Love Erupted on the Streets! Deerhoof's Greg Saunier Foretells Our Futures

When a band helps create the Indie music scene, and then remains Indie for so long that they cover ground that even other Indie bands fear to tread, then that band must be Deerhoof. 

Spiraling through various permutations since their inception in 1994, Deerhoof assumed their current form in 1997 and have since released at least 15 studio albums, culminating in their hot off the presses delivery of Future Teenage Cave Artists.

But hold on, because there's another record coming, and another one. It's that kind of era for the band, according to founding member, drummer, composer, and songwriter, Greg Saunier.

Saunier has a lot to say about the importance of the times we are living in and how that all relates to music, and a lot of that gets said in various ways on the new album, but we're happy to publish the addendum to those thoughts in our substantial interview with him below.

Hannah Means-Shannon: Do you have any Tower stories?

Greg Saunier: I grew up as a kid, maybe 45 minutes from DC, and that was one of the early Tower Records in DC. We’d always make a special family trip, and we’d spend at least an hour in there. It was crazy. All the employees knew what the records were. They’d say, “The mastering on this label is always a little too trebley.” It was the most arcane knowledge, nothing like going to Best Buy or something for the same records.

It was like a local mom and pop store that specialized in one genre, expanded into multiple rooms. I always thought it was really cool. And I’ve always loved that it’s still in Japan. We’ve toured in Japan, and our bass player in Japanese. I think one of our first shows in Japan, actually, was at a Tower Records. The Shibuya one.

HMS: Oh, yes, I’ve been to that one. It’s giant. I used to go to the one in Lincoln Center in New York, too. The most famous location, probably, was Sunset Boulevard in LA.

GS: Well, I moved to New York, but then to LA, and I was too late for both. I think since lockdown, Bandcamp has raised awareness in peoples’ consciousness, so that people other than musicians are becoming more aware that musicians need to eat. They don’t get paid for recordings, and they don’t get paid for touring when they can’t tour, so that only leaves doing the background music for a Charmin commercial, or whatever. Some artists are willing to do that. Other pathetic ones, like us, aren’t willing to do that. Treehuggers! Other social justice warrior treehuggers like ourselves not willing to do Charmin commercials!

HMS: How dare you!

Well, this current situation has clearly not scared you all because not only have you just released an album, but you’ve just announced another one.

GS: Yeah, and we have another one on the way! It’s totally done. We have another one completely in the can, coming out in September.

HMS: For one thing, I do know you are very prolific…

GS: This is a new level.

HMS: …But how did you manage, practically speaking, to do that? Were they all recorded before lockdown?

GS: Yes. The live album, obviously, is cheating. That one was recorded quite a while ago. The one we have coming out in September was recorded all in one day last August. But Cave Artists, the one that came out recently in retail, that’s the one that took two or three years of tinkering to end up with a final result. I’m not saying it’s better for that reason, maybe it’s worse for that reason.

HMS: That one seems to me to be the next big building block in the band’s work, in the history of your music.

GS: [Laughs] Wow!

HMS: There was also an essay published on the Joyful Noise website. And that was specific and very in-depth. I thought, “Well, no one has to ask what this is about now.”

GS: Yeah!

HMS: How did you tailor this album to address so much of what’s happening right now, or were you already kind of ahead of it somehow? I’ve spoken to several musicians who seemed to anticipate elements of what we’re going through right now.

GS: I think everybody was ahead of it. Anybody who’s been following a little bit of news. I admit that maybe it was a little hard to tease out the future if you’re only taking in dominant news sources. During the time we were doing Cave Artists, it was mainly focused on Russia-gate. If you had the misfortune of only having major corporate news as your source of what’s going on, then you were at enough of an informational disadvantage that you might not have seen what was coming. Which I think enough people are doing. But if you were also following other sources of news, you were maybe aware that DOOM was on its way in various forms, and still is.

It had to do with everything we’re seeing now: an unstainable level of police violence against people of color. It had to do with climate change. It had to do with unsustainable increase in wealth inequality. Actually, of course it made it into the news, because Bernie Sanders was talking about it, so he made some issues more mainstream that were maybe a little more hidden before that. The cat’s out of the bag now. We didn’t feel like we could make an overly topical record that was specific, like about what COVID-20 was going to be like next year, or how exactly how much of LA’s city budget would go to the police, or how much of our taxes would end up going to billionaire bailouts or the military. To get really topical about it is hard.

