DEERHOOF with THE FIERY FURNACES at the Opera House (735 Queen East), Monday (October 30). $17.50. 416-870-8000. Rating: NNNNN
It's easy to assume that inside every cult indie rock star beats the heart of a hardcore record geek.
If you take a good, close listen to your average contemporary pop song, you're bound to uncover onion-skin layers of influences stretching back decades. It's hard not to imagine that every "quoted" hook, every sly melodic or lyrical reference to a pre-existing tune or genre is deliberate.
When I suggest this to Greg Saunier, sweet-voiced drummer/keyboardist with San Francisco art rock innovators Deerhoof, he's flabbergasted.
"Every one of us in the band would be terrible at stocking a record store, figuring out what genre to file this or that album under," he laughs. "We're not good at recognizing the internal nuances between styles, and I think most people's ears are the same way. Ultimately, the genre's the last thing you care about. With an early Beatles song, you're just as likely to do the twist as you'd be to burst into tears while listening to it through headphones."
A fascinating collage that defies easy categorization, the band's sound has led writers to arrive at weird descriptions like "muppet garage music" and "shaggy geeky comfort music."
The wildly unpredictable tunes on Deerhoof's most recent The Runners Four (5RC/KRS) disc are a dizzying collage of dissonant guitar riffs, frantic keening melodies, snarly straightforward rock, jazz-inflected rhythms and the odd blues pattern.
"You can suggest that our song After Me The Deluge involves a conventional blues riff, but I'd have a hard time even understanding what 'conventional blues' means. The funny thing is that the part you're hearing as the blues, I realized after the fact was ripped off from the chorus of Yes's Roundabout. Jon Anderson's gonna be suing my ass!"
Deerhoof's been around for over a decade now, undergoing a slew of stylistic shifts and lineup changes since Saunier and original guitarist Rob Fisk founded the band back in 94. But they've been a fairly underrated, underexposed phenomenon - beloved by bands and fans in the know, generally foreign to folks outside the art rock community - until recently.
With the release of the ambitious, vaguely conceptual Runners Four, which received glowing reviews in major outlets like the New York Times, and high-profile mega-tours opening for Wilco and Radiohead, all of a sudden Deerhoof's kicking down doors to much larger audiences.
Saunier insists Deerhoof's career trajectory has been glacial and incremental, which he claims is a real advantage.
"If you look at Radiohead, at a certain moment they had a huge hit with Creep, and that became a burden. Audiences associated them with this one song, this one sound. They were brilliant in how they dealt with that, by pushing forward and making music that went in totally different directions, but they had to sacrifice a certain segment of their audience.
"With us, any fan I talk to encourages us to keep changing. It's such a privilege to feel pressure from your audience to keep experimenting."
Deerhoof's experimental approach, which results in the engaging unpredictability of their songs, comes from a place of trying to be "honest" to their ideas, says Saunier. They're prepared to combine seemingly contradictory lyrical and melodic elements "even if it doesn't fit with what you're supposed to do if you're an indie rock band. There are so many indie rock taboos!"
That kind of rule-breaking is something they share with "musical soulmates" Xiu Xiu, whose recent Air Force album Saunier produced.
The irony, he sheepishly notes, is that although both groups have a certain cool factor, an obscurantist cred that stems from their non-mainstream status and the relative inaccessibility of their music (the Killers this ain't), Deerhoof and co. are card-carrying, somewhat oblivious dorks.
"It's not natural for us to do something cool or hip or trendy that shows you grew up listening to the greatest hip, cool bands.
"In our band, [guitarist] John [Dieterich] grew up as a metal guitar shredder in the Midwest. It's hard to get less hip than that. Actually," Saunier corrects himself, "I was less hip. I was classically trained and didn't listen to much else. The only experience Satomi [vocalist Matsuzaki] had with music before this band was singing with a karaoke box with friends in Tokyo.
"I can't understand the cool factor at all. I'm here to tell you that that thought should be eradicated immediately, because nothing is less cool. Listening to Deerhoof is a sure sign of uncoolness. You're just a fool. We're dorktastic."