August 10, 2016

Deerhoof's Ongoing Ode to Joy

Thursday, Aug. 11 @ Athens Popfest

Photo Credit: Asha Shechter

In uncertain times like these, it's worth considering the power of joy. Artists and musicians, in particular, can positively affect the tone of the culture. While some channel the chaos and violence of the outside world into work that’s darker and more cynical, others choose to combat despair with jubilation.

Since its birth in 1994, Bay Area band Deerhoof has specialized in an intricate yet ebullient brand of rock and roll that challenges and provokes even as it swells with sunshine. Deerhoof’s music exists in a sort-of sideways reality with a central conceit: Things are never as bad as they seem.

“What passes for darkness is often just fear,” drummer Greg Saunier says. “Look at what the candidates are selling; look at what ISIS is selling… You have to laugh at the perversity of it. You have to laugh in their faces. You rebel. You organize your life without lying, cheating and stealing. Without violence. You get together and rule by consensus, and do it with style.”

Even as America stares down the barrel of a Donald Trump presidency, Deerhoof spreads its brand of insurgent positivity. The band’s 14th full-length album, The Magic, was written and recorded in a seven-day sprint in the New Mexico desert and released earlier this year.

Saunier says the band’s method is “the most open-ended process you can have without total process disintegration. We never know what will come out.” During the Magic sessions, the group found itself exploring hyper proto-punk, cheeky stadium-rock and other nakedly joyous sounds.

The album represents Deerhoof at its freest and finest, all spark and melody with little in the way of deliberation. The group’s spontaneity manifests itself in typically thrilling ways: the brief feedback breakdown that interrupts a sunny pop number; the lite-jazz interlude that punctuates a math-rock anthem.

Three of The Magic’s tracks were initially composed for the HBO series “Vinyl,” which was looking for an original song for a fictional band to play on screen. Saunier finished his in one day, then he “received an email from Ed [Rodriguez] with a song he had recorded, and one from John [Dieterich] with a song he had recorded. All three songs are on the album, but they don't sound anything alike, even though we were all trying to follow the same instructions.”

Deerhoof’s magic lies largely in its members’ chemistry, which allows the group to explore and experiment while sounding only like itself, and also accounts for its longevity. Though the band may not be a household name, it’s all but legendary in indie rock circles, and has managed to continue touring and releasing music steadily—and with a DIY approach—since its inception more than 20 years ago.

“[Doing it ourselves] was a simple necessity for Deerhoof for the first seven or eight years, when everything we did lost money,” says Saunier. “But once that started to turn around, we hired a booking agent in 2003, and in 2009 a live sound engineer who travels with us in the minivan.

“We stayed DIY in other ways,” he continues. “We still record and mix our own records; we manage ourselves; we stay very hands-on with the record label; we work our own merch table.”

It’s as much a philosophical decision as a financial one, says Saunier. “When you start outsourcing these jobs to other people, you not only rob yourself of money, but also of experience. One of the great things about being in a traveling musical act is the chance to meet people all over the world.”


  • Thursday, August 11

    Georgia Theatre

    7 p.m.

    Athens Popfest

    ATHENS POPFEST Featuring Dead Neighbors (8 p.m.), Antlered Aunt Lord (8:45 p.m.), Gauche (9:30 p.m.), Shopping (10:30 p.m.), Tunabunny (11:30 p.m.) and Deerhoof (12:30 a.m.).