For the last 26 years, Deerhoof have sounded like the future. Since forming out of the ashes of San Francisco’s ’90s grunge scene, the explosive indie rock band have made fans out of Radiohead, The Roots, and Shape of Water actor Michael Shannon — to name a few high profile devotees. In addition to being the first musical act invited to play at CERN (where scientists are currently searching for the origins of existence), Deerhoof were described by contemporary literary phenomenon Augustin Fernandez Mallo as “a weapon loaded with the future.”
“In our case, what looked at the outset of a budding career like a liability — our idiosyncrasies — has turned out to be a blessing,” says the band’s drumming multi-instrumentalist, Greg Saurnier.
Those idiosyncrasies are many. From their combative sense of rhythm and frequent instrumental freak-outs, to their bright J-pop melodies and pawn shop electronics, Deerhoof’s work compromises with exactly no one. A typical song by the four-piece might sew together tattered pieces of schoolyard chant, classic soul, dub, noise and free-jazz, couple it with a melody you’ll remember for the rest of your life, and then disappear within two-and-a-half minutes.
Surprisingly, one of the most idiosyncratic things about Deerhoof’s 15th album, Future Teenage Cave Artists (out last week via Joyful Noise), is how much it sounds like the present. In an eerie prediction of life in quarantine, each member of the band recorded their parts individually at home, the songs emerging through a correspondence of emailed demos and mixes. Most of the album began with drums recorded through Saunier’s laptop microphone.
“I just wanted to suggest some beats to my bandmates,” he says, “so I played a bunch of drums into Photo Booth on my laptop and emailed them videos. They were going to be demos. But then they just started recording on top of them.”
Once the other members began adding their own parts, songs began to emerge, then quickly stretch in unexpected directions.
“It all started to acquire a life of its own, even against our will,” Saunier says, “like Frankenstein, or a Golem. It started to feel like we needed to do what it was telling us to do, and that was to be this fragmented, patchworky, remotely recorded thing.”
Remarkably, despite its socially-distanced recording sessions, Future Teenage Cave Artists still swaggers with the kind of stoned bravado that usually only comes with, you know, playing together. It’s hard to imagine the rubbery strut of “New Orphan Asylum for Spirited Deerchildren” (half Grateful Dead, half Toe-Jam & Earl soundtrack) emerging from anything other than the time-honored jam. But then you begin to notice the harsh cuts, the sudden changes in feel and fidelity shifts. The Frankenstein-ness of it all.
“There’s whole levels of file-sharing and degradation,” Saunier says. “Somebody would send a guitar riff by email, and then somebody else adds other instruments to that — on an MP3 — and then we can’t go back and remix it. And at that point we couldn’t replace the drums. There was a magic in that drum performance and all of its flaws. And there was magic in the guitar performance, in all of its flaws.”
More often than not, Future Teenage Cave Artists’ patchwork quality lends the record a kind of raw vitality. When the fluttering post-punk guitar of opener “Future Teenage Cave Artists” is suddenly CTRL-X’d and replaced with sun-drenched bossa nova, the song’s new refrain of “but you stopped me” casts the preceding three minutes in a whole new light. For the most part, second track “Sympathy for the Baby Boo” recalls the fizzled-circuitboard classic rock of breakout record Runners Four, wobbily rollicking and buzzing with Link Wray distortion — until it is interrupted by an unidentified falsetto. “Now the car is broken down,” it sings, as the song ripples beneath.
Saunier says a Deerhoof song is a living thing.
“It’s sort of born when our album comes out, and once that happens, all bets are off. It becomes a conversation,” he says.
At shows, the conversation is usually lively and untethered.
“We have a tendency to destroy songs on stage. They get really played with. The song itself is really just a provocation to go wild.”
As an album, Future Teenage Cave Artists is a similar provocation. From the hieroglyphs on its cover depicting the collapse of today’s society (camera phones, tanks, and separate entrances for the rich), to its boldly unorthodox recording method and opening lyrics (“Gonna be a couple vandals / and be set free”), FTCA is explicitly wild, a bold reminder of the many streams, currents, and rivers which exist untouched by the musical mainstream.
“The definition of music that is handed down from the corporate profit-seeking music industry is so narrow,” Saunier says. “We’re not an alternative to it. Everybody is an alternative to it.”
While some early reviewers have cast Future Teenage Cave Artists as a work of post-apocalyptic fiction, maybe it’s really an example of art from our post-apocalyptic present. Sci-fi author William Gibson is fond of saying that dystopia is already here — it just isn’t evenly distributed. With an ongoing pandemic now responsible for more than 100,000 US deaths (more than 30 times that of the Sept. 11 attacks), tens of millions out of work, and a president who declares anti-fascists to be terrorists, who’s to say the apocalypse hasn’t already happened? After all, history only becomes history in hindsight. Up until then, it is now.
At least we know in the post-apocalypse there will still be new Deerhoof.
“We’re all catching up on a lot of unfinished projects,” Saunier says. “Deerhoof and its members are going to be putting out a lot of music this year.”