Buke + Gase // Raleigh Moncrief
In 1992, Greg Saunier, recently graduated with a degree in music composition from Oberlin Conservatory of Music, joined a short-lived San Francisco quartet called Nitre Pit, on drums. In March 1994, when the two guitarists of this short-lived project departed suddenly, Greg and bassist Rob Fisk found themselves with several booked shows and no idea what to do. Out of necessity they quickly concocted an elastic, hyper-expressive style to make up for their stark instrumentation, and Deerhoof was born.
Though seen by few, Deerhoof soon developed a reputation in Bay Area musicians' circles as some of the wildest and weirdest music in the underground. But ironically their most pivotal early experience would occur in the very heart of "love rock" territory, at the 1995 Yo Yo A Go Go Festival in Olympia, WA, in front of an audience instantly polarized by Deerhoof's jarring ferocity. In the audience was Slim Moon, founder of the independent Olympia record label Kill Rock Stars. Moon signed Nitre Pit (as they were still called at that point) on for one 7" single, at which point the duo renamed themselves Deerhoof.
The name came from the title of a brief tape Rob had recorded in winter 1993, of improvised bass and harmonica solos. It was released in an edition of just 5 copies, and featured fallen leaf fragments glued to recycled Billy Squier promotional cassettes, then spray-painted in black and gold.
The duo, budget-less, recorded themselves on Greg's four-track and released "Return of the Wood M'lady" (1995, Kill Rock Stars). Its distorted bass, heavy drums, and dark tone revealed the influence of Japanese psychedelic trio Fushitsusha, San Francisco noise band Caronliner, and Nirvana. Side B was especially cacophonous, presenting separate songs in the left and right channels. Rob drew the cover art, which was then xeroxed for the release. He also etched into the vinyl master at the mastering session, his drawings appearing on the record in place of a label. The single did not sell well, but Deerhoof's do-it-yourself ethic turned out to be an apt match with Kill Rock Stars, and Deerhoof has remained on this label for the entirety of their career, ultimately becoming the longest-running artist on the label's roster. Moon has described them as the "seminal classic KRS band".
By the time the single was released, Greg and Rob were already feeling the first waves of creative restlessness that would characterize Deerhoof's career. No longer able to afford their rehearsal studio, they began practicing in their kitchen, Greg hitting the drums with chopsticks, Rob plucking the bass with a cow hoof that doubled as his dog's chew toy. They needed a singer, as their instrumental acrobatics precluded any ability to bring off the more melodic vocal ideas they were tentatively trying to bring into their sound. Through a mutual friend they met Satomi Matsuzaki, who had just arrived in SF from Tokyo. She had no musical experience whatsoever, but remarked dryly that she couldn't possibly make Deerhoof any worse, and is on tour with the band within a week, opening three west coast shows for Caroliner.
Deerhoof continued to record on four-track, releasing various singles and a vinyl LP, Dirt Pirate Creed, which featured guest appearances by Chris Cooper and Jess Goddard (then members of Caroliner) and Cole Palme (formerly of the pioneering San Francisco industrial group Factrix). The artwork was by both Rob and Satomi.
Deerhoof live was unpredictable, with the trio, sometimes with the addition of Chris and/or Jess, playing loose, improvisational versions of mostly Rob-composed songs. The fact that performances often involved the superimposition of multiple songs at once, the switching of onstage roles, various chance procedures, and broken equipment, further obscured their already-unknown material, and audience response tended to be confused. Rob, Chris, and Jess all soon quit, leaving a new CD only partially completed.
Rather than start over, Satomi and Greg decided to perform as a duo, and continue working on the partially-completed album. Several new, more melodic songs were written and performed entirely by Greg and Satomi. The swirling noise and wild improvisation, set against childlike, even cheerful, vocals by Satomi, created a disarming humor and a bizarre tension that would be a Deerhoof hallmark to the present day. The first inklings of pop songwriting ability were starting to be heard. The production featured a broadened sound palette, including Casio keyboards, Optigan and Korg synthesizer (both borrowed from Palme), guitar, and electric banjo. Once Rob heard the finished recording, he decided to rejoin the group. Deerhoof released their self-recorded first CD The Man, the King, the Girl on Kill Rock Stars in 1997. The artwork was painted by Rob.
