With Three Reissues, Deerhoof Is Challenging Their Own Critical Narratives

Deerhoof is said to have grown more accessible over its twenty-five years. Greg Saunier and Satomi Matsuzaki couldn’t agree less.
With Three Reissues, Deerhoof Is Challenging Their Own Critical Narratives

Deerhoof is said to have grown more accessible over its twenty-five years. Greg Saunier and Satomi Matsuzaki couldn’t agree less.

Words: Max Freedman

November 19, 2019

Although streaming services have become the bread and butter of music consumption, many fans of the twenty-five-year-old, genre-less band Deerhoof might remember a time when that wasn’t the case. Late last decade and in the early ’10s, a sizeable chunk of the band’s mid-twenties to early-thirties listeners likely cultivated a taste in indie rock by listening to college radio stations, where a CD that a DJ randomly pulled from the shelf could open the door to a whole new world of sounds. The majority of these Deerhoof fans have ostensibly since moved on from college radio, but the many bands they first came to love during those years—Deerhoof included—remain near and dear to their hearts.

Or at least that’s how I came to appreciate Deerhoof: while hosting a show at my college radio station. The band’s eleventh studio album, 2012’s Breakup Song, arrived right as my sophomore year began. Shortly after the CD went into my station’s rotation, a fellow DJ played a simultaneously psychedelic and snarling ditty called “We Do Parties” on his show. I was immediately drawn into Deerhoof’s little world, and I began playing Breakup Song’s singles on my own show.

When Deerhoof followed Breakup Song with 2014’s La Isla Bonita, I became obsessed enough with the ferocious punk stomp of “Exit Only” that I decided to dive into the band’s back catalog. Much of what I heard from Breakup Song back through 2007’s Friend Opportunity, which ranks among the band’s most joyous and hooky albums, could be classified as melodic music comprised of abundant overdrive and twinkling synth bits, with frontperson Satomi Matsuzaki’s chipper, youthfully jubilant singing style as prominent in the mix as the instrumentation. 

It’s what I heard on the preceding albums that surprised me. 2005’s The Runners Four, the album many see as Deerhoof’s breakthrough, was an hour-long set including some songs focused on drummer Greg Saunier’s nasal whisper-singing, not to mention plenty of dryly recorded and arranged guitars. And even before that, 2004’s Milk Man strongly divided its songs between overdriven, mountainous power chord charges and eerily diminutive sketches. 

Critics have generally described Deerhoof as growing more approachable with time, with Friend Opportunity often marked as a notable turning point toward accessibility. The two albums Deerhoof released after La Isla Bonita, 2016’s The Magic and 2017’s Mountain Moves, seemingly cemented this narrative. But with the band’s vinyl reissues of debut album The Man, the King, the Girl, sophomore LP Holdypaws, and third album Halfbird (all of which have been remastered for the occasion), Deerhoof is here to set that notion ablaze. 

“For us, it was very much about music and not anti-music. Any of our records are as melodic as the others.” — Greg Saunier

“For us, it was very much about music and not anti-music,” Saunier says of the band’s first three albums. Although the reissues may at first cast Deerhoof as a band formerly interested in solely noise and not, say, the melancholic, pretty vocal lines of Mountain Moves’ “I Will Spite Survive,” Saunier insists there’s not a huge difference between then and now. “Any of our records are as melodic as the others,” he says.

Saunier’s take might surprise Deerhoof fans who first tuned in to the band at any point from Friend Opportunity onward: The reissues seemingly fossilize a noisy, thrillingly haphazard early era. Across The Man, The King, The Girl, a layer of grating, scratching fuzz blends tin-can drumming, squawking guitars, and Matsuzaki’s then-tentative singing into a decisively abrasive force. Holdypaws is clean as a whistle in comparison, lacking that rough-as-stone veil—but, thanks to discrepancies between the recording technologies of twenty years ago and today, still sounding as jagged as a hastily-made shank. Halfbird revisits the blown-out nature of The Man to an extent (plus it’s got a song titled “The Man The King The Girl and the Spider”), but it also previews some of the less explosive styles littered throughout Milk Man and The Runners Four

But back to those recording technology discrepancies. In Deerhoof’s early days, Saunier, Matsuzaki, and long-departed founding member Rob Fisk were just figuring out how to capture their music and make it sound good. They had no clue where to place their microphones (which were less microphones than what Saunier describes as “Walkman headphones that had broken in half”). They recorded everything to a basic four-track cassette. They used other tools that, as best heard on The Man, “made a really weird noise” that the band couldn’t quite eliminate.

