Nearly three decades into their career, Deerhoof are still pushing themselves to try new ideas. For any band skirting the line between experimental and pop, that’s perhaps the least you can expect. But what makes their approach to innovation so unique – not just relentlessly idiosyncratic or unpredictable – has to do with how they harness the tension between playful and serious. Their music has been celebrated for its mystical sense of adventure and whimsy, for ignoring the boundaries of genre, but it’s also grounded in real-world problems and keeps seeking new ways of tackling them. Their 19th LP, Miracle-Level, out Friday, is their first to be recorded entirely in a proper studio and their first to be sung in Satomi Matsuzaki’s native Japanese. But it’s also a bold and significant entry in their catalog for carving a different path toward optimism than any of their previous albums, including 2021’s Actually, You Can, expanding its scope to the miraculous. The shift in Miracle-Level is as much about embracing a different model of enlightenment as it is about working within new creative parameters, and the possibilities they open up.
In addition to foregoing the language of “the world’s policeman,” as Matsuzaki put it in a press release, the band cites Rosalía, Meridian Brothers, and Mozart as some of the artists they drew inspiration from this time around. In our interview with the band, they also bring up other examples of non-English music, including the Mexican songwriter Silvana Estrada and Swedish “anti-pop” artist Shitkid. But what’s most fascinating is how these musical influences intersect with the personal, historical, and philosophical ideas that permeate the landscape of Miracle-Level. There’s really only one way to describe it, and it’s right there in the title.
Read our inspirations interview with Deerhoof’s Greg Saunier and Satomi Matsuzaki below.
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Satomi Matsuzaki: For me, I usually don’t get inspired from music. It’s almost like swimming in the ocean, you know, you’re looking in this huge ocean and look at this shell, and then you see a turtle –
Greg Saunier: [laughs] Wow, you had a lucky time in the ocean.
SM: I’m just saying that everything – I think that’s why Miracle-Level, the title, really clicked, because all these dots got connected when we made this piece. That’s why I said Kunie Sugiura, who did the artwork for this album – I met her before even we asked for this cover art. When Greg said, “How about this artist for this next album?” I’m like, “I’ve met her!” It was a miracle, and her personality is also so miracle. She’s been living in New York for 50 years and we have so many mutual friends, and she’s not money-driven like artists that I don’t connect to. I just thought this came together really amazing. The miracle happened while we were making this album.
GS: She came to our show in Tokyo last November, which is when the rest of us met her for the first time face-to-face. She was backstage, she was so into Deerhoof. She loved the music. She obviously totally got it, she got our sense of humor and our energy. She has a very youthful energy about her, you would never guess that she’s 80. It was as if we had already been friends for a long time. It was such a complete coincidence – coincidence doesn’t really cover it as a word, there’s more of a mystical thing to it.
Marchita by Silvana Estrada
GS: Once every month or two, I’ll find myself with a little bit of extra time at night, and I’m like, “I should see what music has come out recently.” I’ll just go to the iTunes and listen to previews, and previews are always short, but I can usually tell within just a couple of seconds whether something is not going to be something that I’m ever going to want to hear again. Somehow, I ended up on this Silvana Estrada, and I was like, “Wow, this sounds really good.” I ended up buying a song called ‘Casa’ that I listened to so many times.
One big difference for us when we made this record that was totally different than any other time was that we made the whole record in a recording studio with a producer. Recording Satomi’s vocals has 99% of the time been in a room like we’re in now, just home recording with one microphone, extremely basic. And then if we feel like it’s too plain, we’ll find ways in the computer to alter the sound. This time we’re like, “But wait, it doesn’t matter that I only own one microphone. The studio is gonna have tons of microphones!” This time we could try to achieve a sound that you kind of can’t get at home with really simple DIY home recording. And when I heard this song, the way that her voice sounds on this record, one of the things that’s special about is the volume is very low, but it’s not close up. Satomi often sings at a very low volume, even if the instruments ar deafening. But we’ve always done that where she is extremely close up and then the instruments sound more roomy.
