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Babbling On About Deerhoof

In the same instant Deerhoof co-founder and drummer Greg Saunier laughed and said, "I'm really babbling now," what he had previously "babbled" became crystal clear.

Sure, he had slightly rambled on about Bach, Wendy Carlos, Tom Cruise and Stanley Kubrick, and breezed over the San Francisco experimental foursome's third longplayer Apple O', released in March on Kill Rock Stars. But, stringing it all together in summation, it all made perfect sense: Deerhoof's music-making approach knows no restrictions. Deerhoof's music chooses its own path.

The band's sporadically childlike, unpredictably colorful sound shapes and reshapes itself according to the setting, whether it's a mood, time or place. "What you actually hear on the surface is coming from the people rather than the song because there's so much in the songs that's left up to the people," Saunier explained during a recent phone interview.

"The songs don't tell you, 'Now you're supposed to feel sad when you do this part or go crazy in this part,'" he continued. "Any part of any song could be the go crazy part ... whatever that means."

Setting The Songs Free

Deerhoof let the mood of a particular performance space influence how their songs are performed. "The songs we write tend to be very simple," Saunier said. "There was a time in European music history where people would compose their music. Say, Bach — he'd write out his pieces and you look at the score and it's just notes and rhythms and there's nothing else. If you look at it, it all looks sort of the same and it all looks kind of plain.

"'And the further forward you go in history, there's more and more of a tendency to have more and more markings in the score," he continued. "So, you'll end up looking at a score of somebody writing music in the '50s, the thing is absolutely filled with an incredibly detailed profusion of instructions. Every note has its own volume that it's supposed to be played at — this note is supposed to be played quiet but getting this much louder towards the end of the note. And you're supposed to play it with no vibrato, with a mute stuck into your instrument and then you take the mute out after this note is over. It's really, really controlled. The point being, when somebody plays that, there's so little chance that it's going to sound different from person to person. There's so little chance that whatever group that is playing this music is going to be able to put its group stamp on this piece, because it's controlled. Almost any performance is going to sound identical."

Lacking this sort of confinement, Deerhoof intend, like 18th century composers, to leave their tunes as open to interpretation as any abstract piece of art. "A lot of times [Bach] would write pieces where he didn't say what instrument it's for," Saunier said. "So then you get somebody playing the piece on the piano, harpsichord or organ, or they arrange it for a string quartet. It can sound so different. There's no tempo marking, you don't know how fast you're supposed to play, you can play it any tempo. And you don't know if you're supposed to play it smooth or choppy. You're just seeing this row of notes, and you don't know where one phrase ends and the next one begins. It's up to the performer to decide what the phrasing is."

By listening to Deerhoof's latest album repeatedly, you can experience the freedom within their sweet yet damaged sound — with each listen you are discovering a mood or part that previously went unnoticed. Apple O' comes across as more of an art project than just an album. Songs build from quiet and minimal, playful and tickling to bang-'em-out explosive, with the complexities of an onslaught of instrumentation.

"Apple Bomb" teases its listener with heavenly, sweet-as-rhubarb-pie cooing and fragile snail's-paced playing before bursting into a temporary loss of sanity with high-pitched squeals and evil, punishing drums. While most of the 13 tracks on the album contain just a few lines of poetic, playful lyrics, "Apple Bomb" features the most ample quantity — and cutely impassioned lines at that: "Marry me lucky tree/ You're my tree/ And you're my three/ When you burn/ Now I'm free/ To find me number four/ And number four can marry me." Opener "Dummy Discards a Heart" features a loveable, squalling Sonic Youth-ish guitar line and tapping, fluttering beats. The very non-Go Go's-like "Sealed With a Kiss" may be the album's most simplistic for its drum-machine beat, trumpet burps and horn cries. It is perhaps also the most touching for its words: "Stop the man at the top/ Stop the flag at the top/ Stop the drop on the map/ Stop the drop of the mop." Playing like kindergarten, nah-nah-nah's and exposed, pointy tongues, "Flower" feels as innocent and fearless as a child.

Deerhoof are not a band experimenting purely for the sake of being different. Apple O' reveals a group that spits parts around not only to explore immense areas of musical opportunity (piecing highly original and intricate soundscapes together all the while), but also to offer their audience a colorful canvas they could gaze upon time and time again, pulling out a different picture each time.

Saunier co-founded the band with Seattle electronica experimentalist Rob Fisk (also formerly of Pell Mell) in '94 and has since seen a somewhat heavy rotation of members. Deerhoof's current lineup is Saunier, vocalist/bassist Satomi Matsuzaki, guitarist Chris Cohen and guitarist John Dieterich.

The band recorded Apple O' (its artwork drawn by Fisk) live, all in one day with Dilute's Jay Pellicci (who's currently working with Erase Errata on their second album). Pellicci first worked with Deerhoof when he recorded five tracks that appeared on their last full-length, 2002's Reveille. The band put out their first album, The Man, The King, The Girl in '97, following it with 1999's Holdypaws

"It was this real swanky studio where Jay works, and he had amassed some free hours there, and that's how we were able to get in there to record for free," Saunier said.

Being short on cash, the band chose to lay down Apple O's 13 engaging, curious tracks in one day, often without their producer/engineer altogether there. "He had been spending the previous week up until three in the morning recording this band from Portland (Ore.) called 31 Knots,'" Saunier said. "We would be in there recording and you could look into the control booth and he'd be completely nodded out."

The recording session went smoothly, with only an obstacle or two. "Chris only threatened to quit the band about once in the evening after somebody else in the band, who has a tendency to nit-pick, was giving him a hard time over playing his part just right." Course, the snickering, self-proclaimed nitpicker Saunier was referring to himself.

Still, how can Saunier — whose eye for detail cannot be escaped — not pick things apart? "The more times you play, the more you're noticing the finer points," he said. "I really get a kick out of the details of things. Sometimes those little things can really change how something sounds."

Doing It Their Rule-free Way

Deerhoof retain openness in their songs, many times by not writing their own parts, sidestepping the imprint of an individual bandmember's specific playing technique. "Suppose Satomi has an idea for what the drum part should be," Saunier explained. "So she'll sing me this drum beat, but it's not like her style of playing the drums is ingrained in the song; it's more just an idea. She has an idea, so there's a lot of different ways you can do the idea, because you have these notes or rhythms, but you haven't determined something about the style."

So Deerhoof's songs — without particular playing styles ingrained — are allowed a certain fluidity to change, mature, grow and breathe lives of their own separate from whomever plays them. "This might sound weird and I might be going out on a limb here but if you make up your own part jamming then it's very natural to keep playing the way you naturally played," Saunier said. "But if you're having a part handed to you, that isn't a part you would've written, and also isn't a part that you did write, by somebody who plays the guitar a different way, then it's not like, 'Well, now I'm just gonna put my stamp on this guitar part.'

"It's not exactly clear right away what your stamp would be in relation to this foreign material," he continued. "You have to figure out a way to make it yours, and a lot of times it may take playing it again and again and again before somebody feels like they are playing something that feels like them, that doesn't just feel like reading a script blankly."

Still, the uniqueness of the individual is not lost, because eventually they can make the idea that is handed to them their own. "There's a certain thing that comes out of a person that's unique," Saunier said. "So, if John or Chris is playing these notes and rhythms that I wrote, as if these notes and rhythms are sitting there on music paper, there's an infinite number of ways that those notes and rhythms can come out.

"We're singer/songwriters. That's what I'm trying to tell you — it's a singer/songwriter-type band," Saunier said, sounding quite proud of his simple but fitting conclusion. — Jenny Tatone [Thursday, June 12, 2003]

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