How did we decide to do that? 

John: I think it was your idea, right?

Greg: I mean, that’s what I’ve been telling people in interviews because of my vanity, but I never assumed that’s actually true. I think we were passing back and forth tracks, especially John and I. When we were writing songs and had little demos of things, we were also sending like, “hey, I’ve been listening to this, and like, here’s this Ornette Coleman thing or this aria from Così fan tutte by Mozart”. John, you had some song that was on my computer, but I think I had gotten it from yours?

John: Ngola Ritmos, right?

Greg: Yeah, they had a song called ‘Muxima’ that we were passing back and forth. It was like songwriting inspiration, but even more significantly for us, we were panicking because we were about to go into a recording studio with a producer and not be doing it ourselves. This was a cause for abject terror in our case, because when we’re recording it ourselves or giving feedback to each other at this point, if I think the snare drum needs a little more treble on it, I just sort of wiggle my my right shoulder for a second and John knows what I mean. Our level of understanding of each other when it comes to sound issues is like we have our own language in which we can nitpick over each other’s tones and tuning.

Official vizualiser for ‘My Lovely Cat’, taken from Miracle-Level (2023).

John: I think it’s not just about sound, it’s also about a shared history of aesthetics and stuff. So it’s like even if somebody like throws out a reference to something, there’s so many things you can hear in music and so many things you can listen for. We misunderstand each other all the time, but I feel like we do have something of a shorthand at this point. 

Greg: Exactly. We were working out the demos and about to have our first email exchange with Mike Bridavsky, who was going to be producing our record. We don’t know him at all. It turned out a couple of weeks ago that John and Mike had interacted eight years ago when John mixed a Half Japanese record that had partially been recorded at Mike’s studio by Mike – so basically, we’re like total strangers. How in the world are we going to communicate our very idiosyncratic, personalised preferences about how we want the kick drum to sound or how we want the guitar to sound? 

What I’m getting at is that we were trying to collect songs that were inspiring to us and that we really liked the sound of, largely from an audio perspective, but as we were about to email them off to Mike, it kind of occurred to me that none of these songs are in English. It’s kind of weird; we started thinking about how popular K-Pop had become in the Anglophone world. Also at the time, Rosalía and her atomic explosions were totally maxing out. The songs were pretty new at the time, and I had been listening to them a ton. I was directly inspired by how avant-garde she was with song structure and weird non-sequiturs in the middle of the songs – it just had a sense of humor. The English-speaking world is totally on board with a lot of music where I assume that the vast majority of listeners can understand almost nothing of the lyrics. Either that inspires them to try to learn it, or they look at a translation on a piece of paper, or they are able to sing along by imitating the phonemes, and it doesn’t really matter. 

I’ve gotten so used to everybody having to accommodate me all the time, and I’m always in the majority, whether it’s lingually or racially. There’s this sense of entitlement that I think for a lot of us becomes really quite boring. You become bored with being the automatic have instead of the have not, and the one whose language is always being used. I just thought maybe now would be a good time to not just sprinkle it in, but let’s have Satomi write all of the lyrics. Sometimes we kind of share that, but she wrote the lyrics for the whole record. It kind of had this feeling of like it being one kind of gestalt. It just felt suddenly like it all cohered into this, into this nice whole.

Language is a very unifying thing though; it ties everything together.

John: Every language has its own flow and melody and its rhythm to it, and the fact that it’s her first language as well gives a sort of an intimacy to it. For me as a listener, I listen to so much music that isn’t in English, and I may know something about what it’s talking about, whether it’s like political things or social things or love or whatever, but there’s a conversation between the music and the lyrics, and you’re kind of inventing it up as you go along. I love that kind of space and I do it even with English, and I’m usually wrong 90% of the time with English lyrics. I think it gives people an opportunity to hear it in different ways, and if you want, you can hear it without understanding it until later.

Of course, it’s about having the curiosity to take it any further, I suppose that’s on the listener. It’s interesting you talk about the cadence of how Satomi sings in Japanese, because I don’t actually think it’s too dissimilar to when she is singing in English. The phrasing of the English language lyrics is quite still stuttered into short syllables like Japanese is, so it doesn’t feel all that different.

Greg: I can see that. I think that’s one of the reasons Satomi and I bonded musically so quickly when I first met her and she came over to our house to audition for the band. She’d never been in a band and had no musical experience whatsoever but immediately I felt a sense that the kind of music and the kind of melodies that I was already writing for Deerhoof before she joined, she was going to be such a great performer of that kind of material. There’s a tradition in Japan, which they call karaoke, which has to do with amateur singers being able to pull off pop hits. One of the characteristics of the most karaoke-able songs has to be that it isn’t too hard to sing, and like you said it’s often one syllable and there aren’t melismas. There’s something where if you do sing the song in a stiff way, the song still lands. I think the extent of her musical experience was that she’d done a lot of karaoke after work or with friends, so I had this desire to make melodies that would be easy to sing in general for people. I think that’s the same and maybe even a little stronger when it’s in her native language.