Rob was now playing guitar and Deerhoof toured the U.S. several times over the next few years, opening for Sleater-Kinney, Unwound, Lightning Bolt, and Sonic Youth. Audiences were intrigued but confused - Deerhoof was too "pop" for "noise", and too "noise" for "pop". The trio began working on a new album (Halfbird), again self-recorded using a cassette four-track. However the band felt dissatisfied with the thinness of their sound, and shelved the recording.
Satomi began teaching herself to play bass, and Deerhoof toured the U.S. several times over the next several years. In 1998, Deerhoof added Kelly Goode on keyboard (the monophonic Casio VL-1). Neither Satomi nor Kelly had any prior instrumental experience, forcing Deerhoof to drastically simplify their approach. They quickly recorded a new album at the home of friend Bob Limp, of The Ass Baboons of Venus. Holdypaws, released in 1999 on Kill Rock Stars, revealed a very different Deerhoof from the one heard on the previous album. It featured strict performance of tightly composed songs, completely removing any element of noise, improvisation, or unusual instrumentation. The cover artwork was once again by Rob.
Deerhoof then returned to Halfbird, slowly layering guitars and other instruments on the four-track. But the band was losing money on tour, and Kill Rock Stars had lost money on both of Deerhoof's CDs, and in fall 1999 both Rob and Kelly quit. Halfbird was completed by Greg and Satomi and released in 2001 on Menlo Park Recordings, four years after it was begun. The artwork was by Rob.
Necessity once again forced Deerhoof to a crossroads, and in late 1999, while Greg was completing his Master's degree in music composition at Mills College, he met fellow student John Dieterich (formerly guitarist of Colossamite) and asked him to join. They essentially started the band over from scratch, refashioning Deerhoof into a variety of different formats: a traditional power trio with Satomi on bass, John on guitar; an altered power trio with Satomi on guitar (an instrument new to her) and John on bass, with Greg playing drums and keyboard (the same Casio VL-1) simultaneously; and another version with Satomi on sampler and keyboard, John on baritone guitar. Just before Greg's final dissertation concert at Mills, his leg was broken when hit by a car, causing Deerhoof to play several shows with John on drums and Greg seated playing guitar.
They recorded their various formations in a variety of settings. Some songs were recorded at home, as before. Certain songs were done in the Mills College recording studio, as part of a recording course John was taking. Others were taped at San Francisco studio Tiny Telephone, utilizing the engineering aid of Jay and Ian Pellicci. The stylistic contrasts between and within songs were more unpredictable than ever, and it was two years of writing, recording, overdubbing, remixing, editing, and sequencing before the band felt they had created a coherent, though brief, album.
Reveille was released in 2002 on Kill Rock Stars. John's playing had added a new element of guitar virtuosity to their sound, allowing for a broad stylistic range that included echoes of classic rock, garage rock, rockabilly, post-rock, modern classical composition, pop, noise, and improvisation. The production was at times more powerful and polished than on previous releases. Satomi's vocals were often very minimal, sometimes creating the impression of another instrument. One track, "Cooper", featured the return of guest guitarist Chris Cooper. The album artwork was by Satomi, and its grandiose tone and religious connotations echoed the musical bombast (often compared to The Who), as well as the lyrical theme of resurrection. For the first time, Deerhoof began receiving some critical praise, notably in a best-of-2002 list in The New York Times, and in Pitchfork's Top 100 Albums of 2000-2004.
By the end of the recording process, the band had developed a close relationship with Chris Cohen, then playing in his band The Curtains. Chris joined Deerhoof, initially as keyboardist, but soon switching to guitar. For the next three years Deerhoof toured as a quartet, and released Apple O', Milk Man, Green Cosmos, and The Runners Four in quick succession. Over this time period they gradually captured more attention from the listening public, college radio, critics, and fellow musicians. During these years they were also chosen to open for a wide variety of well-known bands including Wilco, The Roots, The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and Stephen Malkmus. They were also selected by Simpsons creator Matt Groenig to play at the All Tomorrows Parties festival.
The band established more and more their reputation as a live act, featuring a formerly-shy, now-commanding Satomi in front, and the near-telepathic interplay of Greg, John and Chris. Tirelessly traversing the country in a rental car, is gratified to be discovering an audience as adventurous as they.