Matsuzaki says that when she joined the band for The Man, she was learning how to sing and play bass in real-time. “I didn’t know how to play,” she says, “so I started just banging on it on the floor. I broke Rob’s bass! Then, I [properly] wore the bass and tried to play melodies.” She goes on to describe a learning process that completely tracks with the whimsical flora-and-fauna imagery that has long defined Deerhoof’s lyrics: “I had animal stickers all over my bass,” she says. “Where I played twice, lion; move down to panda, three times.” She was just as new to singing, and she now hears the earliest stages of her vocal style throughout all three reissues, an experience she describes as “strange.” 

“I had animal stickers all over my bass. Where I played twice, lion; move down to panda, three times.”
— Satomi Matsuzaki

When Matsuzaki first tried singing on The Man, she had newly emigrated from Japan to the U.S., where she felt “completely liberated.” She says this freedom ultimately led to the distinctive singing voice she’s developed over the course of Deerhoof’s existence, though she faced immense challenges at first. “For Holdypaws, I [did] so many vocal tryouts during that recording, and I just couldn’t get it right,” she says. “I was in the booth for hours and hours,” she continues as Saunier laughs despite not remembering this. Saunier will say, though, that he, Matsuzaki, and Fisk spent literal years perfecting every little piece of the first three albums, given their limited technological access. 

These days, Deerhoof’s music is delivered in much higher fidelity—not nearly polished, but certainly not as bristly as the first three albums. Thus, as I talk more with Saunier and Matsuzaki, I come to realize that what I and many other critics and listeners perceive as Deerhoof gradually embracing pop structures, accessibility, and melody over time isn’t quite that at all. We’re hearing Deerhoof embrace not changes in songwriting, but changes in technology—higher fidelity, newer instruments, microphones that aren’t literally broken Walkmen headphones—and firmer command of their instruments (especially in Matsuzaki’s case).

This realization raises questions not just about Deerhoof’s ascribed trajectory, but about the entire business of reissuing albums and writing about music. If Deerhoof hasn’t really changed that much, what does it mean for fans as the band renews attention to their first three albums? When listeners hear the many common threads these early albums do have with modern Deerhoof, does the widely established perception of Deerhoof growing more melodic and accessible with time become invalid?

“We’re actually more experimental now. We take more risks now, and we’re less shy about ideas with each other.” — Greg Saunier

Saunier says he’s fine with listeners and critics interpreting Deerhoof as they long have, but he nevertheless disagrees with the narrative that’s been applied to his band. When Saunier first relistened to The Man, The King, The Girl while contemplating whether Deerhoof should pursue these reissues, he says his first thought was, “This really doesn’t sound that different than the way we sound now… I mostly heard flaws in the recording [and not the songwriting].” It can also be easy to conflate the early albums’ harsh recording with musical experimentation, another idea that Saunier strikes down. “We’re actually more experimental now,” he says. “We take more risks now, and we’re less shy about ideas with each other.” 

In reissuing these three albums, Deerhoof reopens a never-ending, fascinating debate about music. The reissues provide a stark reminder that no opinion about a piece of art is objectively correct, fans are entitled to whatever feelings art gives them, and creators often impart emotions and meanings they never considered. Not that challenging long-held beliefs about an artist’s career path means those ideas are wholly incorrect—if anything, critical narratives about an artist’s work can help to guide new listeners through overwhelming discographies such as Deerhoof’s. They provide the kind of handbook that’s as helpful to someone who unknowingly grabbed a Deerhoof CD from a radio station’s shelves years ago as it is to someone just beginning their Deerhoof journey today.

New fans and longtime listeners will likely agree on one thing: The reissues showcase the Deerhoof sound crystallizing, a singular style the band has yet to abandon. “We somehow slipped through the narrowest little alley of some way that it could work,” says Saunier. “The result is that we’re still together.” FL