Deerhoof Shares the Story Behind Every Song on Their Protest-Heavy New Album, 'Mountain Moves'

Deerhoof
“Mountain Moves” is the 14th and latest album by the experimental rock band Deerhoof. The band dialed up the intensity and made its most politically charged, guest-filled album ever. Joyful Noise Recordings

In late 2016, shortly after the presidential election, the members of Deerhoof were feeling pretty depressed.

The frenetic indie-rock band had been at it for more than 20 years—quite a long run. The group's work ethic is impressive: Deerhoof puts out excellent, largely inimitable records more frequently than I go to the dentist. The music is noisy and tumultuous, characterized by Satomi Matsuzaki's sweet, fragmented vocal melodies and drummer Greg Saunier's powerhouse rhythmic racket.

But now despair was setting in. Like many other bands, Deerhoof felt disgusted and fearful of Donald Trump's rise.

"We were feeling specifically depressed about, What's the point?" says Saunier, the band's all-around creative maestro. "Like, Why do we keep going? Wouldn't it be in poor taste or crass or in denial to just add another indie-rock record to the pile that's already way too bloated in 2017, in the midst of species-threatening crises of various descriptions?"

At just that moment, an audacious invitation arrived from the independent label Joyful Noise: Would Deerhoof like to become the label's 2017 Artist in Residence and produce "an estimated 160 minutes of music" in one single year? This project would include five limited edition LPs—a new proper album from the band, plus various collaborations and "surprises."

Related: Our favorite albums of 2016

"We knew we either had to take a break, give it a rest or go twice as hard," Saunier says. "Suddenly, just by pure chance and good fortune, Joyful Noise demands that we go twice as hard. So we're like, OK! The deadlines were crazy."

Mountain Moves, the new proper album, is a colorful, guest-heavy protest record that overflows with the spirit of resistance and collaboration. It zips from sugary pop ("I Will Spite Survive") to skeletal funk ("Mountain Moves") to Bob Marley tribute ("Small Axe"), aided by a revolving door of guest performers. (The album is officially out Friday, though the band made it available on Bandcamp last month, with proceeds going toward The Emergent Fund.)

Recently, I hung out with the excitable and eccentric Saunier in a small park in Manhattan. He told me the strange stories—and the political motivations—behind every single song. Let this serve as the liner notes, which you probably don't have, because you're just streaming the album on your phone.

Here is his guide to the record.

Deerhoof, Mountain Moves
“Mountain Moves” is the new album by the indie-rock band Deerhoof. Joyful Noise

1. "SLOW MOTION DETONATION" (feat. Juana Molina)

Juana [Molina] was somebody that we had an in-the-fold type of working relationship with previously. We did a huge collaborative band like five years ago, maybe? Like, 20 people onstage. She's been a good friend for awhile. So we were like, let's definitely get Juana [to perform on the track]. I sent what I thought was a very simple, straightforward melody. And it came back like the Beach Boys' "Good Vibrations" or something! It came back like the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. She had like 20 tracks of different vocals. All these harmonies. It was impossible not to be overcome in tears upon receiving this stuff.

There's a little instrumental section in the middle of the song. I hadn't received her tracks yet, but we were getting close to the deadline. I was like, I really think this section needs some kind of a high scream or something. Maybe I'll record something. And then suddenly, her email comes in, and I realized she'd put in a really high scream in that part exactly where I thought. It was total ESP stuff.

2. "CON SORDINO"

What does the title mean?
It's Italian! An Italian musical term meaning [in thick Italian accent] "With the mute." Say you're a trumpet player, and suddenly there's a part where you're too loud. So they say, "Con Sordino." You put the mute in the end of your trumpet, and it makes it quieter. Miles Davis was very famous for playing with this specific mute. The song starts with a palm-muted guitar.

Then the lyrics are about—working at Newsweek you may know something about this—there are voices that tend to get amplified, and then there are voices that tend to get muted. The amplified voices tend to be in a political spectrum that's considered acceptable in the mainstream. Apparently Donald Trump is considered in the mainstream because he's the one who got the most signal boost of all last year. Stuff that's outside the mainstream—famously, Bernie Sanders was on the edge there. He was getting iced out of a lot of coverage and not getting interviews. Just because someone has a mute on them doesn't mean they don't have something valuable to say.

So it's a double meaning.
At least double. Of course it's a metaphor for obscure bands, too. For small bands that continue to say what they say, but they're ignored in the mainstream...present interview excepted [laughs].

