I’ve been following Greg and his music with Deerhoof for roughly a decade now and couldn’t speak higher of his output as an artist. His approach to drumming and making art is something I continually look to for inspiration. That is, one of integrity, honest expression and a willingness to reach for new concepts and innovations at an alarmingly impressive rate!
Whether he is behind a drumset, computer or is creatively dreaming up some new music, Greg’s imagination is seemingly overflowing with ideas he attempts to translate for the rest of us.
This is a general music interview without a specific “theme” where I simply asked questions I thought would be relevant to any fans of Deerhoof and artists working in orignal projects.
Can you please clearly outline all your current musical projects and professions which make up your life as a professional musician?
Oof where to start…How about first thing in the morning? I wake up and have often just dreamed some musical bit. Yes of course it sounds better in the dream than it does outside of it, but I still write it down in a little notebook.
Rest of the day could include all kinds of music making but rarely goes without Earl Grey. Deerhoof is my main musical thing. I play drums, I write songs, I record, I mix, I play everyone’s else’s instruments just to be a pest but then they do the same thing. In our band no one is in charge and nothing ever feels finished. Several months of any given year where normal people are having months, we just X them out because we’re living in an alternation between a rented minivan and a stage. I sit shotgun and so govern the navigation. We always seem to arrive at rush hour. I make friends with venue staff in order to assure that the lights are the right color in that one song. As much as we love and trust our sound engineer who is our fifth Beatle, at the beginning of any tour I spend much of soundcheck out front tweaking tones while Ed John or Satomi get their chance to play the drums. It is one of rock music’s great mysteries and frustrations that everyone loves to play the drums, but few want to listen to them. I take a post-show shift at the merch table and try not to drip upon the customers.
I answer the emails to the webpage, I tweet to the Twitter account. We’re always in the middle of planning one-off shows and recording projects. Deerhoof is hands-on with anyone we work with. I’m the liaison to the record labels, the publicist, and our US booking agent. Sometimes this is a matter of answering questions, but just as often I’m coming to them with stuff like “I don’t like the way Spotify works for artists, can we take all our music down from there?” or “The way music journalists describe Deerhoof is so utterly inaccurate!” and then having a drawn-out discussion.
I feel a little sorry for younger bands that get too successful too quickly and get assigned all manner of managers to take care of most of this stuff. They are told to “leave it to the experts.” I’d feel robbed, not just of the money being diverted to middlemen, but of the experience of learning how things work and taking responsibility for one’s own art and image.
Outside of Deerhoof I’m a small-time DIY producer, recording or mixing or mastering records for people. I play in other groups regularly and irregularly. Live improv concerts are always a good test of nerve. I write notated music. Past few years, I’ve been working a lot with a European chamber group called s t a r g a z e, writing pieces, writing arrangements of other people’s music, rewriting my writing when some member of the group can’t make it to the gig because classical musicians are the busiest people I know.
How do manage your time to make room for each of these commitments whilst keeping yourself financially independent and living a relatively balanced life?
So much of a musician’s life depends on inspiration so time management always seems tricky somehow. When you don’t have any ideas you can very easily do nothing. When the lightbulbs are going off you suddenly want to do everything at once. Irregular sleep scheduling has often provided excellent results.
Balance is a funny one. I’m one of those people who knew from tot age that I wanted to be a musician, so my brain contains no memory of a life in which music creation was not the entree for which all else is but appetizer or dessert. My favorite dessert is chocolate ice cream the crunchier the better.
I was obsessive about music for so long, and sometimes I look back with some regret on years overfilled with a guitar or computer and underfilled with taking a walk in the park. But I taught myself, in my own way, how to make records, and now to relieve a bit of the pain of devoting so much of my life to it, I ironically feel better when I help my friends make their records for little or no budget.
Given your wide spread of music related skills, what would you say are the skills you most heavily rely on as a full time musician (eg: mixing, sight reading, multi- instrumentalist) etc?
Sight-reading has come in sort of handy here and there and that is fun. I usually find writing down music ideas easier than recording them, so music notation has been a helpful tool in my life. But only a tool, and hardly a necessary one in order to be a musician.
For a member of a DIY band such as Deerhoof, there is not much philosophical difference between being a mixer and multi-instrumentalist. You use whatever skills you have to try and make things. Of course it doesn’t work that way for everyone.
I was once briefly involved in the sound mix of a Hollywood movie. Yes, that foot splashing into a puddle in reel 5 is timed accurately because of my efforts. One of the fascinating moments of this experience was when a notorious producer/mogul insisted (via a goon/proxy present at the session and in constant phone contact with “the man”) that there absolutely needed to be a voice-over in this one part, or the audience was going to get confused. The director disagreed but found their opinion of what made their movie work to be considered a low priority in the corporate heirarchy. At one point the goon was gone on another call for an hour and, I kid you not, we mixed the voice-over bit in as awkward-sounding way as we could, so that when the power structure representative returned, they’d be convinced that the voice-over was a bad idea. But alas word came down through the phone: “MAKE IT WORK.” The director, exasperated, went around the room, the foley guy, the Pro Tools guy, the catering bringer, asking everyone if they thought the voice- over screwed up the scene. They all said yes. I thought to myself, “cool, everyone got a chance to speak up.”Lunch break, I sit with the Pro Tools guy, who has been in the business a very long time, and he was livid. Huh? Was he not glad to have had a chance to chip in his two cents, to take part in the creative decision-making process to make the movie as good as it could be? No. Now the poor guy would probably never get hired by that mega-producer ever again. Thanks to the director putting him on the spot, word would spread that Pro Tools Guy was not a team player. Well I vowed never to do our band that way. From each according to their gifts, to each according to their needs.