Because the future is so insanely uncertain. But we knew, just like most of our friends, that it’s going to become harder and harder to be a human being on planet Earth. Survival is threatened on many fronts. Rather than treat it as news topics, we treated it as, “How does that make us feel? What does that do to our internal life? How does that affect our dreams, whether our hopes or our literal dreams?” Some days you can manage to kind of relegate it to the back of your mind, but it’s always there, this stress.

I remember it from the 80’s, from the height of the Cold War, wondering, “Wow, is nuclear war going to happen this week?” There’s a similar feeling, but now it’s expanded. You can’t really avoid it for terribly long. I think, actually, with so much free time on everybody’s hands the past three months, I think people are having a difficulty going for a few minutes, without thinking, “Wait a second. We’re all going to die.” [Laughs]

With that hovering over you, it begs a lot of questions: What’s the point of relationships? What’s the point of making plans? What’s the point of working? What’s the point of music? It’s not like we end up with some answer at the end of the record, but maybe the record is about how that feels. To be forced at gunpoint to confront those questions, like all day every day, you know?

HMS: A sense of being not at all prepared to answer them either. Of having put those questions off before now.

GS: Yes. Feeling not ready. Even if you try, how are you going to be? One of the songs, “Oh, Ye, Saddle Babes” is kind of about that. There is a thread of NRA fans who would say, “If I had been there and if I had been packing, I would’ve saved everybody. It wouldn’t have happened.” Whether or not one can stomach watching police murder videos, and I can’t, I read descriptions of them and I read endless reactions to them. There’s no way to know how you’re going to behave when you’re within five minutes of dying, or you’re literally faced with your own termination.

You can make up any fantasy you want, but you don’t really know. I think this is the Cassandra complex that the entire human race is going through right now, because we can all see the news, we can all see the science, saying: here are five to ten things that might terminate the species in the next couple decades. And yet, how many of us are empowered in any way to do the slightest thing about it. We keep reading about it, but we end up in the same boat.

Like everybody, we think, “Let’s plant more. Let’s plant our microgreens.” And Deerhoof is trying to rejigger our career and churn out records all the time instead of going on tour. And we’re trying to do remote collaborations with friends and other artists. But there is no way to prepare for that. Literally the only way you can prepare is, like, “Ring around the Rosie.” That kind of preparation. Children’s songs that prepare you for death, which is inevitable, or at least prepare you for life’s trouble, and for life’s challenges, which make no sense.

Fairy Tales, I think they counts as much. The mental preparation comes from, in a sense, art. Art that touches you in a deep way and sticks with you. And may be able to be an archetype, or a source of survival strength. I don’t know.

I’m not saying that Deerhoof is as good as, “Ring around the Rosie”! That’s a classic. That’s in the top ten, maybe.

HMS: [Laughs] A gold standard.

For Cave Artists, you mention in the essay that there’s a narrator’s voice, and you point out the occurrence of narrator voices on previous albums, which is really interesting. Thank you for doing that. Then peoples’ suspicions can be confirmed about whether there were narrators before. But storytelling in an overt way: what kind of value do you think that has in comparison to creating art without that element?

GS: That’s a pretty deep question. For us, actual narratives have always been there in the background on all our records. The listener may not perceive it. The listener may or may not even sense it. And of course, if they buy the record at Tower Records, they are more likely to, since then they are listening to the record from top to bottom.

But if they buy it as isolated tracks, MP3s, or streaming on a shuffling algorithm, your chances of seeing a through-line or albums as complete works is drastically reduced. I think with Deerhoof, as with many people working in any medium of art, you can sometimes sense that a narrator is there, but you can’t be totally confident that a narrator is trustworthy.

I’m kind of a Kubrick nut, and I feel like that’s one of the things that is special about his movies, and really affects me a lot. Many of them do have narrators, or voice-overs. I think, “I don’t know if I believe this narrator. I think they aren't telling the truth, actually. In Clockwork Orange, the main character is doing voice-over narration, and you know that character is untrustworthy. He’s in the story. And in Barry Lyndon, there’s an anonymous British voice, but a lot of the time, what he’s saying is contradicted by the images that we’re seeing. He makes is sound like everything’s a big joke, but we see the characters, and it’s real and emotional for them. So you’re getting this twist, this irony.

