When I ask Deerhoof drummer Greg Saunier about the mythological references on their new Offend Maggie (Kill Rock Stars), he makes no mention of the “Roman god wonderers” or exclamations of “Oh Charon” peppered throughout. Instead, he riffs on the question itself, offering a bit of perspective: “When Rob Fisk started Deerhoof 14 years ago, it was as a bass solo.”
VIDEO: Deerhoof, "Chandelier Searchlight"
There’s no doubt that from the heaving squalls of noise in their 1997 debut, The Man, the King, the Girl, to the rigid, slanted rock of 2007’s Friend Opportunity, the San Francisco–based band have come a long way. In the mercurial world of indie rock, where blog-sized turnovers in taste and favor can sour the brightest hopes, 14 years and nine albums is an eternity. To read Saunier’s version of it (we’re e-mailing) is to see Fisk’s bass as the protozoan from which a fully-limbed Deerhoof have slowly emerged, hammering away at their singular, convulsive noise pop.
The last few years, especially, have seen a golden age of sorts for the band. Even as they became known as one of indie rock’s most experimental acts (reviews of Deerhoof records are rich with scientific-sounding adjectives), they’ve maintained a staggeringly high level of audience support and critical approbation. Since their debut, the nucleus of their sound has remained, a hard-edged pile-up of guitar hooks, ambient backdrops, and chirpy and often inscrutable lyrics from vocalist Satomi Matsuzaki, whose native Japanese peppers the mostly English verses.
Their two previous records, The Runners Four and Friend Opportunity, which saw them tweak their shambolic beginnings into tight, sample-sized jumbles of pop insouciance, garnered the band their highest marks. And they’ve been funneling their sound into all sorts of unexpected venues: staging 2004’s Milk Man as a ballet with the help of schoolchildren in North Haven, Maine; scoring and performing a silent-film soundtrack; and, most recently, “leaking” the sheet music to Offend Maggie’s lead single “Fresh Born,” with the request that fans post their covers to YouTube.
When compared with her older peers, Offend Maggie sounds loose and effortless. According to Saunier, this may have had something to do with the recent inclusion of guitarist Ed Rodriguez. “We’ve always been the type of group where everybody writes their songs separately. No jamming and no noodling. But this time we really tried to relax. . . . Ed was a big part of that because the songs he brought in were so sketchy, we had no choice but to work them out collaboratively, we had no choice but to jam.” Nowhere is that more evident than in “Snoopy Waves,” a loose, beachy track with scratchy guitars, or in their paean to sport, “Basket Ball Get Your Groove Back,” a daze of sluggish grooves punctuated by Matsuzaki’s courtside howls (“Pivot!” “Dribble!”). Even opener “The Tears and Love of Music,” with its spastic hook, settles into an easy back-and-forth after its electric start. Although there are as many sonic left turns as there are on any Deerhoof release, everything’s a little bit smoother, a little less regimented.
Of course, many of the quintessentially Deerhoofian gestures remain: the melodies still come in at odd angles; Matsuzaki’s free-floating mewl is still front and center; every now and then a megawatt riff kicks in and sets everything straight. (That’s their oldest trick, and one they never shy away from.) Matsuzaki’s lyrics are still the non-sequitur poesy that have made the band a target of criticism. And though her subjects are left-field — there’s “Buck and Judy,” a cowboy take on the tale of Adam and Eve, and “My Purple Past,” which stars a sailor who rides horses — it’s not all tea leaves: in “Eaguru Guru,” a fidgety, harried reading of American politics can be snatched from Matsuzaki’s nervous tone and the scurrying guitar lines.
Saunier’s moonlighting as mixer and producer for the spasmodic, genre-twisting Xiu Xiu and for Matsuzaki’s side project, Oneone, proved a boost for the Offend Maggie sessions. The high-gloss production techniques that bubbled up in Reveille and permeated The Runners Four are in full force here, with every sound bristling and cooing at the right spots. “What I picked up from Jamie Stewart is sheer speed,” he says of his work with the Xiu Xiu frontman. “Everything’s on impulse with him — if I start mumbling something from the back of the room about maybe overdubbing a bass part, he’s got the bass hooked up before my sentence is even finished. I really learned a lot from that, that level of self-trust and also trust of everyone there, whatever idea they might have. Deerhoof is so much more shy, we’re always ashamed to show or tell our ideas, so everything moves at a snail’s pace by comparison.” Matsuzaki corroborates, pointing out that even as the cover art came in, the track list was being ordered and reordered. “We changed the song order million times. We do that every album, but this time we did even more.”