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Interview: On the eve of this weekend’s Foo Fest in Providence, a chat with Deerhoof’s John Dieterich

 

Providence during the summer time always has something unique and fun going on. Often, there are streets blocked off with the biggest music fanatics in the city slingin’ vinyl and talking shop, usually followed up with a screening of one of your favorite films later that night. Adorned with food trucks on every corner serving scrumptious grub, you’re bound to run into a bunch of friends who are having as much of a blast as you are. All day tomorrow, there will be one of these block parties happening that’s the biggest of them all, featuring a plethora of Providence’s finest artists and bands.

Celebrating their 30th anniversary this year, art non-profit, and performance space haven AS220 will be putting on their 20th annual Foo Fest, taking place right outside the organization’s headquarters on Empire Street in the heart of the city. With acts such as garage surf punks Gymshorts, black metalheads Sire, synth rockers Beta Motel, orchestral folk quartet Vio/Mire and many more on the bill, the diversity and variety can’t be duplicated. Along with the killer tunes there will be an Anarchist Book Faire happening on the premises and the Rhode Island Mini Maker Faire going on right next door at the Pell Chaffee Performance Center. There’s going to be so much to check out and enjoy that it might make your head spin.

Headlining the festival this year is Deerhoof, the San Francisco noise-pop act that have become something of legend within the independent music scene since their start in the mid-’90s. Recently guitarist John Dieterich and I had a chat about the band doing everything on their own terms, playing on a record versus producing a record, making their latest album La Isla Bonita in a basement, being an influence on many of their contemporaries and the future of DIY.

 
 

Rob Duguay: Over the years Deerhoof has garnered acclaim for their DIY work ethic with self-producing their albums and self-managing their entire career. Was there a lot of difficulty in the ’90s while artistically abiding by the DIY lifestyle versus now where any band can do things DIY?

John Dieterich: It’s not that it was harder, it’s that the choices maybe were a little different and less. For example, if you wanted to really produce your own recording in your house at that time you were recording on a 4-track and that was a method that Deerhoof used on several records. The limitations were different I think.

Did you have to improvise more back then due to the less choices you had?

 
 

Basically it’s just that the range of possibilities was smaller, for better or for worse. If you were to figure out a new way of doing it, it took work and I think it still does. In some ways it’s much harder now because from a production standpoint it’s easier to record your album but for actually getting out there and touring and finding a way to get people to listen to your record it’s not the easiest thing in the whole world. There’s so many bands and it’s a whole new universe I think.

With there being so many bands it seems as if you’re wading in the water and you’re just trying to stay afloat. Along with being in Deerhoof, you’ve also produced albums from the likes of Half Japanese, A Hawk And A Hacksaw and Surfjan Stevens among others. Do you follow any different routines between playing and producing or do you handle each project as it comes to you with no major changes?

For me, it’s just completely based on the project. I think everybody probably has their own habits and patterns which you are forced to get away from when you jump into a whole new situation because all of a sudden your habits and patterns aren’t particularly useful in these situations and there’s a certain inevitability for that. The Surfjan thing was a remix that I did so that’s sort of separate but in terms of recording and producing other bands and mixing things, it’s just a matter of working with them, seeing what they want, how they want this to sound and what it’s relationship is to previous things they’ve done. When I worked with A Hawk And A Hacksaw, they’re from Albuquerque, they’re good friends of mine so I basically went to their house everyday for a month and we really got into it together for a really collaborative experience. Working with Half Japanese, I finished mixing a new record by them nearly two months ago and that process is different. They send me finished tracks, it’s not like I’m collaborating with them on the writing of the songs or anything. I just hear the songs and then I mix and master it. It’s different, in some respects I have more freedom in that I’m doing it by myself in my house and I’m making all these decisions and I’m sending the stuff to them for feedback. It’s just different processes I would say.

Do you find yourself being pushed out of your comfort zone a lot of the time when it comes to collaborating with an artist or with producing, mixing, and mastering?

 
 

Yeah, totally. I would say that it’s hard to be in your comfort zone at all in those situations. You find incredibly small pockets of comfort but most of the time but it feels more natural to me to be sort of confused and unsure. It’s interesting because I think there was a time in my life where I had this idea that the musicians and artists that I respected were comfortable and I’ve come to realize that most people aren’t. If anything you could say that they’re being comfortable in their uncomfortableness, they’re not afraid to be confused and that confusion is part of the creative process and I have found that is more often true than not.



Deerhoof’s latest album La Isla Bonita was released in November of last year and it was made in bassist Ed Rodriguez’s basement. What do you think gravitates bands to stay away from a regular studio and do a home recording or record an album in a unique place?

The obvious response is that it has to do with money. I like recording in recording studios and it’s great fun to have control and to be able to really hear what things sound like. When we were recording in Ed’s basement we were all in this tiny little room with a bunch of recording equipment and you can’t tell what anything really sounds like on the recording until after you record it.

 
 

So I love recording in recording studios, however it’s expensive and also the fact that it’s expensive means that it’s also prohibiting in other ways, it elicits a certain kind of performance or it can. You can fight against that but unless you’re spending a year and you get used to it or something, for a lot of people it’s a freakout. You get in there and you get out as quickly as you can because every minute is expensive. I remember one time when I was living in Oakland one of my friends had a band called The Breezy Days Band and they wanted to record with car batteries to power amplifiers and basically go camping and record an album in the woods. We did it and the result was something that you couldn’t have gotten in any other way.

It’s a great experience and ultimately, depending on how you think about recording, it’s not so abstract with it just being a song and you wanna make a good recording of it. The performance of it can become a work of art so whatever the circumstances are become what it is. It’s not so much that one’s better than the other, it’s more has to do with what your goals are and what do you care about.

That’s a crazy story with a band recording an album in the woods, I wonder if they picked up any wildlife that was making any chirping or growling sounds.

Oh yeah, totally.

 
 

It must have been pretty fun. The likes of The Flaming Lips, St. Vincent, Foo Fighters, TV On The Radio, Grizzly Bear and so many others have credited Deerhoof as an influence. I find it interesting because some of these bands have been around longer than you all have, so how does Deerhoof handle this acclaim? When you hear about Wayne Coyne or Dave Grohl giving you praise, do you ever let it seep into your mind or do you completely ignore it?

It’s exciting when you’re in a situation where you discover that one of your musical heroes is a fan. Most of these cases that you’ve described are bands that we’ve played with. We’ve developed a rapport with these bands and have had a musical conversation with them, so we would play shows with them or this kind of thing. It’s kind of like the feeling of making a new friend, it’s a great feeling and there’s an artistic side to it. You don’t necessarily expect anyone to like it and when someone who you respect a whole lot likes it then it’s obviously exciting. I don’t know how to exactly describe it.

There must be a lot of mutual admiration going on too, definitely seems like it. We’ve kind of talked about this earlier, these days you have a lot of bands doing things by themselves. You can upload your music on Bandcamp for free, you can easily record an album in your house, the internet gives artists a lot of possibilities to showcase their work and it’s all about how they present it to a mass audience. With all of that going on today, what do you think the future holds for artists who abide by the DIY work ethic?

I think that remains to be seen, it’s whatever we make it. It’s interesting because when I joined the band 15 years ago and we started playing shows basically immediately and started touring within a year or two. Within that time frame things have changed so much and we made a conscious effort early on to have as much control over what we were doing as we could. We drive ourselves, we manage ourselves. If we’re going to get a hotel room we do it ourselves. We do have people that help us release our music and book concerts for us and things like that but every decision that we make that removes control from us has always been very difficult. With booking we basically know that we have no idea how to do it, we sort of do and we’ve done it a little bit in the past. The way things have gone for us is that we started off with this idea of how you should do things and now it’s become a necessity for everyone to operate that way. Not everyone, but 99% of the musical world needs to operate in this way if you’re going to have any chance of survival whatsoever. In a way, it’s been less jarring for us than it has been for a lot of other bands because we never were traveling in a tour bus. We never had a manager, we never had all the things that were much more normal for people at a certain time. It was never a part of our situation.

 
 

FOO FEST :: Saturday, August 8, along Empire Street in Providence, RI :: 1 p.m. to 1 a.m., all-ages, $10 at the gate :: More information :: See below for full lineup and set times

INDOOR STAGE
1 p.m. to 2 p.m. – Providence Poetry Slam
2:30 p.m. to 3 p.m. – Omnivore
3:30 p.m. to 4 p.m. – Bloodpheasant
4:30 p.m. to 5 p.m. – Suicide Magnets
5:30 p.m. to 6 p.m. – Good Lord
6:30 p.m. to 7 p.m.: – Way Out
7:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. – Sire
8:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. – V-Sect
9:30 p.m. to 9:45 p.m. – Leeman Kessler as HP Lovecraft of Ask Lovecraft
10 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. – Fucking Invincible
11 p.m. to 11:30 p.m. – Finished

OUTDOOR STAGE
1 p.m. to 1:30 p.m. – Bored with Four
2 p.m. to 2:30 p.m. – Spocka Summa
3 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. – Vio/Mire
4 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. – Zukrewe
5 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. – Moor Mother Goddess
6 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. – Roses
7 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. – Gymshorts
8 p.m. to 8:35 p.m. – Beta Motel
9:05 p.m. to 9:20 p.m. – AS220 Talks To You
9:20 p.m. to 10:05 p.m. – Death Vessel
10:35 p.m. to 11:20 p.m. – The Low Anthem
11:50 p.m. to 12:50 a.m. – Deerhoof


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