My Favorite Drummers: Greg Saunier from Deerhoof (Part 2)

Photo by RCM273LDN

It’s Tuesday October 7, 2008, which means two things for Deerhoof fans. First, you’ve all no doubt grabbed your copies of Offend Maggie, Deerhoof’s new studio album. Secondly it means that I’m posting the second half of my interview with Deerhoof’s Greg Saunier! Missed the first part? Catch up before we finish it off.

MP3: Deerhoof – Sealed With A Kiss

Last time we heard about his Rolling Stones love, this time he shares his thoughts on the Roots and small drum sets, Hella and Zach Hill’s deflated drums, and why there are so many drumless sections in Deerhoof songs.

Oh, and how he’d like to meet his Spinal Tap-like drummer death, of course.

My Favorite Drummers: Greg Saunier from Deerhoof (Part 2)

YANP: Who are some other drummers currently making music that you enjoy?

GS: Are you trying to imply that the Rolling Stones aren’t currently making music? [Laughs]

YANP: [Laughs] Well the last studio album was like in what, 2000?

GS: I just got Shine a Light from Netflix and I think that’s just the most amazing movie. And right before you asked that question, I was promising myself that my next answer wouldn’t have anything to do with the Rolling Stones.

YANP: [Laughs]

GS: I can’t help it. … I wouldn’t even know where to start. I love drummers and I love every kind of musician. In a way, it’s the same as what I was saying about Keith — I love talking about them like I know them, by the way [Laughs]. But one of the things I do feel lucky about is that some of my favorite drummers now are actually people I know: people that we’ve toured with or people that we see play…

YANP: Well, I was going to say, you guys have opened up for or toured with bands with some of the greatest drummers going: the Roots, the Flaming Lips, Radiohead…

GS: ?uestlove is definitely one of my favorite drummers and actually, again, it definietley goes beyond the drums in his case. He’s one of my favorite overlal musicians and musical philosophers. I relate very much to his attitude towards music and the meaning of music and the point of music — if there is one. I shouldn’t say that I relate to his attitude, I should say that I admire it or even envy it. That’s something that the Roots always exude to a degree that you don’t hardly ever find with bands — that the music matters.

For me, I’ve always felt like it’s very hard to convince yourself that music matters. Speaking of drummer’s guilt, I’ve got musician’s guilt. I’ve got the guilt of having devoted my whole life to something that doesn’t cure any diseases or build any houses or feed anybody…

YANP: But it doesn’t hurt anybody…

GS: Well that’s true too, though it can be debated based on how hard you hit the snare drum!

YANP: [Laughs]

GS: When they play — and I’ve seen them so many times — it wipes the slate clean and renews from scratch, for me, the sense that music as a human activity really does have a role within human existence. It really does play a part. It needs to be there for who knows what kind of reason. It needs to be there and it does something. And maybe not every human being, of course, some people like music more than others.

And the way the Roots play, the way ?uestlove approaches their music, it has a … I don’t want to say “universal” because I think that word gets misused a lot when it relates to music, but it has a very broad concept of music. When they play, they do so many cover songs and they do so many songs that are influenced by music from around the world, they do things that sound new and things that sound old, and they put it all together in this huge story. Every set they play is like this huge medley that spans the globe or it spans the history of human attempts at putting sounds together. That’s an exaggeration, but that’s the feeling of it when you’re at the concert.

I’ve heard him DJ before and it’s the same kind of thing, it’s just all over the place. Yet it seems to have this kind of bizzarre mystery logic to it. His horizon is so far and his musical mind is so large that it’s willing and able to encompass just about any kind of music that anybody has tried to do in any point of history. That’s what makes me get the feeling from them that music isn’t just me wasting time goofing off in a rehersal studio when I could be doing something valuable. It’s the history of all human culture. Singing, or putting sounds together, something that isn’t quite speech but also isn’t quite visual art, dancing, math or physics. It’s somewhere in between all those things. It’s just always happened everywhere.

But ?uestlove has been a huge influence on me and on Deerhoof as well, almost since the beginning. Maybe about two or three years in was when we first saw the Roots play. It was me and Satomi, it was before John was even in the band.

One of the things I loved about the Roots… I didn’t know ?uestlove’s name at the time, but I saw this drummer up there and his drum was so tiny! I just thought that was so cool. At the time I had been playing an average sized drum set and was just starting to pare it down. I had just decided that I wanted to remove elements from it. Seeing him play was such a reinforcement of my confidence in wanting to try and do that. So I ended up over the years going further and further with it. Now I play a really tiny set.

Read the rest after the break

[Laughs] Last time I saw ?uestlove, we played the same…

YANP: Picnic?

GS: Yeah, the picnic. Now I sort of make fun of him because his drum set has grown back and not quite become the Rush drum set, but it’s bigger than it used to be.

YANP: He’s not the one carrying it now.

GS: [Laughs] Yeah, exactly! I’m still the one carrying mine and mine is smaller than his ever was. But he’s always nice. Talk about drummer’s guilt, I think he gets drummers guilt when he sees me play because I’m still so stripped down. Luckily he knows he was the real source of inspiration for that, so he doesn’t feel too bad.

YANP: I guess I should get in a couple Deerhoof questions before you have to go.

GS: Wait, I should mention a couple other drummers that I’m really big fans of that I happen to know. Ches who plays with Xiu Xiu now. He’s a real mind blower to me. I love Zach from Hella.