I feel that way about the way that Satomi [Matsuzaki] delivers things. She’s our bassist, but she also sings, and I think she has a sort of inscrutable way of delivering melodies and lyrics, so that you can’t totally decide whether she means it or not. Or whether there’s an element of sarcasm. Or whether it’s pure, sweet, non-ironic statement of fact, or whether it’s kind of a poetic, intentionally wrong narration of whatever the story is, or whoever the characters are.

Also, on a lot of our records, including this one, sometimes the voices are not narrators, but are characters. A lot of the songs on this album have to do with generation communication breakdowns. There’s the classic Millennial versus Baby Boomer conflict. The child seems to be the one working harder for the safety and responsibility of both, which is an inversion of the roles that we’re traditionally taught.

Nowadays, it feels like, if it’s the Baby Boomers who are the ones promising to prevent universal healthcare and promising to keep growing fossil fuels, and factory farming, and promising to prevent police defunding, etc. And then the Millennials are the ones who seem to be the most well-informed of all the generations, because they are not getting their news just from CNN, but from multiple news sources with fact-checking. Then, have they become orphans? Have they become the parents?

The Flower Child generation sold out and became corporate tools because they thought that they had to. They thought that was the only option for survival. In the end, it’s like, “You didn’t have to sell out, actually. You were onto something in 1968. And you shouldn’t have sold out.” But how are you going to say that to someone at the end of their life? “That life you just lived? It was all wrong. It was all a mistake.” So it’s that conversation. So there are characters trying to have that conversation with each other on the record, which is also kind of a doomed conversation.

HMS: I saw a meme that took this one step further, a cartoon. It had a big dog, who was a Millennial, and a little dog, who was a Zoomer. And the big dog said something like, “I protec baby!” And the little dog said something like, “We’re going to dismantle the patriarchy and restore the ecological balance of this planet!”

GS: Yeah, exactly! That’s fantastic.

HMS: In the lyric video for the title song of the new album, there’s really a sense of the cave, and the settings. I love the layers of acetate for the words coming up.

GS: Our friends at the label did that. It surprised us. We knew it was going to be a lyric video, but we thought it was just going to be like, you know, some computer fonts. I thought, “Whoah, this is awesome!”

HMS: I think it does really highlight the contradiction of the narrator that you mentioned, because I think for the first part, and the majority of the song, I feel like it’s presenting one version of the future. Then towards the end, there’s a chorus that comes in and seems to undercut it in a darker way. You realize then that the first part was sort of aspirational rather than true. And that the second part is the uncertainty factor.

GS: Totally. I don’t think it’s limited to Millennials, or to Zoomers. I think that Baby Boomers were just as capable of feeling a revolutionary spirit, and pre-Baby Boomers. One of the most famous examples in American History would be the Civil Rights Movement, which was before Baby Boomers. Martin Luther King Jr. was born in 1929. It’s the idea that you are protecting everyone else only by breaking the rules. If you follow the rules, you are condemning the human race to termination. So, you have to be a rule-breaker, rebel, or revolutionary if you care.

Taking part in a protest here in LA was many things. Cars were getting set on fire right in front of me. Among the things it was, was very beautiful and very heartwarming, because you realize that every person present, total strangers, but you knew that every one of them shared the same value, which was about life. Then you think to yourself, “This is so weird that this never happens. Why is this a rare experience to know that you are in a group of people, and know that they all share the same value?”

Then you noticed old, used up police cars placed suspiciously close to the path of the march, and you wonder why they are there. Then, of course, someone sets it on fire, and you see that it’s bait. It’s an excuse for police to come in with batons, rubber bullets, and tear gas. It makes you start to think, “What actually is the thing here that is the greatest danger? What is the thing that hired bureaucrats with weapons are charged with preventing at all costs?” And I’m thinking, “Maybe it’s joy. Maybe it’s togetherness.” That’s the thing that’s most threatening and you can’t have. I would say the same thing about media portrayals, which always describe these demonstrations as “unrest” rather than “eruptions of love”.

What news anchor is going to come out with the story, “Today, love erupted on the streets.” But it did! That’s what it was. That wouldn’t be wrong if they said that. But politicians, and corporations, and media, don’t have the language to describe human occurrences in terms of joy or love. They just don’t have that vocabulary.

