At an early-2000s gig with side-project Gorge Trio, Ed Rodríguez goes for a volume swell on his Strat-style axe while John Dieterich tinkers with his pedals and a thinline Tele.
Somewhere at the intersection of punk, art rock, free jazz, and pop is a special place where Deerhoof comfortably resides. Satomi Matsuzaki—who moved to the U.S. in 1995, had no band experience, and found herself in Deerhoof just two weeks later—somehow manages to combine vocal duties, solid bass playing, and calisthenics. And drummer Greg Saunier is a master of economy who can do more with a kick, snare, and single cymbal than many accomplish with a vast kit.
But guitarists John Dieterich and Ed Rodriguez are the band’s conjurers. They write parts that complement and antagonize each other, often changing course on a dime. Not only do they explore any part of the guitar that makes sound—employing behind-the-bridge, above-the-nut, and beyond-the-22nd-fret techniques—but they can also execute lateral runs and speedy double-stops that go head-to-head with revered shredders. Theirs is a style that’s virtually devoid of cliché.
Dieterich joined the band in 1999, nine years before Rodriguez, but they’ve been playing together for decades—and that’s apparent within minutes of seeing them at work. A Deerhoof show is a jaw-dropping display of creativity and chops, but more than that, it’s just fun. One of the hardest-working bands in indie rock, they’ve released, on average, almost an album per year since their 1997 debut, and they count among their fans artists as diverse as Phil Lesh and Annie Clark (aka St. Vincent). This year, Eastwood Guitars is even producing a Deerhoof guitar model that was designed with the help of Rodriguez and Dieterich.
The San Francisco-based quartet’s 17th and latest release, The Magic, finds them tapping into their most avant-garde tendencies while still leaving room for rockist riffs and allowing Saunier’s love of the Rolling Stones to peek through. Right before they hit the road to play dates in the U.S. and Europe, we spoke to the band’s 6-string duo about their genesis as players, how they generate their unique tones, the upcoming Eastwood model, and playing in one of the most off-the-beaten-path venues one could imagine—the Geneva, Switzerland, facility that houses the world’s most powerful particle collider.
You both started out playing keyboards. When did you switch to guitar?
Ed Rodriguez: My dad was a great guitarist. We lived in Waukesha, Wisconsin, the home of Les Paul. I started out playing organ and wasn’t even thinking about guitar. One day, at 13, he signed me up for guitar lessons, took me to a pawnshop, and bought me a Japanese Les Paul copy for $50. I eventually stripped it, and the neck is twisted—but I still have it! I was hooked early. I decided I wanted to be Hendrix, so of course I needed a wah pedal. My dad bought me a Memphis Auto Wah, which, of course, is totally different, but I didn’t know at the time.
John Dieterich: From 4 to 8 years old, I played piano. My brother decided he wanted a bass for his 15th birthday. I was four years younger and wanted to do anything he did. I decided I wanted a guitar, so our parents rented us instruments. I got a Hondo Les Paul copy. I’m left-handed, so I was playing it upside down, while my brother was playing his the regular way, and I thought, “Oh, crap—I got the wrong kind!” It was really awkward at first, but now I can’t even attempt to play the other way.
When did you first hear music that made you want to become a lifer?
Rodriguez: I never dreamed of doing anything else—even as a little kid I was playing organ at nursing homes. When I started writing on guitar, my teachers told me that it sounded a lot like Robert Fripp. So I went and picked up a copy of [Fripp’s 1979 solo debut] Exposure. The first song on that record is kind of a joke. It’s just a basic 12-bar blues jam. I was like, “This is what they think I sound like? This sucks! This isn’t what I sound like at all!” I threw it in a drawer and about a year later I listened to the rest of the record and thought, “Holy shit—Fripp’s amazing!” Then I bought some King Crimson, and it was all King Crimson for me for years. When I was 15, I read an article on Derek Bailey called “The Godfather of Experimental Guitar,” so I looked him up. Then I learned about Sonny Sharrock.
Since Deerhoof band members live thousands of miles apart, their latest album, The Magic, was written by circulating MP3s from afar before meeting in the studio.