Do you think it’s still relevant for todays musicians to learn how to notate and sight read or do you feel it’s more important to get around piano rolls, editing videos and using DAW’s etc?
You should do whatever you want.
How much time have you spent transcribing other composers and musicians?
Funny you should specify “other.” I’ve spent more time transcribing Deerhoof than anything else. Just because people wrote something doesn’t mean they remember how it goes. I was Charlie Watts for Halloween this year, in a Rolling Stones tribute. On a few songs I was Keith Richards. But I didn’t need to transcribe anything since it was all already etched into my brain. But in 1982 I did transcribe Keith’s and Ronnie’s parts to “Start Me Up” on a piece of notebook paper. I had only just discovered the Rolling Stones and didn’t understand that they were playing chords. So I just wrote down the top notes.
A couple years ago, the chords to “Vonetta” as played by Herbie Hancock on I think Sorcerer by Miles Davis – I slowed those down and figured them out, just because they are so beautiful.
Since becoming a full time professional musician, have you ever studied with any other professional drummers for your own development?
Can you outline some of the biggest hurdles you’ve encountered as an artist and in a band?
Like most artists we’ve been ripped off a few times. Most spectacularly by Daytrotter. But I wouldn’t call that a hurdle. It never tempted us to quit. Biggest hurdle is just surviving as a band past the initial thrill and beginners’ luck.
Did you ever spend any significant time studying any drumming method books?
Have you ever had a structured practice schedule for your musical development?
I took piano lessons all through grade school. Of course I was always more interested in writing music than being a pianist, and as a composer I’ve found a structured schedule to be great, but not the whole story. Particularly if you are disciplined about making music, ideas start to come at the oddest hours. Part of my discipline has been to write down or record ideas whenever they come. For me that’s often in the middle of the night. “Oh I’m sure I’ll remember it when I wake up” is something I’ve many times regretted drowsily telling myself. And if I hear the voice of someone close to me singing a quality song about our cat, well I write that down too. Could come in handy.
For a composer or songwriter, I think it’s best not to judge ideas when they first appear, but simply to document them and save them for later. A month later you can look back at all your ideas and pick out the ones that are asking for more attention. Pick out the dreams that are asking to come true.
Have you spent any time getting singing lessons?
No lessons, but I did so much singing in high school. It was just public school. I sang in choir, I was in “madrigals” which sang Renaissance music, I sang in a barbershop quartet. I loved it so much. Singing one-to-a-part is the funnest thing.
Given the overheads that come from being in an original four piece band, how has Deerhoof managed to stay alive during such pivotal changes in the music industry both regarding live performance standards and music distribution?
We do everything as low-budget as possible. Mostly this means doing ourselves what might normally be farmed out to someone else. Yes this does little to create jobs or stimulate the economy but when you’re not able to acquire money you’ve got no choice. After many years this way – everything Deerhoof did for our first seven years, every tour, every record, lost money – we had developed a taste for doing stuff ourselves. Now we’re DIY just for the fun of it.
Have you or Deerhoof ever applied for government funding or scholarships in order to pursue musical ambitions (successfully or not!). Would you encourage artists to look into this?
It’s more common in Europe. Venues, record labels, and promoters there are getting government funding all the time. But we’ve never done it ourselves.
Have you thought any more about Deerhoof theatre productions given what happened with Milkman Ballet?
I had a dream last week that I wrote an opera for s t a r g a z e.
Outside of Deerhoof, what types of music do you typically arrange?
My career as an arranger began in middle school and high school when bands I was in did Police songs, Motley Crue songs, etc. Deerhoof has done Canned Heat, the Troggs,
My Bloody Valentine. I heard Chicago’s Dal Niente ensemble perform an arrangement by Marcos Balter of “Eaguru Guru” by Deerhoof and I asked if I could do a bunch more, which ended up becoming “Deerhoof Chamber Variations.”
For s t a r g a z e I’ve arranged several David Bowie songs which were televised on a BBC Proms special. Years before, we met David Bowie when he was in charge of choosing the acts for a short-lived festival in NY called Highline Festival and having already been to our shows a few times, he put us on. When the night came, he showed up backstage in a suit and tie, knew all our names, responded well to teasing, and spent most of the conversation talking about another Highline concert he’d just come from: a chamber orchestra playing arrangements of player piano music by Conlon Nancarrow. These pieces were for many decades thought to be unplayable by anything that was not a machine, but a few daring souls had started taking on the 7-against-11 rhythms and whatnot. You would have thought David Bowie was a college freshman, he was so excited about this concert. His mind was truly blown. I can’t describe to you how charmed I was by his unspoiled enthusiasm for music’s as-yet-untapped possibilities. When I was asked years later to write a few arrangements of his songs, I tried to honor this amazing memory by doing songs like “Let’s Dance” in the style of Nancarrow. Unfortunately the English TV audience mostly thought it sounded like an orchestra tuning up.
