Harlem Shakes' Todd Goldstein interviews Deerhoof's Greg Saunier

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[Todd has never interviewed anyone before… so Greg offers to start things off]

GREG [Deerhoof]: one of the things that I’ve been noticing each night about you guys – and that I’ve really been admiring and envying – its’ one thing to come up with good ideas for songs, like “oh I have this good idea for this melody or chord progression or whatever”, but I think it’s a whole other talent to come up with a way to arrange it, to spread it around between the instruments and say, okay, when do the drums kick in, or why does the bass come in halfway through the second bar of the verse, or how do you decide that the guitar’s going to play the chords high instead of low…it’s like there’s the composition, and then there’s the way you’ve composed the composition, you know? And I really admire the way you’ve done it – our method is like, once you have the idea, we’re like “okay, we’re done.”

TODD [Harlem Shakes]: What’s the process like when you guys get together and come up with songs for an album?

GREG: I don’t think we have a process – and I think that’s one of the things that’s fun about it.

TODD: Do you guys improvise?

GREG: Not together. Sometimes people will work on their own, but basically it’s sort of like we have three people in the band who separately write songs. Often the songs are pretty much complete once they’re brought to the other two – or at least the composer thinks they’re complete until the other two get their hands on it. We don’t seem to be able to do come up with songs by “jamming” very well. I don’t know why – it’s not that I don’t like music like that, like the ends of rolling stones songs where they just stay on one chord and play it obver and over… I love that whole feeling and someday I hope that we can find a way to make that happen in our music. Right now though, we write music separately. Usually we have to go home and spend some quiet time to be able t come up with a song. I know John writes on the guitar, and he’ll just fiddle around until he comes up with something he likes – but the fiddling around is like, hours, until he comes in and says “okay I found these two notes that I like.” It’s awkward enough just showing us the two notes, but imagine if we had to sit there and wait for three hours while he found what the two notes are. So it’s slow and involved.

TODD: So on this new album then, what are the percentages of who wrote what?

GREG: Ha! Do I dare reveal…? Well, I wrote the first song , but I didn’t have any idea what the drum part would be, for instance – actually, that often happens. I rarely have any ideas of what to play on rthe drums, I usually rely on Satomi or John to make up my drum part for me. “The Perfect Me” I just wrote in my head. I keep little notebooks where I write ideas down on a stave – that just happens to be my method of documentation I’m not recommending it or saying it’ required, but that’s my way. I’ll write down melodies or rhythms or chords or something and then months later I’ll find it and say “oh! that sounds kinda good, maybe we’ll make a song about it.” And I’ll just be writing stuff down wherever there’s space on the page, and usually it’ll end up like whatever different ideas end up on the same page, that’ll vibe a song. Some of the songs on Friend Opportunity, like “The Perfect Me” or “+81”, the first two songs, those are pretty much my songs, and I think they were probably written that way – a couple of different ideas that were on the same page at the same time. Though Satomi suggested the drum part on “The Pefect Me”, John had some ideas about how the guitars should be played, and on “+81” Satomi wrote all the lyrics. And depending on what listeners care about when they listen – some people really focus in on lyrics a lot, but I didn’t have any ideas for lyrics on that song, so that was totally Satomi. Which is another fun thing – it’s such a treat when you’ve written music, but to you it’s abstract, just notes or pitches and rhythms, to hear it come together and somebody writes an entire set of lyrics for this song, and it’s almost like they’ve discovered the meaning of the music that even you couldn’t see – like, “of course that’s what the song’s about! I just didn’t see it!” And Satomi I think is a total master of that, I feel so fortunate that we’ve discovered each other and that I have her as a collaborator. I love the lyrics that she’s written for my music over the years.

TODD: Being on tour with you guys is such a funny thing. I saw you guys about three years ago, and you almost sold out the Knitting Factory. On this tour though, there are these hugs crowds, with gigantic venues, and people are rabid, singing along and such. And how do you see all this? Is it in the music? Is it a natural progression?

GREG: To be honest, I feel extremely happy about it, and I feel a thrill about it… but it’s not starting with this tour. I mean, three years ago when you saw us almost sell out the knitting factory, that was the first time we almost sold out the knitting factory.

TODD: How long have you guys been doing this?

