Deerhoof Has Defined DIY Weirdness for Two Decades

It’s a long way to the top if ya wanna rock ’n’ roll, sure, but if you’re more interested in just making sweet tunes, touring the world in a minivan, and keeping it real, you really don’t need much. Take it from Deerhoof, the strange noise pop quartet originally from San Francisco, who for the last 22 years have challenged the idea that DIY is just a phase.

Deerhoof have proven themselves to be one of the fiercest, most original indie bands to emerge in the last two decades, musically similar to those eclectic outfits that defies the category like Melt-Banana or Liars, overlaid with simplistic yet technical nursery rhyme rhythms á la Battles. They’ve toured with the Flaming Lips, Radiohead, and Beck, to name a few, but like a bonsai tree, Deerhoof have somehow managed to keep their affair decidedly compact.

Writing for The Talkhouse, Deerhoof guitarist Ed Rodriguez said, “I’ve only seen distant glimpses of the high-finance, spend-money-to-make-money world the media have chosen to present as the typical struggling artist’s path to a Grammy, immortality, or whatever other nonsense they want to hold up as every musician’s ultimate goal.” 
Even after so long, Deerhoof prefer a simple setup, packing very little gear into a small van. They often record, mix, and master themselves and the band has no manager. Instead, each member takes a different role — for example, Rodriguez books hotels. Other than their agent, publicist, sound tech, and label, Polyvinyl, everything is up to the band, including chores like accounting and reserving flights. They even run their own merch table.

“One of the main sort of philosophies of the band is that you should try and do as much yourself as you can,” Rodriguez explains, saying his advice has inspired some people. “A lot of younger people that hadn’t actually [lived] the tour life at all were excited to see that they might have nothing and see that we don’t really have that much more than nothing.”

Rodriguez was a longtime friend of Deerhoof before joining in 2008. He brings up bands like Mötley Crüe who declare themselves “not enemies, but not friends,” yet still play together for crowds of frothing fans.

“We enjoy each other’s company; otherwise, we couldn’t have existed for this long, you know?” Rodriguez says.

When we spoke to Rodriguez, he was in Brooklyn as Deerhoof was finishing up a week of rehearsals. The members of Deerhoof are now scattered across the country — Rodriguez lives in Portland, Oregon, while guitarist John Dietrich is in Albuquerque. Drummer Greg Sauiner and bassist/vocalist Satomi Matsuzaki reside in New York. The band still keeps in touch online, sending each other demos before coming together to record or tour.

Even with the distance, Deerhoof have remained prolific. The title of their 13th album, The Magic, is a reference to that sweet spot musicians look for when recording dozens of takes, but it could also relate to the tightknit, laidback attitude of the band. The city pop textures on “Acceptance Speech” express a doe-eyed humility for being able to have this bizarre “rockstar” lifestyle while the fast-paced rumble on “That Ain’t No Life To Me” lends the line “I don’t care how the other half lives / because I’ve seen how the other half dies.”

Deerhoof’s previous album, La Isla Bonita, was recorded in Rodriguez’s basement, but this one was tracked in a nearly empty office building owned by Neutral Milk Hotel drummer Jeremy Barnes’ father. (Dietrich and Barnes are good friends and released an album together recently.) Rodriguez describes this stiff, corporate environment as ideal compared to hiring studio time, saying, “It is completely inspiring, liberating. It’s just us —there’s no clock.”

Deerhoof is scheduled to play Crescent Ballroom on Saturday, July 16.

Correction, 7/13/2016: This article incorrectly stated that drummer Greg Sauiner and bassist/vocalist Satomi Matsuzaki are married and live together. They are not and do not. 

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Troy Farah is an independent journalist and documentary field producer. He has worked with VICE, Fusion, LA Weekly, Golf Digest, BNN, Tucson Weekly, and Phoenix New Times.
Contact: Troy Farah