Interview: Deerhoof

by Peter Soyer

Sometimes the small fish gets the biggest worm. When everyone in the ocean of music is trying to be the biggest fish with the best producers, the edgiest sound and the coolest looks, the little fish swim through all the commotion and sometimes find the audience the big fish are looking for. Sometimes a band just has to swim faster than any other small fish and avoid getting sucked into the big fish’s gills. Sometimes one fish is better than two fish, or red fish are better than blue fish. OK, so enough with this Dr.Seuss-esque intro. Who is this little fish I am so enamored with?

Deerhoof is this little fish.

They slyly swim under the radar, do things their own way, make music that no one else has thought of and completely blow everyone out of the water (yeah, the fish metaphor is still going). They have avoided classification for over 10 years, but stayed true to their original sound. These four musicians have managed to create some odd musical couples that work better than any critic could have imagined. Deerhoof’s sound can only be described as complete chaos; sleeping with a childish curiosity while next-door art rock is knockin’ the boots with plain old rock and roll.

With their latest release, “Milk Man” on the Kill Rock Stars imprint 5 Rue Christine, Deerhoof has once again taken progressive ideas in music and stepped them up. In between turning 21, touring in support of “Milk Man” and saving the pop music world, Deerhoof’s guitarist John Dieterich found the time to explain to me how Deerhoof became the best fish in the sea (OK, that’s it, last time with the fish metaphor.)

A lot of bands have celebrity backing or big time magazine credit, but not every band can claim that Simpson’s creator Matt Groening digs them. Groening, has voiced his support for Deerhoof. So far they haven’t been invited to appear on the show, but if Smashing Pumpkins can do it, so can Deerhoof.

John: To be honest, there isn’t too much of a connection. Apparently, [Groening] heard some of our music, and when he was the curator of the Los Angeles All Tomorrow’s Parties, our name was thrown out as a possible band to play and he said OK. It’s not like we’re old pals or anything, though he seems like a really nice person. As for a Simpsons guest spot, I think it’s highly unlikely.

If Groening offered you a guest spot, what kind of episode would you want it to be?
Maybe a musical with Justin Theroux and Dennis Quaid as the co-stars.

Would Deerhoof play themselves? Would Dennis Quaid sing?
Deerhoof would be gardeners, played by rap-metal superstars Anthrax. Dennis Quaid would be some sort of undead, phosphorescent overlord. He would definitely sing, and would hopefully rap.

OK, enough of the Simpsons tangent. “Milk Man” has been receiving a lot of critical support from the likes of NME, Rolling Stone, Spin, and Pitchfork. There has always been a loud word-of-mouth buzz surrounding Deerhoof, but the latest seems to have opened a treasure chest of glowing praise. The downside with praise is there comes a higher expectation from these same critics for the next album.
I don’t feel too much of an increase in pressure. We’ve always tried to do our best when we play for people. We do try to put pressure on ourselves to keep growing and evolving. We definitely want to make our next album better than the last. I guess that goes without saying. Otherwise, we’d just pack up. I’m just really excited to get working on the next one. We’ve been working on recordings, but they won’t be for the next album. We’re doing a split EP with 54-71, who are from Tokyo, that’ll be released in Japan on P-Vine Records. As for the next one, I think we’ve all separately started thinking about songs, and we’ve also brainstormed together about what we’d like to do, but I think it will be a while before it’s actually recorded.

The cover of “Milk Man” has a drawing of a sexy, androgynous person with a cloth over their head. The face on the cloth looks like the ghost from PacMan. He also has bananas stabbed into him with blood dripping from the wounds. Was this drawing was the inspiration for the entire album? The character looks like he is hiding something behind his mask. He looks like he knows something I don’t. He looks like a hard guy to trust.
I’d just give him the benefit of the doubt. He’s sly, but he’s also quite gullible. I wouldn’t want to wrestle with him though.

I don’t think I would want to wrestle him either. Coming off the critical praise of “Milk Man” and a tour of the states this past April, Deerhoof got to experience the buzz around them first hand.
We got to play with lots of great bands and we did about eight shows with our friends 54-71. They were really amazing and inspiring. As for audience sizes, I guess they have gotten a little bigger recently. We were just really surprised that we could go places that we’d never played before, like Lawrence, Kansas, and there would be people who actually came to see us and knew our music. It was great!

With the audience size growing and even Lawrence, Kansas getting into Deerhoof, the crowds must be getting bigger. What was the biggest crowd you guys played for?
I can say that the biggest people I’ve ever played for was when I played in Oslo, Norway, a year or so ago with another band I’m in. I have never seen people that big, and I’m not joking! It was incredible. Deerhoof’s going to play there in August.

I heard it’s the milk they drink in Norway that makes them so big. The same thing goes in Montana where I’m from. My parents are both short, but my brother and I are walking trees. It has to be the milk, hopefully I won’t develop breasts later in life from the hormones. The Deerhoof fandom spans across the entire U.S. and into the dark corners of Europe where everyone (even the little kids) enjoy a little rock.
We once got to play a show for four to 10-year-old kids in Amsterdam. We turned down so quiet that if they started screaming you couldn’t hear us. We made some of them cry. Some of them were covered in paint and were wearing these brightly colored costumes and writing. It was primal; there’s also this seven-year-old kid in Portland named Max who likes our music. He knows all the songs and puts on the CDs and plays drums along with them. His dad occasionally will send along pictures of him in a Deerhoof shirt playing drums. We haven’t gotten to meet him in person yet, but hopefully the next time we’re in Portland.

