Deer Prudence 

Deerhoof’s scientific method yields another batch of innovative rock

Death Cab for Cutie guitarist Chris Walla once expressed his dislike of so-called experimental music this way: “I don’t want experiments. I want results.”

Death Cab for Cutie guitarist Chris Walla once expressed his dislike of so-called experimental music this way: “I don’t want experiments. I want results.” Of course, there can’t be results without experiments—it’s whether those results are worth listening to that’s really at issue. And aside from cover bands, what musical outfit doesn’t experiment? To do otherwise is to merely burnish the grooves of formula.

Deerhoof are often saddled with the “experimental” label—one that fits more readily on bands who supplant the notion of music as enjoyment with a conceptual one—only to defy it time and again with their quirky pop mechanics and shifting melodic, structural and textural sensibilities. By doing so, they’ve pieced together some fantastic albums, and their latest, Friend Opportunity, is no exception.

Just as The Runners Four was a grittier, more id-ful affair than its predecessor, Opportunity represents another leap forward, this time toward a more airy, dramatic sound, from the bluesy propulsion of “+81” to the Superfly guitar riffs of “Believe E.S.P.” to the stadium-rock stylings of “Matchbook Seeks Maniac.”

And even after playing to huge crowds and alongside marquee names, the band claims to have changed little. “We worked the same way we often work, basically getting together, spending all day every day working on stuff—just trying to get to where everyone is happy with everything, and trying to find out what the core of everything is,” says guitarist John Dieterich from his home in Oakland.

“Spending all day every day working on stuff” may sound like a bit much, but it’s the band’s obsession with the smallest details that produces the light and heat necessary to mold their idiosyncratic pop structures.

“Part of the idea of this band is that anybody in the band has the right and the ability to basically say, ‘This isn’t done yet,’ or ‘This isn’t right, we have to fix it,’ ” says Dieterich. “So with The Runners Four…we turned it into part of the concept of the album in a way.”

On 2004’s Milk Man, instrumental tracks were built from discrete samples of sounds layered in cut-and-paste fashion onto skeletal base recordings. Each guitar chord was recorded separately, then inserted into the song, and single piano notes were pitch-shifted up and down to create the illusion of a keyboardist at work.

With Opportunity, the band embraced the digital realm fully. Recorded at home on a Mac, the guitars were directly jacked in, using modelers to simulate the sound of amplifiers.

“The way we got sounds for Milk Man, we had to find them and fit them into a context,” Dieterich says. “[On Friend Opportunity] Greg [Saunier] was using an electronic drum set and we could change the sounds on it at any time, so we could write with those sounds in mind. It was slightly less torturous.”

Another ill-fitting characterization plagues discussion of Deerhoof: the oft-used description of Satomi Matsuzaki’s vocals as “childlike.” This not only trivializes her distinctive singing style, but also ignores the fact that few, if any, children sing anything like her—even when they try. (Maine’s North Haven Community School staged a ballet production—if one can call it ballet—based on Milk Man. Comprised mainly of grade-schoolers, no one in the production came close to nailing the unguarded strangeness of Matsuzaki’s delivery.) At times, she sounds more like the occupant of an interplanetary craft than a prepubescent earthling. Even the most precocious child would be hard pressed to imitate the inquisitive and humane quality she exhibits on Opportunity—when she delivers lines such as “Show me your personality” (on “Choco Fight”), it’s both disarming and arresting.

If Opportunity feels less manic than The Runners Four, don’t blame it on the departure of guitarist Chris Cohen, who left the band to focus on his own project, The Curtains. As Dieterich puts it, “Every album we make, we try to approach things differently—we think about the album differently. We’re in different places in our lives.”

Deerhoof find themselves now as the runners three—Cohen has not been replaced, and Deerhoof will tour as a trio. “We’ll see how that goes,” Dieterich says, laughing cautiously. Given his band’s track record with experimentation—in the most basic sense of the word—he should have nothing to worry about.

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