Deerhoof: “Playing Live, Every Night... To Me That's The Meaning Of The Music”

We spoke with John Dieterich, Deerhoof’s guitarist, about the release of “Breakup Song”, the prolific group’s twelfth album

Deerhoof have survived changes in the group, and, especially, the implacable passage of time: far from “maturing” and repeating themselves, the San Francisco group has been shoring up its own particular sound for over a decade, gaining an ever-growing following. So far, “Breakup Song” has garnered only praise and it seems that the group is on the way to surpassing their cult status.

Photo by John Dieterich

Deerhoof are an oddity in alternative pop: if the Pixies innovated by doing whatever they bloody well pleased with rhythm changes, the San Francisco quartet takes it all even further, ignoring any sort of stylistic convention in each and every song. Somewhere between punk, pop, noise, experimental and DIY, Deerhoof’s music is, fortunately, hard to classify. Their career began in 1997, recording “The Man The King The Girl” for the prestigious label Kill Rock Stars, but it wasn’t until the release of “Milkman” in 2004 that bloggers and veteran journalists really started to pay attention to them. Since then, their reputation and their wonderful live shows (their concerts are a cathartic experience) have only won them more and more followers. A large part of the reason for this is Satomi Matsuzaki, the group’s charismatic singer, whose voice is unmistakeable. “Breakup Song” (recorded on Polyvinyl, their label for the last couple of years), their latest work (and also the most accessible to date), might turn out to be the final push that the band needs to stop being a cult band for just a few connoisseurs. To support the cause, we spoke with John Dieterich, the band’s guitarist.

You publish one album a year. How do you manage to keep up the pace?

I know it seems like a lot, but to be honest, we are four composers in the band and it doesn't feel like a lot to us.

But do you have a daily routine of writing songs?

I'm jealous of people who have that. I don't have that, I don't write every day. I have seen other bands, and recorded with other bands, and they can do it, but I can't, I'm not writing songs like that. But hopefully some day I'll have more time.

And now that you live in different cities, how do you manage?

We're still trying to figure it out. I'm very happy with the album; we are all very happy with the album, but I think, you know, depending on who you talk to it might have been rougher. This album was written in four different cities, everybody on their own, recording something apart from everybody else without other people asking... It's very... I don't know how to describe it... it was difficult, and there were times when you did everything by yourself and, you know, you don't know if it's something they're going to love or if it's something you'll have to work more on. You know? That kind of thing. So we still need to figure out the communication, but I think we're getting there, and fortunately it worked, but I don't know if we'll continue working like that.

But on the other hand, if you don't get feedback from the outside, it gives you more freedom...

Sure! That was one side of it that for me was really great, because I'm kind of slow and a lot of my process writing music is actually tied to the process of recording it, mixing it and producing it, so a lot of times it begins with a demo I play on guitar or something, and that actually might not convey the idea that I have for the song. I hear it like I want it to be, but not like it actually is. So for me working like this I felt freer because I was able to develop my ideas a 100% until it was truly what I liked, and if it was rejected, at least I know they're rejecting my real idea, as opposed to some abstract, weird, general notion of what my idea is. So I really enjoyed that aspect.

"The emotion is very difficult to play: it’s immediately recognisable, because when you hear it you immediately feel that"

The album is called “Breakup Song”, but the feeling I get when I listen to it is not sadness, but that feeling of going out with friends and having fun that you experience for awhile right after you break up.

Yes, exactly, that's it, exactly! That's what it's all about! Obviously, after breaking up everybody has their moments of introspection, pain, whatever... but in our version it's supposed lead you to discipline yourself to take advantage of whatever it is, and so try to find joy. That's my interpretation of life.

Actually, there's even a mambo on the album.

Basically we were talking about a lot of things and what we wanted is to imitate the mood, which was basically party-like, but the emotion is very difficult to play: it’s immediately recognisable, because when you hear it you immediately feel that, but it's hard to put it into words. I don't even know what the song’s about, but I feel like we are doing something that nobody else is doing. It's like when you feel like you don't have this person and it's so bad, and you feel so sad... and that's one way to deal with it. But another way is to think ‘you know what? Everything's just awesome and I'm just going to enjoy the thought of this person’. I don't know, that was one of the inspirations, something that gets you out of bed.

There are also more electronic elements in this album. Is this something you want to investigate, or was it just coincidental?

Actually we talked about adding some samplers for the tour, but in the end we thought that there's something good about being yourself, and when you're performing, instead of putting your attention into multiple things, trying to focus on whatever’s going on. So when we're playing live, part of our idea as a band is to be able to express anything with our instrumentation.

This album is quite different from your previous work: do you have problems when you play live mixing the old songs with the new ones in the setlist?

You know, it's funny, because we played our first live shows like two weeks ago, and we had never played before like three weeks ago, not even in a room together, because it was not constructed like this when we recorded it. So when we did rehearsals we were surprised how quickly we adapted to it and it sounded great, and very clear... and then we gave our first concert, which was in Washington, D.C., and all of a sudden it made me realise that many people had said how different this album was, and I thought ‘what are you talking about?’, because to me the actual material is very similar; I can hear a difference but it didn't seem that different. So all of a sudden we are all there playing and it's like ‘oh my God, this is really different!’, and realised that we are gonna have to develop skills, It's a good thing that we found out, but it's fun. In some ways the new album is simpler, but the kinds of things we do are displayed differently... I don't know, we have to figure out how to integrate this album with the rest of the music, but we'll get there.

You also have this cult status, with a very faithful audience. Are you afraid this status won't let you reach wider audiences, especially now that you're getting more and more recognition, or are you happy with things as they are?

We're very happy with the people who come to see us, basically because thanks to these people we've been able to function as a touring band, and if they didn't come, and we didn't make money touring, then we'd get jobs, but we wouldn't be able to tour as much as we do. And I'm very grateful for that. When I first joined the band in 1999, we always played local: we played in San Francisco once a week or every couple of weeks and it was great. But at the same time gigs get better when you learn things, and we change a lot, try new songs and everything, but if we grew more I'm not sure we could play live that much, every night, and to me that's the meaning of the music.

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