by Emily Echevarria
One of the few things listeners can reliably expect from Deerhoof is unpredictability. Since the mid-90s, the band’s sound has vacillated wildly from prog rock to avant garde to post punk and beyond over the course of some 13 albums.
A common thread tying together the band’s varied repertoire is lead singer and bassist Satomi Matsuzaki’s bright, airy vocals and often surrealist lyrics over driving melodies that are at times a multi-layered, deconstructed tapestry and at times stripped down to the bone.
Along with Matsuzaki is drummer, and founding member Greg Saunier, as well as guitarists John Dieterich and Ed Rodriquez. Together they dream up a seemingly bottomless well of genre-bending music while taking a DIY approach to band management, recording and touring.
Deerhoof will drive themselves to Pensacola this week, to Pensacola’s Vinyl Music Hall for a Aug. 12 engagement. During some downtime between the band’s two-week touring spurts, Rodriguez spoke with SANDSpaper about recording the new album “The Magic,” re-realizing how weird your friends are, and why 23 hours of well-managed boredom can explode into one hour of “pure energy.”
Here is an abbreviated version of the interview, for more check out Emily’s Extended Interview with Ed.
SANDSpaper: Were you a fan of Deerhoof before you joined?
Ed Rodriguez: Yeah, actually, the other guitarist, John [Dietriech], he and I met in Minneapolis when we were about 19, and his first band was with me so we knew each other and were in bands together for years. At some point he moved from Minneapolis to California and he met Greg [Saunier]. They both were studying music at Mills there. So they met and John joined Deerhoof. That was around the time the album “Reveille,” you know, the first album he recorded with them was “Reveille,” so right away then he was mailing me — this was way before email — so he would physically mail me tapes and stuff up there of, like, songs they were working on for the record. So I was just so happy that he had met Greg and Satomi and that he was in this band that there was so much of him in it. I had known him for so many years and I was really happy that it was such a great match. And eventually, I had met Greg and Satomi through John, and John and I had our other band which is called Gorge Trio. We actually had a European tour set up, so just sort of last minute, we decided to do it with Deerhoof. So, Deerhoof came to open for us. That’s how we ended up switching back and forth. So, that was when Chris Cohen was the other guitarist, so even on that tour I saw the band like 20 times, so probably before joining the band I had seen the band like 40 times, since John joined.
I was always in other bands and then at some point I quit touring with these other bands and after I quit, I was available. I was working in an office and I went in and I got let go, cause they were downsizing. So I came in and they told me I was laid off, and I got a phone call from John at work and he asked me to dinner that night. So, I went and met John for dinner and he asked me if I would join Deerhoof. I was like, “Ah, I just got fired today!” So I went in to work the next day all smiles and nobody could understand why I was so happy when I just got fired. So, it worked perfectly. That was in 2008, so I’ve been in the band since then.
SANDSpaper: You guys all live in different places right now, right?
Ed Rodriguez: Yeah, we were all based around San Francisco, and about six years ago John’s girlfriend got into school in Albuquerque, N.M., so he moved with her there. And then the three of us realized we didn’t have to live in the Bay [Area] anymore if we were gonna be doing it long distance. So Greg and Satomi ended up in Brooklyn, and I moved to Portland. I got sick of visiting friends up here and seeing that they had a whole house for what I was renting a one bedroom apartment for. So I moved here, rented a house, got a dog, all the fantasy stuff.
SANDSpaper: Do you create new music while you’re touring or incorporate what happens onstage during your live shows into work for your next album?
Ed Rodriguez: Yeah, definitely. We really reflect on everything that’s going on at that moment, and that’s how we’re able to stay engaged and actually positive about everything because we don’t just leave things the way they are. So, while we’re touring we’ll talk often about, like, “Oh, this song’s working really well, I like playing stuff with this feel, I wish we had more of this.” And so everything with us is constantly about the next thing. So somebody might play something, like Satomi might be playing a bass line to test her bass at sound check and then Greg will hear it and he’ll remember it and that’ll come up later. Or even vague things of just , like, “I wish we had more dancey stuff, or like, fast stuff.” We tend to talk stuff to death, where we’ll spend months, like, just coming up with those ten words that we want to define the next record. Since we are traveling so much, everybody has kind of developed a style that — in the van, we don’t listen to music because one or two people are usually on their computers working on stuff. Satomi writes music on her phone, she has, like, apps and stuff where she does sequencing on her phone so there’s not really, like, a division, like, “Oh, we started tour, so now we’re in this mode and then that tour’s over so we write for two months and then we meet.” Just everything is constantly mixed up. Everything is happening at the same time.
