WHERE MUSIC LIVES
Deerhoof dude Greg Saunier on how all-ages is the gig that gives and gives
(originally published in Arthur No. 26/Sept 2007)
Deerhoof are an adventurous art-rock ensemble from the San Francisco Bay Area whose mix of playfulness, technical facility and unpretentious musical/conceptual ambition has gained them an ever-growing (and awesomely devoted) underground following. Not long after seeing Deerhoof play a giddy early-evening set to an all-ages audience of Giant Robotniks, punk rockers, noiseheads, pop geeks, art students and awed musos, I spoke by phone with drummer-keyboardist Greg Saunier about how the band’s insistence on playing all-ages shows has been crucial—perhaps even pivotal—to their continued artistic growth and commercial success. Following is part of our conversation.
Deerhoof ‘s latest album, Friend Opportunity, is available from Kill Rock Stars; a DVD of the Courtney Naliboff-adapted ballet version of Deerhoof’s 2004 concept album Milk Man, featuring students from the K-12 North Haven Community School in Maine, is available from http://www.milkmanballet.com —Jay Babcock
Arthur: What is Deerhoof’s policy regarding playing all-ages shows?
Greg Saunier: Basically we try to play all-ages shows wherever we can. It’s not always possible. I have some friends who have bands that are 100 percent insistent, but by demanding that every show be all-ages, they sometimes go for long periods without playing any shows. Or they aren’t able to play certain cities, period. But wherever we can, we try to do it.
Why is it important?
Greg Saunier: Our music, and I think music in general, is not just for people who are a certain age or who have necessarily already experienced certain things. We aren’t trying to make music that’s meant to be an in-joke, just for people who’ve already lived through certain things or already are familiar with certain bands of the past. We try to make music that could have something to say to any kind of person—or at least any age of person. We’ve had quite a few shows where a kid and her parent will come, and both claim to be fans, which is really mind-blowing to me, and really gratifying, because I want it to feel like it’s not exclusive to a certain clique.
What were some of the shows you saw as a teenager?
Greg Saunier: I grew up in Columbia, Maryland. One of the first concerts I saw was the Police, at a basketball arena. And it occurs to me that the same is still the case—when Christina Aguilera plays a show, she plays arenas so she play all-ages every time. Within the world of pop music, it’s not even an issue. It’s only in this world of—I don’t even know what this world is, but it’s some other world where music is only associated with bars and with drinking and with people over a certain age and with a certain world-weariness already built in, a certain jaded quality. Of course that’s not everybody, and you can retain that kid-like innocence about new things in music your whole life. But I don’t even drink, so the last place I thought I’d be forging a career would be in bars! I actually don’t mind playing in bars, but if we do it’s always about trying to transcend the surroundings and the normal association with bars and what it’s there for and what it’s meant to do.
Were there shows that you wanted to see as a kid that you couldn’t because you were not of age?
This is going to make it sound like as a teenager I was completely obsessed, but actually I remember Andy Summers, the guitar player from the Police, did a solo show one time at the 9:30 Club in D.C., and it was an over-21 show. I remember just being crushed for several weeks that there was no way I was going to be able to go to this thing. I got really involved in starting to listen to classical music a lot, and classical music shows are always all-ages. That’s what I was getting fed by my parents and I gobbled it up and got a lot out of it.
That’s a good point, that classical music is not a “beer experience.”
In a way, it is another alternative music culture. I was totally dependent on either friends or my parents to get around as a teenager, and there was no place to see a concert in the town where I grew up. Any concert-going required going to D.C. or Baltimore. I felt like a rebel, honestly, in my teen and high school years because of the fact that I listened to classical music. It didn’t really make any sense to any of my friends, and I definitely felt like a real oddball. At the same time in high school, as I just barely started to get a slight awareness that there was underground rock music and punk music, I started to make friends with a few people who were into that and I identified with them in a very strange way. The hardcore scene of the early ’80s and classical music scenes obviously couldn’t seem to be more opposite, but for me and my punk rock friends, it served a very similar purpose. It was something that wasn’t already figured out for you. It wasn’t thrust upon you with the sheen of the mainstream, and the mainstream was the only other choice available to kids.
I remember hearing about this straight-edge music and I was absolutely fascinated. I was very much a late bloomer as far as understanding that there was anything called punk rock. I mean, when Minor Threat was going I was listening to Top 40, I had no idea. I later discovered another band from the area called Void, and they are actually from my hometown. They were just a hair older than I was, and looking back, I bet I knew some people who did go see them. But I was just totally entranced when my friends would describe these Minor Threat shows where kids were going there with the express intent of not drinking, and they would never say bad words and everybody was really nice to each other. I just couldn’t believe it, you know? I never experienced it firsthand, so my mental image of it is untarnished: I have a fantasy of this utopian situation where somebody put the kids in charge and they’re doing so much better than when the adults were in charge. Everybody’s getting along and it’s creative and everybody’s happy and everyone’s accepted. I think that I’ve been kind of seeking the re-creation of that fantasy ever since, you know, when I go to show or especially when we play shows. We want to create that kind of feeling.
Was that part of the original impetus when Deerhoof began?