The one other thing I’ll say about her singing in Japanese has nothing to do with sound. Satomi talks about it occasionally and has talked about it since Miracle-Level has come out, but there’s a lingering sense of a pre-encounter with the West; a pre-Westernization belief in spirits and in things that cannot be mechanically explained by a Western scientific mindset that was introduced to Japan at some point a few centuries ago. There’s still some elements to a lot of the lyrics that she writes in general and particularly wrote on this record that I think have to do with magic, miracles and things that are not quite real, but she might say are really actually more real. They have to do with the spiritual aspect that’s behind the surface. I don’t think her actual beliefs are wildly different from John’s or mine, but I think that when she’s singing in her native language, it connects back to a cultural tradition that predates recordings, and Deerhoof as a band. 

John: Something related to this is that that stuff also exists in language and poetics that when it gets translated, you find these connections between words that you never thought of because of something coming from a different culture. It’s like, I never would have thought that they were related or juxtapositions of things.

Deerhoof performing songs from Miracle-Level and Actually, You Can (2021) for KEXP.

It’s interesting you say that because it’s something that I’ve noticed I sometimes do when I’m writing. If I’m searching for a different way of expressing something, I will go to how it might be said in French and use their translation of a word to get a different synonym. 

Greg: Oh man, I mean, that kind of technique. I was just editing something that I was writing, actually a transcription of an interview. I realized, you know what, I need to change the font. That’s going to help me realize where the typos are. It’s sort of how you translate it into French and see if it still works. Often you can find flaws that you convinced yourself were not there. 

You mentioned earlier about how the themes of miracles are something that come from Japanese tradition that predates their Westernization. You can also see some of that in your previous work, like The Magic and the discussion of good versus evil [Deerhoof vs. Evil]. How did miracles come through as the theme for this record?

Greg: I guess there is the ever increasingly popular habit of doom scrolling, and starting to almost get off on outrage. You somehow feel that you’re fulfilling some moral duty by reading halfway through one headline and then making your decision about finding yet another human being to decide is evil or another situation to feel threatened by in an existential way. Sometimes it feels whack-a-mole with the number of simultaneous overlapping crises, and you’re overwhelmed with which one to even focus on, and then you start to realise that there’s an industry that benefits from eliciting this constant sense of doom and outrage. It’s a way to keep you glued to your devices which is their business model, and that they’re making a profit off of generating those feelings inside human beings and playing on people’s limbic systems and stuff. I think we wanted to propose a view in which the crises are real, terrifying, and may soon terminate the species.

The vast majority of all of our day to day existence is completely filled with the most improbable positivity – why did life even form on this planet to begin with, let alone turn into our species of homosapiens and what possible infinitesimal set of parameters had to all be true that we would hear a chord and like feel something in our in our heart and in our emotion? That a line of poetry could move us to tears or that we have compassion for each other? The word of human nature gets abused in such a way constantly that somehow it’s human nature to be against each other. It’s also another aspect of human nature that for some reason we’re quite compassionate with each other. We have the ability to sympathise with each other, to help each other, to be generous with each other, to be loving and caring with each other. I think it was sort of wanting to paint a portrait that the miracles are the vast majority of our existence and the non-miracles are a blip. Now they’re about to kill us all, but they are historically and philosophically a tiny blip in the span of the potential of the human race. I guess that was the idea. 

I mean we are far more complex than that as beings. Our own nature goes way beyond all of our own comprehension, really. You can never know. 

Greg: I mean, that feeling of not knowing. I think it’s like a big part of not just Miracle-Level, but something that we talk about all the time. You know, when we’re playing, when we’re writing a song, when we’re improvising – it’s like that feeling of not knowing. 

John: It’s the good stuff. I think part of the reason that I like these ideas and translation is because you discover all the things you didn’t know that you thought you knew. You find all these connections and things that are already part of you, but you don’t really know it. I’ve written things that I sometimes just don’t have a connection to and find ways of translating it until it means something to me again. I think Deerhoof does a lot of that too. It’s like all of us helping to translate each other’s material into the language that the band can speak.  

Greg: A lot of the ‘new material’ on Miracle-Level is actually incredibly old. It’s just we had not figured out a way to fit it into any of our songs. The first section of ‘Phase Out All Remaining Non-Miracles by 2028’ is something Ed wrote years ago when he joined the band, it was like 15 years ago or something. I’m always trying to find a way to fit Ed, John or Satomi’s musical ideas into something that I’m working on, and sometimes it takes literally years before I get it. It gets crazily translated and ends up sounding way different than the composer intended. I mean, often that’s kind of the fun of it. Like John said, that’s the good stuff. It’s the stuff that gets kind of mangled. 

