May 07, 2004

Interview: Deerhoof

Prior to Deerhoof’s incendiary set before a jam-packed crowd in the basement of Oberlin College’s student union, I got a chance to sit down and chat with the group while they ate a scrumptious dinner at the café adjacent to the venue.

Could you explain the concept behind Milk Man, if there is one?

Chris Cohen, guitar: Well, Milk Man came originally from a friend of Satomi’s from Japan (writer’s note: illustrator Ken Kagami). He came up with the idea for Milk Man and the artwork and we just kind of borrowed it.

Greg Saunier, drums: Actually, we bought it from him.

Chris: Oh, yeah.

Greg: For, like, a dollar.

[Everybody laughs]

Greg: I just had a déjà vu.

[Long pause]

That’s good to know. [Everybody laughs] Was the writing and recording process different for Milk Man than for past records?

Greg: Kind of. Since we had the artwork first, which we had never had before, we decided to create songs based on that. I mean, it’s not like it’s a new idea in the history of music or anything. But, it was kind of new for us so it was fun. For us, previously, the artwork was something we did at the end.

As an afterthought?

Greg: Not exactly an afterthought. Sort of like the punctuation at the end. Sort of like the final step. Definitely not an afterthought. The artwork was meant to kind of summarize the music we’d been working on or to express it in some way. But on this album, we had the picture first and so we wrote the songs around that. Satomi wrote lyrics to kind of create a story around this character. It’s kind of funny sometimes…[pauses] This Mundane Sounds interview, believe it or not, is not the first interview that Deerhoof has done. And there have been times occasionally in other interviews where it has been claimed that we have been not entirely forthcoming with clear answers to some questions regarding the meaning of our music and/or lyrics. The funny thing is in this case when we were working on this, the tables were turned on us slightly because we decided that we wanted to use Ken’s drawings to base the album around. But then we said, “So, Ken, we’re going to make this album now, do you want to tell us something about this guy? What’s his story?” He said, “Absolutely nothing.” [Laughs] So we decided to make it up from scratch. In a way, I was kind of glad that he didn’t say anything, that he didn’t give us any answer at all. So, it’s sort of like he did his thing and then we did our imagination of what his thing is. But ours is also kind of ambiguous. So, the listener, then, they get their sense of what it is we’re doing. So, it’s like a game of telephone or something like that, where everyone plays some role in figuring out what it means, I guess.

Guitarist: Ken actually looks like Milk Man.

[Everybody laughs]

Guitarist: We could just say it’s an album about him.

Greg: That’s true…erase everything I just said. [Laughs]

I noticed that the new record is getting a lot more press and publicity than Deerhoof albums in the past- I saw a write-up in Spin recently, for instance. How do you guys do feel about this newfound interest in the band?

Chris: We hate success. [Chuckles] We just want to fail.

Greg: We’re happy about it, really.

Have you noticed a larger turnout during concerts?

Chris: It’s hard to tell. I mean, we’re playing mostly all ages shows this time around. Suddenly, we’ve noticed more people coming to shows, but it could just be they couldn’t have gotten in before when we were playing bars all the time. It seems like a lot of younger people like Deerhoof now, which wasn’t as true before when Deerhoof was an underground kind of band. Everybody’s really glad that we can appeal to a lot of different people- age-wise. We’re really happy about that.

Greg: It definitely doesn’t feel like newfound success. I mean, believe it or not, there was time when Deerhoof was putting out albums and Mundane Sounds didn’t review them. We’ve going for, like, 10 years. I mean, any band that’s going to play for 10 years is gradually going to get more known- for better or worse. We didn’t feel like there was any jump. I mean, the Spin thing…the label has sent our albums to Spin ever since our first one and a lot of times…I think on the last two records, reviews were written but they were, at the last minute, cut- because they didn’t have space or whatever.

Chris: We get these reports from our publicist about what each magazine said. And, usually, she’ll just paste the exact same thing from their e-mail. So, each one is in the voice of whatever that magazine or web site was and it’ll say something like: September 3rd, Spin magazine, Eric: “Got it in the mail. Really excited”. Or it’ll say, “Don’t like it. We will never review your band”.

[Everybody laughs]

Chris: In the case of Spin, for other albums, it might’ve said something like “Oh, yeah. Thanks for sending it…”

[Everybody laughs]

Chris: I mean, we’ve tried to get into Spin before. It’s nice that we did.

Greg: There are certain people that will hear about a band or a musician or whatever in Spin and only in Spin because they don’t read anything else or-

Or they don’t have access to anything else.

Greg: Right, right. But, I have to admit, as far as I can tell, it doesn’t make that much of a difference because most of the people who get something out of our music found out about it through word-of-mouth or maybe through the Mundane Sounds web site.

Chris: People who buy our albums or come and see us probably didn’t read about us in Spin.

Greg: Well, I mean, there are some.

Chris: Yeah, there are some. I think that it probably means more to us than it actually does in real life. You know, more people come up to us and ask, “what does it feel like to be reviewed in Spin?” than “I heard about you guys in Spin”. You’d hope that that little blip might’ve caught some kid in Kansas’s eye, and he went to the record store in the shopping mall and bought [our record]. It never happens for some reason.

Greg: [laughs] We haven’t gotten to Kansas yet. Maybe we’re over-fixating on the Spin thing, but in many ways… [interview cuts off due to an unidentified woman throwing a plastic fork at Chris] I did want to say that, as far as value to us, Spin’s review is very short. So, it’s not totally packed with tons of insightful information. I mean, I’m really happy that Joe Gross, the writer, liked the album. And he’s actually supported us for a long time, he’s always written nice things about us- not in Spin, but in his local paper- he lives in Austin, I believe. But, the thing is, in many ways I’ve always gotten more out of what people like Sean [Padilla, Mundane Sounds writer] have written about us. Because he’s more in depth- his writing style is different. In Spin, the character of magazine is such that it seems like an authority.

