The Possibility of an Island: Words with Deerhoof

With the imminent release of thirteenth album La Isla Bonita, Deerhoof's Greg Saunier explains why they've found latter-day inspiration in 80s pop queens

Feature by Will Fitzpatrick | 03 Nov 2014
  • Deerhoof

Twenty years. That’s how long Deerhoof have been around – a helluva landmark. Even drummer Greg Saunier seems surprised, as he casually shrugs, I don’t imagine we’ll be around for year twenty-one.” He leaves the remark hanging mysteriously in the air, as though teasing us with the threat of his band’s imminent demise, before cheerfully laughing it off. “Every show feels like one more show that logically should never have happened. Same with the records. There was no reason to imagine this was meant to be long-lived – how can we stand the sight of each other any more? And yet we’re really more close knit than we’ve ever been.”

That’s certainly borne out by their thirteenth album La Isla Bonita, a typically messy coagulation of wracked rock’n’roll and screwy semblances of RnB. As ever, they sound like an avant-garde band who found pop but lost the plot – despite the risky mixture, it all fits together perfectly. As with the record’s predecessor Breakup Song, the sense of cohesion is somewhat remarkable given the band’s current living situation, with the four members stretched out across different cities. Having formed Deerhoof in San Francisco, and lived there for the majority of the band’s existence, it was something of a surprise for Saunier that he should find himself moving out to the East Coast:

“I’ve been living in Brooklyn for four years,” he explains. “I never really liked New York, but we’d come to play shows, and we had so many friends there who I never got enough chance to chat to, so I realised it was the only place to move. It can be kind of intimidating, but it was so easy for me. The second I arrived, everyone was already like, ‘let’s get together and play sometime!’ And then I was playing improv shows all the time.”

"We set out to make R'n'B, and it went wrong!" 

A compulsive musician of multiple disciplines, Saunier continues to involve himself in the DIY venues that dominate Brooklyn’s busy scene – the sort of art spaces that nurture the outré sensibilities of bands like Deerhoof – and laments the continued march of progress that has doomed some of these places in recent times: “A place called 285 Kent closed earlier this year, and now Death By Audio – which I’m a big fan of. I was there all the time, playing shows, seeing shows… They’re getting kicked out of the building after ten years because a magazine wants to move in. Of course, this doesn’t mean that the DIY scene won’t exist, it’ll just move into other places. Williamsburg has become too expensive and too populated by people who are not so interested in DIY spaces.”

Is gentrification to blame for this process? “I guess gentrification’s not a problem if you’re in real estate, or the field of boutique-y shops that sell olive oil or something. Amazing, truly amazing prices. It really feels surreal. New York is at a level where prices are so insane that it feels like its own bubble.”

This, it turns out, is one of the major themes of La Isla Bonita: “It’s about the clash between this inflated idea of what paradise is, and its ability to wield power over everywhere else. The reality of the decline – that’s what we were trying to talk about with this record.”

So how does that tie in with the Madonna-referencing album title?: “That song [Madonna’s 1987 hit La Isla Bonita] seems particularly ludricrous – the words, the romanticism of it… we picked a title very late in the game, but we’d already hired an artist who was making the cover; this erupting volcano island… we just thought they worked really well together. It could be Manhattan, or it could be the United States, or it could be the entire globe – we meant it sarcastically, you know? It advertises itself as being a beautiful island, but what is it really?”

Unlikely as it may seem to long-term fans of Deerhoof’s gleeful skronk, ol’ Madge was actually one of several reference points that the band drew from 80s pop. The Skinny brings up the press release’s assertion that La Isla Bonita germinated amid an argument “over whether to try and sound like Joan Jett or Janet Jackson,” and Greg laughs uproariously.

“It’s like R'n'B gone wrong – well, it’s not like we set out to make R'n'B gone wrong; we set out to make R'n'B, and it went wrong! But that’s exciting – losing whatever your plan was when you started out. That’s how it often works; we aren’t very successful at talking about music with each other, so the reference points are really a starting point.”

“My idea, which I was absolutely sure was gonna take Deerhoof to the top of the charts, was to do a cover of What Have You Done For Me Lately by Janet Jackson. Eventually I realised that everybody thought it was a really stupid idea, but I’d made a demo and there was something about it that I liked, so I made a new song out of that. That’s how [album opener] Paradise Girls started – my second draft of trying to make a Janet Jackson song, that failed.”

Not that Saunier had been a particular fan of Madonna or Janet Jackson beforehand, of course. “I didn’t listen to them in the 80s. I heard the hits off Madonna’s first record, and then at that point I started tuning out, so everything she did after that was completely lost on me.”

“A few months ago, before we recorded anything, I was just casting about in the dark, thinking of things that I wanted to write songs about. I knew Satomi [Matsuzaki, Deerhoof singer/guitarist] had been a fan of Madonna and Janet Jackson when she was a teenager, so I was like, ‘OK, well let me see what this is about.’ It was so inspiring to me to hear all these songs, and it really struck me that – particularly with Janet Jackson – they were capturing what was to become the Zeitgeist. It was before the time when cynicism took over culture – in 2014, it’s not just some sort of teenage misfits listening to Nirvana that are cynical about culture; culture is cynical about culture; it’s extremely bleak. Like just before the fall of the Habsburg Empire; the upper classes were more concerned than ever with their own pleasure, because they knew that world was about to end. An entirely new modern world was about to take place with all kinds of innovations, but also all kinds of incredible evil… something about Janet Jackson just hit me that way. It somehow predicted civilisation’s demise.”

Intense. So how does Joan Jett fit into this equation? “Oh, I had also watched the Runaways movie before we recorded anything. I really was crazy over the Kim Fowley character played by Michael Shannon, because his advice seems so apropos and genius. I completely bought into the manifesto, you know? That the bad girl and the bubblegum girl might be the same thing – it cuts across the usual definitions and completely makes sense. Because bubblegum is bad. Too much candy is bad. If you look at it in a metaphorical way, the idea of someone who has an evil streak or an irresponsible side, and then someone who’s addicted to sugar or pleasure… it’s not a contradiction at all.”

This brings us back to the aforementioned Paradise Girls, an ode to “girls… who are smart… who play the bass guitar.” Was it inspired by anyone else, beyond the three we’ve already mentioned? “Well, honestly, I made up those lyrics, and one big inspiration for me was Satomi. I thought it would be fun for Satomi to sing a song written by me about her. As far as I’m concerned, girls are much smarter than boys; they’re always sizing up the world in a very clever way. I guess I was wanting to pay tribute to that whole half of the human race, and merely a certain clever and somewhat sassy spirit that really could apply to anyone, whether they’re a girl or not.”

Our time runs short, and with that in mind, we ask Saunier if he has any anniversary celebrations planned. A hearty guffaw follows. “No, the publicist had to tell me that it was twenty years. I had no idea!” Fair enough. Seems like Deerhoof have plenty on their minds already.

La Isla Bonita is released on 3 Nov via Polyvinyl