Official video for ‘Phase-Out All Remaining Non-Miracles by 2028’, taken from Miracle-Level.

I guess there was also that added pressure this time around of not necessarily having the space to be as free with that. You had to have everything quite tight going into the studio because you had a strict two week window in which to do it. 

John: Greg sort of alluded to this, but because we were terrified not knowing Mike and never having worked with him, we had to have everything fully written, like the lyrics were written, we had really clear ideas about how we wanted the instruments to sound. I actually don’t think it necessarily sounds like what we thought it was going to sound like, but because we had that picture, it was just our way to approach it so that – at least in our minds – it couldn’t go wrong. It couldn’t become something that we would then not be able to understand or something that like we would, it would be so confusing that there’s no way we would be able to finish it. I think we were really conscious of that and put a lot of thought into that. 

Greg: We just moved to pre-recording instead of post-recording, we did that before so that we’d be ready and be foolproof. 

Author’s note: At this point, John has to leave the interview. Greg and I continue to talk for another 45 minutes.

Was there a particular moment during the sessions where you realised Mike really gets what you as a band wanted? 

Greg: To be honest, the first time I talked to him on the phone, I already knew within one minute that it was going to work. I don’t know what it is. I mean, it’s not just random chemistry. He cultivates the ability to navigate the personalities of strangers from years of experience recording bands, many of whom he doesn’t know until they show up at the studio. Sometimes we think of the producer or the recording engineer as being an audio specialist, but I think an even more significant trait necessary to being a good producer or audio engineer is that you can immediately find a rapport and trust with people. It was not that we implanted a sonic vision in its totality into his brain and he executed it like a robot. It’s that we trusted him and found rapport on a personal level. 

It was two weeks and the second week was mixing. He was like, “I kind of prefer to get the mix started on my own, could you guys leave the control room? I’m going to get some stuff set up and twiddle some knobs for a while and then invite you back in and then you can see how it’s sounding and we can polish off this mix”. We thought no problem, because we trusted him. An hour goes by. Two hours go by. Three hours go by. He’s in the control room, and I’m in the live room. I can see him. He’s swinging over here to the outboard gear and his faders are going up and down and he’s doing something on the computer. He’s scratching his chin. You can tell he’s in due thought. Eight hours later he comes out, we walk in and the mix is completely done. I mean, this has never happened in our entire career. It’s always us having to obsess over every detail of the mix, but he just went and did it. He untangled all the problems. This song was perfect. We were all so moved. 

There were things that we could do in this recording studio setup that there’s no way we could do in our normal DIY home recording that we have done for so many years on every single record. Our mixing habits were not necessarily appropriate, and him making it a little bit less obnoxious sounding to try and preserve the kind of depth of things was such a treat for us to hear. It doesn’t matter whether he’s downloaded our sonic vision for it; he’s got his own and he’s going to make it work. It’s not something that AI can replicate, you know. This was the exact opposite. It was just a human being with his own personality and comprehension of what it was he needed to do.

You’ll never replace the human touch though.

Greg: He’s all about the human touch. I think bands often are. It’s not all music, but there exists a trend towards more mechanisation and the eradication of some aspects of the human touch. That mechanisation is not just from machines; it also comes from the imitation of machines. It didn’t only start with Ableton and it didn’t only start with drum machines. You could compare rock music to jazz, for example – the rhythm section is much more machine-like in rock or R&B than it is in jazz, where it always has an element of improvisation and human interaction. I mean, Deerhoof will never be jazz musicians and we’ll never be that expert and that virtuosic, but we nevertheless enjoy cultivating human interaction, not just with a producer, but with each other too. Every time we play ‘My Lovely Cat’, on tour, it comes out different. There’s a lot of wiggling and jiggling between ourselves from night to night that is special. It’s not like somebody else could come in and play John’s guitar part; he’s not an anonymous replaceable cog in a machine. It has to be John playing his guitar part and it would just be something totally different if another person was playing.

A performance of ‘Milk Man’ for Pitchfork series ‘Juan’s Basement’, and the video that ignited my love for the band aged 16.

It’s interesting that you say you’ll never be jazz musicians, but I feel like you have, whether intentionally or not, covered that and many other bases throughout your lifespan as a band. Is there anywhere that Deerhoof would never go? 

