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Home / Articles / Entertainment / Music /  Avant garde pop
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Thursday, February 17,2011

Avant garde pop

Experimental punk rockers Deerhoof pursue yet another direction

By Adam Perry

Satomi Matsuzaki, a Japanese-born, self-taught musician who moved to San Francisco from Tokyo in 1996, highlights the avant indie-rock of Deerhoof with her childlike vocals and thunderous bass guitar. From the simultaneous irreverence, innocence and brilliance of Matsuzaki’s lyrics, you’d think the tiny frontwoman would have a lot to say on stage. However, drummer Greg Saunier hilariously emerges from behind his sparse drumkit after nearly every song Deerhoof performs, towering over Matsuzaki’s microphone to tell straight-faced jokes while she giggles beside him.

There’s no method to the routine beyond expediency, according to Matsuzaki.

“Greg is speaking for me while I am taking a break from singing between songs,” she says. “Why not drummer speaks? Greg actually doesn’t like to talk on stage but we encourage him. We think his speech is funny!” Not unlike rock fans unable to warm to Sonic Youth and the Velvet Underground, some consider noise the only method to Deerhoof ’s magical madness. Based in Oakland, the cult sensation actually debuted as a duo in 1995, with the Oberlin-educated virtuoso Saunier convulsively drumming and since-departed Rob Fisk playing bass. Through wild experimentation, intense practice and heavy touring over 15 years and 10 albums, Deerhoof has evolved into one of the most interesting bands in American popular music.

Offend Maggie (2008), Deerhoof ’s triumphant return to life as a dual-guitar quintet, saw the band’s art-rock beginnings come full circle with Matsuzaki’s adorably creative lyrics — alternated between English and Japanese — tempered by 12-string psychedelia and Saunier’s spastic drums. Unlike the stripped-down and playful bomp of 2006’s Friend Opportunity — which suffered from the loss of second guitarist Chris Cohen — Offend Maggie’s enjoyable depth again proved Deerhoof worthy of the big-time opening slots the band was given by Radiohead and the Flaming Lips a few years ago.

Matsuzaki says the band was happy to return to its customary two-guitar format by bringing along Ed Rodriguez, an old friend of longtime Deerhoof guitarist John Dieterich.

“[Now] we have to feed one more person — ugh,” Matsuzaki says. “Just kidding. It’s good to have Ed in the band. He is easygoing and can play anything. Funny too!

“Musically, of course, better than three-piece, especially since Deerhoof writes songs that have thick harmonies. Not possible to play them live without more fingers and one more brain to throw ideas.”

The foursome is excited about its creative new release, Deerhoof vs. Evil, which Matsuzaki described to me just before it dropped on Jan. 25.

“Lots of rhythmic variations, layers of colorful sounds and danceable album!” she says excitedly. “You can play it at home party.”

True, an exceptional portion of the album is playfully danceable, and the upbeat “Superduper Rescue Heads!” could surely highlight any blockbuster super-hero film, but that’s not the whole story.

Deerhoof has always been ambitious, but Deerhoof vs. Evil presents perhaps the band’s most surprising experiment thus far: an LP chock full of pop music. Here and there on previous albums, the group has taken detours into soft-hearted passages of pleasant oddity — between bursts of fuzzed-out dementia — but Deerhoof vs. Evil tracks such as “Behold a Marvel in the Darkness” (with its “What is this thing called love?” refrain) and the wholesome classical-guitar-driven “No One Asked to Dance” are unambiguously adorable.

Even more startling, Saunier — who has struggled with Tourette’s syndrome and is known for his unpredictable Keith Moon-esque rhythms — spends much of Deerhoof vs. Evil doing his best impression of Roots drummer ?uestlove. That’s not to say the LP is remotely boring — its combination of peculiar instrumentation, thick beats, ’80s charisma and Matzusaki’s fresh-faced lyrics could make it the group’s breakout release. Plus, Deerhoof is bombastic and irresistible as ever in concert, and experimentation lies at the heart of their mission.

Over the years Deerhoof has made headlines with quirky stunts, like releasing sheet music for Offend Maggie’s “Fresh Born” prior to the album’s release, urging fans to record their own versions of the song before they’d heard Deerhoof ’s. But the most memorable Deerhoof stunt wasn’t even the band’s own idea.

Milk Man, a ballet/performance/concert conceived and performed by children and teachers at the North Haven Community School in the fall of 2006, juxtaposed the Who-meets-Sonic Youth music of Deerhoof ’s acclaimed 2004 album Milk Man with kiddie performance art. Although Matsuzaki’s truly surreal lyrics — such as “Milk Man smiles to you ‘Hi’ in a nude / this banana stuck in my arms, oh my love” — don’t necessarily seem like a fit for elementary age kids, Deerhoof attended the show and loved it.

“The Milk Man ballet idea came from the teacher,” Matsuzaki says. “She orchestrated other teachers and some students to play the Milk Man album. She made it sound like the real album. Their arrangements sounded real similar to [how] we sounded in the album. Impressed! 3- to 10-year-old kids danced with surreal movement with balloons and funny props. Singing together was so cute!” Videos of the performance are available online, and the sheer weirdness of the spectacle makes viewing it worthwhile. As for Deerhoof’s own shows, eccentricity is always matched with serious musicianship and rampant fun, creating a wholesome, interesting and loud night out. Lately, Deerhoof has transitioned to supporting bands like Radiohead at huge venues to pleasantly packing smaller clubs and theaters such as the Marquis, where the group plays Monday.

“It’s hard sound-wise to play in small places,” Matsuzaki says, “but I like intimacy aspect of small shows. Audiences seem more like friends in that situation. Hey you all, come to my party!” Every Deerhoof concert is a party.

Last year the group performed with Yoko Ono in Oakland and played Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures album in its entirety onstage in Austria with Xiu Xiu. Like fans of Phish, Deerhoof faithful know something unexpected and special will happen at every one of the band’s gigs.

There’s simply no way to describe what this artful, eccentric Bay Area quartet — which has influenced everyone from Of Montreal to Sufjan Stevens — does without seeing it live. Not unlike Ween, Deerhoof ’s albums are exercises in mad genius, suddenly and strangely switching styles from track to track — but the band’s concerts feature multitudes of head-bopping rock ’n’ roll energy. And one laugh-inducing drummer.

On the Bill:

Deerhoof plays the Marquis Theater on Monday, Feb. 21.

Show starts at 7 p.m. Ben Butler and Mousepad, Nervous Cop, Lil Slugger open. Tickets are $15.

2009 Larimer St., Denver, 303- 292-0805

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