greg saunier 248.88.
(photo credit: Alon Mittelman)
Barby Club, Tel Aviv
Listening to Deerhoof's studio albums at home, one can easily imagine drummer Greg Saunier, who formed the band when the Californian outfit came to life some 15 years ago, as the manic drummer from "The Muppet Show," sitting behind a huge drum-kit, playing with all four limbs like an octopus.
So it was surprising to see Saunier, a tall, thin, lanky man, hunching over what seemed to be little more than a wedding band kit: a snare drum, one cymbal, one bass drum and an (unusually large) hi-hat.
But close your eyes during the band's first performance in Israel at the Barby club in Tel Aviv on Tuesday night and sure enough that "Muppet Show" image pops back into mind. However, Saunier's drum-work, chaotic as it may sound, is in fact a marvel of precise musicianship.
Reversing the traditional rock n' roll paradigm of a bass-guitar and drum rhythm section, over which the axemen show off their skill, in Deerhoof, Satomi Matsuzaki's bass and the guitars of John Dieterich and Ed Rodriguez interlock in tight patterns. Over this, Saunier, arguably rock's most melodic drummer today, manages the miracle of keeping the beat without actually playing it.
It's almost as if the man has a click-track playing in his head, and yet his fills never succumb to its metronome regularity. With what can only be described as rhythmic elasticity, his volcanic outbursts leave the tune, wander off in rolls of snare and cymbal thunders, only to rejoin the downbeat of the next musical phrase with explosive intensity.
Even so, Deerhoof is anything but a vehicle for its drummer. There is also Matsuzaki, who has been in the band since shortly after its inception, joining just in time to be the leading voice on the band's debut album in 1997 and years before she learned to properly play the bass. The diminutive Japanese and her stage antics, which combine the manic with the cute, is the biggest point of contention for listeners exploring Deerhoof.
Singing in a high-pitched soprano and bad diction in English with lyrics that are mostly unintelligible (that is, when they're not actually in Japanese), Matsuzaki's presentation is like the flavor of guavas: You either love it or you hate it. And yet, belying her schoolboy size, Matsuzaki somehow manages to pierce through the dense noise of Saunier's busy fills and the intricate guitar-work to carry the tunes.
And tunes they are. Deerhoof's songs are always highly melodic, based on very catchy, sticking-in-your-head hooks and riffs, while more often than not one of the guitars will also double and reinforce Matsuzaki's vocal lines in parallel.
With almost every song the band played, most taken from the last four of their nine-album catalogue, I wondered why Deerhoof have only been noticed in the past few years by mainstream music lovers. So many songs could obviously be radio hits. And then I recalled that even after some practice, not everyone can stomach Matsuzaki's wacky presentation.
But it became clear that's not all Matsuzaki can deliver; it is a conscious aesthetic choice. When the band covered The Velvet Underground's "All Tomorrow's Parties" the singer convincingly emulated Nico's deep alto voice, one of three cover versions performed during Tuesday night's gig. During those covers, the members played musical chairs - with Dieterich taking over bass duties in one song and Saunier (who also plays keyboards on the band's studio albums - notably the exquisite Green Cosmos EP) performing on both guitar and bass-guitar.
The music's originality makes it hard to describe, but if Deerhoof's music can be compared to anything, then maybe the best start would be to say it's influenced by the intricate prog-rock of the 1970's as viewed through a sugar-coated pop prism, with a healthy sprinkling of Japan's Shibuya-kei flavor and even the occasional video-game tune (as on "Hot Mint Air Balloon" from Green Cosmos or "Holy Night" from Reveille). Unlike those prog-rock outfits, however, the band does not bother with building walls of sound as backdrops for 10-minute songs and most importantly (thank God for that) lacks that heavy-handed pseudo-intellectual seriousness that spoiled so many of those 1970's albums.
While the songs are almost always very short, they contain a wealth of musical material, with each piece characteristically marked by two or three catchy hooks, over which Matsuzaki soars in melodic lines and Saunier thundering below, above and all around with his amazing drum work. Meanwhile, the guitars provide rhythmic power-chord patterns.
With Deerhoof, it's always about having fun, and always about playing music. No senseless noodling here; no guitar heroism. While the two guitarists often play intricate interlocking lines where it can be hard to peg which of them plucks which note, nothing in Deerhoof's music, including Saunier's amazing playing, is geared at empty displays of virtuosity.
And the band also has that healthy sound of basic rock n' roll guitar. As far as I could tell, on stage Tuesday, no synthesized sound effects were used. The band champions the warm, tube-amp 1960's sound of distorted guitars and, when employing keyboards in its studio work, frequently opts for the Hammond and reed-pipe organ sound.
While it was hard to dance on Tuesday in the fully-packed Barby Club because the rhythms and hooks change within each song like colors through a kaleidoscope, it was also hard to find in the audience a foot not tapping, as Deerhoof blew their hot mint air-balloons into the air.