Its inevitable: No matter how unique a band may be, someone will find a way to compare them to other bands. For San Francisco four-piece Deerhoof, parallels continue to be drawn to Japanese artists: Cibo Matto, The Boredoms and Yoko Ono. Deerhoof’s main vocalist, Satomi Matsuzaki, did grow up in Tokyo, but still, guitarist John Dieterich doesn’t understand the constant comparisons.
“It’s always mystifying to me,” he says with a laugh, “but we keep getting it.”
It could be because Deerhoof sound like no one else. Matsuzaki’s artless falsetto may remind some of Ono, but Deerhoof’s intricate mix of the primal and the precious leaves few easy reference points. Each album is a collage of extremes, a place where shards of dissonant noise and fragile, doe-eyed pop intertwine, frequently within the same song. Singing in a mixture of Japanese and English, Matsuzaki’s surreal lyrics about magical animals and curious fruit are an odd fit within the band’s more convulsive song structures. But it is this marriage of orchestrated chaos and triumphant amateurism that gives the group such a distinctive sound.
Their potent, and polarizing, music has brought them a cult following that fills clubs throughout Europe, Japan and North America, as well as a celebrity fan base that includes “Simpsons” creator Matt Groening and artists like Beck, Wilco and fellow noise enthusiasts Sonic Youth.
It wasn’t long ago that the members were able to divide their time among numerous musical projects.
“But lately,” Dieterich explains, “there hasn’t been a heck of a lot of division happening. More like whole numbers for Deerhoof.”
Speaking from his home in Oakland, Calif., he says that the band has fallen into a consistent touring pattern, and because they do their own recording and production work (straight into Dieterich’s laptop), they spent four months locked in a room together finishing their latest album.
“We started off saying that we would give ourselves enough time away from each other so that we’re not going to kill each other,” he says. “But soon after we started, we realized that we were going to have to work full-time, all the time.”
The effort paid off. “The Runner’s Four,” their sixth album, is their most satisfying and consistent release yet, with songs that range from epic bombast (“Running Thoughts”) to delicate balladry (“Odyssey”). It’s also nearly twice as long as earlier albums, partly because all four members brought songs to the table. Did this involve compromise?
“I wouldn’t call it compromise, but maybe I’m having a knee-jerk reaction to that word.” Dieterich says. “Basically, the band Deerhoof isn’t compromising, but in order to do that, the individuals in Deerhoof had to compromise.”
Dieterich and drummer Greg Saunier met in a music composition class at college in Oakland. The class was taught by Fred Frith, who is known for his avant-garde work with artists like the Residents, Brian Eno and John Zorn. Frith’s influence can be heard in Deerhoof’s fragmentary take on songwriting in which organs appear out of nowhere and dizzying crescendos may drop off abruptly. Music critics have accurately identified Deerhoof’s prog-rock proclivities — but the difference is that the band can fit a standard three-movement opus into a mere two-minutes.
Dieterich says that there is an element of improvisation to their creative process, but that the sudden tempo changes and rhythmic shifts that permeate their work are intentional. “It may sound off-the-cuff,” he adds, but “every musical idea on a Deerhoof album has been completely pored over thousands of times.”
And then a thousand times more, apparently. Just as the four-month recording of “The Runners Four” was completed, the band hit the road, only to play their finished work in the van and realize that they didn’t like the mix. “We had been listening to it in this one environment, and it’s important to hear it in as many environments as possible. A lot of times, the most important place to hear it is through some crappy boom box.”
The band went back to the mixing board, but as with most of their body of work, the 20 tracks on “The Runner’s Four” continue to undergo permutations, the latest of which will figure prominently on their upcoming tour.