– Going Back to Basics with Deerhoof
Deerhoof recently celebrated their twenty-year anniversary, and for those who have been following their career for the majority of that time span, it is evident that their sound has evolved considerably. Despite the changes in lineup and journey from freeform art rock into a more guitar-oriented indie rock quartet, there has been a reliable, cohesive element to their music.
Satomi Matsuzaki’s thumping bass guitar and high, clear voice are some of the most recognizable in the business. They are so distinguishable that when hearing a song from the band’s first album The Man, the King, the Girl, and then sampling a track from 2012’s Breakup Song, there is something familiar and innately a part of the group that makes it easy to discern each release as a Deerhoof record. The newest album, La Isla Bonita, takes on a less clean and polished approach than some of the band’s recent offerings. Deerhoof is at its heart a punk outfit from San Francisco, and La Isla Bonita celebrates this and brings the band back to the less serious days of their youth. This is not at all a back step for the group, but a continued step on the evolutionary path of Deerhoof.
Boxx Magazine contributor Ashley Brooks sits down with bassist and vocalist Satomi Matsuzaki to discuss the new album, a band divided by distance and going back to basics.
Ashley Brooks: What’s going on for Deerhoof at the moment? Are you rehearsing for the upcoming tour?
Satomi Matsuzaki: Two months ago, we had a weeklong Maine tour. We went to Maine and had three shows. They let us use this cottage by the lake, and then we had some rehearsing time for like two days… so we already rehearsed for the tour. We’ve learned how to play the songs, so we just tried it out for the live version and it’s working well. Right before the tour starts, we’ll get together in New York and we will rehearse again. But we’re all ready to go on tour!
AB: You’re all spread out across the country, so that must impact rehearsals a bit…
SM: Yes. Ed lives in Portland, Oregon, John lives in Albuquerque, and Greg and I live in Brooklyn. We usually fly into one of the cities and we rehearse before we go on tour.
AB: How do you find that living in different cities affects the whole recording process?
SM: I think it was hard in the beginning. We started doing it this way because everyone wanted to move to different cities, and we had all lived in San Francisco for a really long time. John wanted to move to Albuquerque because of his girlfriend… everybody had different reasons. I moved to Tokyo, Japan, where I’m from, for a little bit. I’d been living outside of Japan for more than half of my life. I was worried about my parents, so I just wanted to try out being back in Japan, and to see my parents. So I did that, and after, we moved back. Briefly, we tried out sending MP3s to each other after we moved to different cities. That worked for a while. But in the end we really missed being able to work on new songs together, rather than just being able to send new ideas to each other and layer them. For this album – that’s why it’s different. The four of us got together at Ed, our guitar player’s, house in Portland. He has a basement in his house and he set up all this equipment. We set up microphones, and at first we were going to use the ten days [that we had together] to just make songs. But after five days, we were like “Well, we’ve made enough songs for a whole album. So why don’t we just record it, instead of waiting for someone or going to a recording studio?” We used Ed’s homemade subwoofer microphone and we just tried to find everything in the basement. That’s why, for us, it’s a punk rock album, because of this basement location. We were also very intuitive and quick. We were so excited about how quickly we could make all these new songs. We wanted to bring out these fresh feelings in the recording. Sometimes you play new songs over and over, trying to be perfect. I think you kind of can hear it; you lose the momentum, or the enthusiasm. That subtle difference comes across in the recording. I think this album, if you listen, you can hear that timing-wise, it’s a little bit off. It’s kind of edgy. I think it’s really exciting. I think that this album is pretty chaotic.
AB: It is. It’s not completely polished, but is has a very real feeling, which is refreshing. You’ve never recorded any other album in this manner?
SM: Most of the albums we recorded ourselves, but never in a basement! When Ed joined the band, we recorded that whole album [Offend Maggie] together and then after that we all moved away. It’s been awhile… we feel like we’re revisiting the time when we all lived in the city. This album is pretty intense because for ten days we got up together, made breakfast together… we were spending 24 hours a day together for 10 days. It was so much fun. It felt like we were going back to high school guitar camp or something. I really like that. We finished two songs every day, and I felt so good every day. I couldn’t wait for the next day, because I knew we would finish two new songs. And ten days was the deadline – we knew we’d have to fly back to our homes. It was really exciting.
