Since beginning Deerhoof 16 years ago in San Francisco, drummer Greg Saunier has favored recording and mixing the band’s albums himself, first on four-track cassettes and later on computers. Yet many Deerhoof albums—especially 2004’s Milk Man and the new Deerhoof Vs. Evil—boast capable and vivid production that only throws the members’ gleefully fractured songwriting into sharper relief. Saunier explains that for Deerhoof, “the process of recording and the process of mixing is almost synonymous with the process of writing the song”—that is, both are collaborative, messy, and often without an immediately clear sense of what the end result should be. Judging by the way the new album handles unexpected turns, like the acoustic romance of “No One Asked To Dance” and the oddball duet “Must Fight Current,” Deerhoof’s approach to recording has evolved alongside the rest of its creative processes over the years. As the band prepared for a tour that comes to the Marquis Theater on Monday, Feb. 21, Saunier spoke with The A.V. Club about how DIY recording can yield both surprise and an utter lack of it.
The A.V. Club: What was your first experience recording yourself?
Greg Saunier: It was well before Deerhoof. I had a cassette tape machine in elementary school. I was always super into recording my voice, if nothing else. Just the fact that I could hear it back was totally amazing to me. My friend had a four-track in high school, and I used to go to his house, and we would make songs together and overdub things. I was hooked instantly. I’ve always played, or tried to play, a lot of instruments, so it was really natural for me to want to be able to overdub over myself. That basically continued all the way through the first three Deerhoof albums. Up until about 2000, I was still using cassette four-track for everything.
When I was having to do stuff on four-track, I always felt like I was fighting against it. It really helped me get an idea of what I wanted. It made me not overwhelmed by the possibilities on a computer. There’s so many things you can do to tinker around with sounds, completely at a moment’s notice without having to set anything up or attach any cables or untangle anything or ask the neighbors’ permission. But the thing is, that wealth of ridiculous possibilities can be kind of confusing if you don’t really know what you want. I feel like because of all that time I spent in mortal combat with this four-track—where I won and it got thrown in the dumpster—I basically trained my ears to know what they want. Once I got to the computer, I didn’t feel overwhelmed. I felt like, “Ah, at last I can do this thing that I’ve been wanting to do.”
AVC: Does recording yourself mean you have to have more discipline during the recording or songwriting process?
GS: I think in our case, it’s probably meant the exact opposite, and that’s why we’ve chosen to do it over and over again. You have to have self-discipline if you’re under the gun, if you’re paying by the hour and you’re paying engineers to help you out and you’re in some recording studio. Boy, you better know what you’re planning to do. You better have your songs written, no foolin’ around. Otherwise you’re just wasting money. I think one of the biggest reasons that we’ve chosen to do self-recording is that we didn’t have to be organized, and we didn’t have to know what we were doing. Which, lo and behold, we have no idea what we’re doing ever, anyway. For us, it was a very natural method, because it allowed us basically as much time as we wanted. We didn’t have to worry about the clock. We could be as disorganized and inefficient and trial-and-error as we wanted.
AVC: What’s a song on the new album that you think improved because of that process?
GS: It’s not a matter of improving the song, it’s a matter of forming the song in the first place. When one of us brings a song in, oftentimes it can be so sketchy. Or sometimes it seems like it’s very finished and composed, but the composer only has that misconception that it’s finished until he or she shows it to the other three, and then very quickly the composer is un-burdened of that idea that the song’s finished, because the other three have a lot of ideas—“This part doesn’t work,” and the part that the composer thought was just some throwaway is the only part that the rest of the band likes, and “We should re-arrange these sections,” and, “Oh, that melody doesn’t work at all, I can’t sing that.”
You were asking for an example. Maybe “Super Duper Rescue Heads!” When I wrote it, I had a chord progression, a melody, and some words. But I had no idea what the arrangement should be, and we tried so many different things, just constantly experimenting with different tempos and instrumentation—“Should I tune the snare high or should I tune it lower? How about we stuff a bunch of paper in between the strings on [John Deiterich’s] guitar and give it this sort of plinky sound?” Over a period of months, we’d come back to it, and say, “Well, let’s try that one part again of that song.” And then trying to piece it together in a computer is kind of painstaking. Really, up to the last minute, it felt like, “I’m not even sure I have a song here.” And then finally something will click or gel.
AVC: Are there any songs on the new album that didn’t change much as you finished them?
GS: One of the songs that [vocalist and bassist Satomi Matsuzaki] wrote was “C’Moon,” sort of a slow-ish, kind of mysterious-sounding song. That song was identical to the way that she wrote it. I had recorded just a drumbeat, and it’s the drumbeat that you hear on the finished song. I sent her this drumbeat in an e-mail. I was in America, she was in Japan. She wrote a song with bass and voice over this drumbeat. With her tape recorder, she recorded herself playing along with her laptop—this song is a complete idea, it’s finished. Really, once she came back to America and we could really record this stuff, we didn’t even re-record the drums. We recorded the bass and the vocal, and then John came up with guitar parts that he wanted to add.
AVC: What would you say to a band that wants to try more self-recording?
GS: In many ways, I think it’s a beautiful thing and I really recommend it. It’s just kind of a responsibility thing. You can’t fall back on anybody else to make it okay. It’s either you do it, or it doesn’t get done. Maybe it’s a kind of pressure, and maybe not everybody responds well to that. It always lit a fire under me. [When we were recording our first album, The Man, The King, The Girl] my bandmate, the guy who I formed Deerhoof with, quit the band. And you’re thinking, “This is pretty catastrophic, in a band that only has two or three people in it,” and yet that was one of those first moments where I said to myself, “Well, I can give up, or I can try to make it happen on my own and make an album without anyone’s help. It’s not up to anyone else to make sure that it’s good.”
At the same time, doing DIY can be kind of a torment. Not just because it’s a lot of work, but more that you almost have to force yourself to be neurotic, because you’re playing multiple roles. You play something, and you want to play freely and un-self-consciously, but two seconds later you’re listening to a playback because, suddenly, you’re the producer. You’re judging what you’ve done. It’s insanity-inducing. I’m lucky, though, in a band where we have each other to lean on. So when I say “do-it-yourself,” I really mean “do-it-ourself.” We’re DIO.