GREG: ehhhh… thirteen years! [laughs] Satomi has been in the band for very close to twelve years, john’s been in the band for about eight years. When we started it was just me and this guy Rob [Fisk, 7 yr rabbit cycle], who’s done a lot of our covers, like the Apple O’ cover’s his painting. Anyway, he and I started back then – and even in those days, we’d play a venue the size of this office, and you’d think that three of your friends were coming, and then other people would show up. And you’d be like “I wasn’t expecting this.” And you’d think at the end of the show they’d be like “cool, thanks for getting me in, good job, good to see you” but they were like “wow, I didn’t realize… that was amazing.” You could even tell during the performance, you can just tell when they’re giving you attention.

TODD: like when it’s not just “good job”, but “you made an impression on me.”

GREG: Yeah, and it happened right from the beginning. Maybe there’s a progression just in terms of audience quantity, like it looks on paper that we’ve gotten more ‘popular.’ But I have to say that the thrill of playing music, almost like we’re reporting ideas from our imagination out to a bunch of strangers, and just seeing like a test if anyone connects to it at all has always resulted in a major thrill for me. And nowadays it does as much as it ever has.

You guys really seem joined at the hip. You’re like consenting adults. there’s an incredible consensus when you guys play – you seem very unanimous about the expression of your music. Which is always such a joyful thing to watch.

TODD: I mean, we spend so much time making sure that everyone is consenting to every aspect of every song… we’re hoping that’s what comes out!

GREG: I remember seeing an interview with Gene Simmons, where they had just finished Destroyer, and Gene Simmons and Paul Stanely wanted to do like a disco concept album, which turned out to be the Elder, and Ace Frehley just wasn’t having it. But they had this system where they would vote – and you could be out-voted. So someone would get out-voted, and it’s like “sorry, but the next two or three years of your life are going to be structured around this disco concept album, and tough luck.” Try to imagine being in a band and trying to survive that way. I think there was a pattern in that band where Ace Freehley was always getting voted down. And it’s one thing if you’re a multi-mega star, and Ace Freehley just couldn’t do it, but when you’re a band on the level of Harlem Shakes or Deerhoof, you’re pretty underground, pretty obscure, there isn’t a ton of cultural pressure on you to keep going, you can’t imagine doing anything other than by consensus.

TODD: It’s not like one band member’s ideas have so much more weight because they’ve been that much more successful than anyone else’s ideas, so they always “win”.

GREG: And there’s just no reason to! It’s not like the pay is so great that we can’t stop or something. We’re all ready to go back to the jobs we had before we quit our jobs and went out on tour, should the need arise. But as soon as we start doing things that one band member doesn’t want to do, we know the band is finished.

TODD: Well that’s how you gotta do it, I guess.

[part two]

GREG: We were very lucky. I’ve had so many friends in bands who struggle for a very long time just to find someone who wants to release their music. Not even because the music is of poor quality – but it just doesn’t fit in some niche. Like “oh I like your band but it doesn’t fit in our roster because we only do emo, we only do dancehall reggae or whatever.” And I’m not saying that every label is like that, but just the search for a label can be a trying thing that makes me feel very lucky to be in this band.

TODD: can you give me a ballpark figure of about how long it took for things to start happening for you guys?

GREG: Well, it was probably within six months but it was a lot fewer than six months from the time that we went the tape to Slim [Moon]. There was only one label that we had in mind, that was Kill Rock Stars. It was the only one, so we were extremely lucky. Rob and I had played in another band before Deerhoof, and that band had been invited to play this festival in Washington, the Yo Yo A Go Go. And then suddenly that band broke up, but somehow Deerhoof – or we actually kept the old name, Snyder Pit [check this] – we cheated and played as us instead, singing and playing as a bass-drums duo. There was a band on KRS called Godhead Silo, another bass and drums duo like us, who were great, and hat become interested in this band that Rob and I played in together. So it was a combination of things: first, GS was telling slim ‘oh you should listen to this band,’ second, we got invited to the Yo Yo festival and slim happened to be in the room when we played, and third, we sent slim a tape, and he happened to be the only person we sent a tape to. This tape happened to be like a long album’s worth of music, so when he said “a single,” we said “suuuuure, sounds good.” So we basically tried to cram the entire album on to this “single.” So we had this 7” record that went on for like eight minutes, AND it was a separate song in the left channel and separate song on the right channel. I’d heard about this sort of thing from somebody who’d put a bunch of old mono recordings of Beethoven in that format to save space, where one was in the left channel and one was in the right channel, and it came out extremely dissonant. Anyway, with our label situation I still sit back and think how lucky we were.

