The Way We Get By: Deerhoof’s Greg Saunier on Voivod’s Angel Rat

Stream Saunier's gentle rendition of the thrash metal band's presciently apocalytic 1991 album.

Most of us are sequestered in our homes, doing our part to slow the spread of COVID-19. That includes some of our favorite artists, so we’re asking them to tell us about one thing — a book, a movie, a record, whatever — that’s helping them get through this difficult time.

Deerhoof started in ‘94 and I had moved to the Bay Area in ‘91 — I had no job, was straight out college. I put up a flyer at UC Berkeley for drum lessons, and only one person answered. I started giving her drum lessons and then we became romantically involved. I didn’t have a car, so she was driving us around all the time. She had a tape player and the two things she had in it were Nirvana’s Bleached and Voivod’s Angel Rat. We just went back and forth between these two tapes. 

The first time I heard anything about Voivod other than from her was in a Spin interview — which was really funny, because yesterday Spin did an article about me covering that record. But at the time, over the next year or two, I ended up making a tape for her of Nirvana songs done exactly the same way [as the new album], with me strumming the guitar and singing really quietly. By now, Nirvana songs have been covered in every possible way, but they just seemed like these sort of indestructible songs that you could play in any style. This was before Unplugged came out, but it was kind of like I was doing Nirvana Unplugged into the tape recorder, just as a kind of gift to her. 

I’ve become an enormous fan of Voivod, I’ve seen them live a bunch of times. Every album they’ve done has been different from the previous, but I always felt like Angel Rat was a special one because it was extremely melodic. My dream was for Beck [to cover it] — his album at the time was One Foot in the Grave, which was a really stripped down record he did on K Records after Mellow Gold. I always felt like the funniest thing in the world would be if Beck recorded a cover of Angel Rat in a way that was the exact opposite. His style was sort of overtly humorous and apathetic and bored sounding, and he had this tone of irony and sang everything a little bit out of tune. Everything sounded kind of half broken. Then Voivod was this really heavy, futuristic, sci-fi progressive metal kind of thing that was really produced and epic, kind of intellectual. One was like the cliche of apathetic Generation X, and the other was the cliche of heavy, art-y prog rock. So I’ve had that idea in the back of my mind ever since then. 

Then I got invited to play a show at a little DIY space here in LA. Normally, when someone invites me to do that I’m like, What improv friend can I call up and do a duo with? — something that doesn’t require any preparation. But for some reason, I was moved to do a solo set. I was like, I don’t really know what I’m gonna do, I’ve got about a month to prepare… You know what? Let me look at this Voivod thing again that’s been at the back of my mind for years… 

It was just as COVID was starting to appear in the news, and the election is on, so apocalyptic themes are constantly in my Twitter feed. Then I’m looking at these lyrics from Angel Rat and it’s like they were written yesterday. It’s insane. It’s from ‘91, but it’s about people on the assembly lines being treated like robots, it’s about how TV news channels are all the same and giving such a distorted view of reality. It’s about how nature and the planet are rebelling against humans who think they have control over everything. One thing after another, all the themes made so much sense and it just struck me in this really intense way. It’s so beautiful and so on-point, and so needs to be said again.

So I made a TextEdit file of all the lyrics and projected them on the wall, and just scrolled through them as I played. It kind of went over well, I was really surprised! Once it was over, I thought I should record it while it was hot and I could still remember how to play these guitar parts. I recorded and mixed it in just a couple hours. Then I sent to our label Joyful Noise and said, “What should I do with this? Should I just put it on Bandcamp?” And Karl from the label said, “I’ll put it on Bandcamp for you! Just send me an album cover.” So I drew a really sketchy version of the back cover of Angel Rat with a marker.

When I was doing it, I didn’t necessarily think of it as being soothing, because the original record is really bombastic. Then I was imagining doing it in the style of Beck, who I also don’t think is soothing — or, at least he wasn’t in the era of One Foot in the Grave. I wasn’t able to pull off a Beck kind of tone. When I sing, I have sort of a weak voice and it does sound sort of gentle. So I think it was just by accident that it ended up sounding kind of soothing. 

I’ve got lots of friends I’m talking to in Asia and Europe who are talking about how the situation is so scary and perilous. You talk to them and then you realize they’re getting unemployment, or sick leave, or they all have perfectly good health insurance with no deductible. You start looking at here, and it’s kind of like: Forget the COVID. Yeah, probably over a million people will die from it in our country, but how many more million are going to die because they’ve starved to death or become homeless? 

You almost expect Trump to be as clueless or as evil as he’s being, but then you look at congress, and the response to save the population of the country is such a joke. It’s so pathetic. Mitt Romney suggested a one-time payment of $1,000, Pelosi suggests 20% of workers get sick leave for two weeks, then Kamala Harris comes back to Romney and says, “Well, how about $500?” Then Schumer comes out with, if you’re disabled or own a small business — which applies to something like Deerhoof — you could apply for a loan and pay interest. In other words, somehow magically you’re not just going to come up with the money to pay back the loan plus the interest, but you’re also going to have to pay all the things you were going to pay anyway, all of the rent and food to survive. 

Deerhoof put me in charge of the Twitter account and I’m sitting here trying to come up with language to describe what it feels like, and there’s not even words. They’re literally leaving most of the population to die. There’s no other way to put it. I don’t know what that means for me. Does that mean there’s no point in doing music? Does that mean there’s every point in doing music?

With this Voivod record, it felt like for me, learning it, all of its nooks and crannies, and living with the lyrics for a month — when I was doing it, I didn’t realize it would get as bad as it has now gotten, but it still was soothing to do it. To feel at least a kind of sense of purpose in the process of making it, to want to try to get it right. The emotion of the record felt like medicine for the bizarre cocktail of emotions that I was dealing with.

The coronavirus has hit many people financially, and it’s been especially tough on musicians who rely on touring to support themselves. If you’re able and inclined, check out Deerhoof’s Bandcamp and order a T-shirt, some vinyl, or whatever they’ve got on offer. Every little bit helps.

Greg Saunier heard “Start Me Up” when he was 13 and from that day forward has devoted his life to rock music. He is the drummer for Deerhoof as well as a composer and producer.