Deerhoof’s New Record is the Antidote For All Our Troubles

Eric Slick (Dr. Dog) on the magic of Actually, You Can.

The last time I witnessed the magic that is Deerhoof in concert was in 2017, at the Brooklyn Bazaar. I believe that they’re one of the last great bands left on this godforsaken planet. Every time I see them, I’m reminded of the lost art of the highwire act. The collective unit expanding and contracting, breathing together, sometimes hanging on by a mere thread. They fall apart and then land on beat one in an atomic explosion; the room shakes when they achieve this. The audience is lucky enough to be on that ride with them. It’s the most out-there shit you’ve ever heard and yet when you meet them, their politeness and gratitude are disarming. A band that’s this talented has no reason to be so utterly kind. 

Earlier that year, drummer Greg Saunier went out of his way to review my solo album Palisades and gave an absurd “10/10” review. Guitarist Ed Rodriguez and I were longtime MySpace pen pals, and we’d geek out about King Crimson, The Flying Luttenbachers, and US Maple. After the show, bassist/vocalist Satomi Matsuzaki handed me a homemade shirt that says “Deerhoof: Crystallized Smirk,” which is an inside joke/Japanese re-translation of the movie title Basic Instinct. It was beguiling and a perfect end to a dynamite show. 

This last year — nay, these last however many years — have been exhausting for all of us. Deerhoof’s Actually, You Can is the antidote for all of our troubles. When I think of Deerhoof, I think of unbridled joy. Reading Sadie Dupuis’ album bio (Sadie opened the Brooklyn Bazaar show with her project Sad13) confirms my suspicions about the album’s respective influences. Saunier describes the album as “baroque gone DIY,” and the fourth track, “Scarcity Is Manufactured,” struck me as a deconstructed version of a Bach fugue, or perhaps a nod to Gentle Giant’s ren-faire-via-prog-rock expositions. “Plant Thief” has one of the craziest scurrying guitar lines in the bridge section that resembles a Bartokian violin scale. 

As forward-thinking as their records can be, there’s also a nod to the band’s history and intrinsic sonic vocabulary. To my ears, the lead single “Department of Corrections” feels like it has a direct kinship to Friend Opportunity standout “Believe E.S.P” or perhaps Offend Maggie’s “Fresh Born.” Saunier’s groove is at its slinkiest in this tempo, and guitarist John Dieterich’s upfront riffage makes way for Ed Rodriguez’s dense interlocking rhythms. Satomi’s vocal delivery on this track is my favorite on the whole record, and her fuzz bass playing at the end of the song is spot on. Not enough is said about Satomi’s bass playing, and this album further canonizes her as one of the true heroes of the four string. The first half of the album’s closer “Divine Comedy” is the nearest we’re going to get to a Hoofian power ballad — then it explodes into an ‘80s David Foster Chicago tune meets Stravinsky meets Beefheart’s “Veteran’s Day Poppy” instrumental ending. It fucking rules.

I still don’t quite understand how Deerhoof makes records. There are so many seemingly disparate production elements, and yet I always feel like I’m listening to them playing in a room together. When you zoom in, you realize how unique their albums sound. It’s musique concrete but it’s also catchy, it’s pop music. I remember their Tape Op interview from 2006, and they would A/B their mixes of Friend Opportunity with Gorillaz albums. That made a lot of sense to me. Friend Opportunity was my introduction to Deerhoof, and it still runs deep in my life to this day. I remember being on tour in Russia and hearing “The Perfect Me” for the first time. The skittery breakbeat drums augmented with temple blocks, the layered power chords, and Satomi’s direct vocals all made sense to me. It was sonically combative, but also kind and welcoming. It was music that sounded like it was fun to make. It reminded me of Lick My Decals Off, Baby, but it was for my generation.

What makes a band special? In the early 2000s, I was tired of watching the dinosaur rock acts act cynical and jaded. I gasped in horror as a lot of my idols half-heartedly played their hits at small clubs and amphitheaters, trying to desperately relive some kernel of their youth. I also felt like the emo shows I went to were alienating. I wasn’t accepted in that scene. I remember wearing rainbow plaid shirts with orange corduroy bell-bottoms. I had long hair with mutton chops, so I wasn’t exactly fitting in. So I just tried to find bands that were technicolor and also had some integrity. I used to go see The Flaming Lips a lot. The main difference for me was that Flaming Lips sets were always ebullient, and you felt like you were floating with them during the entire concert. The room would elevate because they were passionate about the performance. 

Deerhoof deeply cares about what they’re doing, but perhaps they care about the audience even more. A lot of my friends look up to them as one of those inspirational musical unicorns — we ask ourselves how we can be as free as they are, and how we can potentially put that much love into our work. It’s a communal thing that we sometimes forget to factor into our performances. Touring was already difficult and it’s become even more unsustainable during the pandemic. Deerhoof is one of those rare bands that functions as the platonic ideal of a creative utopian universe. Everyone in the band has individual tasks and responsibilities, and that shared love of the end result is palpable. It’s more than a band, it’s a community project. I yearn to see them live again, and to hear this new record played with the kind of joy that only Deerhoof can bring to the table.

Blissfulness is at the core of Wiseacre, the strikingly purifying sophomore record from Eric SlickWiseacre is a location, literally. It’s the place he married the light in his life, Natalie Prass, and titling the record after it is an attempt at bottling the euphoria of his wedding day. The record isn’t just about the joy that comes from a loving existence blossoming out of a new relationship, it’s also about the hard work that it takes to get to that place. The majority of his time has been behind a drum set, spending the last decade rounding out the industrious outfit Dr. Dog, and as of late, touring as a newlywed alongside his wife.

(Photo credit: Shervin Lainez)