3. "I WILL SPITE SURVIVE" (feat. Jenn Wasner)

Sometimes I might wake up with a little song idea in my head. So I write it down on my pad. "I Will Spite Survive"—that was one that I wrote from scraps I had on pads like this. It came together really fast. The feeling of wanting to have a very short-term creative explosion. Part of it was a feeling that one's days are numbered—not just as an aging indie-rock band but also a member of the human race. One has a feeling of looming termination. With climate change and with, you know, a crazy man who can push the button any time he has a whim.

This is the one that features Jenn Wasner from Wye Oak.
We were talking about guests, and John [Dieterich, Deerhoof's guitarist] had suggested Jenn. And I'm like, "Let's send it over. Let's email this total stranger!" What she sent back, I was so floored. She made it sound so beautiful. Satomi has what would be considered a somewhat weak voice. She doesn't have a loud voice or an incredibly stable or secure voice. Jenn has this unbelievably powerful, professional-sounding, super-in-tune, incredible pitch definition. It's always a thrill to hear someone other than yourself sing a song you wrote. But when it came to Jenn doing that...I became convinced, like, "Oh! Obviously we play Top 40!" [laughs] I just hadn't realized it all along.

4. "COME DOWN HERE & SAY THAT" (feat. Laetitia Sadier)

This one also has a really striking title.
There's that part in Don't Look Back, the Bob Dylan movie, where he's on tour. He'd just gone electric. And the people at Royal Albert Hall really hated his electric set. He'd play the acoustic set at the beginning, then the band was setting up and the people started heckling him. At one point, he was getting sick of it. And he said, "Come up here and say that!" I thought it was a really great witty retort or whatever to these hecklers.

We changed it to "Come Down Here & Say That" because it was sort of addressed to the power structure. I was thinking a lot about the ACA repeal and town halls and GOP lawmakers who are afraid to go to their own town halls because they were afraid they'd get humiliated by their own constituents yelling at them. They got too chicken to even show up! They'll make a speech on TV. Some pundit will go on TV and defend it. It's like, "No." Come down here and say that! Come down to someone at an average income level and tell that to my face.

5. "GRACIAS A LA VIDA"

This is a short opera interlude?
Sort of! It's a cover of "Gracias a la Vida," which is Violeta Parra's probably most famous song. A protest song. That was one of her last songs. She was very soon to commit suicide. She was a huge folk hero in Chile and all throughout Latin America. People from many countries would cover that song. I found it fitting. Half the album is optimistic that there are those who are daring to protest and thus give a glimmer of hope of survival. Half of the album is kind of resigning oneself to [the fact that] it's very possible survival will not happen. She's listing all these things that she's thankful for in life, which is so poignant, especially knowing that she was going to kill herself. It's such a sweet song. I thought, That's one possible attitude that one could take at a time like this, that might be near the end of time.

There's an opera sample in the background of the recording.
It's from Messiah. I bought like 15 different versions of this one sample of Messiah on iTunes and did all these pitch-shifting samples.

6. "BEGIN COUNTDOWN"

This was one that was left over from [2016 album] The Magic. It's about this nine lives sort of thing. When's your luck gonna run out? Maybe you've got nine lives. But now you're down to three. Again, the impending apocalypse.

7. "YOUR DYSTOPIC CREATION DOESN'T FEAR YOU" (feat. Awkwafina)

This is like Deerhoof's first-ever rap song, in a way.
Yeah!

Tell me about Deerhoof's entry into hip-hop.
This song was different than the other ones because I didn't give [guest rapper Awkwafina] a guide vocal. She wrote it completely from scratch.... It's a song kind of about appropriating black culture and trying to use fearmongering tactics against a part of our society that's already known so much agony and oppression that fear tactics probably are not going to work that well. I felt like that was both candidates'strategy. And then also exploiting that culture; at the same time you're oppressing them, you're also stealing from them and calling it America. I thought it would be interesting to have an Asian rapper come in and rap for that song.

8. "AY THAT'S ME"

The only reason I spelled it like that is because at one point Awkwafina says "Ay!" in her rap, and she spelled it like that when she emailed it to me and said, "This is how I want the lyrics to be spelled." So I said, "OK, we'll just change all the ay's to that spelling."... I sing the verses on that one. That's my spotlight. That's my American Idol moment [cracks up].

9. "PALACE OF THE GOVERNORS"

The lyrics are about a house.
[This is] another double-meaning thing. Maybe you're telling the president, like, don't get too used to it. You're not going to live there forever. You're going to have a brief time in there. Then we're kicking you out. You can also think of it as one's own life. You're not gonna live forever. The human race might not last that much longer.

Were you thinking of Trump's White House?
I was, because that's when it was written. I was thinking of all politicians. It's almost comforting to know that they aren't going to be there oppressing us forever. We do have the power to remove them. The double meaning is that it's also being on the receiving end of a threat. Being told, "Look, it's more important that I start nuclear war than that you survive." Saying, "It's more important for my political reputation that you not survive."

