by Jo Higgs
29 years and 19 albums later, Deerhoof are as unpredictably brilliant as ever
Miracle-Level is an anomaly, and in ways one wouldn’t expect. Of course, the unwavering quality that runs from Satomi Matsuzaki’s first breath on Sit Down, Let Me Tell You a Story to the final hush of cymbal on Wedding, March, Flower is a prerequisite now – and there’s been 29 years of excellence to attest to this. The jaggy guitar work and playful percussion is as present and inventive as ever, just as the melodies classically hook the listener more than one might expect of such a ‘noisy’ style of music.
After decades of consistency, the band had, up until recently, grown to expect that each album will have a follow up – they needn’t fret about any one project functioning as a form of closure. ‘I think it’s cute, you know,’ drummer Greg Saunier laughs, ‘when you see artists on their debut throwing in everything except the kitchen sink. It’s reasonable: when you’re making your first few albums, there’s that tendency to assume there won’t be another, so you try to make it your summary testament to life and the universe.’
With Deerhoof’s standing within the music industry, after a certain while, it became clear that there was always going to be the demand for another album, so that worry faded. But as Saunier points out, increasing military build-up across half the globe, the biggest carbon emitters continuing to neglect their responsibilities as they quickly push the planet into disaster, and even a seemingly impending financial crash in the states, you can never know how much stability indie rock has. ‘There’s a lot of events throughout history and now too that can suddenly make indie rock just seem a little bit less relevant,’ he points out – to which Matsuzaki adds a touch on the state of the music industry itself: ‘the factories are so busy; to get records, you just have to push back and push back the release date – you don’t know when it will come.’ And just like that, with society and the world teasing collapse on several fronts, Deerhoof, like their first few releases back in the 90s, have to consider Miracle-Level and any future releases as swan-songs in the making.
From pontificating on potential finalities, to interrogating inexplicable inaugurations, Miracle-Level is the group’s 19th studio album, and yet, in a sense, it’s their first. Before now, Deerhoof had never recorded an album entirely within a studio: ‘well, it’s really expensive,’ Matsuzaki justifies, and Saunier succinctly giggles, ‘budget, baby!’ Elaborating, Matsuzaki says, ‘from the start, we were very DIY, so we’d been to studios, but never really stayed long, like maybe a day or something at most ‘cos we couldn’t really afford it. This time, we had the help of a No Fun Club, a studio that actually wanted to record us. It was like a dream come true ‘cos we always wanted to try this sort of thing. It was a luxury for us.’
A surprising effect of this stint in a studio is the stripping back of the Deerhoof sound. It’s by no means a naked or minimal record, but compared to some past releases, it’s less layered in its sonic approach. With supposed access to the wash of instruments available – drums, guitars, synths, you name it, coming out the wazoo – one might expect an album with nearing hundreds of overdubs of varying sounds on every track. But the band knew that to complete the album in the timeframe they’d allowed themselves, they were going to have to enact instrumental abstinence. ‘We’re just so in love with instruments and sounds,’ Saunier begins, ‘that we knew it would take over if we let it. We would become that cliché of the kid in the candy shop, but in our version, the kid would be too busy looking at it all to even try something. So yeah, that’s one of the reasons it came out kinda minimalist – not that we were in a studio, but that we knew if we started doing overdubs, we’d never finish it.’
‘We didn’t realise until we were at the studio quite how little time we had,’ Matsuzaki begins, ‘so me and John [Dietrich, guitarist] picked up the food everyday, breakfast, lunch and dinner, so there could always be someone at the desk working.’
Part of the new experience of working fully in a studio was working with Mike Bridawsky, an accomplished producer, but a relative stranger to Deerhoof, brought together by Joyful Noise Recording head honcho, Karl Hoffstetter. The band recount past experiences with producers at various points in their careers, and how, even when they trusted the producer, they were so picky that they would become pretty hands on themselves.
With Bridawsky, the experience was unexpectedly different, as Saunier recalls: ‘Mike was like “right we’ve finished tracking everything, time to start mixing,” so we’re like “okay”. He says “everybody leave” and we’re like “what?” and then figures maybe he needs 20 minutes to get things roughly there and he’ll bring us back in. Time starts going by: an hour, two hours, four hours, eight hours… it goes by and we’re sitting outside looking in, but it’s a completely soundproof window so we hear nothing. He’s sitting there doing all this stuff and then when finally he invites us in… it’s totally done. It was a surreal experience for people like us with decades of nitpicking every single detail.’
Beyond venturing forth into the unknowns of a fully studio recorded album, with a producer who subverted the band’s expectation of recording, another, more politically transgressive diversion into new territory comes in the form of Matsuzaki’s lyrics rejecting the English language. She notes it is ‘the language of the world’s policemen,’ highlighting, not necessarily the deep-rooted history this in sense evokes, but more immediately the up until recently near-exclusive dominance of English language music. Spanish language music has evidently become a massively important thing in the industry, but beyond that, English music is for all intents and purposes the de facto. One refers to ‘Spanish language music,’ in a way they would never refer to ‘English language music,’ instead calling it ‘music’. This inspired Matsuzaki to think: ‘We all, as a band, listen to music from all about. I’m from Japan and so we sometimes have songs that are in Japanese but they’re only ever half in Japanese. So I thought “why not have more “Satomi” here? I loved the idea when Greg said let’s do it all in Japanese and we play Japan sometimes so the fans would be excited to hear, and sing-along.’
Miracle-Level is an exquisite project – bursting with experimentation in every moment. If on the off-chance this is to be Deerhoof’s swan song, bowing out with Wedding, March, Flower is as poetic as it gets. A rare ballad in their discography, sung by Saunier with Japanese lyrics written by Matsuzaki, it delicately tackles their long-dissolved marriage. But, more importantly, the strength with which they retained their friendship to continue collaborating and innovating in such wonderful ways.
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