The idea for Apple O' (2003, Kill Rock Stars) came to Greg when was reading a positive review of Reveille in Thrasher Magazine, but was then disappointed when he turned the page to find an interview with Kim Deal where she criticized the use of Pro Tools, computer recording tricks, and sampling, all of which featured prominently on Reveille. Apple O' abandoned the multi-layered and often electronic sounds of Reveille in favor of simple, live-sounding production without overdubs. Most of Apple O' was recorded in one nine-hour session with Jay Pellicci engineering. Exceptions were "Sealed With A Kiss", which was created exclusively from samples from songs about apples, and the final two tracks which were recorded at home on acoustic guitar. Apple O' was once again a very brief album, its lyrics and artwork (again by Rob Fisk, though he was no longer in the band) around mythic themes of love and war, featuring repeated allusions to Adam and Eve, forbidden fruit, the atom bomb, and extinction. It received critical praise, notably in The New York Times, Jane Magazine, and was named in Pitchfork's top albums of the decade list from 2009.
In 2003 the quartet decided to leave their jobs and tour fulltime. Satomi had been editing a San Francisco Japanese magazine, John and Greg had been doing data entry for legal and consulting firms, and Chris had been a waiter at a Thai restaurant.
The starting point for Milk Man (2004, Kill Rock Stars) was a cartoon character created by Japanese artist Ken Kagami, a longtime friend of Matsuzaki. In contrast to the earnest guitar rock that predominated on Apple O', Milk Man featured a broad palette of orchestral colors, echoes of music theater and camp, polished and gaudy arrangements, Stravinskian harmonies, and a more stylized, anonymous playing style resulting partly from recording most of the instruments at separate times rather than playing together as a band, and partly from many of the arrangements being created in a computer. The recording process for Milk Man was described in detail in an interview conducted by the Mae Shi for Tape Op Magazine. Critical praise for Milk Man came notably from NME and Spin. The song "Milk Man" was chosen in 2009 as one of Pitchfork's top tracks of the decade.
Milk Man's connections to both music theater and to children were embodied later in a version created by Courtney Naliboff and performed by children of the North Haven Community School in North Haven, Maine in fall 2006. The Milk Man Ballet was later released on DVD.
The EP Green Cosmos (2005, Menlo Park Recordings) was the first Deerhoof release to be sung almost entirely in Satomi's native language of Japanese. Musically Green Cosmos took the aesthetic of Milk Man a step further by combining an even more expansive orchestral sound, and references to disco that at times completely replaced live drums with programmed beats and samples. Artwork was created from original tarot cards designed by Dawn Garcia.
In the fall, Deerhoof released The Runners Four (2005, Kill Rock Stars). Unlike the short albums of Deerhoof's past, The Runners Four was 20 songs long, the result of several months of recording together in their rented practice space in Oakland. Arrangements were worked out as a live band rather than in the computer. Satomi and Chris reversed instrumental roles, with Satomi playing guitar and Chris bass. All four members contributed an approximately equal portion of the composed material, and all four were featured as vocalists at various points. Certain motifs - time travel, sports, smuggling, allusions to Noah's Ark - recurred throughout the unusually wordy lyrics. Sleeve design was by New York artist Trevor Shimizu. Critical praise came notably from The New York Times and Pitchfork, which named the album as 6 in the best albums of 2006. The album was selected as Sufjan Stevens' "Album of the Decade" in Uncut Magazine.
In interviews the band maintained that they never knew what kind of music they would create next, nor that they even had any idea what they were doing when they created it. They also have said repeatedly that the ambiguity in their musical style and lyrics affords their audience an important interpretive role. To this end, in 2005 they created a remix website for the final track of The Runners Four ("Rrrrrrright") where fans could download the stems of the individual band members' parts in the song, and upload their remixes to the site.
After an extensive world tour, Deerhoof was invited by the San Francisco International Film Festival to perform a live, original score to a silent film of their choosing. They selected Heaven and Earth Magic by Harry Smith, and performed their hour-long soundtrack, largely composed by John, in spring 2006. This was to be Chris's last activity with Deerhoof. The split was amicable and, to commemorate him, Deerhoof posted a free EP on their website, one of several they have posted over the years.
Now back to a trio, and using the Heaven And Earth Magic score as a starting place, Deerhoof began recording a new album in summer 2006. Satomi, Greg, and John did not divide their contributions according to their onstage roles, and each contributed percussion, guitar, bass, keyboards and production. It was mostly recorded in John's Oakland apartment, between a concert tour with The Flaming Lips and another with Radiohead. Self-produced as usual, some portions were recorded once again by Jay and Ian Pellicci. It was mixed on computer, largely while on tour. Friend Opportunity was released in January 2007 on Kill Rock Stars. Its 12 interchangeable cover paintings were by Scottish artist David Shrigley. The album was highly praised in Pitchfork and Rolling Stone, and nominated for a PLUG Award by Ric Ocasek.
