By continuing their sonic strafing of joyless dystopias, dynamic Bay Area trio Deerhoof evades the shoegazing irony of postmodern gluttony. The band has birthed its defining album in the newly released Friend Opportunity, bouncing musically from delicate nuggets of polyphonic euphoria to Zappa-style sucker-punches to the solar plexus. It comes as no surprise that, although back down to a trio, singer-bassist Satomi Matsuzaki, drummer Greg Saunier and guitarist John Dieterich — all of whom write music for the band — still serve up bold and satisfying fare. Just when you think you can’t handle anymore, go for seconds. Or at least ask for the recipe from Saunier.
eMusic: Most of your albums seems to have a running theme or even a story. Is there a story to Friend Opportunity?
Greg Saunier: We do end up having themes and stories on our albums for people who care to look for that sort of thing. In the case of Friend Opportunity, Satomi was talking about somebody we were vaguely acquainted with who recently moved to San Francisco with his Japanese wife. Satomi was thinking, “Wow, maybe this could be a friend opportunity.” In other words, this was an opportunity for her to meet somebody and make a new friend in San Francisco or an opportunity for them to have a friend since they just moved. When she said “friend opportunity,” immediately, I thought that was it —that’s what this album is about! I said “Stop! Wait! Don’t say anything for a second. What about that as the title?” We realized all the music we had done so far seemed to fit with that idea really well. All the songs have something to do with that opportunity of reaching out to people when you are alone. I think of the first song, “The Perfect Me,” as a very lonely song, although it’s energetic.
eMusic: I saw it as a special invitation to new listeners.
GS: Yes, an invitation. But “Matchbook Seeks Maniac” is concerned with maybe the last throes of somebody pronouncing something to the world. It has to do with someone obsessed with their own power, and maybe having power makes them more insane. In fact their being crazy gets them more power. If you look at real-life examples from the world of politics there seems to be this weird, cyclical relationship between power and insanity. They just seem to feed off each other. Yet, any glory that might have been in this over endowed person’s fantasy fades away and the person ends up lonely, stuck in their room, living out the same fantasy over and over again. I see it as kind of a depressing end. (laughs)
eMusic: You opened for the Roots, Radiohead, Flaming Lips and Wilco before this album. By musical osmosis did any of their sonic qualities bleed into your writing or playing?
GS: To call it osmosis would make it sound a little too accidental. Even before we played with any of those bands we were huge fans. Satomi and I first saw the Roots in 1996 in San Francisco and basically we were totally devastated, just blown away. So Deerhoof opening for the Roots didn’t seem weird at all. I still have this vision in my mind of hearing and seeing him play and the way he tuned his drums and attacked them and how simple his kit was and using that as some kind of standard or benchmark. It’s the same with the Flaming Lips; it’s the same with Radiohead, and it’s the same with Wilco. When we hear their music it’s not necessarily that we want to imitate any of those bands, but when we recorded Friend Opportunity we were trying to create a response to their music. As if the Roots concert was the question and now we have to try and come up with an answer, a response to their call.
The same is very much true with Radiohead. We were actually mixing Friend Opportunity while we were on tour opening for Radiohead, so literally we would play a show in a soccer stadium in front of twenty thousand people somewhere. Then go out in the audience, stand there and watch the greatest concert you’d ever seen in your life. You know shedding tears with everyone around you, total strangers, with everyone’s jaws on the floor saying “I can’t believe a concert can be this good” and then going straight back to our room, sitting down at the computer and saying, “OK, let’s do our album now” while just feeling like, God, this pales so miserably in comparison. I mean all these bands are just so ambitious. They are all popular but they’re also extremely artistic. I mean the Flaming Lips’At War with the Mystics was a deliberate model we chose for this album. We were constantly comparing the mixes we were doing to say, “Free Radicals” and wondering why doesn’t ours sound as good? We were amazed just how close-up everything sounded and how everything just had so much punch, while sounding funny and surprising.
So with any of these bands if you are doing a response to their call you can imagine the thrill of then realizing they not only heard our response and must have heard something in it to reach out and ask if we wanted to play together. It is mind-blowing.
eMusic: How did returning to a trio effect the album musically? Was it a natural evolution?
GS: Well it didn’t change the evolution of the band because I don’t think Deerhoof has ever had anything firm enough from which to evolve. Evolution also implies getting better or going higher up the chain and rather I feel we’ve always just done something different each time, like starting from scratch. In a way it’s like we started over the band every time we started an album. When somebody thinks of a new song we don’t have any control over what that song is going to be beforehand. I can’t plan out and say, “OK, I’m going to write a ‘rage-rock’song now. I mean it’s just as hard to predict what you are going to write as it’s impossible to predict what you are going to dream about tonight.
eMusic: After thirteen years as a band is being an independent curator of your own career a boon or a bane? Do you ever wish Clive Davis would call?
GS: Hmm… that’s a good, but tough question. For us it’s worked out amazingly well. I really don’t wish to be on any other label, although I think there may be times our label wishes we were on a different label (laughs). In a way, I can’t answer the question because we have never been in any other situation, but in a way I feel like with the digital distribution now available to bands like us, we’re really on the iTunes label, the eMusic label, or even just leaking stuff, you are on the Internet somewhere — it’s all your label and I think that has been amazing for us. Every time we travel to a new city where we have never played or some small town where there is no uber-hip record store, people still come to the show and say they found us online somewhere. In other words we are totally into any format that music can take, be it an MP3, an LP, or a tape, and any use that our music can be put to is OK by us.