Setting Sights

Greg Saunier

For Deerhoof’s latest album, the band’s drummer says he was trying to express nothing short of pre-apocalyptic sonic abandon.

Deerhoof’s 2014 studio album, La Isla Bonita, was intended to be a highly extravagant effort, inspired by the Top 40 dance music of the late 1980s and early ’90s. For a time, it seemed, artists such as Madonna and Janet Jackson could do no wrong, and the music industry was riding high, unaware of the seismic shifts in lifestyle and popular tastes the digital revolution would soon bring.

“The title was meant to be sarcastic,” drummer and cofounder Greg Saunier says from his home in Brooklyn. “This record is really about experiencing a pre-apocalyptic feeling of partying your life away while your culture crumbles.”

The party came crashing down when it was apparent that the band’s basement demos could be just as compelling as any lavish production. Basking in sonic abandon, Deerhoof recorded off-kilter hybrids of noise pop and art-rock, such as “Doom,” “Last Fad,” and “Exit Only.” “All of the tracks, except the vocals, were done live with no separation,” Saunier says, claiming that he thinks in terms of “gestures,” not “time,” when pummeling his two-piece kit.

Despite the album’s overall rawness, La Isla Bonita contains elements of subtle complexity. For example, the opener, “Paradise Girls,” began its life as a cover version of Janet Jackson’s “What Have You Done for Me Lately” but morphed into something else entirely, via a 6/4 rhythm that resembles the ubiquitous “Funky Drummer” breakbeat. In addition, “Big House Waltz” was a technical challenge for Saunier, demanding intense focus. “That drum part was based on a rhythm that was created by Satomi [Matsuzaki, bassist/vocalist/drummer] with an iPhone app,” Greg says. “It was simple to play if you took away the woodblock pattern, but it would have helped if I had a third arm.”

Established as a power duo in the San Francisco Bay Area in 1994 by Saunier and guitarist Rob Fisk, Deerhoof evolved into a trio with the arrival of Matsuzaki, and became a highly influential indie act whose impact can be heard in the music of the Flaming Lips and St. Vincent, among others. When Fisk quit in the early 2000s, the remaining band members found themselves at a crossroads. “I think I looked at the shape of the world,” Saunier says, “and thought, What am I doing? I play in a rock band. It feels so pointless. The sound of the band was really formed with that mood of desperation.”

The lineup was rejuvenated with the addition of guitarist John Dieterich (second guitarist Ed Rodriguez joined in 2008, replacing Chris Cohen), and Deerhoof has continued on its inimitable musical path with the likes of 2011’s Deerhoof vs. Evil and 2012’s Breakup Song. “Maybe there’s no point [to what we do],” Saunier says, “but we’re still here doing it. We treat each record as if it’s our last. It turns into a celebration.”

Quiet On The Set

In an effort to temper the volume generated by cymbals and make it easier for lead singer Satomi Matsuzaki’s vocals to be heard, Saunier performs with a combination of the quietest cymbals he’s been able to find: a 24″ Dream Bliss ride (“It has a small bell and a long sustain”) and hi-hats made up of a broken 18″ Istanbul Agop flat ride on top and the bottom half of a pair of Sick Hats, a Sabian prototype never put into production, underneath.

Story by Will Romano

Photo courtesy of the artist