Interview with Deerhoof

By Jesse Hicks

Nigh-unclassifiable San Francisco band Deerhoof has been labeled
everything from “art-punk” to “prog-rock” to “rock about small, cute things,” inviting comparisons to early Sonic Youth (less so with the “small, cute things” bit).

They’ve consistently defied description, and their seventh album, The Runners Four, has garnered the most accolades of their career to date. Guitarist Chris Cohen spoke from San Francisco about crafting the new album, touring, and
The White Album.   

Let’s talk about the process of this album. How does it compare to your other albums? I know on Milk Man you didn’t play together in the studio; everything was mixed in post production.

Everything has been different. Milk Man was like that, but on Apple-O’ we did play that together. Reveille had a lot of stuff – each song was done differently, even each section of each song was done differently.

We’ve done stuff where we all played together in the studio, but I think on this one that difference was, maybe, that we had a lot more time to do it. We recorded this one in our practice space, which we’d never done before. That meant we could be kind of reckless as we were recording, and try things out. If it fails you just hit ‘delete’ and there’s not that much lost. You lose maybe one day out of a hundred, instead of being in the studio, being really pressed for time, if you mess up one song that means the song doesn’t end up on the album.

We got a chance to play the songs in a different way before we recorded them, too. One thing that was different about this was rather than learn the songs and go out and play them live, then come back and record them – which is what we’ve often done when we record together – we learned the songs in the studio one by one, and played each one for a while, and then just hit record after hours and hours of jamming on it. Even section by section – we might play one particular riff over and over again for an hour and record the entire thing, and then just pick the best one. All of those things were new with this album.

So you were in the studio a lot more than usual. How’d that feel once you were out on the road?

When we finished the record we didn’t really know how to play any of the songs. It wasn’t like we practiced every song for every day for three months. We did one song at a time and by the time we were actually ready to perform these songs live, we had to go back and re-learn them. It affected the way we played the shows.

When we recorded the songs, I don’t we had the sense that once we recorded it, ‘This is it, this is the finished version.’ I always think that every time we play it, it’s kind of a different variation, and now that we’re playing the songs again, live, it’s kind of the same idea as it was on the album. So, although the songs are played with a lot of variations from the recording, the idea behind them is more the same on this record than on previous records. It was the same idea of variation – everyone kind of playing it as if we had a million other chances to play it, too. There wasn’t one way to play it. It was kind of like a sketch that we filled in differently every night.

A lot of bands have a very perfected studio album, and then they’re live playing is a little sloppy, or whatever. I think with us the live and the studio album are kind of the same: neither is perfect. There isn’t even a perfect example to compare it to.

It sounds like in trying to get at the essence of the song, you’re almost playing cover versions of your own material.

 Yeah. Yeah, definitely. Uhm…uh [pause] … Yeah. [Here, the interviewer suspects, Mr. Cohen was rendered speechless by the pseudo-profundity of the interviewer’s comment.]

In reading the reviews for this album, I noticed they kept coming back to calling this your most “accessible” album. It seems like that’s what you’re getting at -- the question of accessibility and how far you can go before something that’s “accessible” becomes, like you said, background music, and the level of attention you can have and still keep people involved in the music.”

Do you think that being more accessible would be stretching it out – maybe fewer ideas per minute would be more accessible? It’s really funny if you think about it, because you’d think popularity would be based on, ‘How much can I get in how little time?’ or something. Maybe that’s strange for me to say, but I imagine with the lifestyle most people lead, that’s something people value. Certainly in most types of media, getting your idea across is considered a prized virtue.

I think a lot of music magazines, when they use the term “accessible,” they mean “more familiar” – not necessarily that the ideas are concisely expressed, but that they’re easily grasped.

It depends on what’s familiar to you.

And it always has that double-edged sword of being too familiar, where you don’t get anything out of it and it becomes background music.

I think if you go too far in either direction, whether everything becomes more condensed or everything sprawls, you risk getting to the point of unfamiliarity. For example, like I was saying before, if you had a ten-second song that had 100 ideas in it, people would be like, ‘Uh!’ It’s not familiar anymore, because there’s nothing to latch onto. It might be imperceptible; everything might go by so quickly you might not even perceive it on the first listen. And I think many people really only listen to music once unless there’s something that draws them back again.

On the other side of it, if you just do the same thing over and over again for ten hours, like Erik Satie, then that’s considered very experimental music. What’s the range of accessibility?

I’m very confused about what makes something “accessible.” A lot of times I find myself listening to music and getting very bored, because something repeats too many times or I feel an idea isn’t worth quite as much attention as it’s getting. There’s a window we are always just on the edge of. It’s nice if we can fall in there, but I think we’re always right on the edge of it – it might just be annoying, or it might just be boring, you know? That actually really interests me.

Do you have that window in mind when you put together a song?

We have that in mind every time we put together a setlist, or make any record, or even make a song. I think those are real central questions – I think those are the real central problems of everything you’re going to make.

We really did want to make a record that didn’t have any bummers on it. When we were getting ready to make this record and we kinda knew it was going to be longer than our other records, we were kinda looking at other double albums to see how we wanted to approach this. All of the classic double albums you can think of, like The White Album or Exile on Main Street or Trout Mask Replica. We were talking about all of those and – Trout Mask Replica, I’ve never felt that there’s any filler on there; that one totally works for me –but when I went to listen to The White Album, I realized that I’ve never even listened to it the whole way through! I probably sound obnoxious criticizing other bands in my interview, but I wouldn’t want our album to be like The White Album. There are things I feel didn’t quite work. Exile on Main Street – there are songs I definitely skip over when I listen to that.

It took a lot of scheming to get something that we though people wouldn’t skip over. It’s like you were saying with Atom Heart Mother [Pink Floyd’s 21:30 minute epic that takes up an entire album side]. Those couple songs on the other side – I’d be bummed if there was a side on our record that people really ignored.

And there’s no real way to gauge that, the success, other than for yourself. If it’s successful for you -- and I guess I can’t quite gauge the success just yet. I’m happy with it, as far as I can remember.


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