During the same time period, they began working with director Justin Theroux on the soundtrack to the Mandy Moore/Billy Crudup/Tom Wilkinson movie Dedication, released in fall 2007. Friend Opportunity track "Matchbook Seeks Maniac" was in fact written by Greg specifically for the end credits of Dedication. The film featured various songs and excerpts from Deerhoof albums, and the Dedication Film Soundtrack featured four tracks by Deerhoof.
During the world tour that followed Friend Opportunity's release, Deerhoof was invited by David Bowie to play the Highline Festival in New York City, they opened for The Roots, The Flaming Lips, and Bloc Party, and they made their network television debut on Last Call with Carson Daly.
In January 2008, guitarist Ed Rodriguez (formerly of Colossamite, The Flying Luttenbachers, XBXRX, Sicbay, Iceburn, and currently a member of Gorge Trio along with Dieterich) joined the band as a full-time member, and Deerhoof began writing and recording Offend Maggie. Before the finished album was released in October, one of the songs ("Fresh Born") was released in the form of sheet music, with the intention that fans create their own versions of the song before hearing Deerhoof's version. Fans uploaded more than 40.
Offend Maggie was stylistically rough and relaxed compared to Friend Opportunity, and highlighted the guitar interplay of John and Ed, and greater emotional expression in Satomi's vocals. All four members contributed songs. Lyrics were mostly by Satomi and alternated between English and Japanese. Artwork was by Japanese artist Tomoo Gokita. The album received critical praise, notably from VH1, Entertainment Weekly, Alternative Press, and Mojo.
Since this release, Deerhoof has toured the world extensively as a quartet. In 2009 They performed on stage with two of their musical heroes. At a concert in Los Angeles, trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith played most of the set with them. And at a concert in Luzerne, Switzerland, Marlene Marder, the guitarist from Swiss band LiLiPUT performed one of LiLiPUT's songs ("Hitch-Hike") on stage with the band.
Deerhoof has become an oft-cited musical influence on other artists, notably Dirty Projectors, Grizzly Bear, Of Montreal, The Flaming Lips, Fiery Furnaces, Xiu Xiu, Ponytail, Women and Mae Shi.
The members of Deerhoof have also participated in a large number of projects outside of the band. Since before joining Deerhoof, John and Ed have played in an instrumental group called Gorge Trio and released several albums. In 2008 Satomi formed One One, a collaboration with Saya, singer and songwriter with the Japanese band Tenniscoats. This group often includes Greg and Takashi Ueno, and their one CD Aoooooo was mixed by Greg. Greg and and drummer Zach Hill formed a group called Nervous Cop, releasing one album in 2003 which featured guest harpist Joanna Newsom. John, Chris Cohen, and Jay Pellicci formed a an instrumental trio called Natural Dreamers that released one album in 2004. Cohen had formed The Curtains before joining Deerhoof, and Greg joined the band from 2003 - 2005. After Cohen left Deerhoof, he continued the Curtains, and then started another band called Cryptacize. Rob Fisk and Kelly Goode played together in Seven Year Rabbit Cycle, and later Rob formed King Eider Common Eider. Jess Goddard and Chris Cooper play in Fat Worm of Error.
In 2006, Danielson released the critically acclaimed Ships, which featured the four then-members of Deerhoof as the backing band for many of the tracks. Greg and John have guested on several Xiu Xiu albums, as well as on Busdriver's 2008 album Jhelli Beam. Greg guested on Lushlife's 2009 album Cassette City. Greg has done production and mixing for Xiu Xiu, Sholi, 31 Knots, and Hawnay Troof. Saunier also guested (as drummer) on the soundtrack to the Will Ferrell movie Step Brothers.
Deerhoof has also done several remixes for other artists. Deerhoof's remix of "Goodnight Goodnight" by Maroon 5 was released as part of the latter's album Call and Response. In 2009 Deerhoof's remixes of Delta 5's "Mind Your Own Business", Wildbirds & Peacedrums' "My Heart", and Shugo Tokumaru's "Rum Hee" were released.