To prioritize love would be to break the rules on many levels. In almost any walk of life. In almost any area or on almost any platform. Either you’re going to get laughed off the pundit show or you are going to have guns pointed at you if you are demonstrating love on the street. You’re going to get teargas thrown at you.

To even say that the song is “aspirational” is taking it to far, actually. Because to say that love is some kind of bizarre, arcane deal--that’s just as much human nature as violence. It’s not that violence is what human beings are really about. But love is just some abstraction? No. Obviously, any of the principles around which our society seems to be organized, whether it’s violence, greed, litigation, or competition, take the opposite of any of those words, like generosity, love, compassion, fun, those are all human nature too! Those happen naturally, too. Those are just discouraged.

I think this song is about what I feel. I’m feeling all of these things, but in order to demonstrate them, I have to literally break the rules. In order to live happily, I literally have to be an outlaw. And then, the end is just, “But you stopped me.” You’re working up this level of excitement about it, but once again, the bubble gets popped. In our lifetime, we keep seeing these glimmers of societal transformation, and always something swoops in to coopt it or twist it, or deflate it, or distract it. And it hasn’t been able to happen. The energy gets sapped. And the changes that are obvious and need to be implemented ASAP get stopped.

HMS: Is this what you refer to in the essay as “the failed attempts to save the world”? Or is that more like the other side, that following the rules is an “attempt to save the world”?

GS: That’s why the record is maybe a little bit sci-fi or dystopian, and maybe it’s a reason that we have felt internally compelled to move on to the next record and move on to the next record after that. It’s kind of a dark place to be hanging out in. We were trying to imagine if there was a threshold beyond which healing was impossible. Maybe survival was still minimally possible for some, but a lot of what you hoped would come true, didn’t.

I shouldn’t say that that kind of post-apocalyptic scenario is imaginary. For many people, that post-apocalyptic scenario is already existing, or has existed for generations for their segment of society. But that’s why we didn’t want to get too topical or too specific, but there is a feeling in a post-apocalyptic mindset that you must make do. And you must scale back your comforts.

There are things that you were promised as a child that did not materialize and are not going to materialize. There are things that your parents had that you’re not going to have. It’s very common. But some of what you had as a child wasn’t comforts, some of it was dreams. Like you said, aspirations, or truths that really need to be allowed to be enacted.

I think that line in the bio is ambiguous, because I think I could deal with letting go of comforts, I could let go of a lot of traditions. I have to, whether I want to or not. At the same time, I don’t want to be defeated. I don’t want values to be defeated, I guess. I don’t want the side that is trying to get me to stop caring to succeed and for me not to care anymore.

HMS: So to survive, but not live?

GS: Right, exactly. I’m making it sound like we planned all this out. What we did is we recorded a bunch of songs and I think the songs struck us in a certain way that made us feel certain feelings. There are a zillion outtakes that we didn’t end up using, but the ideas that we kept turning over in our minds, and the things that kept haunting us, and we kept coming back to were concerned with that tension between living vs. surviving.

Some days you feel like just a skeleton or a shell, and other days you feel a lot of spirit or energy and you want to act and to create something better. And other times you feel like this scrawny, mangy, lonely, wandering, on-edge kind of soul or something. I think that’s what a lot of people feel right now, “Do we give up or not? Are we done? Do I need to keep torturing myself with the daily news? Can I just give up on humanity so I don’t have to mess with that anymore?”

And that could happen over a period of years, over a series of generations, or in the 8 minutes it takes for a knee to suffocate you. I’m not pretending that I know what that feels like, but I’m just asking, at what point do you give up? Or do you? Is life itself fading, or is the life of an empire fading out? What does that feel like? Maybe we’re just asking, “What does that feel like?” I don’t know.

HMS: If I had talked to you about the previous album, I probably would have asked you something like, “What do you think the value of disruption is?”

What I would have meant, then, is something different than what I must mean now by the same question. Now I mean, “What is the value of disruption now that we have it?” Previously, I would have meant, “What’s the value of disruption in society, sort of David Lynch-style?”

GS: Yes! Sure.

HMS: What’s the value of it now that we have it? Are there opportunities in there?