AB: You said that you believe that La Isla Bonita has a punk rock vibe to it. I read that it was a Ramones song that triggered the idea for the type of music you’d be playing. Is that true?
SM: Uh-huh, totally! We’d been playing this Ramones cover, “Pinhead”. John had been singing that song. I saw audiences really excited by that. We’re just banging on drums and guitars and it doesn’t have much change in the music, but it’s really powerful. We got a really good energy from the audience. We thought “Why not? Let’s make a song that creates that vibe.” Not a Ramones cover, but our own song. Recently we went on a US tour and we got invited to play a student basement show for free in Syracuse at somebody’s house. We hadn’t played a basement show in more than ten or fifteen years. We were kind of scared before we went, but that was our off day, so we had nothing to lose. We just borrowed somebody else’s band equipment, we played this Ramones cover and other songs that were more punk-rocky. It worked so well and the students loved it. It felt really good doing a kind of DIY basement show. We felt like we would never pull it off as an adult band, because we’ve been together for twenty years. But after that, we felt more confident about doing more powerful, minimal, more punk rock [music].
AB: It’s like a return to the your roots – that young, teenage feel.
SM: Yeah! Not so sophisticated. We tried to not be so picky with our equipment. It still sounded good, just borrowing someone else’s equipment. I really like that feel –that we don’t care feel. I don’t need to play a Hofner bass to play music or to connect with the audience. I think those intuitive, really psychic, magical moments happen when you play music that really means something, instead of just [on the] surface.
AB: Did you write some of the lyrics on this album?
SM: Actually, this time we all worked on lyrics together at Greg’s house in New York. We never do it that way. I’ve written entire albums before, but some of the criticism is that English is not my first language, and my English vocabulary is not enough to cover the feeling of something. I think it’s much better when [it’s written by] native people who can understand English, so that every word has a different meaning… so the four of us worked together. It turned into this kind of political theme. It was interesting. It’s much more of a struggle for us to make lyrics than music. We always make music so fast, and lyrics are a really hard thing for us. It was challenging, but it turned out to be a fun project.
AB: You said the lyrics on this album are political. What message were you trying to convey?
SM: Greg wrote the lyrics for the more political-heavy songs. For me, the first song “Paradise Girls” is not political, but I’m kind of cheering girls to be forward and come out. I would love to see more girls in the music field. I’m not trying to be a really extreme feminist or anything, but I want to see more girls in bands, or as sound engineers, and so on. It’s so much fun for me to work with girls.
AB: How did the name La Isla Bonita come about?
SM: I thought it was really funny because La Isla Bonita, everybody knows is an ‘80s Madonna song, but it also just means “beautiful island”. We worked with an artist who had an old found photo of a burning island. It’s a beautiful photo of a burning island… I thought it was pretty punk rock. It’s a black and white cover. I thought it was funny and kind of trying to come across as not too sophisticated. We have an attitude of having fun and not being too serious. We’re not trying to be so “top 10” or whatever. We just do what we do and we’ve been doing it for twenty years. We want to be natural and more relaxed.
AB: Do you feel like on other albums you were more serious than you would have wanted to be?
SM: Sometimes I think so. This is only my take on the other albums, but we tweaked guitar sounds so much, or we layered guitar sounds so much that it’s impossible to recreate that sound for the live shows. After the show, audiences would come up and say, “I really loved that recording”. And that’s really a compliment, but for me I wish we could create music that’s powerful enough that they wouldn’t have to come up and say that. I don’t want them to come and be disappointed, or think, “I thought the guitar sounds were more this way… they had more treble, or more layers, or more distortion”. We don’t want to bring thirty pedals to each show; we fly everywhere. I think punk rock really works, because we’ve been that way anyway… minimal. It’s a pack and go type of thing. We can pack ourselves in one suitcase and just leave, and we can play anywhere. That’s our goal.