Interview with Greg Saunier of Deerhoof
Posted on: September 3, 2012
This Tuesday, September 4th, 2012 Deerhoof is releasing their 12th album, Breakup Song.
In terms of creativity and originality Deerhoof are true innovators in the music realm. The New York Times has even said “Deerhoof is one of the most original rock bands to have come along in the last decade.” I’ve been a fan for years and was stoked to be able to see them play at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art last year when I coincidentally was in town for a conference. I had a hunch Think Jar Collective and its readers could learn from Deerhoof‘s creativity and was grateful to be able to chat with one of Deerhoof’s founders Greg Saunier.
Ben Weinlick of Think Jar Collective: Thanks for taking the time today. How’s it going?
Deerhoof’s Greg Saunier: Doing great, I’m mixing a Mark Ribot song right now.
TJC: The new Deerhoof album Breakup Song is out real soon and I’m interested in hearing a bit about the creative process of how you guys make your albums. Is it true that you guys don’t really record in a formal studio but wherever you find a bit of space?
GS: Well, I’m not going to say we never have recorded in proper studio, but we almost never do. This album was recorded completely in various homes. The four members of the band don’t live in the same city anymore. Even by the time you saw us at the SFMOMA we had already all moved away from San Francisco. Basically we made the album in 4 different cities with some kind of minimal home recording set up. Well, actually John has a great set up in Albuquerque, but I’m in New York so I don’t have space. That’s my excuse. I told you I was doing the Ribot mix when you called, and I just have my recording set-up on my bed to do that (laughing).
TJC: Do you find that this style of “nomadic” album recording helps with your song writing and creativity?
GS: I think it can make it difficult. But the thing is, when you’re forced to always be working around restraints, then you have to look for other tools to use. Like for me not being able to set up drums in a New York apartment because it will drive the neighbours nuts, I have to use electronic drums to record. One time late last spring we were doing a college show that was meant to be outside, and then this horrible rain storm came. On a moment’s notice they moved us for awhile into this blank empty room where the only thing in it was a piano. While all the guys had to tear down the PA system outside and bring it in, I went over to the piano and decided it was a great opportunity to record some piano for a couple songs on the album. I brought out the laptop, put it on top of the piano, used the built in laptop microphone and recorded into Garage Band. As a result, there’s a ton a piano on the new record. So, sometimes those difficulties end up getting you fired up.
“The thing is, when you’re forced to always be working around restraints, then you have to look for other tools to use.”
TJC: I’ve read some things about you guys, that you’re still trying to figure out how to play, but you’ve also been around for 16 years. It made me wonder, do you think if you guys ever said, “okay, we’ve figured out how to play together really well”, it would change or lessen your creativity as a band?
GS: First off I need to say, I don’t think about creativity most of the day. I’m usually caught up with the act of creativity rather than stepping back and asking, “well what is it or what’s the trick?“ It’s funny that I heard myself use that word “trick”, because that’s usually how I think of it. Usually I think I’m having to trick myself into being creative. It’s this constant mental game, of not wanting to overthink the act of what you’re doing but instead to simply act.
As far as your question… When we’re “almost” playing well together, often that is the most creative time. When I feel surprised by what John or Ed or Satomi does, then I feel like we are getting close to the target. It’s maybe a backwards way of looking at it (laughing), but the music seems to come alive when it’s different every time we play the same song and when it’s suspenseful from moment to moment. When you don’t know exactly what’s coming and you have to be ready, that’s it. And you have to be ready; your ears have to be totally accepting of whatever comes and you basically have to forget. I mean we rehearse the songs enough that we don’t have to think about whether or not we are playing the song right or whether we’re going to remember to hit this note or that note. If we’re distracted by that, then it’s very hard to be creative. But if we’ve got the songs really down like when we’ve been playing a song for years, then it becomes more about intentionally trying to forget how the song goes.
“The more you re-create a mental, past version of a sound or song, the less you’re hearing what’s actually being played. The more you hear what’s actually there, the more you can make music with that and the more spontaneous the playing. Which is fun.”
There’s this image I sometimes get in my mind when I’m trying to think about what this means and it’s probably a bastardization of the original quote (laughing), but Wittgenstein said that it’s like climbing a ladder and once you reach the top you don’t need the ladder anymore and you throw the ladder away. I really like this idea that once we have a song learned, it actually becomes a great hindrance to be on stage playing one of those songs and in your mind hearing some past, idealized version of how it’s “supposed” to go. The more you re-create a mental, past version of a sound or song, the less you’re hearing what’s actually being played. The more you hear what’s actually there, the more you can make music with that and the more spontaneous the playing. Which is fun.
I think I got my idea of how to play rock n roll music from hearing the Rolling Stones when I was a little kid. It was a big turning point for me. There’s a kind of looseness to the way that they play together, and an unpredictability to each individual person’s part. Like when Keith Richards plays one of his riffs, one time he’ll start it on beat 1, and the next time on the and-of-1, and the next time on the and-of-4, or maybe leave it out completely. You don’t know what’s coming and then that causes a ripple effect within the band. I love the sense of carefree pleasure that comes across from the Rolling Stones. It’s like they know that it’s ragged, unpredictable, bold, brash, and they don’t care. It’s like they enjoy the tension that’s created between a group of people that all have different personalities and trying to work it out with each other and never quite get it. You know what I mean? That’s life. I feel their music is very human and brims over with that kind of human power and spirit. There is no ideal version of Brown Sugar or Start me up; no perfect way that it’s supposed to be played. I don’t know? When I first heard them it just sounded so different than everything else that I heard on the radio. Whatever kind of mystery was created in their sound, is one I feel like I’m still trying to solve decades later.
“The music seems to come alive when it’s different every time we play the same song and when it’s suspenseful from moment to moment. When you don’t know exactly what’s coming and you have to be ready, that’s it.”
With Deerhoof, when we play it’s similar. When the magic is really happening and I feel like, “This is how we’re supposed to play together!”, it’s when everybody is contributing some unpredictable element; everyone is throwing in surprises that we never rehearsed. That’s when we’re figuring “it” out (Laughing). Of course you never reach the point when you really figure it out. There’s a zone where everything is just slightly beyond your ability, a little bit harder than what you can actually do. Think about the Olympics recently; athletes talk about that all the time. The “zone” is the place where you’re reaching for something that’s just a little bit more than what you can do, and that’s where it feels the most creative.
“When the magic is really happening and I feel like, This is how we’re supposed to play together!, it’s when everybody is contributing some unpredictable element; everyone is throwing in surprises that we never rehearsed.” Greg Saunier
TJC: That is gold! I knew my hunch was right that I should interview you about this stuff. You just hit so many important points related to creativity that often emerge in research on the subject. For example the things you mentioned around being prepared through rehearsing, but also at the same time being spontaneous and letting go of any preconceived mental model of a song or sound. Have you ever heard of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi?
“The “zone” is the place where you’re reaching for something that’s just a little bit more than what you can do, and that’s where it feels the most creative.” Greg Saunier
TJC: He has a crazy long name and it’s hard to pronounce, but he’s spent 40 years researching creativity and coined the term Flow, which basically you just described and defined. Flow is where your abilities are pushed just to the point where it’s a little bit beyond you and brings you to that “in the moment” sort of thing.
GS: It’s like being in a room full of people and going and tapping someone on the shoulder and you haven’t planned out what you’re going to say. It just forces you into this situation where you have to come up with something (Ben Laughing).
“Csíkszentmihályi described flow as “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.” To achieve a flow state, a balance must be struck between the challenge of the task and the skill of the performer. If the task is too easy or too difficult, flow cannot occur. Both skill level and challenge level must be matched and high; if skill and challenge are low then apathy results” Wikipedia
TJC: You know, I get a bit nervous interviewing artists about creativity and creative process, because usually they don’t want to over analyze or think about it (Greg Laughing) and I can relate to it because I also come from an experimental music and art background, but dropped it for a number of years. I realized later in my human services work that there was real benefit from having an arts background for my current work and I think it has to do with some of those ways artists naturally challenge status quo assumptions, value unpredictability, spontaneity, randomness etc… Now more than ever people need to be able to think creatively and challenge assumptions to be able to ensure we can roll with whatever comes at us. So part of Think Jar Collective is to offer opportunities where people can for example look at what Greg Saunier is doing and possibly find something they can relate to and apply in whatever domain or discipline they are coming from. Often, the creative links we make come from unexpected places. I would be rad for example if a social worker got an idea from you when reading this interview and applied it in their work. Or a businessman or engineer, or other artist. That’s what we are experimenting with. Think Jar is a bit of word play, where it has a double meaning of being like a jar of ideas to draw from, but also that the content “jars” you in unexpected ways and shake loose stiff mental habits because that’s where the aha moments often come. So, when you talk about spontaneity, and the target of your band playing together is a state where everyone is surprising each other in a flowing, unexpected ways, I’m stoked because of how relevant it is!