10. "SINGALONG JUNK" (feat. Xenia Rubinos)

We were pretty close with Xenia [Rubinos]. I was the most intense fan of her music. I was always at her New York shows, just freaking out. Feeling like she has completely rewritten the laws of music or something. The funny thing is that the song we ended up giving her sounds absolutely nothing like her actual music.

Her vocal style is very different from Deerhoof's.
She's extremely emotive. She'll do vibrato things and little curlicue and stuff with her voice. Makes it dramatic and emotional. There's a Paul McCartney song on his first solo album called "Junk" that has words. Then on Side B there's this song called "Singalong Junk" where it's just the song with the vocals removed. The listener is supposed to sing along! I thought it'd be funny to have a song that had no words that was, like, same idea. It's meant for the listener to supply their own words if they think of some.

11. "MOUNTAIN MOVES" (feat. Matana Roberts)

I really like the way Satomi turns the word mountain into three syllables. It's awesome.
Do you know how many syllables my name is in Japanese? Because in English it's one: "Greg." [Imitating Japanese pronunciation] "Gur-ET-ah-guh!" It's four syllables! I love that song. Satomi wrote this song. It was her idea to ask [Matana] to perform on it. Of course, we knew she played saxophone, but it wasn't what we expected her to do. She went, like, full Maceo Parker—very funky, bluesy, but in a strange key. I was so amazed with what she did.

How about the album title?
So [Satomi] suddenly shows up one day like, "Oh, I wrote a political song!" I'm like, "Whoa! OK, let's check it out." [imitates singing] "Mou-OOOH-ntain moves." That's it! [cracks up] That's a genius political song. Then the next day, I listened to her demo again, and I'm like, "What's going on with this melody? It just goes up and down and up and down." And then I realized, She's just drawing a picture of mountains! "Moo-ouuuuu-ntain mooooves!"

It was like, "OK, obviously this is the title of the record!" We found a font for all the text, where the M looks like a pair of mountains.

12. "FREEDOM HIGHWAY" (cover of Staples Singers)

Another politically charged cover.
The Staples Singers recording of it is a live recording from a church. Around the time of [2005 album] The Runners Four, even then, we were listening to that song "Freedom Highway" and saying, "Is there any way we can just make our record sound like this?" It just sounds like a band playing there on the pulpit with a microphone in the audience—that's it! Super-raw. I just love the song and felt it was more relevant than ever. Heartbreaking but also inspiring.

It's also relevant to a lot of struggles under Trump.
Yeah, so much. Some of these lines like "The whole world is wondering what's wrong with the United States"—just that sentence. Everyone in the world knows that that's true except us.

13. "SEA MOVES" (feat. Chad Popple and Devin Hoff)

Is that a sequel to "Mountain Moves"?
This was one that John [Dieterich] did completely on his own. He sang it. He emailed it to us one day. I'm like, "Dude! We've got to put this on the record. This song is so beautiful!" We felt very accepting of each other's contributions on this record. More than some records where it's like, everybody's got to be playing on every song. This was just like, anything that anyone can contribute, let's make it happen really fast.

14. "KOKOYE"

I think of ["Kokoye"] as kind of like a Pet Sounds thing. But it's also kind of Latin. One thing I really like about it is Ed's guitar solo that he plays in the second verse that was literally the last day before we had to turn the record in. I was like, "Ed, I really need a guitar solo on this song. Can you play something?" He sat down, one try, [and] it was like the coolest thing ever. I put a mic in front of this little practice amp. He completely nailed it!

15. "SMALL AXE" (cover of Bob Marley)

This brings us to the Bob Marley cover. Are you a Bob Marley fan?
Of course! So much so. I really loved the songs, but I also really loved the drummer, what's his name, Carlton Barrett. Particularly their live style. The kind of loose thing in the interaction of the band that's definitely a big influence in the way we play. We rarely play reggae or anything that anybody would think of as reggae, but we like this thing of trying to leave spaces. Rhythmic displacements and syncopation that's not totally predictable.

You've been doing a lot more covers recently.
We've loved that song for so long. I've been pushing us to do that song in the band for many years. Satomi is very short. And the band is pretty small. [It's] just that feeling of, just because you're small, doesn't mean you can't tear down oppressive structures." Or, just because we're a small, totally DIY, independent band doesn't mean [we haven't] actually caused a change in big music. There might be celebrities who've listened to small bands or are inspired by small bands. It was just a pep talk to ourselves and to the rest of the underground to keep going.

Deerhoof Shares the Story Behind Every Song on Their Protest-Heavy New Album, 'Mountain Moves' | Culture