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CRAM SESSION: An intro to Deerhoof’s cute, crazed experimental rock

May 24, 2016

Deerhoof's dysfunctional pop tunes have been captivating fans for over 20 years.

Deerhoof are one of the most unique bands around. Formed in 1994 in San Francisco by Rob Fisk and Greg Saunier as an improvisational duo, the band has advanced and gained a distinct sound that they can call their own.

They seamlessly blend pop, punk, avant-garde experiments, and many other genres all at once. The vocals sung by Satomi Matsuzaki are minimal, yet humourous and captivating. The strings on their earlier releases sound as if they are being ripped to shreds by a thousand knives, and quickly everything will be thrown back into place, sort of.

Deerhoof’s dysfunctional pop tunes are captivating enough to keep you listening and wanting more, even if half of the tracks sounds like a warped siren. There aren’t a lot of bands around that can keep going for over 20 years while still managing to have a signature, innovative sound. There are bands out there that sound like they are still trying to replicate 1997’s The Man, The King, The Girl, and sounding sloppy.

In anticipation for Deerhoof’s latest album The Magic, here are a few recommendations on where to start with this cute, crazed band.

The Man, The King, The Girl

This is the first proper full-length from Deerhoof, released in 1997. At the time, the band was only a trio, with Rob Fisk on Guitar, Satomi Matsuzaki singing, and Greg Saunier on drums. The album feels very scattered and messy, but with the band picking up the pieces for tight pop jams like “Gore In Rut.” These songs are rippin’ bar brawlin’ jams, but with goofy vocals about catching rabbits, pick-up bears, and vocals that are almost lost in the fray of loud guitars and frantic drums. Much of it is improvised and full of brash noise and chunky riffs.

Holdypaws

1999’s Holdypaws is much more polished and leaning more toward a proper rock album, still of course bearing the signature pop sensibilities that will follow the ‘Hoof through their career. The crazy noise blasts are absent from this release, and all the fat chunky riffs are missing as well. Instead, the listener is treated to some radical riffs that will have you pogoing in no time. Tracks like “Queen of the Lake” come to kick some major behind, but keep it light with the poppy vocals. The instrumentation may sound straightforward, but the vocals will always keep them from being grounded in the mainstream.

Reveille

This is probably the point when Deerhoof was starting to become recognized in major media, with this album being on a lot of “best of” lists in major publications such as the New York Times and Pitchfork. It’s a great blend of the old noisy junk, electronic bleeps, Casiotones, and rock and roll! There is never a dull moment, and each track treats the listener with a barrage of small treats.

It’s worth a few listens to begin with, just to catch some of the jams you loved, but were short but sweet. There are bits of minimal lo-fi recordings, and some of the tracks sound blown out, but Deerhoof were never tied down to one particular sound or style. Controlled feedback graces “Our Angel’s Ululu”, with Matsuzaki saying “oh no!” over and over in the foreground.

“The Last Trumpeter Swan” is the biggest stand-out, not only for its longer time (8:10), but for the slow build-up. Listeners are used to a fast blaze of glory from these folks, so it is a test in patience, with a great pay off of squeals, animal-like drumming by Saunier, and a whole second act that will rock your socks clean off.

Apple O’

The follow-up to Reveille is reminiscent of going back to the ol’ Holdypaws days, with more rock tunes, this time going at 1,000 miles per hour. Dancing to “My Diamond Car Star” would kill you if it was any longer. The repetitive “Panda Panda Panda” and “Flower” would almost sound childlike if they weren’t so fast and furious.

“Hayley and Homer” throws in jarring stops and starts at the top of the track, eventually building up to a picnic lunch soundtrack that gets taken over by a few bees, then it is over. Deerhoof is a band that has perfected the short but sweet song. There are ballad-y type songs on here, too. “Dinner for Two” is a nice tune to have on while you sit across from your significant other at candlelight for one minute. This record has something for everybody!

The Runners Four

The opening track on The Runners Four sounds like the band is trying to figure out which direction to go, and then they decide to go every direction all at once. It’s always a trick, as well as a treat when the band pulls you in a different direction than you intended. It’s not always fun knowing where you are going. Take a hike! Go on a different path why don’t ya!

Deerhoof have mastered this misdirection, even with what little time they have to do so. “Twin Killers” starts off as a slow burner, like another short ballad is in the works, but no! A rolling jam surprises us, complete with a very farty bass. With every album, Greg Saunier’s drumming gets wilder and wilder, and moves more to centre stage. This album has him in top form, with a primitive style, while being incredibly precise. He’s in a league of his own.

Deerhoof vs. Evil

This album signals a departure from a lot of the disjointed rock and pop that the band had been releasing. There is more of a breezy, relaxing feel to some of the songs. The tunes still contain their original rock sound, but include more electronics and are constructed in more of a classic ’60s pop style in some cases.

This may be the most mainstream the band has been, but still a far cry from the actual mainstream. The songs are more polished, but they still contain squiggly electronics, robotic noises, and the old faithful Casiotones. The most unconventional stuff on this album is probably the most conventional for a first time listener, like the acoustic ballad, “No One Asked to Dance”.

La Isla Bonita

This is the most recent release by Deerhoof, and it is another low-key album, for this band at least. There is the ballad, “Mirror Monster”, which is a nice song to sway slowly back and forth to. It doesn’t drag on or get hokey like a lot of ballads do. It ends abruptly, like they have done their duty with this ballad, and it works out perfectly.

The next song, “Doom”, is a bit of a squealer, with some nice harmonizing vocals, and a pretty impressive build-up into the jams we have come to love (by this point, I assume you have listened to the rest of the catalogue). The band is doing what they do best, but it sounds like nothing else, so how could it get stale? They are on their own planet at this point, sending their signature jams to planet Earth.

I will leave you with a quote from Satomi Matsuzaki from the song, “Last Fad”: “Baseball is cancelled, E.T. is running late.”

The Magic is out on June 15th, 2016 on Polyvinyl.

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