When the COVID-19 pandemic hit last year and forced musicians around the world to adapt to remote methods of writing and recording, the legendary experimental four-piece, Deerhoof, wasn’t too hard-pressed—they had been working remotely for a decade at that point.
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That’s because the four members—drummer Greg Saunier, bassist, and vocalist Satomi Matsuzaki, and guitarists John Dieterich and Ed Rodriguez—live in different corners of the globe. But no matter the distance between them, they’ve been able to connect via internet technology and craft some of the most expressive and eclectic recordings of the past few decades. Just last year, they unveiled Future Teenage Cave Artists, a masterpiece album recorded over a series of back-and-forth emails sent around the world.
Now, Deerhoof is back with one of the greatest albums to date: on October 22, they dropped Actually, You Can, an uber-energetic, “remote live” album born out of the circumstances of this past year and recorded in the same remote manner they’ve been busy perfecting.
See, when the pandemic forced Deerhoof to quarantine in their respective homes, they felt the same sense of longing that many other musicians felt—a longing for shows, a longing for in-person collaboration, a longing for genuine connection. This was especially exasperated by the fact that prior to the pandemic hitting, they were actually planning on getting together to record an album in-person for the first time in a while.
“We’ve done it a few times,” Rodriguez tells American Songwriter. “For La Isla Bonita, everyone came to my house in Portland—for The Magic, everyone went to John’s in Albuquerque. It turns into this kinda ‘Deerhoof sleep-away camp,’ where we all stay in the same house, get up and make breakfast together, go to our space, record, come back, make dinner… it’s this real human, connecting experience. So this time, we were planning on doing that again—that was our plan, 100%.”
But then, everything shut down, throwing a big wrench in their record-making plans. For her part, Matsuzaki held firm that the “live in the same room” approach should still be honored… even if it would have to be done so artificially, utilizing their remote recording chops. As a result, Actually, You Can is a quasi-live album, featuring imaginative arrangements that explore the dynamic, melodic, and energetic abilities of just four parts (and vocals) working in unison.
“A lot of that was Satomi’s direction,” Rodriguez explained. “I think she, more than the rest of the band, is very aware of the magic that happens when it’s just the four of us. John, Greg, and I do a lot more recording than her, so I think we can sorta get pulled into that digital world where we just sit in front of the computer, and that becomes the creative process for us. But Satomi connects more when it’s the four of us in the same room—she’s the one who remembers how fun that is.”
To Matsuzaki’s credit, there is inimitable magic to the four members of Deerhoof’s interplay. “There is no ‘winner’ or ‘loser’ for music, but I think our spirit for working together is close to a baseball team,” she said. “We sent music files to each other, which was like a four-player baseball game. A ball is our music file—every time we catch a ball, we create something to make it elevated. There were strikes, outs, balls, and almost a home run. After the bottom of the 10th, the ball is fully completed.”
On a more concrete level, this required leaning on the talents and intuitions of the band members and thinking about the arrangements from a live perspective even though they were being brought to life in a studio environment.
“It’s fun to add as many sounds as you want when you record-making thick layers of harmony are tempting when there’s no limit and it makes the music sophisticated,” Matsuzaki continued. “But there are only four of us—when we have to play that live on stage, it’s impossible. So, I thought it would be cool to make songs that we could actually play live, as is. ‘Would I be able to play this bass part when I sing this melody?’ Ed came up with two crazy-fast, intertwined guitar parts that went on for three minutes straight—‘Can John and Ed pull this off live?’ Logistics were fun to imagine. It brought me back to a rehearsal with Deerhoof in my mind. We spent many months arranging in a way we could play live (in our minds).”
In total, Actually, You Can comes across as a colorful explosion of sound and catharsis, offering a sense of solace for tough times. With songs like “Department of Corrections” and “Scarcity Is Manufactured,” the record constitutes a brilliant work of activism—but not in the sense that it explicitly speaks out about the politics of our time. Rather, it offers a sense of hope for those who feel disenfranchised by the cultural, judicial, and economic deterioration of the modern world. Just read the lyrics for the two aforementioned songs below:
“Department of Corrections”
this supper tastes just like the last one,
but it’s the first day of your term.
o jailer, who’s in charge around here?
and if not you then is it i?
my jailer lives on waves of sunlight from 90 million miles away.
my jailer doesn’t speak no english.
my jailer’s busy and he’s small.
my jailer solves for unknown functions.
my jailer rehabilitates.
my jailer hotrodded my engines, already rumbling the room,
you turn my letters to lines.
you turn my water into wine,
beep beep beep!
“Scarcity Is Manufactured”
i thought it was night, but it’s day.
it’s every day at once.
one for every visible star.
i was fine till you got here, my friend.
behold my house of light.
bankruptor of the rainbow!
“To me, Deerhoof is very much about motivating and giving people strength in difficult situations,” Dieterich explained. “Especially during the pandemic, we all felt the desire to lean into that even more. As a culture, as a planet, the stakes have been raised—there’s so much confusion and it’s just not an easy time. For us, it’s important to not do just one thing in particular, but to motivate, to engage with the times we’re living in in some dynamic way, because it’s not going to slow down, you know?”
Expanding on that, Matsuzaki added: “The pandemic made us stumble. People are stronger and more confident than ever before as survivors. We wanted to sing out loud all kinds of emotions. What is the meaning of life? Music makes people happy. It makes it easy to express our feelings. It’s like making words dance. I think it’s a strong tool to move the listener’s heart and soul. It’s a beautiful and kind action that people can do.”
With lyrics that abstractly—yet concisely, with an air of calculated restraint—speak to the backward nature of modern capitalist policy, there’s an inspiring spirit of defiance lining the tracks on Actually, You Can. Sharing it now, the moment feels almost akin to planting a seed of hope into the soil of the great media landscape. In the press materials for the record, even, Matsuzaki was quoted talking about the influence of plants on the themes of the album.
“I have been collecting plants the last few years and I saw the growth every morning that encouraged me to start a day,” she said. “Plants always lean towards sunlight. Me too,”
Deerhoof’s new album Actually, You Can is out now—watch the video for the opening track, “Be Unbarred, O Ye Gates of Hell,” below: