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Interview: Greg Saunier of Deerhoof

Zach Long
Written by
Zach Long

For more than two decades, Deerhoof's output has been notoriously hard to pin down, flitting between West Coast punk and noisy, cerebral pop. On its latest record, La Isla Bonita, the band has assembled another genre-shifting collection of exuberant, artsy rock, overseen by the spritely voice of vocalist Satomi Matsuzaki. Ahead of the group's upcoming tour with Polyvinyl label-mates Of Montreal, we spoke with Deerhoof drummer Greg Saunier about band rivalries and the karaoke parlor origins of La Isla Bonita.

Aside from being label-mates and bands that have been around for quite some time, does Deerhoof share any other connections to your current tour mates Of Montreal?

The connections go so far beyond what you realize. For three albums in a row, they released a new record on the exact same Tuesday that we did, thus knocking us off of the number one spot on the college radio charts. So, having never heard them, I was already well-practiced at cursing their name constantly because they were screwing up our plans for college radio domination. Later, to my horror, I found out that our booking agent also booked Of Montreal. He eventually convinced Polyvinyl to sign the group, and later when Deerhoof was searching for a new label, he suggested that we switch over to Polyvinyl. Since we realized that we’re on the same team, I have nothing but love. My admiration has just grown.

Deerhoof and Of Montreal are both groups that tend to reinvent themselves from record to record. Do you feel as if there’s some sort of musical kinship between the two bands?

I feel that there’s some shared sense of wanting to explode song structure and a certain kind of nonsensical or illogical approach to the order that things happen in a song. I think that both Of Montreal and Deerhoof admire that model of the artist or the pop star, David Bowie being a very famous example—the chameleon, the person who reinvents himself all the time. I’ve always found [Of Montreal frontman] Kevin [Barnes] to be an inspiration in that sense. He won’t play the game past a certain point. He pushes it over top, which I also think is another beautiful opportunity waiting for you when you decide to pursue music—the chance to turn yourself into something beyond yourself.

How has Deerhoof’s willingness to experiment and change played a part in the group’s longevity?

If you were going to trust the prevailing wisdom about how a band should create a reputation for themselves, wouldn’t the expert’s advice be, “Keep it consistent, get a schtick, have a look, get a persona, repeat it ad nauseam?” The crazy thing, in our case, is that we’ve done the opposite. Anytime that we got the sense that someone was threatening to be able to describe what we were doing, we tried to contradict it as soon as possible. Never knowing what you’ll get is what has oddly worked in our favor.

Your new record, La Isla Bonita, shares its name with a late '80s Madonna single. Is there a story behind the choice of title?

A year ago when we were starting to cast around for ideas and write songs, it occurred to me that Satomi had mentioned that she used to sing Janet Jackson and Madonna karaoke songs when she was a kid. In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, I was completely tuned out from mainstream music—I didn't have a radio. So when we started working on this record, I actually went and listened to 30-second iTunes previews of everything that Janet Jackson and Madonna put out in those years. I was totally blown away by how insane it all sounded. It was so over produced, so avant-garde, so expensive sounding. It painted a picture of a decadent time period in American culture that was soon to come crashing down. We started planning a record that would be an homage to late ‘80s pop, we hired a producer and we were going to do this super slick thing.

But ultimately, you recorded the album in a basement.

We were recording practice demos in our guitarist's basement to send to the producer, so that he could start to get his thoughts together and give each song the royal treatment. Each night, I would start listening to what we were recording and thought, “You know, this sounds pretty good just like this.” So, by the end of the week we decided to scrap the official recording session. We thought that it told a more poignant story to do this broken and cheap attempt to recreate something that was slick and high-budget—that’s the story we actually wanted to tell. That’s the story of Deerhoof.

Deerhoof plays with Of Montreal at Metro on Friday, Mar 13.

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