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Open Ears, Insert Deerhoof

Deerhoof are the most creative band in indie rock today, but drummer Greg Saunier is crushing — brutal! — in assessing the group’s work. I ask him if the Bay Area band — which formed in 1994, releasing a stream of albums ever since — retool for every record. He gives a nervous little laugh that sounds the way Ha ha ha looks.

Ha ha ha. I like ‘retool,’ ” says Saunier. “It makes our process sound more desperate, more just completely confused and admitting that we have no idea what we’re doing, and nothing’s working at all, and just kind of going back to the drawing board and starting from scratch and attempting something completely different from what we’d attempted before.” Saunier speaks in big run-on sentences like that. “Sort of starting with the assumption that we’d failed completely and had to start over.”

So that’s how they do it.

Every Deerhoof album, including the brand-new Friend Opportunity, positively swirls with ideas — some big, many small. Can’t think of a reason why a marching-band drumbeat shouldn’t accompany a mariachi horn line? Neither can Deerhoof. Don’t feel that riff-crazed punk should deny itself the occasional snort of party-band funk? Neither do Deerhoof. Not convinced that Top 40 fare eats your soul? Neither are Deerhoof — though they record on indie stalwart Kill Rock Stars.

“If I had to pick a category to belong to, I’d probably be most happy with ‘pop,’ ” says Saunier. We’re speaking by phone on New Year’s Day, by the way, and Saunier is snowed in at his parents’ house in Santa Fe, unable to return to wife (and bandmate) Satomi Matsuzaki in SanFran. He remains cheerful and chatty. “ ‘Pop’ gives you the least amount of information about the people who listen to it, and about what the music sounds like,” he continues. “Pop can be anything.”

On Friend Opportunity, it is. The follow-up to 2005’s sprawling The Runners Four, it is Deerhoof’s most imaginative and tightly conceived effort: 10 pounds of art-rock experimentation squeezed into a 5-pound bag. What compels the band most is contrast: loud vs. quiet, hard vs. soft, melody vs. noise. Their favorite source of friction is layering Matsuzaki’s delicate, high-pitched voice over Saunier’s frenzied pounding; when you see Deerhoof live, you might wonder if the pair believe themselves to be playing in two different bands on two different stages.

The last few years have been important for Deerhoof: They’ve opened shows for bigtime acts such as Radiohead, Wilco and the Roots; they’ve played Coachella; they’ve amassed a phone-book-length volume of admiring press clippings. “We feel like there’s just so many people who are listening to our music — more than we ever dreamed,” Saunier marvels.

Yet last May, Chris Cohen, who’d been a member of the outfit since 2002, left the group to focus on his band, the Curtains, which he’d formed in L.A. before joining Deerhoof. “Deerhoof is busy,” Saunier explains. “There’s just no time left over to do anything else. I know for a fact that it was very hard for Chris to decide. It’s like trying to decide which life dream are you gonna make come true and which one are you gonna sacrifice.”

“It’s sad to see Chris go from the band,” Saunier says. “He was always really funny.” Matsuzaki agrees with her husband in a separate interview: “We miss Chris’ companionship. He is a funny person to be around.” Still, Saunier admits, the remaining three members of Deerhoof (including guitarist John Dieterich) don’t exactly miss Cohen’s musical presence in the band — at least not in the way you’d expect.

“We don’t tend to write songs as a band,” he explains. “We don’t even have a rehearsal space or anything. Anytime we would even attempt to make some music just by jamming, it would always degenerate so fast into jokes.” Ha ha ha. “If somebody would come up with an idea, then the next person’s musical response was always to make fun of it.”

Instead, each member writes music alone, then brings the material to the other two — “and the songs that somebody writes at home are so unbandlike,” declares Saunier. “It has nothing to do with an arrangement; it’s more like this abstract song idea that could be arranged in a million different possible ways.”

That comes across on their records, and it’s part of their brilliance: The music sounds almost random, as if it could be infinitely reconfigured. There’s a sense of freedom you don’t get much these days from indie rock, where, often, how closely you adhere to a form is more important than how creatively you diverge from it.

“I think a lot of what we try to do is ideas that we’ve never tried before,” Saunier muses. “I think we end up doing songs that when you first think of it, it’s like, ‘What? We could never play a song like that.’ Or, ‘That musical style is totally taboo. An indie rock band is not supposed to sound like that.’ ” Says Matsuzaki, “I like to throw away everything and start from scratch. We try to do something different every time.”

Sometimes that takes a while. “One song on the new record, ‘Matchbook Seeks Maniac,’ I think probably I’ve been working on that song for maybe 13 years,” Saunier laughs. “The chorus of that song is actually on an early Deerhoof LP — it’s a little bit hard to find — called Dirt Pirate Creed. That melody appears on there in a couple different places. And over the years, I’ve just been trying to find a place to fit it in.”

All this hard work has primed Deerhoof for a breakthrough beyond the opening-band, college-radio realm. Recently, the band held down the splashy featured-artist spot on MySpace, prompting an avalanche of new friend requests — which, as any struggling band might tell you, can mean everything or nothing. As Saunier notes, “It’s amazing the amount of mail you’re getting that’s actually hate mail. People who actually hate your band. They’re looking for some good music on MySpace and trust MySpace to choose something nice for them, then they end up with Deerhoof and they think it’s just the worst thing they’ve ever heard. If anybody wants to look at our MySpace comments, you’ll just see the barrage of four-letter words and insults and utter hatred.”

One example, culled at random: “ur not my friend . . . stay away from me.” Sounds like the title of a Deerhoof song.

Deerhoof perform Wed., Jan. 24, at the El Rey, with openers Hella and Busdriver.


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