I was just so caught by how it’s sort of an ironic sensation to be listening to Silvana Estrada singing at such a whispery volume, but it actually, in a way, sounds more intimate, because it’s not this incredibly close-up whispery sound I normally associate with quiet singers or with intimacy. The song ‘Casa’ that I sent to my bandmates and our producer is particularly empty – the instruments are barely playing anything, so it’s really prominent, the sound of the room. [Producer] Mike Bridavsky was like, “We have the perfect room, we can get this exact sound.” And then lo and behold, we get there, and he has the perfect room and got that exact sound. Our vision for the sound of Satomi’s vocals on this whole record just came completely from that, because it was something that we could never do at home. That was one of the very conscious inspirations that we were thinking about, for sure.
Satomi, what was that change like that for you?
SM: I tried so many microphones, I was surrounded by microphones. [Greg laughs] I’m so used to singing into it really close, because I have really low volume, but Mike kept telling me to step back, which I’m not used to. It’s like, “Come closer!” So I had a hard time trying to get the right distance.
GS: Last April, Sophie [Daws], my partner, I think she posted on the Instagram – which she never does, so it’s very noticeable – like, “Hey, did everybody see this? April is poem-a-day month, who wants to do this with me?” And the only two people who responded were me and our friend Muindi, who is also a poet, kind of a philosopher. He has collaborated with Deerhoof in the past; he wrote the essay that appeared on the Love-Lore poster. We already were doing kind of a reading group. So then for a month, we all wrote poems – both of them are poets, in the sense that they have lots of practice and experience, and I’m just like, “Sure, I’ll play along.” [laughs]
The other day, I looked back at all all the poems that I wrote last year that month, and I remember at the time being so proud of them, and looking back I’m like, “These don’t make any sense.” But funny enough, there were a couple that I still thought were pretty good, and one of them was about this miracle-level idea. Satomi wrote the lyrics for this record, but in this case she kind of based the lyrics around something that I had sent to her. I happen to have sitting here a notebook where I just have page after page of of song ideas, but I go back later, and one out of every ten is even worth looking at ever again. It felt the same with the poem thing – maybe one poem out of 30 had something to it.
It ended up being very similar to the lyrics of the song ‘Miracle-Level’, this idea that people write love songs all the time, it’s such a cliche. But we’re not just talking about some boring cliche level of love song. We’re talking about some extremely high level of love song, like high level of love, like a miracle level of love. It’s funny, sometimes it’s not like you have your philosophy of life in the universe first and then you write a poem about it or write a song about it; sometimes you discover what your philosophy of life is by making a poem, by making the song. I feel that way all the time, and this poem was that for me. As I was writing it, I realized what I feel, which is that, actually, the world is is completely stuffed with miracles all the time, every day, everywhere you look. And that actually, it’s the fact that capitalism teaches us not to see that, and to make us think, I’m only going to be happy if I buy this new TV set, or if I buy something that erases our perception of the miraculous that is already there for free.
Satomi, were you already thinking about any of these ideas when Greg sent over the poem?
SM: We were talking about the next album ideas, and then he showed me this poem, this idea of: Everything’s a miracle, except this 1% of non-miracles. So I’m like, “That’s great idea.” Because if you think about miracles, everything is miracles, except the 1% – I mean, I can write about anything, it’s such a wide-open, welcoming theme. So I had a very easy time to expand this idea.
SM: We have a song called ‘My Lovely Cat’, and I wrote the lyrics thinking about Lil Bub. Our producer, Mike Bridavsky, has this famous cat. They passed away, but I thought it was a great story that we worked with him. I’m such a animal lover, and I think animals are miracle. This song is about the the cat and how much he was loved, and how Mike was related to Lil Bub. I never met him before, but from the Instagram I got the feeling that he was such a nice guy and he loved Lil Bub so much. To me, that was a memory of Lil Bub, who kind of spread love around the world. My Japanese friends knew Lil Bub, so they were excited when I told them, “I’m working with Lil Bub’s dad!”
Because of the statement you put out, I wasn’t sure if you knew Lil Bub when you wrote the song or if it was just dedicated to Lil Bub.