If I were like you guys now – a pretty new band, going on its first tours, kind of just starting out… I don’t know what I would do on this search for a label. There is this whiff in the air of even the concept of the record label becoming an even less and less viable thing. MP3 is becoming a preferred format for many listeners, and CDs are cool but a lot of people think CDs are nice but I’d just rather have it on my ipod….

TODD: It’s kind of like packaging at this point, like take out the candy and throw away the wrapper.

GREG: So yeah, if I were you, I’m not even sure what I would think…

TODD: So the last album was expansive, long and the new album short, concise, and some would say very poppy. Was this something where you were like “okay, what are we going to do… let’s do THIS”, or was it less premeditated?

GREG: Well, almost all of our albums have been fairly short. We had an idea the previous album would be a long one. Let’s do what would be a double-LP type of thing. This time, it was more like going back to normal for us. It was soemthign we’d never tried before though – how do you deal with a long form? Sometimnes I’ll listen to it and it’l sound just right, sometimesi ‘lld listen and it’ll seem way to long, sometimes I get five minutes in. But as far as the new album being poppy, I’m probably the wrong person to ask… I guess I’ve always thought our music was poppy.

TODD: I’m actually hearing that more after seeing you guys over and over. I remember when I first started hearing you guys and it just sounded so chaotic, like there was a logic behind all of the changes and melodies and sections, but it just seemed totally out of my grasp. But seeing you guys every night it just sort of gels and suddenly you sound like the poppiest band ever.

GREG: oh that’s so nice! I love things that change as you listen to them, things that seem to shift before your ears.

TODD: It’s things that I actively dislike upon first hearing them that I find stay with me the longest.

GREG: Oh I always say that! I’ve always felt that way – those things that I’ve hated the most first often become the things that I most love because of that process, because the ability to appreciate it was so hard-won. Because I mean, we do get a lot of hateful responses to our music, a lot of “I really really hate your band,” or “this is the worst music I’ve ever heard.” When I was maybe nine or ten, my babysitter didn’t want her copy of “news of the world” by queen any more, so she gave me the LP. I liked it because at the time ‘we will rock you’ and ‘we are the champions’ were big on the radio. So I put it on – we will rock you came on, I’m like ‘I like this…’, and then we are the champions comes on, I’m like ‘yep that’s what comes next…’, and then track three is “sheer heart attack” comes on. As a ten year old, I hated the song so much that I remember finding some white out of my mom’s from her desk and basically just whiting out the song on the LP, and after that it was a thumbtack, just thumbtacking the song right out of existence. Because I was like “this song is juts so horrible.. it hurts me so much that I just don’t even want it to exist.” And now, of course, if anyone asks me what my favorite song is I say “sheer heart attack” by queen. It’s just one of those songs where, you know, I feel like I’ve been propelled straight into heaven’s doors, you know – it never fails to elicit some sort of pseudo religious experience from me. So when someone says they really really hate our music, I never get depressed, I just think of them as one person who first of all listened to it, which is already pretty nice, and second of all took the time to bother to form an opinion and let somebody know about it, and third of all, that’s a potential experience waiting to happen, for them. And when you do go from hating something to loving something, it’s YOU getting bigger, it’s your brain and your ears getting big enough to encompass that new thing.

TODD: So what are you listening to right now?

GREG: Harlem Shakes every night! I listen to it every night, I get the whole concert. There are times when I sit back, try to form reasonable goals for myself, what’s something that I’m hearing that I can’t quite understand, that I can’t quite do myself. And I’ve just been admiring you guys’ ability to arrange your songs, the subtleties of it.

TODD: The irony is of course is that that’s what we admire in you guys!

GREG: No! Aw, well yeah I’m just totally into Harlem Shakes. Me and John, Satomi, Reagan and Zach, every night – I’ve had that conversation wit any one of those people so many times. And you can see the twinkle when you guys are playing – the audiences love it too.

TODD: Well I mean, you know what’s going on here – you guys are one of our favorites bands for a long time now, and the fact that we get to tour with you is really just such a delight. Did you guys have any band like that, who sort of took you under your wing and brought you along and all that?

