When I got the idea to interview some of my favorite drummers, I told myself that I wouldn’t do it if I couldn’t get Greg Saunier from Deerhoof involved. While I would have been happy with sending off a dozen questions via email, Greg agreed to a phone interview that wound up lasting over an hour. On the plus side, I can confidently say that this is the most information that’s ever been compiled about the influences and theories of Greg Saunier. However, it’s a long read (I mean, it took me two months to finish transcribing it). To help your eyes, I’ve split the interview in half.
Today you get part one, which covers how Greg got started drumming, accidentally defines “drummer’s guilt” and reveals how a scratched Rolling Stones record helped from one of my favorite drummers. Then tomorrow you can go pick up Deerhoof’s new record Offend Maggie and read the second half of the interview.
My Favorite Drummers: Greg Saunier from Deerhoof (Part 1)
YANP: Hey Greg! Glad to have you involved. I don’t know if they told you much about what the interview’s about…
Greg Saunier: A little bit. They said you’re talking to drummers
YANP: Yeah, I just wanted to profile a few of my favorite drummers. I think it’s because was forced to take up guitar instead of drums in high school.
GS: (laughs) What do you mean ‘forced to?’
YANP: We didn’t have a lot of space or a lot of money, so guitar was a lot cheaper, quieter and smaller.
GS: (laughs) Well I know how that goes. We live in san francisco and the very thought of even lightly tapping on, let alone even setting up some drums in this apartment … the living situations are completely ludicrous.
You guitar players don’t understand how difficult it is for us. It costs so much and they’re so big and heavy and noisy…
YANP: and everyone complains about lugging them around on tour
GS: Not everyone! The drummer’s the only one lugging them around on tour.
And it’s like however much money you’re spending on the drums themselves — that’s only the beginning. Because in most cities the added cost of where you’re going to play them is basically a second rent.
Deerhoof, we could have rehearsal — if it wasn’t for the drums — we wouldn’t need to rehearse in a rehearsal studio. Everybody could just play their electric guitars turned way down — no problem. It’s just the drums that cause it to be so loud; so we have to pay these extra hundred dollars for a rehearsal studio.
And what do you get for all your trouble? You get “hey, you’re playing too loud” and “hey, you’re covering me up!”
YANP: I think we’re discovering a new phenomenon: “drummer’s guilt”
GS: (laughs) Yeah!
YANP: I read that you joined a concert band in the 3rd grade. were you playing drums by that time?
GS: that’s when I started playing drums. I played snare drums in the elementary school concert band. (laughs) I don’t even know if they have those around any more. Every time I hear little snatches and peaks of what the American public schools like now, it’s like “oh no, we canceled art and music classes decades ago!” You know?
I really would hate to think, just personally, selfishly, how my life would have turned out if grammar school music hadn’t existed when I was in grammar school. I mean, for heaven’s sake, that was my introduction to playing music and to writing music. And the idea of caring about music as something other than just some vague atmosphere coming out of a little radio speaker. It’s when I realized that no, this is something made my humans. there’s instruments and voices and compositions.
And I had such good teachers all the way through. My elementary concert band teacher… he was the only thing I knew at the time when I was a third grader. Looking back on it, maybe he wasn’t the greatest teacher in the universe. But by the time I got to junior high or high school, my teachers — they made all the difference in terms of me becoming a musician. I mean, because other than the reason that it’s fun, there’s not really a lot to encourage a person to play music. You know? It is really fun, and of course some people get into it with dreams of super stardom, but that’s exceedingly rare, obviously. Maybe American Idol gives the impression that it’s not rare, but just sheer mathematics, it’s obviously rare. It’s like we were talking about with the drums. I had a drum set starting in the 8th grade — that was when we started our first band
YANP: What was the name of the band?
GS: The band was called the Other Extreme. We didn’t have a name when we first started off, we only played “Honkey Tonk Woman” and I think we played a song called “Stranger” by Jefferson Starship, which was a hit at the time but is completely forgotten now. Basically we played whatever songs our guitar player had learned in his guitar lesson that week. That instantly and automatically became the repertoire of the Other Extreme.
Once I actually obtained a drum set at no small expense from my parents — although it was used and totally pieced together — Of course, it’s not like my drum set now is any less so…
I don’t even think that I realized it at the time, my parents may have shielded me from the truth, but we set the drums up in the basement and I’d go down there to play. I’d play along with my Rolling Stones records or my Who records… and basically I’d tap one note and the phone would ring. It would be some next door neighbor saying “the drums are too loud. Can Greg stop?”
