Deerhoof has been one of music’s ‘best-kept secrets’ for just over a quarter-century. Since forming in 1994, they have been utter trailblazers in the world of experimental pop, indie, noise, punk, contemporary classical and pretty much any other non-commercial, Bandcamp-friendly genre you can think of. Radiohead, ?uestlove, St. Vincent, Dave Grohl, Henry Rollins and more count among their fans. Yet, somehow Deerhoof has avoided ever being fully in the spotlight.
But being in the spotlight isn’t really what Deerhoof wants anyways… err, at least they don’t mind not being in it. Instead, Deerhoof has cemented themselves as perhaps the most prominent DIY band in the entire indie circuit. While they may not be selling out arenas, there are Deerhoof fans hanging out at DIY shows in every major city in the country. To them, Deerhoof is a guiding figure of sorts. Each release has vigorously and seamlessly pushed on the outer limits of what popular music can be, and as a result the ripple effects of Deerhoof’s artistry is hard to distinguish, but is certainly palpable.
On Friday, Deerhoof pushed on the limits again with the release of their 15th studio album. Future Teenage Cave Artists — out via Joyful Noise Recordings — is a dense, retrospective and intimate album which explores a hypothetical post-apocalyptic future that seems to be getting less and less ‘hypothetical’ every day. Using ingenious technical tricks — like musically breaking the fourth wall with chopped-off parts, glitched audio and malfunctioning gear — Deerhoof tackles the more personal ramifications of the end of the world, asking ‘what would it actually feel like?’
Deerhoof began working on this record long before COVID-19 entered the global stage, so in many ways it’s themes have grown to feel prophetic. American Songwriter recently sat down with founding member, songwriter and drummer Greg Saunier, who dove into how the album has changed since its inception, what he thinks of the rise of livestreaming and how the DIY music community can be seen as the blueprint for an ideal future, among a slurry of other topics.
Y’all did a livestream listening party of this record. That’s a great idea, maybe one which should last beyond the pandemic.
I agree. You can’t imagine the thrill for us. It was the first time ever we were able to watch people react in realtime to our stuff. But, I say ‘people’ as if it were all anonymous. In reality, the number of people in there who were our direct friends — and not only our direct friends, but people who turned out to be friends with each other — really made it one of those ‘small world’ things that was quite a beautiful moment for us.
In that way, is the pandemic giving you an opportunity to get to know your listeners in a different way? Perhaps a more intimate one?
Yeah. There’s a feeling of it being… well, I don’t know, the demographic which probably suffers the most from having their image managed would be the classic rock generation, and they’re all constantly posting these lockdown videos from home. The Rolling Stones played on that TV special. Brian May’s been posting all these videos. I’ve seen quite a few, actually. You’re suddenly seeing what these people dress like at home and what their houses look like — you’re seeing who they are when they aren’t being managed, lit and scripted. So, if Mick Jagger is able to be casual at home and just be a regular person, then that’s saying a lot. I guess it’s one of those times.
So, yeah, the livestream had this feeling of everybody being friends, everybody being in the same boat and everybody at least sorta understanding everybody else’s plight.
Thematically, this record is a foyer of sorts into the rebuilding and redefining of culture in the midst of such unprecedented times — can you talk about that theme? What does the ideal culture of the future look like to you?
I think the livestream was an example of it in a way. I watched a couple of other livestreams too where everybody was writing in chats and people were performing from home. It’s the same thing, there’s this spirit. If I go on Twitter, Facebook or the news, it’s nothing but desperate fighting. Fighting for survival, parties fighting against each other, candidates fighting against each other, people fighting to prevent Trump or Jared Kushner or Mitch McConnell or someone from enacting some ridiculous, destructive policy. It was just amazing to remember that there’s this other thing you can do online with normal people involved — people who don’t have a lot of money or power and therefore have nothing to lose. They get together online and there’s nothing but jokes and joy and clapping for each other and giving each other support, compliments and feedback. You realize ‘oh, right, how real people actually act normally.’
