From DRUM! Magazine’s December 2017 Issue | By Bob Doerschuk | Photograph: Anna Nasty
Deerhoof is a thoroughly conventional band. That’s the thesis we ask drummer Greg Saunier to defend and he is up for the challenge. “Okay,” he begins. “One, when we play live, we’re two guitars, bass, and drums. We don’t have bells and whistles that are beyond the reach of other bands. We don’t use backing tracks. We love spontaneous interaction in the moment, like it was with earlier rock and roll bands. We want to write songs that people can cover. We want to tour in a rented minivan on no budget, mainly to show that such a thing is possible and fun.”
A pause. “Maybe we’re not conventional as much as traditional,” he allows.
That’s for sure. Note that Saunier’s list is all about superficialities. Dig into the music he’s been making with Deerhoof since they came together 23 years ago in San Francisco and you’ll see that a turbulent, unpredictable mixture of improvisation, risk-taking, radical reconsideration of expectations, and, yes, a little convention here and there fuels their work.
On their latest self-produced self-release, Mountain Moves, guitarists John Dieterich and Ed Rodriguez, bassist and vocalist Satomi Matsuzaki, and Saunier construct a complex though accessible mélange of meandering tempos, overlapping meters, enigmatic lyrics, audio pastiche, abrupt dynamic changes, and a few straightforward, you might even say conventional, moments. Its unpredictability makes it a classic Deerhoof creation.
“I don’t think Deerhoof would sound that different if the drums were just removed.” — Greg Saunier
Yet, Saunier insists, that makes him feel even more kinship to bands and drummers who excelled within familiar musical frameworks. “I mean, how many decades have passed since The Beatles played?” he asks. “They sound conventional now because we’ve listened to them five bazillion times. But at the time it sounded completely outrageous. People were dumbfounded. They thought music was being ruined. Or they were elated because music was being reinvented.
“It’s that spirit for creating, or proposing possible new frameworks, that we’re working with.”
As a result, Saunier doesn’t think much about whether he’s fulfilling the traditional drummer’s role. “For me, drums are kind of an afterthought,” he explains. “Honestly, I don’t think Deerhoof would sound that different if the drums were just removed. It’s basically just the song and I try to stoke the fire a little bit, or decorate it or intensify it or just add some fun to it.”
This ties in with Saunier’s decision to pare his kit down to basics. “When I have a lot of pieces in my drum set, if I have the impulse to create a thrill, it usually means hitting the tom or doing sound effects,” he explains. “They’re kind of a crutch. When I took them away, it made me feel more creative, like, ‘I’m not going to create that thrill by using a new sound. It’s gonna be the same sound but I’ll find a surprising rhythm to play on it.’ When I had fewer drums, I played more creatively.”
There were other reasons too. “I like not having too many drums to set up at sound check,” he says, with a laugh.
“And, really, it’s partly a joke. People think it’s funny when I bring such a small setup. Sometimes it’s like a dare, like, maybe I’ll take another piece away. On the tour we’re doing now, I’ve taken away the hi-hat, just to see if I could pull it off.”
Inevitably, this approach has affected how Saunier comes up with and executes his parts. Basically self-taught except for minimal instruction he received at playing snare with his elementary school concert band, he grew up thinking of drums as one thread in a more complex fabric of ideas.
By the time he’d graduated from high school and entered the Oberlin Conservatory Of Music, he was immersed in classical music. Unlike many of his fellow students, he was also thinking about ways to apply what he was learning to doing something different.
“Oberlin was extremely helpful to me,” he declares. “If I’d studied oboe or even percussion there it would have been a different story because it would have been more about professional training — passing an orchestral audition, knowing repertoire. But I studied composition, which meant there were no exact things that everybody was supposed to know. It was about helping you find your voice.”
That background informs much of what Saunier does now with Deerhoof. “If you listen to a classical pianist play a piece of solo music, it’s likely you would hear a very dynamic performance with a lot of speeding up and slowing down,” he says. “It also obviously happens with orchestras. That’s not very common for rock drummers to do. Sometimes they’ll slow down on the last couple of notes to make it sound like the end. But we do that a lot. There’s a lot of push and pull in our tempo. Sometimes a note will be delayed and come in late. We’ll all hesitate for a second and then hit the downbeat. This really comes from classical music performance.”
Saunier points to the title track of Mountain Music as an example. “A lot of our songs are built up in layers. But Satomi the bass player and I recorded ‘Mountain Moves’ simultaneously, so it has some crazy fills. That doesn’t necessarily mean ‘flashy,’ but it’s crazy when the tempo kind of melts for a second and you can’t figure out what speed you’re at. Then it comes back in together.”
Onstage, though, “anybody might be the one to suggest a change in the flow of the music. One person will slow down. Then we’re like, ‘Okay, we’re going slower now.’ Or they get really quiet or really frantic. This responsibility is shared by everyone. It’s not like the drums keep the beat and everybody goes off.”
Deerhoof, then, has a significance beyond music, pointing toward a greater lesson of collective action. This might be why, when you ask Saunier how he would approach doing a drum solo, he sighs and replies: “If I really had to do a solo, I might just play the piano.”
“Ay That’s Me”
Transcription by Andy Ziker
When you listen to “Ay That’s Me” from Deerhoof’s new record Mountain Moves, it’s immediately apparent that Deerhoof’s Greg Saunier composes drum parts in an improvisational manner. He mostly uses three parts of the drum kit — kick, snare, and hats — but is the perfect foil to Deerhoof’s loose, ethereal grunge by creating uplifting rhythmic ideas. In the introduction transcribed here, Saunier rolls out a funky five with busy snare (a thick sound accentuating snare buzz), driving eighths on the hi-hat, and short, cutting fills at the end of the second and sixth measures.
ALBUM Mountain Moves
BIRTHPLACE Valdivia, Chile
INFLUENCES Brian Blade, Tony Williams, Charlie Watts, Keith Richards
CYMBALS Dream Bliss 22″ Dark Matter Flat Earth Ride
STICKS Marching mallet in left hand, Vic Firth Peter Erskine Ride Stick in right hand
HEADS Remo and Evans