GS: I wasn’t sure either. I didn’t know about Lil Bub, I knew nothing. I think maybe you looked at Mike’s Instagram and found this, but I had no idea until later. We were playing the song, we were rehearsing it right before recording, and I still didn’t know that you were thinking about Lil Bub. We’d been rehearsing it for like weeks or months. [laughs] If Satomi had written our press release, it would have been a completely different story.
That’s an amazing story. I guess you could have known about Lil Bub, but not known she was a celebrity cat.
SM: I didn’t know it was a celebrity cat, but I knew the name. After the fact, we worked with him, and we realized how popular Lil Bub was. I was just amazed.
The Nutmeg’s Curse: Parables for a Planet in Crisis by Amitav Ghosh
Let’s get to something completely different – or maybe not so unrelated?
GS: It’s so related. This book, I read it after I had written that poem. And actually, it was Muindi who recommended it to me. Writing the songs, playing the songs, writing that poem, finding Kunie’s artwork, translating the lyrics into English and deciding how we wanted to appear on their record jacket – all of that, combined with Nutmeg’s Curse, it just helped it all make sense. It all started to feel like it was about one thing. An idea that wasn’t there a year ago started to become real. And through the process of making the record, including things like listening to these inspirations or reading this book, I feel like I perceive the world or world history in a different way than I perceived it a year ago.
It’s very much about cats, because a lot of what he’s talking about here is that for millennia of human existence, it was completely normal to believe that animals talked and that plants had souls and that mountains could sing, that animism was common and widespread. In the book, he describes one story about a volcano in the Banda Islands between Indonesia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea. Geologists determined that the last time this volcano erupted was something like 8,000 years ago, and the story had been passed down that many generations and was still told. Thinking of that lifespan, not just animism in general, but even the specific stories about this one mountain, and then thinking about the tiny blip of time – the 500 years that existed when a few Europeans decided to experiment with a completely opposite philosophy in which the world is not alive and has no spirit and is inert and mechanistic, and is really just there for us to exploit, to create as much profit for myself as possible – is just this tiny sliver of an experiment in human history. People had to be enslaved and exterminated and indoctrinated over centuries violently in order for this to become the dominant philosophy on earth. And in this short blip of time, we can see where this philosophy has brought us. It’s brought us, basically, to the edge of extinction.
One of these islands was the only island where clothes grew, and another one of these islands was the only island where nutmeg grew, and so they became incredibly valuable to colonial powers – first the Venetian Empire, then the Portuguese Empire, and then ultimately, the Dutch Empire. He uses that one example of the exploitation of this one spice from this one tree on this tiny little island as a kind of micro version of the system that the world uses now. It’s such a beautiful book, and so informative and filled with data and statistics that you can’t argue with. For me, it just resonated with what we were thinking about in the lyrics. When we first came up with the thematic ideas, I felt really shy about my poem. [laughs] I was like, “Does this make any sense? Is this just so corny?” It’s so against everything that you’re taught your whole life, at least as an American, that you feel embarrassed. But then meeting Kunie, finding out that Satomi and Ed and John understood the idea of my poem, and then reading this book, made me feel like my little suspicion makes more sense than I thought. The more you research it, your whole worldview changes.
SM: That’s interesting, because I think Asians strongly believe in spirits still. We believe in ghosts, everything has this spirit. That’s how I grew up, listening to those stories. You appreciate everything if you think you are surrounded by spirits.
GS: That was something personal for me. I don’t remember that I even shared that band with my bandmates or if they’ve ever heard of it. Since Satomi joined the band in 1995, which is 28 years ago, Satomi and I have always shared an interest in singers who don’t express really obvious, overt emotion. Like, Nico is a singer that we both always liked, the perfect example of this sort of icy – of course, when you hear Nico sing ‘All Tomorrow’s Parties’, which is one of our favorite songs that we covered, it is very emotional, but it’s not because she is giving you signals that she feels a lot. The emotion is inside, but she is kind of detached from the emotion in her delivery.
