"Some people are saying it's more relaxed," Deerhoof drummer Greg Saunier tells the Scene via email. He's responding to a suggestion that the band's latest album is—well, more relaxed (for lack of a better term) than its predecessors. "Some are saying it's more intense," Saunier continues. "Some are saying it's our breakthrough into the mainstream, some are saying it's only for Deerhoof fans." I'm beginning to sense he doesn't think much of my assessment.
"To me, it's none of those things," Saunier says. "It's just Offend Maggie, it's our latest record."
Writing about music has been likened to dancing about architecture; writing about Deerhoof's music might be more akin to playing baseball about the derivatives market. Still, Saunier's response is just a bit perverse, since there's really no denying that the lazy strums and la-la-las of "Don't Get Born" and the wistful harmonizing on "Family of Others"—reminiscent of "Christmas Time Is Here" from A Charlie Brown Christmas—have no corollary on the band's last effort, Friend Opportunity. Even so, Saunier is saying, in essence, that Deerhoof's music simply is, and it isn't what anyone says it is.
But even if Deerhoof resist pat critical assessment of their music, they certainly invite interpretation of it—as long as that interpretation is musical in nature. The band was ahead of the curve in giving fans access to basic tracks and allowing them to make their own remixes. This year, they gave the digital mob even more interpretive power. In July, rather than post an MP3 to promote their new album, Deerhoof published the sheet music to the song "Fresh Born" on the Internet and invited anyone who was so inclined to record their own version of the song and upload it. A lot of people took them up on the offer.
Whether or not you can read sheet music, the amount of variance among the "Fresh Born" fan recordings is startling. In fact, many of them—especially once you've heard Deerhoof's version—seem entirely removed from the original conception of the song. Say as much to Saunier, and, perhaps unsurprisingly, he doesn't see it that way.
"I've listened to them all many times and I don't hear a single one that bears no relation to the sheet music," he says. "There's always a connection, a bit of the melody or some extrapolation of the chords."
But are the recordings any good? "It's pretty hard to pick a favorite since I'm so grateful to everyone who sent in a version," Saunier says. "I've probably listened to the version for a cappella vocal ensemble and the version for middle school concert band the most times." The second choice is fitting, considering that a grade school once staged a musical based on the band's album Milk Man. (North Haven Community School's Deerhoof's Milk Man is out on DVD.)
On "There Is a Mountain," Donovan sings, "First there is a mountain, then there is no mountain, then there is." Subsititute "plan" for "mountain," and you might have some idea of how Deerhoof go about making records. "For us, writing an album is not really one step, it's many steps," Saunier explains. "At first there is no plan, ideas come in whatever way they feel like coming. I'm not going to complain if I get an idea for a song but it doesn't fit into a plan, you know? Later we try to make a plan but it never works out; our records always turn out differently, almost the opposite of our plan."
As difficult as it may be to discern the original "Fresh Born" in some of its crowd-sourced iterations, it is actually impossible to discern the plan of which Offend Maggie is the opposite—unless that plan was to make another record exactly like Friend Opportunity. Of course, the paradox is that as much as this album explores a new direction—for the first time, the band recorded primarily in a professional studio—it is at the same time a quintessentially Deerhoofian piece of work. And planning.
"Well, you can make plans, and I was thinking all the time about recording early this year before we started recording," Saunier says. "But once you actually start, you have to be ready for everything to change. We aren't intimately familiar with every vintage microphone or state-of-the-art preamp, so when you hear something sounding good you just trust your ears and go with it, whether or not it is what the experts recommend. On Offend Maggie we ended up liking the sound of [using] two mics at once, like one $20,000 mic and one cassette Walkman on pause. Then blend the two together."
To listen to Deerhoof is to agree that a $20,000 microphone and an obsolete cassette recorder are each—or in some combination, both—a means to an end, just as Chopin and Soulja Boy might each cast an equal length of shadow on a song like "Fresh Born," which seems to shed its skin every 30 seconds or so. If anything, the band's made a career out of taking one musical idea, then a seemingly incompatible one, and blending the two together: menace and serenity, ferocity and nuance, and—to borrow a line from Simon LeBon—discord and rhyme.
But whatever anyone thinks of them, and whether their latest group of songs (divided into two acts) is more relaxed, more intense, their breakthrough to the mainstream, only for their fans, or none of the above, Deerhoof aren't going to tell anyone what to think about it. In response to the question, "Does the album have a theme—i.e., is there a Maggie?" Saunier replies with as much of an explanation as he's willing to give: "Yes and yes."
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