This last record was a little different in the way that we didn’t really talk that much about what we wanted it to be. We just decided to just show up and just do whatever and whatever things people had that they were working on — we just were a little bit more laid back. So, we’re constantly just trying different things and different ways to kind of have creativity.
SANDSpaper: Speaking of the latest album, I read that some of the songs were written for the show, “Vinyl.” Did that kind of guide the creative prompt for the album in any way or did it just kind of fit into it in the end?
Ed Rodriguez: I think it did kind of open our eyes in a way. Like I said, we normally give ourselves guidelines as to what we’re trying to do with a record, but when we ended up writing those songs, we didn’t know at the time, the show hadn’t started airing and they barely gave us information on what it was. They just gave us a few bands they wanted it to sound like, which were actually, strangely enough, most of the bands they mentioned weren’t even from the time period that “Vinyl” takes place in. So we wrote these songs and we sent them to each other the next day and it was a thing of, “Wow, these are great. We love all of these.” Like, it was really fun and funny to see, like, to be given this vague description of what they were looking for and then to see what that meant to all of us, it was, like, “Wow, that’s what your mind does?” It was, like, sort of just a reminder, a reminder of what everyone is capable of and sort of also like a reminder that we can just do whatever. I think really often for us, we see the dissimilarities as opposed to where we meet. So, when we write for a record, we’ll be thinking about this magical whatever Deerhoof is, this creature in the sky that we never can define, so it’s this thing of where we’ll be like, “Oh, I’m gonna work on stuff for Deerhoof so I’m going to get in this mindset. I’m going to try and make it like something that the other three would like.” And that’s a lot of it is we’re trying to write music that we think the rest of us would enjoy and things that, like, how we were talking about aspects that we want to bring out in what we’re doing, we think about that. But then, when we did these songs, we realized, oh, we all really like all this stuff and we just played. We just wrote songs that we liked. And I think that really helped us see that we can maybe open it up a little and just have fun and just see what happens, which I guess makes perfect sense but it hadn‘t been something we were doing for a while.
SANDSpaper: It seems like a really interesting creative prompt for a band.
Ed Rodriguez: Yeah, it really is. You hear those things all the time, just like when Brian Eno would do those written instruction things or just like sort of a lot of people do more like musical games where it’s, like, you know, just to kind of take things out of your own hands, and that was kind of, like, a little bit like that for us, where somebody else set up these guidelines for what they wanted us to do and we were like, “OK,” and it turned out we all liked it. They sent us this email that was just mentioning Wipers and Dead Boys and Stooges and we’re like, oh yeah, and then hearing songs like, yeah, Greg’s song sounds just like the Stooges and John’s song, sounds like Queen or something, this, like, some weird sci-fi adventure. It’s just great to see, like, how weird your friends are sometimes. You see them so often that you forget that they’re weird, but then they remind you and you’re like, “Oh, yeah, that’s why I like you so much.”
SANDSpaper: It’s interesting that you were talking about you all writing songs that you think the others would like, because when you read descriptions of Deerhoof’s music, it always talks about how each album is very different and yet there’s something kind of hard to describe that is very distinct where you can tell it’s Deerhoof when you listen to it, but it seems like something that is difficult to put into words, so maybe that’s the cohesive thread.
Ed Rodriguez: Yeah, everybody writes and once they write something then it’s open to whatever, which is what ends up making it the same. We’re really big on separating the art from the artist where if you bring something in and somebody goes, “Well, this part’s horrible, but this part’s good,” that you don’t let your feelings get hurt. I think that’s really hard for a lot of creative people, because, you know, a lot of creative people are incredibly sensitive. But we’ve worked to get at a point where there’s that level of trust where if somebody brings something in and, like, if John brings in a song and I don’t hear it, I don’t understand it, I trust him enough and he’s done enough great stuff that I know, “OK, let’s work through it and see what you’re talking about here.” And he trusts us enough that if we’re like, “Well, actually this isn’t working. Maybe if you drop this chord and do this…” and he’s like, “fine.” But also, if he’s like, “Well I think it needs to be there,” we’ll say, “Well, OK, we’ll keep trying it.” It’s just really open to any sort of input from everyone. So by the time we get to the end of something, it usually couldn’t have existed if it wasn’t for all four of us being involved. No song I’ve brought in is like it was when I wrote it. You just kind of have to be open to what you did being something else and I’ve seen it enough that what it ends up being I’m so happy with. Part of the joy of working with other people is that aspect, and it’s what we all want. None of us want to be like just tinkering alone in a room by ourselves, just being the mastermind behind all this stuff. We’re really about relationships and working with other people.