More recently s t a r g a z e asked me to arrange some Fugazi songs for a festival, but the twist was it needed to be solos. Imagine a loud rock song for two guitars bass drums and screaming, but played just on an oboe, or a viola da gamba. It turned out really fun and they asked for more – the entire “In On The Kill Taker” album. The record should be coming out in 2019.
I’ve also arranged Beethoven’s 8th Symphony for them. We performed two of the movements at a festival in Berlin this summer. This was a stricter arrangement than the Fugazi or Deerhoof or Bowie, really just a re- instrumentation, as the notes are still in place from the original, but our version sought to bring out the humor of the composition. For some reason music critics have long tended to equate solemnity with quality but to my ears that shortchanges a lot of inspiring, energizing, and revolutionary music.
How much of your work is done on a laptop these days and how much has this changed since the dawn of Deerhoof?
I write music in my head, or on a piano, guitar or drums in a pinch. But I use the computer to record.
Do you have a preference over programs like Sibelius or Finale vs hand notation when it comes to composing and arranging?
Well my Sibelius account won’t let me download it again without repurchasing after my computer was stolen a few months ago. Till that unfortunate window-smashing incident I was using Sibelius all the time.
How relevant is coffee to your approach to music making?
Does Deerhoof have a riders list for backstage antics?
Blueberries on even-numbered days, bananas on odd.
If you had to play in one band only, who would it be?
Rolling Stones tribute band, or if you really twist my arm The Rolling Stones. Sadly I am not in the Rolling Stones so this isn’t possible. Deerhoof is the greatest band to be in ever. My bandmates and I have put up with each other’s eccentricities, we’ve forgiven mistakes, and somehow remained excited about writing and recording and playing with each other. If anything we take greater risks now than we ever did. Deerhoof shouldn’t exist anymore. By many historical and scientific accounts the human race shouldn’t even exist anymore. So every time we attempt something new like a new tour or record, it feels like a victory celebration. Also Deerhoof has the best fans.
If you could pivot to another occupation, what would it be?
I would work at the cinema. I make your popcorn, I take your ticket, I clean your theater. Then I watch a movie for free or at a discounted rate.
Have you ever wished you weren’t a musician or felt stuck?
More often than not! What you see is like a photo album or an Instagram account, you only see the part where I’m smiling.
Do you teach drums or any music related skills?
Two separate times I taught private composition lessons. Later the two students met by chance at a Deerhoof concert and became friends and started playing together with Janka Nabay in the Bubu Gang.
Do you have any opinions you wish to share on the future of music?
If the future resembles the past, music is going to be fine. No culture on Earth seems ever to have been without it. History’s various attempts to outlaw it only prove its essential character. But music is not simply a thing you make by playing and singing, but also by listening. It is going on constantly all around anyone who puts on their music ears.
The future of the music business is another question. To anyone who wishes to be a musician I would recommend that they start right away, regardless of what equipment they might be able to afford. The best and most versatile instrument I have ever heard is the human voice and that one’s free.
But realistically, prospects for a sustainable full-time career are dim in 2018. The model of record labels taking risks to support artists starting out has been largely replaced by a few mega-corporate streaming services which pay the tiniest fraction of a penny per play, and give precisely $0 to fund new talent. Money that used to go to labels and artists has been systematically diverted to a handful of ultra-wealthy tax-dodging CEOs. No matter how cute their logos look or their executives sound in interviews, these are the greediest people the world has ever seen.
If you’re not independently wealthy, and internet notoriety is what you seek, via streaming or social media, your guess is as good as mine, but those algorithmic platforms do seem to favor 1. making music that is very clearly all of one mood (for example all “chill,” or that would not sound out of place on a corporate “chill” playlist) 2. stripping 3. violence and scandals, so I would recommend starting there? Sadly even with the best of luck your turn at fame is likely to be brief, as there is always someone chiller, nakeder, more violent or more scandalous waiting in line. They’re usually also even more willing than you are to give their work away for free.
Even though thanks to Spotify, Youtube, and politicians who refuse to regulate them, selling records has been removed as one of your bankable options, you still need to make records in order to get written about, so that people
will have heard of you when you try to book a tour. If you’re fortunate enough to get journalists to cover or review your work, remember that they reward tragedy far above comedy so for god’s sake be incredibly sad at all times. Also don’t make very much music because a music blog looks silly if they keep praising the same act repeatedly. Making a living doing something creative within capitalism, based as it is on competition, is a big challenge because creativity and competition are so often at odds when it comes to actual human beings.
Of course there have to be some exceptions. And those exceptions perhaps hint at what a future that plays by different rules might look like…
For more information on Greg and Deerhoof head to: http://deerhoof.net