We played a lot of shows with Hella, but there was one little tour where we had to fly out. Before the tour started, I called Zach and was like “Zach, for these two or three shows, could I just use your drum set?” and he was like “sure, no problem.” [Laughs] There is no way to describe the shock that happened at the first show. There wasn’t any time for a sound check and we basically just got on stage. This was my introduction to Zach’s drum set. We started playing the first song and I realized that, as loud as Zach sounds and as fast as he’s playing, turns out that I got behind his drums and all the heads were completely dented and totally destroyed. Everything was so loose — all the heads had no tension in them at all. They were like deflated balloons or something. I played the way I normally played and literally no sound was coming out at all, they were inaudible.

To even get this drum to make a sound that anybody can hear, you have to whack this thing as hard as you possibly can — like a baseball swing level of force to even get it heard. That’s what donned on me in the middle of our first song. It’s like wait a second… When Hella is playing, all those fast notes are going by — every single one of those notes is being hit at maximum volume. Which hadn’t occurred to me because it’s all a blur. His arms are just going by and it’s a cloud of arms, you can’t even see what’s happening. Every one of those notes is being absolutely pounded.

YANP: Maybe that’s his natural force?

GS: It’s not natural! It’s training. It’s muscle build up, you know? The huge amount of respect I had for him was doubled in the middle of our set when I was attempting to play his drums.

YANP: On Apple O, “Sealed with a Kiss” is primarily constructed from samples, right?

GS: Everything except the vocals, yeah.

YANP: So the drums are sampled as well?

GS: Yeah. I don’t know that I dare say who it is, though! … Well, actually I can say. It’s Zach from Hella.

YANP: Did you lay it out on your own and piece it together, or just start cutting up drum tracks?

GS: I basically chose what I was going to sample from purely on the basis of… I was only looking for songs about apples.

YANP: Really?

GS: Apples or bombs. I was looking for any samples that were in any way related to that. What I ended up with was maybe a coincidental group of stuff to choose from. We had already been playing that song, so it’s not like the song was written in a computer. I knew exactly how the song went. That was a song that I had written.

John made up this one dissonent chord at the end that was John’s chord. But as far as I can remember, that song was mine. So I had it figured out in my mind. It was just finding sounds to use to build that song out of. Then I picked these seemingly random songs to make it out of. It’s amazing once you set your mind to it, you can find what you need out of these songs.

Of course, before long it started to feel like “how could I have made this song out of any other songs but these?” But no, I don’t play any drums on that song.

YANP: I never really realized how many drumless sections there are in Deerhoof songs until I started this project. I drove back from Chicago pretty much exclusively listening to your drumming — thanks for keeping me from wrecking. So is that a decision that’s made when producing or in composition?

GS: That’s a good question. Um… I would have to say no to the first option. I don’t think it’s ever been something that’s been done in post-production, like I played drums and then we erased the drums. Maybe here and there. We’re definitely always looking for places to clear out clutter. We all have a tendency to overplay or to fill up space a little bit more than we really wanted to. So sometimes in mixing we are looking for things to erase.

So often we’ve recorded playing at the same time — pretty much almost always. So you can’t really erase it because the mics are bleeding into each other. So if you took out the drum mics you’d still hear the drums in the guitar mic. So it doesn’t really work.

For me, the drums are almost always a kind of an afterthought. The songs get written either in somebody’s head or on the piano or on the guitar. Usually the drums are the last thing in the song to get figured out. And more often than not, Satomi or John and now Ed makes up my drum parts for me. I can’t think of anything and I’m all worried about the guitar parts. So I’m like “I’ll play the guitar for a second, can you play drums and see if you can come up with anything?” And they’ll play it and I’m like “oh, I like that.” So very often I just play whatever they made up. But then I end up playing it very differently every time anyway.

So leaving the drums out in parts… I dunno. I guess I never even really thought of it that way. I think more of the overall picture — I think we all are. I guess I like hearing Satomi’s singing and I like hearing the guitar. I’m always fine with dropping myself out; it doesn’t bother me at all. [Laughs]

Actually, the “Fresh Born” thing we did, the sheet music that we did. I don’t know if you saw that but one song from our next record is already out as sheet music and people have been sending in versions. But when I wrote out the song as sheet music, one thing I left out was drum parts. There’s no drum parts in there. I didn’t really think about it at the time, but now that the subject has come up… I realize that I kind of don’t really think of the drums as being really that integral to any of our songs. They’re kind of an afterthought or just sort of a decoration. Whether the drums are there or not there doesn’t… I dunno, it doesn’t seem to make that much difference to me.

YANP: That reminds me of a quote I’ve heard attributed to Glenn Kotche of Wilco: “Playing loudly is most effective when you’ve mastered playing quietly.” Any thoughts on that quote?

GS: I think that quote makes a lot of sense. [Laughs] In a way I can’t agree with it exactly, because if I were to agree with it, that would imply that I had mastered playing quietly, which I definitely don’t feel like I have. I feel like a complete beginner. I sit down and I just start banging. I hardly know what I’m doing, really. So in principle I feel like it’s a great idea and makes perfect sense. But the honest truth of it is that I don’t feel like I’ve mastered anything.

Actually, I hate to do this to you, but John and Ed have just walked in for rehersal!

YANP: That is OK. I actually just have one quick last one.


YANP: If you had to go out like a Spinal Tap drummer, how would you want to go?

GS: [Laughs] Oh God! Well, that’s what I would do. Definitely I see myself playing drums right up to the bitter end. So the idea of dying while playing sounds OK to me at this point.

YANP: Any mode of death sound better than any other?

GS: Just natural causes.

YANP: Fair enough.

GS: I could just keel over in the second verse of “Dummy Discards a Heart” or something.

YANP: Nice choice!

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