Chris: They act like, [assumes snooty British affectation] “Deerhoof’s 6th album…” And the guy just read that two seconds ago.

[Greg laughs hysterically]

Chris: I’m not trying to say that they don’t know what they’re talking about. But, sometimes they wouldn’t want to let on…I mean, I guess they knew about us before and just chose to ignore us. I don’t know. Maybe that one guy-

Greg: Joe Gross, probably.

Chris: Yeah, that one guy who knew about us for a long time and couldn’t get it past by the editor or something like that.

Greg: But, what I was kind of getting at was that the tone is different a lot of times between something like Mundane Sounds and something like Spin. I just noticed that Sean’s writing- I’ve read more of his writing than just Deerhoof reviews- he does it in a way that I always wished more people [who write reviews] would do. [His style of writing] is the only way doing music journalism makes much sense to me, which is he says what his response to the music was. He doesn’t decide whether it’s good music or bad music. He doesn’t say that there’s some universal scale that we fit into- some numerical value that this person’s album equals. But, at the same time, his reviews aren’t talking about himself as a person- some reviews do that, too- his reviews talk about what his experience was in listening to the music- how did it make him feel, what thoughts it inspired in his mind, and what did it remind him of. Sean also listens to the music many times before he starts writing. And, when you read it, you can tell that he actually spent some time with it, which not everyone does. That’s one of the things that makes me say that that something like Mundane Sounds reviews are actually of greater value to me in many ways than a Spin review. Just because the Spin one’s very short and just sort of says whether the album is good and maybe describes it a little bit. But doesn’t really give you a personal sense of what the person experienced. The writer pretends, typically, that they’re not there. They pretend that they’re telling you the truth, as opposed to telling you their opinion or their experience. So, anyway…it was nice to be reviewed in Spin.

[Everybody laughs]

Greg: [asking Satomi] You guys don’t like olives? They’re too salty? Ah.

How much of Deerhoof’s initial goal or goals- if you had any to begin with- have remained in tact over the years?

Greg: What do you mean by “in tact”? Like whether we achieved them
or not?

I mean…well, however you want to interpret ‘in tact’, I suppose?

Greg: Hmm. That’s a good question. I guess it would probably be different for all four of us because we all joined the band at different times. I was in the band at the beginning- I started it with my friend Rob [Fisk, founding guitarist] and Satomi joined a year later. When Rob and I started it, our goal was probably to do the heaviest band of all time.

[Everybody laughs]

Greg: When Satomi joined, I don’t think that was necessarily her goal. A mutual friend played her our first single and said, “hey, these guys are looking for a singer. Do you want to join?” And she said, “okay”. She’d never been in a band before and, prior to that moment, had no musical ambitions of any kind. She just came over and thought it might be interesting, thought it might be fun.

Satomi: Greg used to play, like, ten times louder. And I was singing through a distortion box, and sometimes I couldn’t tell if my vocals were being heard.

John Dieterich, guitar: Tell him about the microphone.

Chris: We used to use a microphone made from, like, the headphones from a Walkman. The entire first Deerhoof album was recorded with nothing but a Walkman as the microphone. It’s good story…if any of it were true.

[Greg laughs]

Chris: It was actually mixed by a person with cotton in their ears…Greg was wearing this enormous mask- he couldn’t hear anything while he was mixing…

[Greg laughs]

Chris: It was also in the dark, so he couldn’t see which knobs he was turning.

Who are some artists you feel- I don’t want to say a stylistic affinity, but perhaps a conceptual one? Or maybe just an affinity, period?

Chris: Canned Heat.

[Greg laughs]

Satomi: Canned Heat?

Chris: Someone just gave us one of their CD’s the other day. We’d never heard them before.

Greg: It’s not like only a musician feels an affinity to music. Every human being walking the face of the earth has an affinity to music, most likely--even babies, who don’t know the word ‘music’.

Well, what I meant was do you feel a certain bond with an artist who’s maybe doing something similar to Deerhoof?

Greg: We have our heroes. We have those people who are doing or did something in music- a lot of them are maybe from the past- that we would aspire to also try to do some faint approximation, in terms of their musical goal.

Chris: They’re usually nothing like what we actually accomplish.

Greg: They might not really sound anything like our band, but…I know it’s a perfectly good question, it makes sense, and it shouldn’t seem like a weird question. But, in a way, I feel difficulty answering the question because, for me, it’s difficult for me to think of people doing music for whom I wouldn’t feel an affinity. It’s the very idea of doing it is already so…it’s almost shocking that anyone would even want to, when it seems to serve almost no purpose in this society other than a way of passing the time or something.. I mean, the idea that you’d actually want to sit down and devote some time and effort and sweat into doing it seems so special that I feel an affinity with anyone who’d want to even try and do that. Not just music either, it could be any kind of art or whatever. I just find it interesting that even in this day and age where we’re in the middle of wars and citizens of a country whose government is doing such evil things, there’s disease all over the planet- there’s no shortage of things to consider to be problems or hills in this world- to think that people would still want to do something artistic, I always find very surprising. That there’s still that drive to find beauty…I don’t know. I’m not even defending it. I just find it very surprising that that drive still exists in people.

Especially now, with the Internet and these file-sharing networks.

Greg: How do you mean?

I would imagine that people wouldn’t see many, if any, commercial
prospects in creating anymore.

Greg: Yeah, I see what you’re saying. That’s very true. I mean, that just proves it.

[Long pause]

Well, I’m out of questions. Thanks for your time.

Greg: [laughs] Thank you.

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