Usually bands this challenging are doomed to wallow in dank flea-pit venues idolized by a few brave souls and sustained only by belief in their own genius.
But Deerhoof, after putting out a total of six albums since their formation and having survived numerous lineup changes, have somehow managed to cross over to the other side in the past couple of years, to the extent that they’ve played several stadium dates supporting Radiohead and are now the biggest-selling artist on the Kill Rock Stars label.
Due to play four live dates in Japan during June, guitarist John Dieterich was happy to talk on the phone from San Francisco — the band’s home city — about the as-yet untitled album they’ve just finished recording and the band’s newest member, guitarist Ed Rodriguez.
“I’m interested in the fact that the band is hateable. We’re doing something right if it elicits some kind of strong reaction. I’d rather be hated than be one of those bland bands,” says Dieterich.
When I ask him how Radiohead audiences reacted to their sound, he laughs: “What was great was that some people who’d never heard of us would come up after the show and say they really loved it, but on the other hand, there’d also be these people saying, ‘Who is this band opening for Radiohead? What idiot asked them to play?’ “
A blend of cute pop, aggressive noise rock and downright outer-space prog- rock, Deerhoof manages to slide right out from under any description you might try to tack the band down with, and then jumps up from behind you and bites you where you least expected it. Just imagine Hello Kitty having a heart attack and being reincarnated as a space octopus.
A quarter of Deerhoof is Japanese, in the form of Satomi Matsuzaki, whose vocals are another polarizing element of the band. I ask whether noisecore fans object to her cute, helium-fueled voice: “Definitely, but we also get people who love Satomi’s voice and say, ‘What is all that racket going on around it, why don’t those guys just shut up.’ “
On drums is another long-standing member, Greg Saunier, whose unpredictable tempo changes constantly shift the band’s sound out of any safe area.
“I definitely think Greg’s compositional voice is unique, I’m sure that has something to do with his classical [music] background,” says Dieterich.
Dieterich’s guitar style seems to slip in and out of wild free-improvisation back to tight, reigned-in playing: “I came from a background of improvised music, but I think I approached it in a way that was incredibly stiff and nonphysical. One of the things I think I’ve been working on is attempting to connect what I’m trying to communicate on the inside with the sound, and then connect that with my body.”
The last album, “Friend Opportunity,” was made after one of the band’s founding members, guitarist Chris Cohen, left to devote himself to his other band, The Curtains.
“When we made ‘Friend Opportunity,’ it was a do-or-die situation. By necessity we just got together and showed each other what we had and then pieced it together. We allowed ourselves freedom to do whatever in terms of overdubs, but when it came to playing it live, it was incredibly difficult. We were as stripped down as we’d ever been.”
It was clear that if Deerhoof were to survive, they needed a new member, which is where Rodriguez came in.
“Ed and I had been playing music for over 15 years in different bands. If we were going to add someone, he was always top of the list. The idea of him being in this band was very exciting. He came in on an under-the-gun situation. We asked him in the second week in January if he wanted to join — a week or so after Satomi, Greg and I had already got together and talked about the material we wanted to use for the album,” says Dieterich.
“He brought in this music that eventually became a track on the new album called ‘Lumina.’ I think it’s just incredibly beautiful, a very rich guitar language. I hear his music and I feel like I wrote it, I relate to it so much.”
When I spoke to Dieterich, the album had just been completed. “We finished it four days ago and it’s only us and a few friends who’ve heard it so I’m a little scared and very excited.”
Dieterich was reticent to tell me much in detail — save to say that, like many of the band’s albums, it’s a concept album and Japanese artist Tomoo Gokita is doing the cover art. “We’re very excited. We’ll be seeing the designs today for the very first time,” Dieterich enthuses.
Deerhoof’s inspiration comes from many sources, not always musical.
“I just read a Nabokov book called ‘Ada’ that was really amazing. It was crushingly good. I read it while we were working on the album, I really relate to it.”
I ask Dieterich if he is an absurdist like Nabokov: “I relate to his sense of humor, the way he uses Russian in his novels fully knowing that not everyone is going to understand it.”
Is Deerhoof a deliberately difficult band then?
“I tend to write music that is barely intelligible. I don’t want to understand it, I don’t want it to give me one clear feeling. I want it to wash over me. I seek confusion in music. We are constantly going back and forth between music that communicates something unique but is also intelligible.”
For Dieterich, being in a band is a kind of happy accident. He began playing music alone for his own enjoyment: “I didn’t even show my friends. At a certain point, it became something I needed to communicate. I loved music but I was mortified at the idea of performing.”
But even he admits, despite continuing stage fright, there’s something magical about playing live. “Obviously, it feels great when people get into something. Having the feeling of being understood, which is actually one of the greatest feelings you can get from anything. I’m trying to communicate something that is incredibly difficult to understand, a deep thing that doesn’t involve words.”
The dates in Japan will give fans the opportunity to hear the new material before the album’s release, which is chalked in for the beginning of October.
“It’s so far away, it’s ridiculous. We’d love to be showing it to people now but we’ve got to wait. We’ve been working 100 percent of the time during the last four months on this one record. I’m very excited to just get out and see what this new lineup becomes.”
Dates: June 14, Liquid Room, Tokyo — Kill Rock Stars Showcase with Xiu Xiu, Mika Miko, Panther; June 15, Shangri-la, Osaka with Xiu Xiu, Shugo Tokumaru, Tenniscoats; June 16, Club Upset, Nagoya, with Xiu Xiu, Shugo Tokumaru, Tenniscoats; June 18, Bessie Hall, Sapporo, with Tenniscoats.