GREG: Our first multiple date tour was opening for a band called Caroliner, this long-running San Francisco band whose members at the time were the reason for instance that we first met satomi – they were and still are big heroes of ours on the san Francisco music scene. Rob and I would open for Caroliner, and then later Satomi joined as the mutual friend of Caroliner’s members who came on as our singer – about a week after she joined the band, having never played a note of music in her life, we did a northwest tour with Caroliner. We just told our friends in Caroliner “find us a singer! We’re desperate!” because basically we’re flailing around, playing drums and bass, and we can’t begin to hit any of the notes. We had all of these ideas for melodies but we just weren’t able to sing them well. Basically the style we’d come up with was something where we’re trying to sort of over-exaggerate everything we’re playing, like over-expression in the music, 1 constantly speeding up and then slowing sown, really loud and then really quiet, lots of surprises, lots of improvisation and interaction, noise and feedback – just trying to squeeze every drop of emotion possible out of some stupid drum beat and bassline. And we were not able to focus on that while getting the melodies sung right – we just couldn’t do both at the same time. And our friends in Caroliner said they had a friend who’d just moved here from Japan a couple of days ago… he played Satomi our single, and she heard this thing with two songs coming out of two different speakers at the same time… I found out later that she thought “why not join – there’s no way I could make this any worse.” [ laughs] and we were like ‘send her over!” and that first day, it was like, instant – she walked through the door, we started the first song, and Satomi started singing along with what we were singing, and within five seconds I was completely convinced this was it. The way she sang was just the opposite of how we played – almost no emotion, no expressive clues or signals that say “I have a lot fo feeling.” Everything really plain, no vibrato, no scoops, just everything really simple and we just thought it sounded so cool with the way we were playing. But then literally a week later we were on tour with Caroliner! And they’re a kind of band that’s just so incredibly bizarre and unpredictable, it was a great inspiration to us to feel like that – it was a really great way to begin a band. We felt like our job was to try anything. We didn’t feel like “okay guys, let’s get rid of the nonsense, let’s just to get a following…” we just had this band we looked up to that was just really insane. We fellt like our goal was first of all to have fun on the tour, but also we were being pushed by them, and we were trying to push them. It was that sort thing with two bands on tour that are sort of egging each other on a bit. And the way we did this was to take unreasonable risks. Basically Satomi’s first show, and we were driving up to Seattle, and the further north we got , the more nervous we were getting, like “oh boy this is our first show out of town, we’re all nervous, is it going to go well etc…” so then we came up with this idea where, to break the ice, Rob and I would switch – I’ll play bass and rob played drums, playing our songs. To help us relax you have to go up there and make a total idiot of yourself. There’s something about falling flat on your face right at the beginning of the story, then anything else you do is going to better than that, is going to be okay. And every minute back then, every minute onstage was just a total adventure. Our music back then hadn’t settled down – it hasn’t now either, really. We never knew what song is around the corner, we never know what song we’ll write next month. There’s no way to predict it before hand!

TODD: So this is a roundabout way of saying that this new album was pretty unintentional?

GREG: Ha! Yes. Well the songs end up having a will of their own – they want to be played a certain way, they want to sound a certain way. And you can go in with some formula in your mind saying “this is what our music should sound like.” I mean, we went into Friend Opportunity thinking we wanted to do something really primitive and stripped down sounding and stark, like “we will rock you,” like just that two percussive sounds and vocals. And of course what we ended up with was million overdubs, like the exact opposite! But that was what the songs seemed to be asking for, so what can you do, how can you argue with taht – we feel like we don’t have any place to turn anyway other than our ideas. We don’t have a manager, we don’t have a produer, anyone guiding us who’s got ‘some sense’ and expertise, who can say “guys, that’s fine and all but that’s not gonna fly in the real world.” Or “ that’s good, but you’d going to alienate your target demographic if you do this,” “guys, this is too noisy for pop” or “guys this is too poppy for noise.” KRS Is just so hands off, there was never anyone giving us this kind of advice, so we just have felt all along that we’re just been totally making it up as we go along, completely up from scratch with no idea what to do, and literally the only thing we’ve had to grab a hold of was “I think I came up with a song, I think have a melody, let’s try it.”