He’s a spastic man

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Deerhoof drummer Greg Saunier is always busy. When I got him on the phone one Sunday, he was in the middle of mixing a live album to be posted for free on the band’s website. The day before, Saunier participated in an explosive show at Brooklyn’s Union Pool with three other percussionists. Five minutes into it, another drummer’s kick pedal broke. “I gave him mine,” Saunier said. “I play a small kit—only a kick and a snare—and then I broke through that. All I had left was a cymbal, so I grabbed his floor drum and played that.”

Over the past decade and half, Deerhoof has pushed its erratic and explosive sound further into pop territory.

That was all in just one weekend. In the preceding months he’s executed an equally furious flurry of activity. In early August, for example, Deerhoof released a 7" record with Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy replacing singer Satomi Matsuzaki’s original vocals off a song from their most recent album, Deerhoof vs. Evil.

While Deerhoof is conducting a mini-tour this fall (which will bring them to the Jefferson Theater on September 22), this past spring the band took part in the Congotronics vs. Rockers tour, which brought indie rockers and international musicians together. “It was completely nuts,” Saunier said. “There were people from all over the world and nobody was in charge.”

As I talked with him, it became evident that this sort of creative chaos is the rule for Saunier and Deerhoof. “We have to be open to spontaneous or unpredictable events,” he said. “It’s the direction our career has followed.”

You get an amazing sound out of your drum kit, but it’s surprising how small it is.

I used to play a pretty normal set up, but I kept taking more and more pieces away. It’s the kind of thing that keeps me up at night, thinking about how my drum kit should be set up. It can never be ideal, but the act of constantly tinkering creates a panic in my mind that forces me to be uncomfortable and play something I’m not used to. 

In the last year, Deerhoof has released a series of 7" records with different artists singing over instrumental tracks from your most recent album. Was there a concerted effort to branch out?

I hoped to make an instrumental track for the rapper Busdriver and was in the middle of mixing Deerhoof vs. Evil and accidentally sent him a rough mix from that album. Before I could take it back he’d already written lyrics and recorded vocals that were incredible. I asked [our label] Polyvinyl what to do and they said let’s put it out and get other vocalists involved, too. A lot of collaborations like that happen for us—out of coincidence. 

Tweedy’s vocals fit so easily over “Behold a Marvel in the Darkness.” It sounds like one of his compositions. 

I wrote that song with Wilco in mind, and they were in my mind when I was mixing it, too, so I thought I’ve got to get Jeff to sing on it. I was afraid he was going to be too busy, but he responded immediately. He’s the only person who sang the melody and lyrics just as we wrote it. 

You have a Charlottesville connection in that your former music teacher Fred Maus is now a professor at UVA.

He gave me private lessons while I was in high school [in Baltimore, Maryland, where Maus taught at the Peabody Institute]. He just had a very interesting way of thinking about music, how it’s constructed, and what it means. He opened my mind in so many ways and the more I realized how little I understood about music the more I wanted to pursue it. I’ll always have a life-long indebtedness to him.

[Maus] introduced me to a lot of music I’d never heard before. This was in the late 1980s when it wasn’t easy to hear John Cage or some obscure piece of electronic tape music. It wasn’t like he was just a teacher, though. There was something quite specific. He had a big interest in how music was like language—here’s a musical phrase that answers that phrase, or contradicts that other phrase. It’s something that’s not explored very much but something that I constantly think about. 

Deerhoof have been together in one form or another for more than 15 years. Is it difficult to keep things challenging?

When we get together it automatically becomes creative. One person brings in an idea, and then everyone else misunderstands what that person meant. There’s a constant miscommunication when the four of us meet, so whether it’s to rehearse, record, or play on stage, it’s impossible not to have a sense of creative panic. Those moments are special.

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