In the beginning we were desperate to play and totally innocent of how to set up shows or tour. And we were very shy people; it was just two of us at first and then [vocalist-bassist] Satomi joined to make three, and she didn’t make the band any less shy than we already were. Basically, if another band asked us to play a show with them, we’d be like ‘Yeah!’ and be unable to sleep for the next week or something! So in the first couple years of Deerhoof we didn’t have the gumption to dictate anything or make any suggestions. We basically just followed whatever was handed to us and felt lucky if we got to play at all. But what ended up happening was we didn’t play all-ages shows, and the first several years of the band, we had no kid fans seeing us, it was all people our age or older. Satomi and I realized that there was something not satisfying about this. I don’t want to spend the rest of my life just playing in bars and having the success of the night be judged merely on how many drinks we got everybody to buy, you know? Probably in 1998 or ’99 I started to feel like this was a dead end. It wasn’t a stimulating situation, always playing with the same bands, playing the same songs to the same people just passing time in a smoky little room. My first impulse was to go back to school so I could get back into classical music. So I went to graduate school for music, and felt very frustrated there too. In both cases, it’s a mutual admiration society. It’s an ‘in’ crowd. The people who go to see Deerhoof, or the people who are studying music at music conservatory, both can have the sealed feeling where everybody’s patting each other on the back. That’s their only audience, you know? So that was a turning point for the band, too, where we felt like ‘We need to start branching out.’ And frankly, that feeling has never gone away. We have managed for the most part to be able to play all-ages shows everywhere we go, but even then it can feel … we still feel confined in some ways.
Like, why do shows always have to be so late at night? And why do they have to cost $18?
Yeah. Even when you call a show quote-unquote ‘all-ages,’ obviously if it’s late at night on a school night and it’s really expensive then no kid’s going to be able to go. So we’re always looking for something other than just the prescribed venue, or the prescribed way that we’ve been told our music is supposed to be presented. That’s the crazy thing about kids, and the many adults who have an open mind: they don’t conform to any marketing person’s concept of their target demographic characteristics. They look for something that’s cool, they look for something that strikes them a certain way, and maybe as they grow with it they figure it out in a more sophisticated way. Kids surprise adults all the time, because adults would never have guessed what kind of styles that kids would come up with. You think of clothes as the obvious example, where adults are constantly rolling their eyes: ‘What are the kids wearing nowadays?!’ But it’s the same thing with music, and it’s very exciting. And that’s another great advantage of playing all-ages shows: sometimes we can play with under-21 bands.
A couple of years ago, we played in Minneapolis, and Minneapolis is actually very difficult for all-ages shows, but there’s one venue called the Triple Rock where we have often played that will do all-ages shows early; basically, before the “real” show that they’re still going to have that night. Anyway, John has an old friend, Milo Fine, who does only free improvisation. The guy’s possibly in his 50s … real hardcore. He doesn’t do free improvisation for fun, but has for decades been cultivating this and only this and refuses to play a single note of written music period, you know? Extremely obscure, but in his tiny circle, he is sort of a legend. Basically, ultra avant-garde and not the type of music that you would normally associate with kids liking. We asked him to open for us. He was playing percussion with another guy in an improvisational duo, and we were talking before the show, and he was sure that he was just going to bomb. The place was filled with kids, and de was like, ‘This is not my normal audience, I normally play in bars.’ So he came out and played and you could hear a pin drop. The kids were just so focused, they were just totally taking it in. They didn’t judge things the same way that a mob of adults might. There were just no preconceptions. After the show he was just kind of stunned, and really really happy. And I felt so proud, too, that we had managed to put this bill together.
Oh! Here’s a story that totally illustrates how important all-ages is. We played on a tour opening for Unwound, and Unwound was one of those bands that insisted on all-ages shows. That was kind of our introduction to the whole concept. We played at the J.C. Hall, just a tiny shack of a room in Biloxi, Mississippi. There’s no stage, we just played on this linoleum floor. A lot of kids were there. There was this one 16-year-old kid who came up to our merch table after we played and he’s like, ‘I want everything, give me everything.’ It was the first time in however many years we’d had the band going where somebody had ever come up to the merch table and wanted to buy everything. Two days later, our show is in Pensacola, Florida, and not only does he show up but he’s so excited he brings his kid brother, who’s 14 and sick with the fever at the time! But they still felt that it was enough of a priority that they needed to come see this band again. We ended up keeping in touch. And that was Chris and Steve Touchton who very soon after that, decided to form their own band, XBXRX. Later, they moved out to the Bay Area and they live here now and are quite successful.
The music XBXRX make doesn’t really sound like Deerhoof—it’s their music, that somewhere deep inside he wanted to make but couldn’t find the permission anywhere in his universe to do what he really wanted to do. When you see something that’s not the mainstream shows, which are the only ones you’re allowed to go to, that’s what can inspire you to say, ‘I’m going to do my own thing, too.’ A person can do something that’s really different and creative. All these rules that I thought were there aren’t really there. [Those rules] are just from tired musicians and tired, bored marketing experts who are just going on some kind of endless rote, trying to recapture the success of last year’s successful band and think that there are all these rules of how your music’s supposed to sound and what’s going to make it sell.
You really want to make sure technically that the show can include people under 21, but once you’re there it’s like… You’d have to actually step back and say, well how would this be different if the ‘kids’ weren’t here? I really can’t tell who is above 21 and who’s are under 21 in a lot of cases. But it’s great at shows when I’m chatting to somebody who came to the show, and I can tell by looking at them that they’re quite young, and they’re telling me that they came because they’re a fan of our music and that they’ve been listening to it, and I think back to when I was at that age and what music I was listening to. And I say to myself, ‘Whatever music I was listening to, that music totally just re-wired my nervous system.’ I just know how important the music that I listened to in those years was to me. And when I think, ‘Wait, here’s a real human being standing right in front of me, for whom that music is our music!’ well you can’t imagine the overwhelming joy that I feel. You want to inspire people, you know?
originally published in Arthur No. 26/Sept 2007