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Tangled pop from a genre-defying band

Deerhoof is a band unstuck in time, with sing-song melodies sliced with buzz-saw guitars that transform into poppy, instrumental ditties. By Del Engen
/ Source: contributor

Deerhoof is a band unstuck in time. Witness the song “Running Thoughts,” from their seventh album, “The Runners Four,” in which the band’s alter ego headlines as a globe-trotting, time-trotting quartet of aural spies running contraband sounds through customs, popping in briefly to unload their new musical vocabulary.

The Bay Area quartet weaves in and out of unfamiliar contexts several times per song.  Sing-song melodies sliced with buzz-saw guitars transform into poppy, instrumental ditties, while making a nod toward Handel, Ennio Morricone and Sonic Youth along the way. Such breadth is giddily disorienting, and makes the 20 tracks seem like several albums at once.

The intricate, angular guitar work of John Dieterich and Chris Cohen is balanced in the other extreme by the sweet simplicity of Satomi Matsuzaki’s voice and lyrics. Originally coming to San Francisco from Japan as a film student, Satomi was not a musician before Deerhoof.  Her untrained voice is deceptively delicate, the sort of voice you might use to sing to a younger brother or sister. It bears a passing resemblance to some of the cutesy vocal styles found in the schoolgirl Shibuya-kei of, say Kahimi Karie, and yet Satomi’s delivery is unaffected and sincere, despite sometimes surreal and fragmented lyrics (“Montage fragments / Ditties of no tone,” goes one). 

Animals often crop up in Satomi's songs: pandas, wolves, and yes, deer all make appearances.  Some songs have a childlike innocence, while others are nursery-rhyme sinister and dreamlike.  In fact, the band’s lyric sheet sometimes reads like you've stumbled across someone’s dream journal: “Your legs don’t work and you’re caught in the light / You can see through the walls so nothing is right / There's a man in the cellar next door / And he’s scratching the floor fifty miles away…”

Everyone in the band writes music, everyone switches instruments, and everyone displays virtuosity, yet no one shows off.  Dieterich and drummer Greg Saunier have a common mentor in outré guitarist and composer Fred Frith, known for work with The Residents, Eno and John Zorn.  The two met in Frith’s composition class at Oakland’s Mills College, and found that his eclectic philosophy of melody and chaos resonated with them.  “Anything can be an influence,” Saunier says.  “Frith often repeated that it’s fine to draw from rock, classical, improv.  There should be no stigma attached.”

Working outside the usual structures does takes its toll.  “We don’t assume anything, so we’re sometimes in a state of chaos.  We make up our structure as we go, sometimes show-by-show, sometimes hour-by-hour.  What sounds good to us at 3 p.m. may sound bad at 4 p.m.”

If all this makes Deerhoof sound esoteric and inaccessible, note that their fans base is swelling through tours with unlikely pairings such as Wilco and The Roots.  “The Deerhoof audience is more open than the industry thinks,” Saunier notes. “Today’s audience is willing to be challenged. People are willing to explore possibilities.” 

It also helps to have a roster of famous fans — Beck, Sonic Youth and “The Simpsons” creator Matt Groening among them.  Groening gave them a boost in 2003, inviting them to play at the ultra-hip music festival, All Tomorrow’s Parties.

And for all the talk of noise and angularity, some songs are pensive and beautiful.  Some outright rock.  Another called “After Me The Deluge” busts into a full-on 12-string and harmonium break that would make George Harrison proud.

Deerhoof doesn’t actively dodge classification, but they don’t work by a guidebook for how a band is supposed to proceed, says Saunier.  If he had to describe the band to someone during a quick elevator ride, what would he say? “I’d actually prefer Deerhoof to be playing as the elevator music,” Saunier quips.  But he means it.  “Our tunes are ultimately rather simple — simple melodies that are easy to cover, easy to sing… Someone could do the singer/songwriter Deerhoof.”

Want to create Deerhoof elevator music?  A set of raw tracks from “The Runners Four” from each of the four band members is available online from their label, Kill Rock Stars, for anyone to download and remix.

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