I got a John Cage book when I was 14 and it completely blew my mind, though I hadn’t heard his music. Then, when I was 16, I went to a performance of his “Child of Tree”—which was amplified plants. As in, mics ... attached to a guy ... touching plants. I was sitting in the auditorium thinking, “This fucking sucks so bad.” His actual music is great, but his concepts are what completely changed how I looked at things.
Dieterich: Same for me—I read Cage’s Silence: Lectures and Writings, his other books, and many interviews. I loved how he was always reiterating everything: He had his spiel, and you got pounded with it.
Rodriguez: Yeah, and all these quotes like, “Two people making the same music is one music too many.” He taught me that it’s better to do something nobody else is doing. I really connected with that.
Dieterich: At 11 or 12, I was very introverted about playing guitar—I didn’t want to share it. It wasn’t for other people. Eventually I started playing with my brother and his friends. I was hearing Black Flag for the first time, as well as whatever was on the radio. My first year of college, I joined the BMG music club and I picked music based on either the cover or the description. I ended up with things like Captain Beefheart and the CTI Sampler: Masters of the Guitar compilation. The last song on it was Mahavishnu’s “The Dance of Maya,” which was very Crimson-esque, and I first heard King Crimson around the same time. But I was also seeing bands like the Jesus Lizard. Shred music was everywhere, so it was really inspirational to see Duane Denison play ridiculously stiff, brittle, un-bluesy stuff. It wasn’t supposed to feel good. It wasn’t supposed to be emotional. It kind of made your skin crawl. That was the first time I saw a guitar player do that. In fact, the aspect of McLaughlin’s style that I like is that it can be stiff. They were two of my big influences.
Dieterich: If you want to talk about life-changing guitar players, for me, it was seeing Ed for the first time in his old band Behemoth.
Rodriguez: This was pre-internet days, so we didn’t know there was another Behemoth in Sweden [laughs].
Dieterich: We were both living in Minneapolis at the time. I went to a show, and it was the first time I’d ever heard music like that. Ed was instantly my new favorite guitar player. I was terrified, but I thought, “I have to meet these people because this is my only chance of getting to play music that I like.” We ended up playing together in Colossamite and Gorge Trio.
This December 2014 performance captures Deerhoof’s energy and unpredictability. There’s some Robert Fripp in John Dieterich’s opening riff, but by the two-minute mark it’s all about signal destruction, pealing harmonies, and sputtering chaos.
You two seem to have a brotherly connection. Is there ever a feeling of brotherly competition, too?
Dieterich: I was very intimidated by Ed for a long time. I think he was much further along in developing his playing style. Seeing Behemoth for the first time made me think about music in a different way, but I didn’t know how to approach it. I had been improvising, but I didn’t know that it was actually a thing people did outside of jamming in your room, by yourself. It was nice to finally meet people who were further down the path that I desperately wanted to be on.
Rodriguez: I felt inspired when we met. We started working on music together immediately. I heard a definite voice in John’s playing. It’s great when you find common ground with someone.
Dieterich: Especially when it’s something that’s not specific or something you can label—it’s a kind of aesthetic affinity that’s much deeper.
Rodriguez: Our sense of rhythm and how we look at tension and release are similar. It’s very natural for us to complement each other. We know how to stay out of each other’s way. It sort of gives the impression of one big guitar instead of two guitars. A very common thing when we’re playing live is, I’ll think, “Man, what I’m playing is really cool!” And then it’ll change, even though what I’m doing with my hands hasn’t, and I’ll realize it was John doing something really cool. I can’t even tell us apart a lot of the time!
John, these days you’re in Albuquerque, and Ed, you’re in Portland. Greg and Satomi are both in New York. So how does the writing process work?
Dieterich: We write separately, pass around MP3s, then meet to put it all together.
Rodriguez: The only consistent thing about Deerhoof is that there has been no writing system that has lured us into a comfortable space. Part of how we stay so interested is we constantly reevaluate everything. When we were writing The Magic, we didn’t really spend much time together. On some of our records I can’t tell you whether I played on a certain song or if John played all the parts. Greg’s guitar demos might end up on final mixes. We’re really good with making the best out of the situation we’re in. People are often shocked that we don’t live in the same city, but I feel like we barely skip a beat.