Deerhoof (Contemporary Musicians)
Though Deerhoof's mainstream success has been minimal, the San Francisco band has continually made innovative, edgy rock music with the least amount of extravagance. Since their formation the band has carved out a niche audience in independent music, with fans as far flung as Yeah Yeah Yeahs' lead singer Karen O and Simpsons creator Matt Groening.
Deerhoof formed in 1994 in San Francisco, with only drummer Greg Saunier and vocalist/bassist Rob Fisk in its original line-up. Kill Rock Stars' label head Slim Moon caught the band at that year's Yoyo-A-Gogo festival in Olympia, Washington, and decided to put out their first single, "Return of the Wood M'lady." While the band's local following was growing, the duo agreed that they needed an added touch. Satomi Matsuzaki, a singer who had recently moved to San Francisco from Tokyo, Japan, fit the bill. Before Matsuzaki had even had a month's practice with Deerhoof, the band was already off on its first tour.
Upon returning Deerhoof recorded its full-length debut, The Man, the King, the Girl, which appeared in 1997 as a split release for Kill Rock Stars and Moon's new label, 5 Rue Christine. While The Man, the King, the Girl tended toward noisy instrumental rock rather than pop elements, moments such as "A-Town Test Site" and "Polly Bee" suggested that the band harbored a secret love for pop music.
In 1998 keyboardist Kelly Goode joined the fray and the group recorded Holdypaws, the record that brought their first blitz of public recognition. By this point the Japanese female-fronted band had drawn comparisons to their avant-rock colleagues Blonde Redhead, who had a similar type of member lineup. In his review of Holdypaws, All Music Guide's David Serra noted one of the similarities between the two bands, that of "higher-pitched female vocals backed by thick distorted guitar, angular drums, and very minimal keyboards."
Fisk had been toying with the idea of leaving the band, and after a couple of tentative leaves of absence he quit once and for all. Goode soon followed Fisk, and the two found themselves in Tennessee with a new band, 7 Year Rabbit Cycle. Shortly after Fisk and Goode's leavetaking, Collossamite's John Dieterich came on board to fill one of the open slots. The other position was filled in 2001 after the band met Chris Cohen and gave him one of their discs. A friendship was formed and the members of Deerhoof soon invited Cohen to join, rounding out the four-person lineup. That same year also saw the release of Halfbird on the Menlo Park label, an album that Saunier and Fisk had recorded four years earlier.
The release of 2002's Reveille, recorded in 2001 by Matsuzaki, Saunier, and Dieterich, was praised by critics. Writing about Reveille in All Music Guide, Bryan Thomas declared, "Those few songs that feature Satomi Matsuzaki's purring falsettoer very presence elevates this band above most avant pop groupsave a simplicity and sugar-soaked sweetness, enticing listeners with charm before boxing their ears with an all-out aural assault."
Reveille was followed up less than a year later with Apple O', a record that featured artwork by the band's ex-bassist Rob Fisk. The tight release schedule prompted a tour that took the band to the United States, Europe, and Japan, bringing them additional press attention. Magnet's J. Gabriel Boylan commented that Apple O' "sounds like the Shirelles backed by an art-damaged, skronky wedding band."
Time Out agreed there was something strangely appealing about the band's disparate elements meeting in total harmony. "The chirpy, candy-coated vocals of bassist Satomi Matsuzaki and the band's jagged guitar discordance seem oddly matched, but the two sides exhort each other in a crude sort of diplomacy," wrote the magazine's Mike Wolf. The record struck a personal note with Stranger's Julianne Shepherd. "Memo to everyone who's considering meds or murder: Try Deerhoof first," she wrote. "No other band on earth makes me as happy as they do, with their simple blocky guitars, chirping vocals, spasmodic drum explosions, and amazing sense of melodic humor."
Milk Man, Deerhoof's most approachable effort, was released in early 2004, and the band again toured the United States, Japan, and the United Kingdom, including a stop at the All Tomorrow's Parties festival. In the process their broad fan base grew to include fellow musicians Beck, Har Mar Superstar, and Pavement's Stephen Malkmus. Spin called Milk Man "a perfect album. Except perfect is the wrong word for a band so dedicated to kitchen-sink oddness." And Rolling Stone's Douglas Wolk also chimed in with positive remarks. "Despite its whiplash changes in perspective and sound Milk Man's secret weapons are loveliness and restraint. When they keep their eccentric energy channeled in a single direction for a few minutes, as on the title track, they give old-school prog rock a kick in the flared pants."
After Dieterich and Cohen joined the lineup, the band found the right mix of instrumental skill and songwriting sensibility. The group has always been open to experimentation and has at times collaborated with Justin Trosper of Unwound, Joe Preston of the Melvins, and Arrington de Dionysio of Old Time Relijun. Many of Deerhoof's members have taken on side projects as well; Saunier has performed with Nervous Cop alongside Joanna Newsom and Hella's Zach Hill. Dieterich and Cohen have played and recorded together in Natural Dreamers.
The band has not been able to crack the mainstream market, but Saunier has always been extremely proud of the band's indie-level status. "When I finished high school I really didn't want to attend my graduation, and I couldn't understand why my parents wanted to watch me get my diploma and things," he told San Francisco Bay Guardian's Kimberly Chun. "But now I understand, because these albums are my kids and I'm proud of them. Even if they aren't dressed in fancy clothes, I still want to see them graduate."
Commenting on the band's unique appeal, Saunier continued, "There's more to an experience with music than just what you can say about it a minute later. Or what can be reviewed. In a few sentences or an entire book You could choose one song in Apple O' and write a thousand-page book about it. Or you can choose one song from [the Numbers' album] Numbers Life and write a thousand-page book about it, but that still wouldn't be the tip of the iceberg, or even come close to the complexity of what it is, what it means, all the different ways it can be heard and interpreted."
"Return of the Wood M'lady," Kill Rock Stars, 1995.
The Man, the King, the Girl, Kill Rock Stars/5 Rue Christine, 1997.
Holdypaws, Kill Rock Stars/5 Rue Christine, 1999.
Halfbird, Menlo Park, 2001.
Reveille, Kill Rock Stars/5 Rue Christine, 2002.
Apple O', Kill Rock Stars/5 Rue Christine, 2003.
Milk Man, Kill Rock Stars/5 Rue Christine, 2004.
Magnet, #59, ca. 2003.
New Musical Express, August 15, 2002.
Rolling Stone, February 4, 2004.
San Francisco Bay Guardian, April 2, 2003.
Spin, March 2004.
Stranger, April 10, 2003.
Time Out, April 17, 2003.
"Deerhoof," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (June 28, 2004).