Interacting with real people reminds you that there’s this other side of nature that loves and cares about friends and family and likes to take care of people, to save people. That is a real human instinct — to connect, to support and to collaborate. Deerhoof is in the sweet spot because we’ve never gotten to be a big, commercially successful band. The level we’ve always been on has remained this manageable existence, one where you kinda know people. Every time you go to a certain city and work the merch table — because you work your own merch table — you recognize a lot of the same people who came back from last time. This underground music scene — especially when it’s DIY, we have no manager or producer — is very much a model for what the future not only could be like, but almost has to be like because of the alternative. Continuing the model we have now is going to lead to the collapse of human civilization.
One thing about this underground scene is that it’s actually not a code or a set of rules at all. It’s kinda just an openness. You may be going into a zone that’s uncertain or unpredictable, but you trust that people are with you and have your back, that it’ll be cool and worth trying. The mindset that is fostered by the underground scene seems to me to be maybe the only mindset that will be sustainable in the future. We were already thinking that before the pandemic happened, we’ve been making this record for two or three years.
Tell me about that — does this record feel prophetic in a way?
Yeah, we were thinking about all kinds of calamities in general, including pandemics. There seemed to be a long list of possible apocalypses coming — be that climate change or war or disease or famine or loss of water or breakdown of governments, whatever it is. It just seemed like all arrows were pointing towards a future somewhat like that. We don’t know any better than anyone else what that’s going to look like, but I guess this record was a fantasy thing of trying to imagine what it might feel like. It’s less focused on the conscious aspect of it — like ‘you’re going to have to wear a mask and stay six feet apart’ — and more focused on ‘what does it feel like if you’re isolated? Or if you can’t reach your friends or family to know if they’re dead or alive? What does it feel like after the apocalypse has happened? Do you feel guilty that you survived? Are you guilty that maybe you should’ve tried harder to prevent it? Do you feel angry that leaders who could’ve prevented it were trashed in the media?’
As for the title — Future Teenage Cave Artists — ‘cave’ to me meant ‘underground.’ It’s like underground, creative people and artists. ‘Future’ is… well, the future. ‘Teenage’ is just youth as opposed to older generations. Part of it too is that we were thinking about what cave art actually was. I think that one thing that’s not often said about cave art is that a lot of it is funny and crude. It’s very cobbled together, very primitive, scratchy stick figures. We were thinking along those lines.
I think that if coronavirus had not happened the record would’ve meant the same thing. It’s more about the subconscious, the imagination in a future that is coming, one way or another. It might be because of a collapse or because the government eats itself or we get some kind of Mad Max or Third Reich scenario. Or it might be a managed dismantling, which is more of what we hope for. Not just a collapse — where all the resources run out and suddenly people are struggling for survival — but a careful dismantling of a system that may have made some kind of sense during the Industrial Revolution but is definitely not making sense in 2020. The problems that this economic model solved in the late 1700s or whatever are not the problems that we’re having now. We’re having problems caused by those former solutions.
The best we can hope for is to dismantle it and start to replace it with something that values life over greed. Whether this future happens in a constructive or destructive way — whether it happens in a way that is purely accidental or in a way that is implementing reforms that introduce more care — this record would be the same. When we were making it we were thinking of either scenario, it’s saying goodbye to some kind of past. Whether the future is going to be worse or better, you can still have a moment to say goodbye to what was. That’s kinda what we were thinking when we were making it — we wanted it to sound a bit rough and damaged.
I love that this record has that roughness to it which breaks the fourth wall at times. It’s almost as if the art is not just the song itself, but the relationship between the song and the listener.
I’ve always felt that the listener plays an important role. The music isn’t really finished until the listener has interpreted it. I’ve always liked music that seemed a little open ended, or a little bit empty or inconclusive; music that leaves a bigger space for the listener to fill in the blanks.
A subthread of sorts in music history is music that’s monophonic, just melody. You can think of Bach’s music for solo cello or violin or whatever. Eric Dolphy’s version of “God Bless The Child” is another good one. That’s an example of leaving it open where the listener is given a little bit more work to do in order to figure out what the chords might be under the melody, or to hear that a certain note is meant to be dissonant and another note is the resolution of that dissonance… even though there can’t be actual dissonance because there’s only one note sounding. It’s happening mentally in the imagination of the listener. In the solo music of Bach there’s sometimes syncopation — how can there be syncopation if there isn’t anything playing the beat? It’s because you’re tapping your toe, the listener is mentally providing where the beat is and the performer is playing against that mental beat. We’ve always been into stuff like that. There’ll be places in our songs that are just empty melodies which seem a little fragmentary.
