“My passion for music was uncontrollable, even as a kid,” says Saunier, whose sentences are often punctuated by a gleeful giggle. “I always knew it was what I wanted to do, even as I became politicised and saw my friends going into what seemed more useful pursuits like being a doctor, politician or working for a foundation. Nevertheless, I felt compelled to do it. I knew there was no way I was going to be happy unless I was making music.
“What I have found – and largely this has been taught to me by our own fans – is that music does serve some kind of purpose in people’s lives and it is important and it has existed for a millennia across the globe. It’s practice for interacting on other levels and [in other] aspects of life,” he expresses, adding that he just enjoyed an improvisation session with clarinet player, Ben Goldberg.
Despite the mind-blowing showcase of drumming that Saunier demonstrates at each Deerhoof gig, drumming has always come second to songwriting. “I haven’t lived in a place since the beginning of the band where I ever had a house where I could set up drums,” he chuckles. “Drums isn’t a daily thing for me – songwriting or considered music-making as a compositional thing is something that’s a daily thing for me. I’m often writing songs on guitar or in my head where I have a vocal melody.”
It’s an approach that’s similar to one of Saunier’s all-time favourite drummers, Charlie Watts. “Charlie uses his drumming to punctuate a phrase or something special that just happened on the guitar,” he enthuses. “He’s very much reacting to the playing and energy, and I really admire that very much. He’s all about what’s happening around him and not about what he’s doing. I try to be as unconscious of what I’m playing as I can because I want to really be listening to everyone else and riding the weight that they’re creating on whatever waters we’re sailing across. Sometimes I’m creating my own ripples in there too, of course, but a lot of times, it’s an automatic or intuitive reaction to what I’m already hearing.
“I feel like my passion is more for music making and creating some tense human interaction,” Saunier muses. “I love the drums, but sometimes we switch instruments in the band and it’s amazing how sometimes it doesn’t really feel that different. The energy and your own attitude and personality seem to have its own expression or explosion in the band regardless of whether you’re on this or that drum set or playing guitar or singing.”
The thematic vision of Deerhoof’s tenth album, Deerhoof vs. Evil, began to form after Saunier read an article about Poland’s reputation as “the merriest barracks in Europe” under Soviet domination, which accentuated that interrelation between light and darkness, order and chaos, good and evil. “As a thematic idea, it was trying to explore that particular type of humour… of being able to smile even when things are going very poorly around you that go back to Poland’s history. I see the same thing in the blues.
“People often describe the blues as sad music but the blues music that I love the most is often quite funny,” says Saunier. “The blues aren’t so much an expression of sadness as they are an expression of a way out of sadness, which is a perspective on sadness. It’s a way of laughing through tragedy; it’s a way of putting perspective on the trials and tribulations that life throws at you.
“I don’t consider myself to be someone who’s gone through any kind of real difficulty in life compared to slavery, racism, war or totalitarian governments. Nevertheless, the wisdom that comes across in certain cultural expression – whether music or other art forms or even in just a conversation with a group of homeless people outside a venue where you just played a show – those kind of things teach you something and stick with you and they can have an impact somewhere deep inside that trains you as a human being for how to live, how to feel and think when you do come into contact with your own miniscule adversities.
“I wanted to somehow allude to that on our album – it’s sort of an exaggerated idea of us meeting adversities because how can a rock band fight actual evil in the real world? How are instruments going to do anything to rid disease or stop any war or build a house for anybody or feed anyone?”
Acknowledging the dilemma/challenge is a good start. Fans will be glad to know that ideas for the new album are already flourishing. “We’re at that point where we’re starting to plot what our next move might be for our next record,” Saunier informs, “so we’re in that free brain-storm/let your imagination wander phase and looking for inspiration somewhere. What I feel like I’ve learned over the years is not so much how to write songs, but how to recognise when an idea has just presented itself to you. It may come in a form of something that looks nothing like a song or idea, but if you’re aware enough, you’ll notice and go: ‘wait a second, this could actually work’.”
The songwriting process and exchange of ideas between the four band members allows for relentless unpredictability. “At any time during the process, any of the songs on any of our records might be on the chopping block and feel like it’s just not working,” says Saunier. “Sometimes a song comes together in seconds and other times it just take months. And you never know what it’s going to be… all four of us write songs and so when any one of us comes to the other three with a song, the other three have no idea what to expect and we haven’t fallen into any kind of pattern of how to write a song together or how to arrange it or agree on it.
“It just sort of feels like starting a band over from scratch every time there’s a new song on the table,” Saunier laughs. “It can be quite stressful when a person’s sort of bearing their soul in a way – you’re kind of embarrassed a bit, a little sheepish perhaps, about this weird song that you just came up with and want to show to everybody else. Often the other people’s reaction is: ‘it doesn’t make any sense to me – it doesn’t even sound like music’,” he relates, laughing. “And it’s like ‘oh’… people’s creativity and interrelation to their ego is a fragile thing. Luckily, everybody in the band is actually quite supportive and we have a lot of patience to try and make each other’s songs work.
“For the composer, it feels like their song is really getting put through a meat grinder – it can come out sounding so different to the way they initially intended it,” Saunier conveys. “Sometimes I’ll write a song but not have lyrics, and Satomi might write lyrics for the song and I won’t have any idea what the song’s about – and when she writes lyrics for it, it’s as if she can see the meaning in the song even more than I could, even though I’ve been working on it for months. And that’s an amazing gift – that a band member can show you their love of your song and can even understand it more deeply than you do.”
A few months ago, Deerhoof took part in the Congotronics vs. Rockers Tour in which western groups collaborated with Congolese street musicians. “We showed up for the first day of rehearsal in Brussels in May, and we were a week away from a show in a 2000 capacity venue on a big festival,” Saunier chuckles, “and all the bands were meeting each other for the very first time, and came from all over the world. The ten Congolese musicians did not speak a word of English; nobody in charge, no band leader, no material,” he recalls with laughter. “It was sort of these 15 hour rehearsals for the next week. It was an incredible trial by fire experience, and a challenge on so many levels.
“I felt we learned so much from each other about how to interact with other human beings,” Saunier relates. “At first, I found myself being overly enthusiastic. It seems normal to me to express excitement, but I think the Congolese people tended to think that I must be pulling their leg because anybody who would act that positive probably can’t be trusted, like some kind of ‘yes, ma’am’ goofball. But over the month we spent together, we all got to know each other and had these very intense and amazing experiences.
“The concerts were really on edge and tense, and not at all your smooth, world-music groove concert at all. It was really chaotic and there was internal musical struggle and sometimes personal struggle to try and make something that would work… a lot of headstrong people in that band who are used to be total perfectionists on their own. I hope we play more shows this coming summer.”