Around the time we were writing songs for this record a year ago, John had written a bunch of demos already, but they had no vocals on them. So I’m at home brainstorming, trying to think of melodies, and one method that I use sometimes is to try to imagine what another singer would sing over it. For many years, I’ve tried to look for other examples of singers who sing in a kind of detached way, that is very direct and without these emotional signals. Right around that time I discovered Shitkid, and I thought they were so funny. I really related to it because it was super bare-bones garage rock, but I really loved her presence and her delivery, because I also felt that it was not giving you that gendered stereotype of: I’m the hysterical female vocalist who’s experiencing all these emotions that are overwhelming me. That’s the gendered cliche of the female pop singer, is that they’re selling their song by giving you the gift of their overwhelmed emotional state – for you to contemplate, or for you to make fun of, for you to say, “Wow, that’s a hysterical woman right there.”
When I found Shitkid, I thought that she sang in a completely not hysterical, not gendered, not emotional way. And actually, her delivery was not only unemotional, but almost mocking you for even listening to her band. You could have confrontational singers in a hardcore band who are screaming all the time and their face is contorted in anger, but she had this blank expression – the content of the songs could be very shocking or it could be about something emotional, but she had this total detachment from the audience and from the emotions.
If you think about ‘All Tomorrow’s Parties’, the piano part is kind of fast, but Nico sings really slow, and that has often been a way that we have solved this problem in Deerhoof. A lot of times, the instruments – the three of us, the men in the band – are the hysterical ones who are emotionally overwhelmed all the time and freaking out, and often the vocals are slower than the music. But something I really liked about Shitkid, is that the singer, her vocals were fast, and I heard it for the first time at really the right moment. I realized she was providing me with a different solution to this problem: You can still sing fast and have lots of words. There’s songs like ‘And the Moon Laughs’, where I proposed a melody to Satomi, and Satomi ended up writing all the words, but the melody was directly influenced by Shitkid. And also ‘Momentary Art of Soul!’, another song of John’s that was finished instrumentally.
Analog Africa’s compilation La Locura de Machuca (1975-1980)
GS: When I go to iTunes and I’m seeing what the new music is, I spend most of my time in the classical genre or the worldwide genre. And in worldwide, that was a new compilation that had just come out. Normally, we have like a year to make a record, because we’re doing it ourselves and we’re doing it at home, so we can just tinker and try every variation. We can work it for so long, and we knew this time we’re gonna walk into a recording studio and two weeks later the record is done – no more overdubs, no changing it, no remixing, no anything. We were kind of terrified. We have a lot of experience as a band, but not doing that. [laughs]
As we were brainstorming with each other, we were like, “What can we do to make sure that this record is finished in two weeks?” We have to record it in one week and mix it in one week, and it was the mixing that especially scared us. It needs to be easy to mix, let’s put it that way. One of the things that always makes our record so hard to mix is the really loud drums – it’s mostly my fault, these bashing cymbals and high hats all the time. [laughs] It feels good when you’re playing it, but when you go to mix it, it’s such a pain. You spend months trying to figure out some solution to why the drums sound so terrible. We’re adding samples, we’re overdubbing other drums or we’re just covering it all with tons of guitars. Also, when we make a record, we might feel the desire to add lots of guitars and keyboards, just to make the sound more lush, make it bigger.
When I heard this compilation, the arrangements were so bare minimum. There’d be like one instrument and a couple of percussion things, no really loud drums or anything. I don’t know, but when you listen to it, it has a spontaneous feeling to it, as though these performances happened in one take. There wasn’t a lot of time, they just recorded it really quickly. They mixed it just in one try. It’s very rough, the vocals are not slick or perfect in any way. Also a lot of character, quite funny. Ed had been writing a lot of music over the past few years that had a kind of a Latin rhythm in it, and some of that had appeared on some of our records. So when I heard this compilation of this Colombian music, I was like, “Guys, you gotta hear this. We should model it on this.” You can tell that they did not spend more than two weeks on any of this. In fact, it sounds like they did it in maybe an hour or two. Satomi, do you remember the cover of that compilation? These three guys in these costumes?