With songwriting, it’s like that even on a larger scale. I get a lot of ideas from dreams. Even if I’m awake, I might only have a fragment of an idea. A lot of times we’ve taken the approach of thinking that the composer’s job is to create a seamless arrangement so the listener can’t tell where the original fragment of inspiration ended and the songcraft took over to tidy it up with a bow. Rather than doing that, we’ve left some of our fragments a bit unfinished sounding. Things will stop short, end before they resolve or leave off with no explanation as to why they were there.
That feeling of having to be acclimated to a very unresolved existence is something that we feel a lot inside of our band. We have very different backgrounds, so we don’t always communicate super successfully to each other. It just felt like maybe the future would be a little bit like that. Not everything is tied up with a bow and sugar-coated in the way that it was supposed to have been, the way it was sold to us as how it was going to be. The aesthetics of the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s was very much that ‘everything is going to resolve itself, the best people become the leaders, everything is going to make sense, the world is very rational and we have the technology and science to solve any kind of crisis that faces humanity.’ We realize now the degree to which we’ve arrived at a global situation that couldn’t be more opposite to that. It seems like the worst people on Earth have somehow ended up in charge. Science is totally panicked and struggling to comprehend, let alone buffer us from, the calamities that are increasingly facing us. There’s this feeling like ‘well, I have no idea what’s going to happen tomorrow.’ I saw that story recently that the ‘murder hornets’ have arrived — hornets that kills people and animals. It’s like… what’s next? We don’t know. There’s definitely not a feeling of things ever being tied up with a bow, glossed and finished.
What was the recording process like for this record? Y’all did a good amount of it remotely via email?
Usually, we think of the computer and Pro Tools as being the way that you can make everything sound ‘too perfect.’ You can fix all the flaws. That’s one of the complaints that old-school musicians have: everything is quantized and perfectly autotuned. For us, it’s been interesting to use the computer in a different way.
The members of Deerhoof right now are living in four different cities and we were emailing each other ideas. It’s kind of a weird coincidence, but this record turned out to be kinda like a quarantine record in a way because we weren’t able to meet in person. In our case, everybody in the band has a different ear and a different aesthetic. We play instruments differently, we record things differently, we have different microphones. The way we started this record was that I wanted to record some sample drum beats and send it to my bandmates saying ‘hey, if you think of any riffs or melodies to go over this drum beat, send it back and then we can record it later.’ I was thinking ‘what’s the easiest way to record some drum beats?’ So, I opened up Photo Booth on my computer and used the built-in microphone on the laptop. I should’ve used something else — there’s no way to control audio in Photo Booth, so it got totally distorted. Then when I sent it to them, there was no way to turn it into an audio file without making it even more distorted. So, we had these distorted, low quality drum parts that they recorded stuff over. Then, they sent me back stuff as an mp3 in an email and I’d be like ‘wow, cool’ and I’d start overdubbing on that.
All this stuff was supposed to be demos, but once you start working on something more and get attached to it, it’s like ‘well, this sounds good the way it is.’ The computer ended up becoming the exact opposite of a ‘too perfect’ tool for us. It became a way for things to become more and more degraded. A lot of those Photo Booth drums are the drum tracks on the songs. A lot of stuff is from multiple generations of mp3s.
What have been the long term effects of that work style? Do you find that your creative process is different now that the actual quarantine’s begun?
It’s simply been a quieter time in this lockdown. I’ve been talking to a lot of friends who feel the same way. We’ve been outside the house less, people are in cars less. Life has been a lot quieter in the past few months in terms of sheer decibels. I notice that when it’s quieter, I can hear ideas more clearly, they aren’t being covered up by real sound as much. If I start to get an idea for a melody or a song, there are fewer distractions and I can hear it. I suddenly feel really inspired, coming up with a lot of ideas.
It makes you realize how much we are robbing ourselves with our hectic and noisy lifestyle. We are robbing ourselves of our own stream of ideas and thoughts and desires and imaginations. They’re there all the time, but they’re being ignored.
Stream Deerhoof’s Future Teenage Cave Artists and listen to its single “Farewell Symphony” below: