FOREWORD: Deeerhoof has managed to spread out its semi-avant experiments over several prodigious albums. Though co-guitarist Chris Cohen left to concentrate on his own band, The Curtains, whose ’07 release, Calamity, collected an eclectic array of proggish psych abstractions, Deerhoof survived as a threesome. ’05s Runners Four and ’07s Friend Opportunity proved to be just as pertinently irresistible as the bands’ predeccesors. I spoke to Cohen in ’04 to promote Milk Man. This article originally appeared in Aquarian Weekly.
Unafraid to challenge melodic preconceptions, extraordinary San Francisco experimentalists Deerhoof possess the ambition, ability, and abandon needed for cultivating unexplored territories. Without compromising integrity, the cordial quartet’s ‘04 venture, Milk Man, places their skewered ideas and dissonant incongruities in more conventional arrangements.
Contrasting ‘03s critically praised step forward Apple O’ by being less reliant on recurring themes and bassist Satomi Matsuzaki’s piercing soprano chirps, the deceptively complex Milk Man deconstructs rhythms, rhymes, and rhapsodies while keeping a keen eye towards reaching uncharted futuristic dimensions.
Helping Deerhoof investigate non-conformist undertakings, skillful guitarist Chris Cohen (Curtains/ Natural Dreamers) has quickly established himself as a fierce counterpart to fellow axe bender John Dietrich. Now living outside the Bay Area in Central Los Angeles, he persuasively crystallized the combo’s secure foundation.
“I originally saw Deerhoof play in early 2000,” Cohen recalls. “We still perform songs from (‘96s) Menlo Park. The first guitarist, Rob Fisk, left by (‘99s more song-oriented) Holdy Paws.”
Gaining solidarity amongst Deerhoof’s core sector, the quietly reserved Cohen permanently joined the evolving troupe for Apple O.’ Though initially interested in drumming, at age eleven Cohen’s sister rented an electric guitar. When she went to summer camp he began fiddling around with it, figuring out chord progressions for the Monkees’ “Steppin’ Stone” and an unspecified Sex Pistols song.
“My dad worked in the record business as a talent scout for A & M in the ‘70s,” Cohen confirms. “He collected soft pop and middle-of-the road music from ’68 to ’78. My parents were into Broadway musicals and Classical, but also Edgar Winter and the Rolling Stones on the hard rock side. My dad’s world at work was the Carpenters, Herb Alpert, and “Theme From Young & The Restless.” We got a gold record for that.”
While Cohen was in formative band the Curtains, one of their members unexpectedly departed, allowing Matsuzaki and Deerhoof founder Greg Saunier (drums-keys) to collaborate live on a few short numbers. The successful endeavor provided convincing evidence to refurbish Deerhoof’s theretofore revolving lineup. Dietrich, who’d started the Natural Dreamers as an instrumental two-piece with Cohen, was already a guitar fixture by ‘02s respectable breakthrough, Reveille.
Just as Apple O’ was recorded spontaneously in one day and mixed over weeks, running the gamut from quietly spare to full-on instrumental dalliances with Cohen’s stereo-separated six-string on left speaker and Dietrich’s to the right, the precision-guided Milk Man was pieced together instinctively using highly versatile well-refined material. Meanwhile, Matsuzaki’s submissively fragile utterances expanded beyond mere angular lullaby anxiousness to sweltering panoramic immediacy, adding more expressive tonal variance on Milk Man. The ace in the hole, Japanese-born Matsuzaki is a precociously uninhibited diva whose quirky caterwauls, cadaverous quivers, and cozily coquettish quavers endearingly inhabit Deerhoof’s art-damaged abstractions.
Cohen claims, “Satomi’s always been into music, but had never been in a band. She may have blown harmonica in school as a kid. She moved to San Francisco to be closer to a music community. She was friendly with local band Carolina Rainbow – whom she translated for. To get a visa, she went to film school.”
Indeed, Frisco’s freeform atmosphere and loose-limbed ambiance inform the deviating fundamental vestiges probed by these shrewd conceptualists.
“It’s hard to get a full perspective, but San Francisco, like any coastal city, has many cultures bringing new peculiar ideas. There’s a lot of fog and hills,” he says before making a comparison to the glittery City of Angels. “L.A. is totally flat open desert, causing certain moods (to be conjured). It’s more desperate. My girlfriend believes San Franciscans are self-righteous liberals who think they are so much better educated, but there is a definite insularity. When I was younger, I thought local band Thinking Fellers Union were part of a cool experimental art-rock scene.”
Undoubtedly, Milk Man embraces such cerebral investigative whims. Yet despite being somewhat sophisticated in approach, each divergent vignette retains an accessible veneer. The neo-Classical “Giga Dance” precariously flirts with King Crimson-Soft Machine-Renaissance prog-rock ambience until a short pipe-whistled shanty passage crosscuts icy Sugarcubes-evoked melodicism. Bleating satellite probes prod the percussive bass-throbbed operetta “Desaparecere” and grisly guitar scrapes counter tingling chimes on the solemnly askew “C.” Resoundingly blissful interpolating glistened cosmic transience, the radiantly ceremonious “Rainbow Silhouette Of The Milky Way” grasps for twinkling stars with stammered piano plunks and mallet décor.
A hook-filled sparkling gem with goose step guitar repetition and a darting stop-start reflux; “Milking” may be Deerhoof’s greatest bid for commercial acceptance.
Cohen expounds, “We thought people would like to revisit “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah” with computer generated samples. Trumpeter Leo Smith played one note we pasted into a little melody. We wanted to make an easily likable song. We use it as a climactic concert closer.”
Perhaps Cohen’s variegated record collection offers evidence of his own stylistic diversity, even as he clears out undesired vinyl debris.
“I’m looking for stuff to get rid of,” he laughingly suggests. “I enjoy Eddie Gale’s Ghetto Music. He was an avant-garde trumpeter who did a Big Band album with a strange folk bend. Betty Carter is a wonderful singer and King Sunny Ade’s records are stunning. I want to play like him. In Nigeria, he’s the master. I have a lot of his one-off weird African releases. I also like Top 40 hip-hop radio. That’s the most groundbreaking music being done now.”
He continues, “There’s the Casual Dots, whom I’m really fond of. They do what we try to do with guitars – basic musical pleasures – scales and intervals presented plainly. And I love the new Bobby Conn record.”
As for his bands’ near future, the youthful savant advises, “Everyone in Deerhoof is into doing something that comes natural, inventing our own homemade system that makes sense to us.”