My younger brother took up saxophone years later and even when he’d start playing sax it’d be the same thing; one note and the phone would ring. The only thing was that he didn’t have to go to the basement to practice so he’d be the one to answer the phone
Continue reading after the break
YANP: Did you grow up in San Francisco?
GS: No, it was in a small city called Columbia, Maryland. Very far from here
YANP: You also play guitar, correct?
GS: Well, I mean… Yeah, kinda. laughs. I mean everybody plays a little bit, huh? I mean, anybody can play the drums because anybody can bang on the drums.
YANP: I dunno how true that is…
GS: I’ll put this way: in high school, my concert band experience suddenly became expanded to marching band because when you’re in high school you’ve got a football team that you’ve got to take care of. And everybody that wants to join concert band is unwaveringly conscripted into the marching band.
With certain instruments like the oboe or the bassoon, that are not in a marching band — that are too quiet to be heard from the football field first of all, and second of all the repertoire written for marching band never has parts for oboe.
To give you illustration of what I’m talking about, when we do marching band, all of a sudden the oboe players and bassoon players would switch to drums and have no problem with it. They would do bass drums and actually I think that was the most technically difficult part of the marching band because it’d be these four different sizes of bass drums. It was sort of like they were doing drum fills, but spit between four different people. You just have to fit yours in at the exact right moment. But these oboe and bassoon players were able to master it in seconds.
So I’ve never had that much pride about being a drummer and thinking that that can, in any way, be mistaken for me being a musician. I just hit things, you know?
YANP: Well it sounds good when you hit them.
GS: Well thank you!
YANP: So you said you used to drum to records by the Stones and the Who. Who all did you emulate when you were starting out?
GS: Before I even had a drum set, I was … maybe I just didn’t have that much to start with. I only had one record, which was [the Rolling Stones’] Tattoo You. And at some point later I think I got a copy of Ghost in the Machine, by the Police. Even before I had any drums, I remember air drumming — at the time I didn’t know it was called air drumming, but you know.
My record of Tattoo You… you know, it starts with “Start Me Up” and I had played that track on the record so many times that it was just completely scratched and filled with skips. But I had learned to play along totally accurately even with all the skips in it. So it would jump forwards and backwards and be completely random sounding, but it sounded completely right to me because I listened to it so many times every single day.
YANP: Do you think that had an impact on your current drumming style?
GS: [Laughs] I don’t know, maybe. I mean… [Laughs] It would be easy to say yes.
YANP …But if you say yes, every interview from now on will ask about that.
GS: [Laughs] Yeah. I think that it was … learning to play along with Charlie Watts was, I think, got me thinking a certain way and playing a certain way that I might not have even thought about at the time. Charlie Watts is not a flashy player and he doesn’t draw a lot of attention to himself when he plays. So I think that the way I play is often more distracting than when he plays. I tend to play a lot of things that interfere with the rest of the band… he was a lot more cooperative or something.
But at the same time, he had this sound of where it’s just loose and it’s ragged and it’s kind of random sounding. It’s not just a pattern — Charlie doesn’t just have a part for the verse and a part for the chorus. Of course, being a little kid, air drumming with all of this, I thought that he did. I thought that every little nuance of opening the high hat or doing a couple extra notes on the high hats or sometimes he’d hit this tom or sometimes he’d hit this other tom — I thought that was all part of the composition of the song.
I was completely horrified about a year later. The same store where I bought Tattoo You was called Sam Goody and it was in the mall in Columbia. I had heard that the Rolling Stones had a new album called Still Life, it was their live album from the tour that they did after Tattoo You came out.
I walked into Sam Goody coincidentally just as “Start Me Up” from Still Life came on … and it was like my heart sank. I had not only memorized all the drum parts, but I’d actually figured out all the guitar parts: Keith’s part and Ronnie’s parts. One is on the left and one is one the right. At the time I think I thought Ronnie was Keith and Keith was Ronnie… but I’d switched it around. But I sat there and figured out every slight variation to the way they’d play the riff to start me up. and every time they played it another two seconds would pass and they’d play it a different way. they’d throw in some funny 1/16 or they’d leave out a note or they’d add a note or there’d be sort of a rumbling sound when somebody wasn’t sure how to play — ALL of this stuff I had memorized down to the slightest detail where I just knew it backwards and forwards
So I walk into Sam Goody when “Start Me Up” is playing and it’s obvious just in no way similar to the version that was on the radio and that I had gotten used to. And that was when it dawned on me: wait, this isn’t the way the song was written — they’re just making this up on the spot. The thing I had memorized was just one random take. And who knows what mental state any of the band was in when the record button was pressed.