All I ever hear kids listening to is the Australian group called The Wiggles. They are four guys wearing the primary colors and singing about everything a two year-old would find interesting. I wish they had been around when I was growing up. I can’t vouch that The Wiggles are the next super group, but with songs about “Cold Spaghetti, Cold Spaghetti,” they are definitely poised for greatness.
Wow, The Wiggles! I’ve never heard. We’ve got a song called “Hot Mint.” So are we friends?

I’ll make a call to The Wiggles, but I’m pretty sure they would delighted to have Deerhoof as friends. I think they’re pretty open to having anyone as friends. I’m guessing Deerhoof’s creative process for an album is slightly different than The Wiggles though. “Milk Man” as a whole feels very connected, like threads keeping every song together; a tightly knit sweater. I see “Milk Man” as an album circulating around one idea. Kind of like Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” (without all the depressing lows) or Sufjan Stevens’ “Greetings from Michigan…” Is “Milk Man” going to have a second concept album? Maybe “Milk Man II: The Return of the Dairy Poachers.”
I’m really glad you think it sounds very tightly knit. It’s hard for me to even tell anymore. I think the main inspiration that shaped the album was Ken Kagami’s artwork. His character, Milk Man, existed before most of these songs were even written. We all felt a real connection to Milk Man and wanted to come up with an album that did his art justice. We always try to make an album feel like a whole continuous idea. Maybe not one idea, but a series of chunks that, when heard together create something meaningful. Maybe, for you, “Milk Man” was the first time it actually worked. And that’s great! Next time around, the concept will be Metallurgy. Each album’s been shaped in really different ways. I do think that this was the first time for us that the art came to bear on the music, lyrics and overall feeling as early on in the process as it did.

I think metals are fascinating so Metallurgy is a great plan. Songs about iron, copper, the effects of rust on the emotions of steel, all of it sounds like gold. Due to all the work “Milk Man” has put into this album, he must be receiving some kind of workmen’s comp for the fruity impalements. Do they hurt him?
His expression is one of ecstatic joy. Regarding his workman’s comp case, it was settled out of court. I’m forbidden from commenting more.

In the lyrics for “Milk Man,” it almost sounds like the title character is stealing kids and taking them to a dreamland (kind of Nightmare on Elm Street-ish). I spooked easily as a kid, but I think I would have taken a liking to Milk Man. The fruit and PacMan-esque face gave him an endearing quality, but kidnappers with candy can also be endearing.
I think you should be as scared of Milk Man as you would be of your knees or your parents, or if you had a baby. I still don’t quite know how Milk Man makes me feel, even after all this time. Each time I think about him, he has a slightly different identity. He’s shifty, and he doesn’t show the same side to the same people or the same side to the same person twice.

Deerhoof formed back in 1994 with a pretty different lineup than now and the band recently hit their 10th birthday. Did you do anything special?
I can’t be sure, but I think we might have jammed on [that day] to celebrate.

With the lineup changes, Deerhoof’s sound has grown over the past 10 years. All the different personalities coming and going must influence the evolution. It has certainly eluded description from the beginning.
The biggest change since I joined the band was Chris joining a couple of years ago. Playing with him has really affected how I think about music. In terms of accomplishments, I just feel happy that we’re still making music together. I still feel like we’ve just scratched the surface of what’s possible and we are all still great friends.

From personal experience I know that tight places even with the best of friends can cause some turmoil. Tours can be especially taxing on anyone’s sanity. How do you keep your friendships strong while you’re on the road?
I think that making sure that I’m healthy physically ensures that I won’t start to crumble in other ways. As soon as people get sick everything gets a little more complicated. Chris uses the cellular phone as a sort of cell regeneration device. I myself have a perfectly balanced character. So I don’t have to worry about bothering others.

Perfectly balanced character? How did you attain that?
California Air Powder Baths. They’re really great. It’s like you’re not even taking a bath.

Sounds like something Milk Man would be into. I think Milk Man would be a great video game character. He could take the place of countless video game villains or heroes and do a better job. Mario and Luigi have nothing on fruity impalements. I’d like to see Milk Man in a baseball game. He could be the secret character that is unlocked if the player can win the series with the Oakland A’s (I love Oak-town, but they need to step it up). After game seven, Milk Man would run onto the field, give Zito a high five and point at the camera and say “Yo, this is Milk Man. Don’t do drugs. Who’s next?” Then the game would start over and Milk Man would be the powerhouse.

Whether Deerhoof is the fish or the fisherman, they have always accomplished more than was asked. They have become a massive part of the independent music scene’s heartbeat, doing what they believe in, instead of the current hype. By creating the sounds they want and closing doors on producers, they have created a purity seldom found in music anywhere. They sound just as good coming through factory car stereos as they do throwing electro-art-pop at live audiences. Deerhoof is a band for everyone. Don’t be scared of “Milk Man,” he loves all people and is just helping Deerhoof spread a little joy, bloody fruit impalements and all.