Deerhoof guitarist John Dieterich wasn't quite sweating bullets, but he was a little worried. When BW spoke with him the band's tour was starting in only five days--a tour that will bring it to Boise for the first time Thursday, Sept. 27, to perform at Visual Arts Collective--and the musicians were still figuring out how to play the songs from the band's new album. Most bands would probably have gotten that out of the way before recording the album in the first place. But Deerhoof has never been most bands.
Over 18 years and 16-ish albums--"depends on where you start counting," said Dieterich--the band has recorded everything from improvisational noise to quirky garage rock to experimental pop. It has recorded everything in one live take and tossed out traditional instruments altogether to work entirely with samples.
You name it and Deerhoof probably tried it before it was cool. That's why in 2005 Pitchfork called it "the best band in the world." No pressure.
Unsurprisingly, for its new album, Breakup Songs, the band chose to again try something different: telecommuting.
"We have always written stuff separately, but then gotten together to work on it," said Dieterich. "But in this case, we were all living in three-to-four different cities, so we were just sending stuff out."
The various pieces of Breakup Song were recorded independently of one another and shared online between band members in Portland, Ore., New York City and Albuquerque, N.M., who would then tweak and add their own pieces. Dieterich said that while no one ever expected to get a song back just like they sent it out, that didn't mean everything went smoothly the whole time.
"We went through a lot of ideas of what it's supposed to be," said Dieterich. "And we'd decide this is what it's going to be and then work on it for months and then talk again on the phone or Skype or something and decide, 'Oh, it's not that at all. Let's do something else.' We kept changing our minds."
The general goal Deerhoof had for this album was to play up the rhythmic interaction the band has been developing in recent years.
"We wanted it to be dance music, but not genre dance music," said Dieterich. "Extremely high-intensity noise dance music."
But without being in the same room, Dieterich admits it was a bigger challenge.
"God only knows what we ended up with," he said.
Had Dieterich consulted with various deities, they likely would have informed him that the album didn't land far from Deerhoof's goal. It opens with a crunchy drum and bass groove that immediately sets the head bobbing, though the bobbing gets a little trickier as the beat is dissected in the middle of the song.
Following that is "There's That Grin," which apes the approach of early, rudimentary hip-hop mixed with lo-fi indie rock. "Zero Seconds Pause" sounds like it was cannibalized from an early rave experiment. And then there is one of the album's most unusual tracks, "The Trouble with Candyhands," which juxtaposes a mambo beat and horns with noisy, indie rock guitars and then a peppy chorus reminiscent of mid-'90s pop ska.
Though it may not be an obvious connection sonically, the band has listed The Rolling Stones as a primary influence.
"Ed"--Rodriguez, the band's guitarist--"and I both came from free improvisation with rock instruments," said Dieterich. "In the case of someone like The Rolling Stones, they developed a style of never playing a song the same way twice. ... It's a form that takes an incredible amount of discipline and sort of commitment to material. You have to really understand how to work within this stuff in order to be creative. There's plenty of free-improvised music that comes out pre-canned sounding like every other piece of improvised music. It ceases to become a spontaneous thing when you express that the sound of it is X, when in fact it could be open."
But the value Deerhoof places on free-wheeling improv would also seem to stand at odds with the boxed-in recording strategy it employed for Breakup Song. But Dieterich sees it as a central.
"Spontaneity is absolutely necessary to compose," said Dieterich. "If you don't have spontaneity, you'll never compose anything."
He said he's lost count of the number of times when random experiments or goofs ended up as the finished product.
"I'll bring something in and people will say, 'Oh, that's perfect,'" he said. "It's like this, literally, incredibly rough demo where I never intended for anything, just to show the basic idea, and they're like, 'No, don't change that.'"
The band has recorded long-distance before, but Dieterich said the scope of Breakup Song was far more extreme.
"The last one we ended up eventually getting together for a month or two to hash things out," he said. "But in this case, it was like a week. And in that week, we had to finish the songs, mix it and master it. So it was pretty intense."
That is why the band is just now getting around to learning how to play its own material for a tour.
"Things sound great so far. I'm actually super-surprised," he said. "A lot of these songs, one person records the parts. And that's cool. But there's a feel that happens when the four of us are playing together. It's more fun. And I think it sounds better."