I remember reading an interview a couple years later and they were talking about the song. Just to illustrate how random it was, the released version of the song was take two out of like forty or fifty takes, where basically starting from take three to take fifty, it was all a reggae song. But the first two they basically just ran through it briefly and thoughtlessly as sort of a typical Rolling Stones mid-tempo rock number then they got down to what they really wanted it to be, which was a reggae song.
So this version, which was the bible to me and I based my entire musical understanding of the universe on… I’m sure I’ve listened to that more times that anyone in the band has, you know? And the idea of Charlie Watts going back and memorizing how to play his drum fills could not be more absurd! He always talks about how doesn’t listen to Rolling Stones records except when Keith forces him to when they have rehearsals. He has absolutely no interest in going back and hearing it.
So that was a big part of my musical self-education. I had my musical education at school, but I had my musical education with those records. So to answer your question, which you asked about a half hour ago [Laughs]… Figuring out what Charlie Watts was doing and all the really subtle shifts that you can do to keep things interesting and keeping it very human sounding, I didn’t consider it at the time. I just played drums. And that’s what I liked in middle school. I liked the Rolling Stones. So that’s what I ended up copying.
There’s another funny thing about Charlie. The way he plays what is the most cliched version of a rock beat is actually not perfectly even or perfectly mechanical when he plays it. He has certain quirks in his version of it. And it’s sort of subtle and you wouldn’t really notice it if you weren’t listening for it, but of course I was listening for it because I was obsessed with the drums.
But even though he actually does not play loud and he is a very quiet player, there’s a certain heaviness or a certain deep sounding rhythm that’s very motivating when you hear it that partly comes from the real, finer points from his feel. Part of that is that his back beat, his 2 and 4 are slightly behind the beat. they’re slightly late. but whereas the guitars are not playing late. So there’s this slight grind to the rhythm, the way the whole rhythmic engine is pieced together in that band.
And i know that just from physically trying to synchronize myself with those drums. I really learned to play that way. There’ve been times in more recent years where I’ve tried to learn how to play along with other drummers… I remember air drumming to John Bonham about three years ago and realizing with horror why whenever I hit my desk on two and four along with John Bonham’s snare why am I always late? [Laughs]
I learned to play with Charlie Watts where it’s always late… not every drummer plays that way. And trying to play squarely right on the beat was a real challenge. I felt like I had to unlearn decades of how to drum just to force myself to have this other skill.
Charlie Watts I would have to say, even though it sounds weird, just as much as Keith Richards — even though he wasn’t a drummer — probably if I had to whittle it down to one person, influenced me the way I play drums more than anybody. Because he’s the one who is more unpredictable in terms of his rhythm. He’s more syncopated and ragged than Charlie and you never know quite when he’s going to play. He creates rhythmic tension. It opens up options of rhythmic interplay between members of the band — not composed interplay but spontaneous interplay. Like, reacting on the spot to what’s happening in the band.
So every time you play “Start Me Up” or any other song, it’s a little bit different. All the details are different. I mean, the overall broad focused song of any of their hits is totally recognizable. But if you listen to ten different versions of them playing any song and it’s all different — every little piece is different. I’m obsessed with it.
I’m still trying to understand what that idea means; I’m still trying to work that idea out for myself just as a person playing music. We’ve got rehearsal in about half an hour and it’s like [laughs] just yesterday it came up again. It’s as if the Rolling Stones presented some mathematical thing like pi or something right at the beginning of my rebirth as a musician. I was born as a human being and was reborn again as a rock and roller somewhere in middle school.
The problem that got posed to me when I first heard “Start Me Up” on the radio is something I’m still trying to figure out — it keeps me up at night. I’m making it sound pretentious and maybe it is, but it’s fun for me! That’s what’s causing the twitch or the energy under me that makes me want to play, that’s trying to work out this understanding of rhythm or how instruments go together. [Laughs] I dunno.
YANP: [Laughs] That was quite an unexpected answer!
GS: [Laughs] Hope it wasn’t too long.
The rest of the interview will be posted tomorrow. Thanks!