It's hard to picture a band as wild, mild, and Apple O'–pie sweet as Deerhoof causing a ruckus — yet they really have. Just picture the humidly frantic, hopped-up, and happy sold-out scene last year at the release show for Runners Four (5RC) at the Great American Music Hall. Or the national CMJ college radio chart assault by that same brave, increasingly addictive album, notable for the way it brings the voices of Deerhoof's crack instrumentalists — drummer Greg Saunier, guitarist John Dieterich, and bassist Chris Cohen — to the fore along with vocalist-guitarist Satomi Matsuzaki. Or the thousands at recent Flaming Lips and Radiohead shows bopping in place (or scratching their heads in bewilderment) at the opening group. Or the way the unassuming combo has of increasingly popping up on film (the forthcoming Dedication), on other artists' albums (backing Danielson on 2006's Ships), and even at elementary school (inspiring a ballet this year at North Haven Community School in Maine).
Now if only Deerhoof could cause a stir making political music or protest songs. "That's the one thing I wish we could do that I think is very hard to do," says Saunier on the phone from the Tenderloin apartment he shares with Matsuzaki before they leave to tour with the Fiery Furnaces. "I'm not sure we'll ever be able to do it, but I think it's a very interesting thing that bands or artists can grapple with — is it possible to do music that specifically makes some kind of political statement? That's sort of an eternal question. It's hard to find a way to sing an angry song about something bad that doesn't start to kind of need that something bad to exist."
Angry music is a challenge for a band that's as optimistic to its fruity core as Deerhoof. (Or else call them Madhoof?) The group began life in April 1994 as Rob Fisk's solo bass spin-off project from Nitre Pit, a goth metal quartet that the 7 Year Rabbit Cycle founder shared with Saunier. It has since evolved, eight albums along, from a rudimentary noise improv duo into a cuddly-cute but deeply idiosyncratic and utterly distinctive unit that seems intent on beating out a new rock ’n' roll language: part singsong child jazz, part cockeyed quirk pop, part J-pop dance moves, and part exhilarating and life-affirming anthems to stinky food, universally appealing pandas, combustible fruit, and toothsome cartoon critters. Deerhoof are making rock ’n' roll relevant again — and maybe even sexy in a noncliché, edible way — for punk nerds, jazz codgers, and baby-voiced girls who make their own clothes. Though Deerhoof's is an expansive tent.
"Something that is particularly cool about them is how generous they are with their time and talent and increasing popularity," Xiu Xiu's Jamie Stewart said of Deerhoof in 2003. "I have never heard them utter a snooty remark about other bands that are new and not well-known.... If they think that a band that is unknown but has a cool demo can possibly perk the ears of any record people they know, they send it on without asking for favors."
Matsuzaki joined in 1995, guitarist Dieterich and keyboardist Kelly Goode in 1999, guitarist-bassist Cohen in 2002. Fisk, Goode, and Cohen have since departed, but Deerhoof's compact herd has occasionally enlarged to include such players as Blevin Blechdom, Steve Gigante (Tiny Bird Mouths), Chris Cooper (Fat Worm Error), Arrington (Old Time Relijun), Joe Preston (the Melvins), and Satomi's dog in Japan, Brut. The members have busied themselves during their increasingly rare spare time with side endeavors such as Retrievers, Gorge Trio, Natural Dreamers, and Nervous Cop.
Now down to the lean Reveille-era lineup of Saunier, Matsuzaki, and Dieterich, the band sounds as fiery and fulsome as ever, reworking the Runners Four compositions to fit the three like a soccer jersey. And a dozen years on, Saunier is excited about the new paths the group has yet to pound. "I still think that there's a lot that's never even been tried in this universe with just guitar, bass, and voice," he says. "I still feel like almost a total beginner." (Kimberly Chun)