Greg: No, no, no. It’s just about knowing our limitations. There were times earlier in my life when the level of demoralisation that I would feel upon hearing someone who’s mastered the art of music to that degree was enough to make me consider quitting. I think I feel a little differently now that the threats to our survival have something to do with it. I don’t know how much longer human civilization is going to be able to last in any form we can recognise. I live in Tucson, Arizona, and sometimes you’ll see an article say you’ve got another good 40 years of water left there, and then I see a different article saying you’ve got maybe two years and sorry, you’re going to have to evacuate. That’s just sort of a jokey example, but you know, anybody could press the button at any moment. Our survival truly is threatened. It was never not true that anything might happen, and so there’s that feeling that, you know, that I might not master every lick that every classic drummer played. 

To answer your question, Deerhoof never makes any rules. I don’t think we think that way at all. It’s more being happy with not having acquired everything. I guess it feels like you’re acquiring pre-existing skills or styles or genres like you’re at a store, but I’m more interested in discovering who I am or who my bandmates are. What’s the music that actually no one’s ever heard that can only be made by the four of us? The art of making music out of thin air has never been piecing together other people’s music modules in some slightly different combination, but it has felt more like something from the imagination, something from the beyond. It does feel like miracles. I think the miracle of when people create artistic things out of thin air is that it’s more than just a human touch. People sometimes think of us as a prolific band, but I don’t feel that way. We put out a 30-minute record every year with four songwriters. It’s like, well, what’s one fourth of 30 minutes? I’m not that great at math, but it’s not that many minutes of music for an entire year of work. It’s like we’ve barely done anything, you know. 

How does where the band are now align with what your initial expectations of the band 30 years ago were? Are there places that you always sort of thought you would go and are there places where you have… 

Greg: I didn’t think that Deerhoof was going to last a week. I mean, it was formed because a different band that the two of us at the time were in suddenly broke up. We had shows coming up and suddenly the other people in the band quit.

You were just fulfilling those shows? 

Greg: Yeah, exactly. We would just do improv or noise because we didn’t know what to do. We thought no one would show up, but like five people showed up, so that’s five more than we thought. Then it was like, “well, let’s let’s do another show”, and then 10 people show up. A reasonable person could not truly expect this to continue at whatever level it’s at. Statistically, everything has been a surprise. I don’t just mean the fact that we’ve been successful. That’s already staggering, but it’s also like, what are the chances that we even still get along with each other? We’ve all individually moved through several stages of life, and whatever chemistry you think you had on day one, there’s absolutely no reason to speculate you’re still going to have it 20 years later. I’ve been thinking what would me and Rob [Fisk, founding member of Deerhoof] in 1994 have thought – would those two people be proud of what the band is putting out into the world in 2023? I have to say I feel pretty good in some weird ways. Even though there have been lineup changes and it’s been decades, I feel like there’s some core principles that the band started with that had to do with a certain sense of humor, a certain moral point of view, a certain sense of cuteness and also a certain sense of destruction and obliteration and noise and volume. It’s almost like Deerhoof is some entity that has a life of its own, and the soul of that band that started in ‘94 by accident half as a joke is still somehow investigating what that soul is and still getting answers. There’s still more information to be learned from asking that spirit questions. It’s like an oracle that’s still yielding results somehow. 

I think a lot of it had to do with Rob. It’s been over 20 years since he’s been in the band, but still I feel like it’s his thing he made up. He kind of had a vision that’s still generating something. It’s still a life force that the band is, nourishing the band so many years into the future. We never imagined we would have a career at all.

Deerhoof c.1995, with founding member Rob Fisk (centre) alongside Greg and Satomi

Do you still speak with Rob Fisk? 

Greg: Yeah, here and there. I was only in touch with him by Facebook, and then I stopped using Facebook. He still makes music too, and I think that the music he makes is also very much sticking to some core principles in a really hardcore way. It sounds nothing like the music Deerhoof makes, but ou can see how they both grew out of what he and I had come up with in the early days.

From your recent interactions do you think he’s still got a lot of admiration for where you took it in the following years? Do you think he’d be proud that you kept that going? 

Greg: This goes for anybody who has left the band, and that would include Rob, Kelly [Goode, keyboards 1997-99] and Chris Cohen [guitars, 2003-06]; these are obviously personal friends, but imagine trying to ask that point blank to someone who literally left the band for their own reasons. It would be like going to your parents and asking “are you proud of me or not”. Somebody really brave could find the nerve to ask that question, but we dance around it. I think we always express that we’re proud of each other with anybody who’s left the band. I would say that I’m extremely proud of what they’ve done since leaving the band. Chris Cohen is maybe my favorite musical artist in existence. I’m awestruck with the recognition that what he’s doing is something that I could never do. 

Words: Reuben Cross // Header image: Mike Bridavsky

‘Miracle-Level’ is out now via Joyful Noise Recordings. Stream and purchase the record along with the rest of their releases via Bandcamp. Deerhoof set off on a European tour starting August 21st – find tickets and tour dates via their website.

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