I was sitting with a group of international arts journalists last year in Los Angeles when a New York Times music columnist started shuffling tunes in his iPod looking for a particular selection.
"Here, listen to this. It's one of the best bands in America right now," he
said as the sounds of Deerhoof filled the room - the pop music mixed with guitar squalls, the child-like vocals of Japanese singer Satomi Matsuzaki and the manic drumming of Greg Saunier. As Rolling Stone magazine described the San Francisco-bred quartet's jazz improvisations delivered with rock & roll muscle, "it's as if Sonic Youth were being fronted by an anime cartoon."
Following that auspicious introduction, Deerhoof has indelibly remained on my radar. And when I brought them up later to my local indie rock guru - after hearing that the band would be making its Israeli debut in Tel Aviv on December 15 at the Barby club - he acknowledged their uniqueness, but said they were a little too "out there," even for him.
When I recounted those anecdotes to Saunier, speaking on the phone from Tokyo, to where he and Matsuzaki recently relocated, he just laughed.
"We don't choose to write music that nobody will like. It's more a case of us not knowing what we're doing even when we do try to write a hit single," said the thoughtful Saunier. "My goal actually is to write a hit single. Whenever I bring a song to the band and say 'what do you think of this?' that's what I'm thinking of. Whether or not it turns into a hit on the radio, there's the idea that it's a certain length, has a certain feeling to it, contains something that might make people like it like a hook, and illicit the same kind of reaction that I had when I was listening to hit singles when I was a kid. If we fail at it, it's just our shortcomings."
Some shortcomings, when the New York Times calls you one of the best bands in America. But for Saunier, it's always been a case of looking at the pop music mainstream from the outside, ever since he and bassist Rob Fisk founded the band in 1994. And even that action was the result of fluke rather than a thought-out career plan.
"We had a band that broke up suddenly. And there was this local booker in San Francisco who had a reputation for being really mean, and we were scared to tell her that we had broken up the band and had to cancel shows. So, rather than confront her, Rob and I went on and improvised as a duo," Saunier recalled.
SINCE THEN the band has enjoyed an almost annual release of challenging and acclaimed albums, which received description as disparate as "chaos," "dissonance," "pure mess," "cuddly," "outrageously fun" and "exciting." Along the way, Deerhoof has seen a few personnel changes, including the departure of Fisk, and a growing audience thanks to successful tours in recent years as an opening act for Radiohead and The Flaming Lips.
"We got really lucky playing with both of them," said Saunier. "They're very different from each other, but one thing they have in common is their audience. The Lips had a happy audience, open-minded, game for anything, which was great for us. And Radiohead had a more musical audience - they were deep listeners - which was also a pleasure to play for."
While Deerhoof - which today consists of Saunier, Matsuzaki on bass and vocals, and guitarists John Dietrich and Ed Rodriguez - may be a thinking person's rock band, there's a great deal of visceral delight as well, thanks in great part to Saunier's highly involved drumming, which almost at times acts as a lead instrument. Inventive and complex without being obtrusive, he is truly an original in a field where there's not much room for innovation anymore.
Saunier credited the development of his drumming style and musical sense to another rock original, Keith Moon, and to a childhood friend who was in his first band, and, surprisingly, lives in Israel.
When I was in third grade I joined the school band - just playing a snare drum in marches. My first drum set and the first pop band I was in came a few years later, in middle school, when I met Jeremy Forman," said Saunier. "He's living in Israel now and I haven't seen him since high school, but I hope he's going to be able to come to the show. He was my taste maker. At that time, we all listened to the Top 40 radio stations, but he was into slightly older, more sophisticated music like The British Invasion - The Who and the Stones. I used to play along with records he gave me as a present, that's how I taught myself to play."
"Just yesterday, I picked up Quadrophenia and heard "The Real Me" for the first time in years, and it brought back memories of sitting in my basement and playing along with it over and over again, learning every fill. I never thought of myself as a Keith Moon imitator, but when I heard the song again, I realized how true it was."
While Saunier and Fisk provided the swirling bottom to Deerhoof's sound, it wasn't until 1996, when they discovered Matsuzaki, that the band began to jell. She had just arrived in San Francisco from her native Tokyo in order to study film, and although she had no musical experience, Saunier and Fisk agreed that her eccentric, high singing style was exactly what Deerhoof needed.
Signing to the iconic Kill Rock Stars label, the band has remained there ever since making it the longest-lasting act in the label's 20 year history. It's a relationship that Saunier describes as comfortable, even though he admits that the label's hands-off approach sometimes achieves the wrong effect.
"From the very beginning, it was always KRS saying 'we'd be interested in releasing a record by you.' At that point we could take any amount of time to create whatever sound we wanted, and the reaction would always be an email saying 'Disc received.' That's about all we would hear. They exert no influence and make no requests or demands," said Saunier.
"It's funny, so many bands graduated from them to major labels - Slater-Kinney, The Decemberists, Elliott Smith - and every time a band defects and moves into the corporate universe, they'd always give an interview and say, 'it's OK because we've been promised total creative control. Our contract stipulates there'll be no influence from the top down.' And I always think to myself, I wish we didn't have creative control, and there was more input from the label. I wish they wouldn't leave us in charge."
FOR A BAND that has always done things differently, the fact that Saunier and Matsuzaki, now a married couple, picked up and moved to Tokyo this past summer shouldn't be surprising. According to Saunier, while it has had some impact on his own lifestyle, it shouldn't have any effect on Deerhoof continuing to function at full speed.
"It certainly is change for me that I'm still getting used to. But so much of our lifestyle revolves around touring that a good half of the year hasn't changed at all. This upcoming tour in which we're coming to Tel Aviv is the second tour we're doing since we moved here in August," said Saunier.
"And the other half of being at home also revolved around the band too, busy with writing and recording songs. In a way when you're by yourself with a guitar or in front of a computer, it doesn't matter where you really are. If you're a hermit anywhere, then you're home."
That might mean that he'll be right at home in Tel Aviv, a place that Saunier is eager to see with his own eyes. He admitted that he doesn't take stock in the stereotypes that the media offers of any country, as they are frequently revealed to be flawed.
"What's great about not yet having visited somewhere is that I don't have a preconception and I have a simple set of expectations. It's like a blank slate," he said. "I know better than to trust the few images that have made it to my eyes by the TV. We've been to Russia, China and Turkey this year, and, in all three cases, if I had tried to form an image beforehand based on stereotyped associations, they would have been completely wrong.
"In the US, the image associated with Turkey, and the Middle East in general, that has made it into mainstream culture is uniformly dark and riddled with tragedy, violence and anger. We got there to Istanbul and I found a city filled with happy people who really know how to live. There wasn't nearly the level of poverty and misery as in the US. I find over and over that the mockery of societies that is passively and deeply buried in the tone of the way the rest of the world is perceived by Americans is actually a projection of our own diseased society."
Pretty heady stuff for a rock musician, but as we've already ascertained, Deerhoof is not your average rock band.