Women in Music 2019

Deerhoof Celebrates 20 Years With Release of Madonna-Inspired 'La Isla Bonita' Album

Deerhoof celebrates 20 years as a band this year, a feat that astounds founding member Greg Saunier. Not because time has flown by for the uber-influential cult band, but mostly because Deerhoof was never intended to last more than two weeks when it was formed, much less two decades.

With their 13th album coming out Nov. 4, Saunier recounts to Billboard the band's tenuous formation and the shadow of instability (but fertile creativity) that's hung over the group on every album and every tour since then.

Saunier also explains how their latest album, La Isla Bonita -- which was intended to be an over-polished homage to Madonna and Janet Jackson -- ended up being the rawest, punkiest record they've made since their 1997 debut.

Here's our Skype Q&A (Saunier lost his cell phone in March and has yet to replace it, which seems very fitting for the off-the-radar band) with the Deerhoof drummer/co-founder.

The new album is titled La Isla Bonita. That's a Madonna reference, right?

Yeah! When [lead singer] Satomi [Matsuzaki] was a kid, she was really into Madonna and Janet Jackson. When we were starting to think about what our next record should be, and I thought, 'Maybe it's time I catch up on this Madonna/Janet Jackson stuff.' Because by the late '80s, I had already tuned out of top 40 stuff.

In Japan, songs largely become popular through karaoke. So I imagined if she liked it, that meant she'd sung it a lot. So I thought that would be a good model for melody or singing style. So I go to iTunes and I'm listening to previews of every track, of every album -- songs I'd never heard before.

I was blown away by it. It felt like the last moment in American culture in music where pop stars were still being avant-garde with production. It still sounded like it wasn't meant to be a joke -- it was truly decedent. This feeling of disillusionment and cynicism hadn't crept into pop music yet. All music after Nirvana has that ironic edge to it now. So I felt like this was some interesting culmination of a musical style that reminded me of waltzes from Austria or Germany in a period before their cultures were about to crash and burn or turn to fascism.

Over a very long process, we ended up planning to do the record in that spirit. We were going to try to make our slick, over-produced, mannered, Rococo record. But then the joke was that when we got together to make rehearsal demo, we ended up liking the sound of these rehearsals recorded live in [guitar player] Ed Rodriguez's basement. They were super raw. They were written to be in the style of Madonna or Janet Jackson but then ended up sounding like early Deerhoof -- crappy-sounding recordings from an era where we had to struggle for months with a mix that sounded terrible.

It became a rough, ragged, no-budget punk rock thing that I thought was a neat post-apocalyptic tribute to this pre-apocalyptic sound. We had a name for the record that we were using until right to the last second, God 2, which ended up being one of the song titles on the record. But Ed's wife texted a massive list of song titles to him right before we got on a plane. A bunch of them were just names of Madonna's songs. We were dying laughing, thinking, 'This would be the funniest album title ever.'

So the final album is just the demo recording?

The vocals were recorded later at a small practice space in Brooklyn, but musically, we didn't go back and re-record one note. We captured the moment as we were figuring out the arrangement of the song. We wanted to keep it pure.

Mixing La Isla Bonita made me feel like a beginner again. During our tour with Celestial Shore as our opening band, they asked us to open for them at a basement show at a house in Syracuse called Enron Jr. That was our day off, but we realized it had been years since we played a basement show, so we said yes. There was only one guitar and one guitar amp, the audience was only one inch away from us, and we just blasted through this show. It was so loud, and the audience went berserk. As soon as the show was over, we realized we'd reconnected with an important aspect of our band. So we mixed the album while picturing the set-up of a basement show live, right in front of you.

You've been together as a band, in some form, for 20 years now. Is making an album much different now than when you started out?

It's been different before, but this one was the most like our first album, The Man, The King, The Girl. When we first started, it was just a duo, me and Rob Fisk. We only formed Deerhoof as a replacement for a band that had shows book but suddenly broke up -- Deerhoof was a last-minute Band-Aid. We never intended for it to last more than two weeks. We expected an audience of two or three at the first show, but then there were like 10, and we were surprised. The next show, we expected 10, and then there were 20.

There was this feeling in the early days of just going for broke. We were in San Francisco in the post-Nirvana musical landscape, and there was a feeling that all rock clubs were turning into dance clubs. All the practice spaces were kicking out bands and renting offices to start-ups. For a moment, it felt like guitar rock was going the way of the dinosaur. There was always a feeling that, "This is probably going to be the last show." We always felt the guillotine was going to come down. The crazy thing is, it's felt like this for the entire 20 years we've been a band.

In 20 years, we've never felt on stable footing as a band. We're always in danger of being forced to call it quits -- people have children, move on with their lives, whatever. It's a miracle that Kill Rock Stars is still going. Whether it's economics or health or lifestyle changes or losing the joy of it, we've seen a lot of labels peter out. The new formats of music release and the spread of pirating caused some labels to lose enthusiasm. Plus, careers are often made or broken in an instant by music blogs that, for whatever random reason, become extremely important in some magic moment.

I never thought that Deerhoof would last very long, and we were always surprised when we realized we could do another tour or record. And this record felt exactly the same as that. And it felt full circle, because it felt like recording our first record.

I'm surprised you feel that way -- you guys have enjoyed a lot of critical respect over the years. Are you saying you can't imagine the band lasting another 10 years?

No way, what, are you crazy? I'm not sure there will be another 10-20 years of planet earth, let alone Deerhoof. And we don't take it for granted that physically we'll be able to do this another 10 to 20 years. I would say we treat every show, certainly every tour, as the last one. We don't sell it that way, but we don't assume anybody will be there to care about it indefinitely. When we play a show, we have moments where we catch each other's eyes and can't believe we're still here. And that we can still stand each other! We rent a minivan when we go on tour, and jam ourselves, our equipment and merch in, and we're together 24 hours a day for weeks, months at a time.

That doesn't mean by some miracle the four of us always get along. It means by some miracle, the four of us are willing to put in the hard work of working it out whenever we don't get along. We fight about all kinds of things and there are times we can't stand each other. The four of us are so different from each other: Our backgrounds, personalities, music tastes. It's always felt like a band that shouldn't work. But like any long relationship, you don't imagine it once and press execute and then it works forever -- you have to keep reimagining it. Each show seems like a chance to celebrate the improbable.


The Biz premium subscriber content has moved to Billboard.com/business.

To simplify subscriber access, we have temporarily disabled the password requirement.