SM: I thought it was a festival.
GS: Yeah, I think the story of this compilation – it was all music recorded in this one studio during this one brief period in Barranquilla, and I think the guy who had started the label and started at the studio was going to some really underground, I don’t know if it’s festivals or kind of dance parties –
He was a tax lawyer, right?
GS: He was a tax lawyer, exactly! [laughs] No musical experience, he wasn’t even a musician. But he found out about this underground party scene where people were having these parties, and the music was so bare bones and so minimal. This tax lawyer funded to build this studio and have them all come in and record their party music.
SM: That was great, I liked it. You can tell the atmosphere is fun. The improvisation aspect of it was so fun, too.
GS: And live. So that was something that we knew we wanted to do – we were gonna play everything live when we got to the studio. We did the vocals later, but the instruments, we all did in one go. Everything was one take, maybe two takes if somebody messed up. I remember ‘Momentary Art of Soul!’ took a few tries because that was one’s really complicated. [laughs] But we wanted to have the sound that we were all playing at the same time and that it was rough and spontaneous – not lo-fi, but just raw. Satomi’s always been a champion of that in our band. Sometimes the rest of us go overboard with wanting to add overdubs and add keyboards to things – basically put things on our records that we cannot recreate at our concert – and Satomi’s always been the voice of reason saying, “Why don’t we make the record something that we can actually play?”
SM: That makes more sense, right? Because we need the record to be: This is the song. And then you go to the show, and we can do whatever we want. That’s the sprinkles, I feel.
Wedding Songs for Karaoke at Weddings in Japan
This ties into the final track on the record, ‘Wedding, March, Flower’.
SM: Greg made up this song and I was writing lyrics, and I’m like, “My friends are getting married in Japan pretty soon.” Always there’s the ceremony and you go to this party, but in Japan, there’s a karaoke party. It’s always really corny, bad wedding songs for karaoke. I’m like, “If I write a wedding karaoke song, then people would enjoy singing at the wedding party.” I’m always interested in writing songs for the occasion, you know, like a ceremonial event. So I’m hoping for this song to be sung at somebody’s wedding. [laughter] You don’t have to be Japanese to sing it.
GS: [raises hand] I sang it, I’m not Japanese.
SM: It’s a beautiful melody that Greg wrote. A wedding is a little bit sad, you know, it’s not all fun.
It’s really evocative. So much of Miracle-Level feels to me like it’s about the thrill of imagination, but this song seems to exist more in the realm of memory.
GS: I think that it’s both. I do think that there’s still the element of looking towards the future and imagination. It’s right along with the Amitav Ghosh idea that there’s a bee that’s whispering secrets to you in the middle of the ceremony, and the idea of non-humans that can speak and have messages and have influence over your life. Of course, I resonate with the idea of it being sad, and remembering – I mean, Satomi and I have each been married once, and it was to each other. That ended a long time ago, but it was impossible for me to perform the song and sing the song without remembering that. There’s a mixture of emotions, sadness is included, and it’s definitely real.
SM: But a wedding is, I feel like, not just about partners, but also our band, or whoever you are spending time with. I think it’s always nice to appreciate the accompanying relations. It’s very important that we connect each other, to have imagination together. In a wedding, it’s always nice when you meet someone you’ve never met, like a friend’s friend. It just brings everybody together, so I think it’s a nice closing song to bring everybody together.
GS: It also makes me think of how a wedding takes people apart, because the idea of the wedding is that, now that you’re in this relationship with this person, you will no longer be together with the family. You’re leaving the family. And the idea of a wedding – there could be the official, on-paper wedding, but it’s also sort of like Satomi, Ed, John, and I are married. And often it does have the feeling both of being tied to each other, and that relationship being beautiful and ongoing, but also it being sad because it takes you away from your home. And that’s what being in a band is pretty much always like – it means saying goodbye to home because you have this other marriage that you have to work on.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.
Deerhoof’s Miracle-Level is out March 31 via Joyful Noise.