“You know it’s not about doing what others want, because surprise is key. It’s not about doing what someone thinks they want, it’s about listening to their reaction, trying to sense it and then find a thrill in an unexpected place (laughing). Like find their ticklish spot and attack it when they least expect it.” Greg Saunier
GS: I think that it is very interesting that you chose social work as the next step after music, because anything that involves other people, like teaching, parenting or even dating you instantly realize that an attitude of being isolated as an artist is completely unhelpful. I think that a lot of times what is sometimes considered creative is a kind of quiet, isolated, peaceful space away from the world. But you have to find a way to connect, communicate, to get something across or share a moment or realization, otherwise nothing occurs and there’s no benefit for either person. In our band’s case, we’re always trying to connect with the audience. And I’ve found that, that’s always been a creative aid as well. For example, even when I am in isolation by myself working on a song or mix, I still have a kind of cast of imaginary characters in my mind that are somewhat based on real people that I’ve known over the years. I try to hear through their ears. I ask myself things like, “What would a 5 year old think of this? What would a 70 year old think? What would someone who only listens to top 40? or someone who only listens to noise?” A lot of times that’s a creative thing for me to do. Of course we also have the good fortune of being a band that goes on tour, so at a certain point I don’t have to imagine a listener. The listener is there. And it’s not about doing what others want, because surprise is key. It’s not about doing what someone thinks they want, it’s about listening to their reaction, trying to sense it and then find a thrill in an unexpected place (laughing). Like find their ticklish spot and attack it when they least expect it.
“Usually I think I’m having to trick myself into being creative. It’s this constant mental game, of not wanting to overthink the act of what you’re doing but instead to simply act.” Greg Saunier
TJC: To ask a couple direct questions about creativity, you mentioned tricking yourself into creativity earlier. Can you share what some of those tricks might be?
GS: Oh totally. I have to kind of rotate the tricks. There isn’t just one trick that you can absolutely count on. At least for me there isn’t.
Tricking yourself into creativity, Trick 1. Sleepiness
One of them is sleep deprivation (Ben Laughing). It happens to me a lot when we have to fly somewhere on tour that is really far away. Like when we go to Europe, you get there when you think it’s time to go to bed, but it’s 10 in the morning. When there is that lack of sleep, and just as you’re about to fall asleep there is the unconscious desperately trying to assert itself, I hear music in my mind and it seems to be more original than normal.
Tricking yourself into creativity, Trick 2. Itunes randomness
Another one, is I’ll just go on the itunes music store and listen to previews of like, completely random stuff that I’ve never heard. Even if I do that for like half an hour, it’s such an easy way to hear totally unfamiliar music and then afterwards my mind is filled with a bunch of vague musical sounds that are all jumbled together. Then for a time, they get mixed up in a fun way and I start to hear new musical ideas in my head that really aren’t any one particular song I heard.
Tricking yourself into creativity, Trick 3. Role play
Sometimes I also try to picture one of my favorite musicians, especially if they haven’t done anything really good for a while. I’ll imagine what I wished they’d do. I’ll imagine what I wished their next album sounded like (Ben Laughing). That role playing thing can be a great creative trick. You pretend you’re such and such guitar player, or singer.
TJC: Do you have any examples where you can link that trick to a song that’s out there that you’ve made?
GS: Yeah sure. (Laughing) I mean every song that deerhoof has where I had anything to do with it, I’m sure I played the role playing thing multiple times. Like, I remember I saw a public tv show, where they were doing a fund raising drive. Whenever these networks go into fund raising mode, they start playing stuff that gets the best reaction. So it’s a combination of the cooking shows and concerts (Ben Laughing). They play all star concerts, especially stuff geared towards baby boomers because those are the main contributors. I remember seeing one minute or less of some all star jam of a classic rock bluesy thing and although I didn’t know what song they were playing, I thought to myself, “Man wouldn’t it be cool if Deerhoof could write a song that was so easy to cover and anyone could just pick it up and say let’s do that one.” I remember then switching off the TV and immediately thinking of a sound which became the chorus of one of our songs called Twin Killers.
Then, I had the incredible experience years later, when I found out that a jazz pianist named Marco Benevento had started putting Twin Killers in his repertoire as an instrumental. He’s a jazz musician so he plays with lots of bands and he would play the song with various groups as a kind of jam that he could pick up and do with anyone. So, it became exactly what I had imagined. It was mind blowing to me. At one point, I remember that his band Garage a Trois was playing a concert in a city where I happened to be and when they played that song, they had me come on stage. So, there I am playing this song that I wrote with the intention of it being this sort of, “Hey everybody, let’s just try this one.” It was an incredible thrill. It just goes to show you, use Greg Saunier’s creative tricks and you’ll definitely get results (laughing).
TJC: Ha ha, that’s great! Thanks man for your time.
You can get Deerhoof’s new album through the link Here
In describing the album Greg recently said ”Breakup Song is a sensational record of Cuban-flavored party-noise-energy music” and concluded, “If you want to go dancing or do karaoke with Deerhoof, you don’t have to ask twice.”
Lastly, check out this unintentional creativity provoking trick which is a video for a Deerhoof song from 2009…So awesome