Deerhoof (9.14.05)

Posted on July 28, 2008

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Is practice making them less weird? Weird.

The first time I heard Deerhoof was on a road trip, listening to their 2002 breakout album, Reveille, on headphones. It was about as messy and musically confusing an experience as anything ever recorded. The sounds of feedback, organs, toys and gleefully discordant guitars saturate the tape to the boiling point. Melodies last for a few seconds and disappear into the next tape splice before you even have a chance to acknowledge them: One part sounds like a garage band in rehearsal; the next like a six-month-old playing with rattles and toy pianos in her crib.

A while later, a Boston show revealed Deerhoof to be, quite simply, four musicians plowing through these songs with cover-band nonchalance. They leaned into each orphaned hook, jarring chord change and stutter-step like it was second nature. The band’s two lanky guitarists (Rob Fisk and John Dieterich), tiny Japanese singer/bass player (Satomi Matsuzaki), and whirlwind drummer (Greg Saunier) went all-out to rock and have fun—no matter how bizarre and abstract their source material.

As always with Deerhoof, the question with every new album is: How will they pull this off live? The answer remains generally the same: They won’t bother. How they go about reinterpreting the albums—essentially covering their own songs—has consistently been more direct and exciting than anything previously recorded, if not as sonically far-flung. Live, they are the most resourceful band imaginable, stretching their four-piece setup to connect whatever dots have been scattered by their latest album.

For this one, they’ve turned the tables on themselves. The Runners Four is a bare-bones manifesto recorded in their practice space in San Francisco. Minimal overdubs, no crazy tape edits, no conceptual trickery. The result is a rich amalgam of ‘60s boardwalk pop and relaxed, sun-bleached psychedelic jams that stray further from their chaotic early days than ever before.

“We got a practice space for the first time in years and years,” says Dieterich. “So it was a process of all being in the same room, someone introducing the material, working it out, recording the song and then moving on to the next one.” The band—who had practiced in their living room on acoustic guitars with Saunier patting his legs for drums until just this year—have finally approached songwriting with the idea of actually performing songs as composed wholes.

The process, which began in January, has yielded Deerhoof’s longest record to date, packed with 20 songs. As usual, nothing happens the way you expect. Verses go on and on with no chorus ever showing up. Satomi inflects baby-coo lullaby melodies over coldly dissonant guitars. The difference is that every song has the grit and immediacy of a live recording.

“I’m actually kind of afraid that it actually seems less like a live show than other records, because there are less bewildering things going on,” Dieterich says.

He explains the band’s philosophy was to emulate albums from the ‘60s, like Beatles records, which had clear separations between instruments. “We really wanted to figure out how to make it so that you could always tell what every person in the band was doing, that every person had their own space.” After stuffing this formula with all of the band’s idiosyncrasies—Saunier’s drumming alone could fill an airplane hangar—things may not have turned out exactly like the White Album. “I still don’t know how you do those things, because we pretty much failed at doing that,” Dieterich jokes. But The Runners Four comes miles closer than any other Deerhoof record to depicting the four individuals in this band.

The album features its share of attacks of thick distortion and jagged edges, but they’re sharp peaks in an otherwise carefully laid patchwork of the band’s weird hybrid of Can-worship and Jerry Goldsmith’s In Like Flint style. There are overt Breeders moments, like the sparse pick-up game progression of “Siriustar,” while “Running Thoughts” lays low with a chill midnight groove and slow-moving, spacey chords.

Dieterich tells me that the album is, in a way, autobiographical—in that it’s an album about making the album (“Though I really hope people don’t think that was our highest intention with this thing,” he says). The opener, “Chatterboxes,” puts this idea as clearly (or is it vaguely?) as anything else—“Set sail, seaworthy vessels / Fill your holds with the sounds / Of daughters and sons / Wagging their tongues.” The story of a band loading up on songs for the road?

“I don’t think this will be any easier to take out on the road with us than before,” Dieterich admits. “Really, it’s been a long time since we wrote these songs—some of them in January, and here it’s August—and the time we recorded them was pretty much the only time we ever played them. So figuring some of them out after so long will be … interesting.”

[Originally Appeared in Boston’s Weekly Dig 9.14.05]

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