GS: It’s an amazing question because every once in a while, I go to the iTunes store and just start previewing stuff, wondering what came out lately. I just did that last night, and it had been awhile. Something that struck me is that anybody can write a song on a topic, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that is disrupted anything. I don’t know if I was surprised or un-surprised to find that it still felt that there were about the same proportion of releases that were legitimate music where the purpose was something else, but not disruption. There’s an infinite number of purposes for music in the history of humankind. Many of them are touched upon in the iTunes music store!

But still there was a proportion there that was disruptive. And I think we’re all seeing the same thing on social media, too. It’s not that everyone is now changing from complacent to disruptive, but a tipping point was reached by a series of preexisting unsustainable circumstances that very nearly tipped it. A revolution of some sort was this close to happening, but then Bernie didn’t win. Then, out of nowhere, a pandemic. Then, everyone’s realization, “You know that joke I used to make about how the government doesn’t care about us? Did you see they gave us $1200 for four months?” [Laughter] And then at the end of those four months, you’re out. You’re evicted. And guess who’s going to evict you? The police.

Then suddenly there’s this thing. It was like a perfect storm. All this unprocessed grief, where we lost more Americans in the past month than we lost in all of Vietnam. And we’re pretending that it’s not even happening. There’s no mourning, no collective anything. What do you do with these feelings?

The George Floyd video, and the timing of it, meant that the circumstances disrupted enough peoples’ slumber where larger and larger demographic groups in the country began to understand that it was also they who were going to be falling through the cracks, not just black people. Then you cross the line.

I’ve seen in social media that there’s a panic response, and of course everyone wants to be disruptive, but if you’ve had no practice at being disruptive, what you have to offer is thin. So suddenly what you’re seeing more and more is that everybody is quoting Angela Davis. Everybody is quoting Audre Lorde. People are rediscovering generations of humans who had devoted their whole lives to various causes, antiracism, police abolition, Civil Rights, the dismantling of our Police State, etc.

I sort of felt the same thing when I went to the iTunes store. There’s always this layer that is not new. It has existed for a long time. One of the many purposes of music that some people have devoted themselves to has been disruptive and suddenly it’s like we’re realizing that there’s so much to learn from that. And I think we’re only at the beginning, maybe, of a more massive appreciation for people who have been dismissed, stuck at the back of the bus, who actually are the only ones who do know how to survive. They are the ones who have been traumatized. Traumatized enough that they can’t even relax enough to get PTSD because the trauma never ends.

Not like, “Oh, it was a rough day yesterday. Now I’m fine and I’m going to recover.” No, they’ve literally been living 400 years of non-stop trauma. You realize that there’s a wealth of knowledge there that many of us do not have, and now are panicking and desperately need. You realize that the Queens are the ones who have been saying it all along, who’ve been living it all along.

The one other thing I’ll say is that it’s not only up to the artists themselves to decide whether their work is disruptive. It’s also up to the listener to decide whether the artist is disruptive. And I also think we’re at the beginning of a different lens being used, a different set of ears being used. We may be able to hear, for instance, the theoretically least disruptive music in recent history, which is black Pop music of the last 50 or 60 years, and we might with new ears, realize:

“Let’s listen to this properly. While we were just using this to entertain ourselves, or to hide injustice, or to smooth over the rough edges of our capitalism, by giving us the impression that black people have an equal chance, with new ears we can go back and find the double meanings. And understand just how profound it is that a part of this society, that is the most oppressed, is the one to most voluminously, and successfully, and beautifully, create the most loving body of work.”

Cornel West was saying the other day, “Black people could have started their own KKK. Then you’d really be in trouble.” But what did they do instead? Then you look back and you have Soul music, and Rock ‘n Roll, and Blues, and Jazz. The gift that they gave to the human race, the whole world, and continue to give, decade after decade is, like, WOW!

Maybe it’s the listener’s turn to understand what the art is doing. It’s not just the artist’s turn to write George Floyd songs, though that’s fine. But it’s everybody’s turn to take seriously the deep meaning of the work done by people who had, and have been, devoting themselves to love as a value versus whatever is normally promoted, like greed.

HMS: I agree with you. And a lot of stuff is coming up for rerelease every month that has never been available, or has never been on vinyl before, and I love the fact that these rediscoveries of a lot of this important work are now possible.


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