SANDSpaper: So, tell me a little bit about your recording process. “The Magic” was recorded over a week in a rented space, right?
Ed Rodriguez: Yeah, my friend Jeremy Barnes, who’s in Neutral Milk Hotel and A Hawk and a Hacksaw, his dad owns an office building in Albuquerque, and they only have businesses on the first floors and the next few floors are all empty so he let us use one of the office rooms. So there’s really nothing special about the room, it’s just like you would expect when you go in, there’s an old desk with a land line, like a multi-line phone, and that’s it. We just brought everything John owned over there, like every guitar, every amp and every mic, he brought mics from some friends and we just set up in there, and would just get up in the morning, make some food, go over there and work all day and come home and make dinner together. It always changes. We don’t really have like a set method of what we do. “Breakup Song” was mainly written through email, sending each other stuff. “La Isla Bonita” was recorded in my basement. We had gotten together to just practice for our recording session that we had set up with an actual studio and then we just set up a few mics quickly to just do demos to listen and then when we listened to those demos we were like, “This sounds good.” So, we cancelled our recording session and just used the demos we started recording in my basement. Everyone has different ways that they record. Satomi has that song on “The Magic” that she just recorded on her phone. She just was working on stuff and she put it up and it sounded great so we just put it on. Everything’s kind of open to whatever happens and everyone has their methods.
SANDSpaper: But it seems like you do have a DIY sensibility about your recording. You don’t do a lot of studio sessions?
Ed Rodriguez: Yeah, we have always been really big on the whole ‘do the most with what you have’ idea, and we’ve made a living off of playing music for like a decade, all four of us, and we’re not like a huge band. A big part of why we can do that is that we don’t have anyone else do something that we can do. We don’t have managers. I book hotels, Satomi is our accountant and books flights. John drives and Greg advances shows. The recording stuff is just an extension of that, where we kind of find it liberating to not be paying all this money in a studio and looking at a clock. Sometimes magical things happen when it’s, like, you only have six hours, and there’s this tension and you have to do it. But there’s also something about just being able to sit together with everyone and not worry about everything. The labels always love us because we just hand them a free record. There’s zero cost of us doing anything. We all started out like everyone does with just really bad versions of, like, early Deerhoof records were recorded on a version of recording software that was Pro Tools Free, that was like a demo version that they put online for people to use. So they only had four tracks, so the band would put, like, three computers together and all hit the space bars at the same time to record multiple tracks. It started at that, where it was just four tracks, to doing that. Each record that we do we discover like a keystroke or something that would’ve saved us like 20 hours on the previous record. So it’s a constant learning thing where we just figure it out. And that’s the thing, for everyone, there’s gonna be a time period where you’re not that great at it, but that’s the only way that you get good at it. At this point everybody kind of knows what they’re doing but it was through years and years of making mistakes and I think we’ve made just about every mistake we could. That’s the same with our touring stuff. Our tours are really boring because we have made every mistake. We know exactly how our machine operates. We always come back making money, we always have zero surprises. Most great tour stories are because some just horrible thing happened. Most times I come back and nothing happened on our tours. We get there, everything goes fine. We meet a bunch of great people, we get back in the van and that’s it.
SANDSpaper: My next question was what can people expect from your show, or what do you hope people will take away from it, so hopefully the show isn’t as boring as the logistics of touring.
Ed Rodriguez: Well that’s the thing, the rest of it, the 23 hours are so boring that the one hour that we get, it’s just pure energy. It really is, it’s so much waiting that we’re just dying to play by that time. There’s a bunch of things I think about when we play. I hope it comes across, the ‘do the most with what you have’ sort of thing. It’s, like, tiny gear and we work our own merch table. I talk to young bands all the time and they’re like, I think it’s important for other musicians and artists to realize that they’re not that far from us as they might think. We just throw stuff in a little van and just drive around and do this. We have fun and we think people enjoy it. And we don’t have some big corporate machine behind us to fund everything. We don’t get, like, tour advances. We didn’t need to do like a $20,000 KickStarter to get funding to afford a bus or something. That’s one thing I always tell everyone, if you play guitar and your friend plays drums, don’t feel that you can’t start playing music until you have a bass player and another guitarist or anything. Just start doing whatever. Anything you wanna do. Don’t wait; just do it. There’s a lot of things I think about like that that I hope is one of the takeaways for people.