Harpsichord. Congotronics. Flamenco guitar. Crunchy analog samples. Crushing metallic riffs. Whirling keyboard dashes. Stonesy swagger. Wispy vocal lines. Until now, those were sounds you'd have expected to hear in the record collections of the four very different musicians in the Bay Area art-rock band Deerhoof. But those elements actually make up Deerhoof vs. Evil, the band's 11th album, and, strangely, the diverse palette makes this among the quartet's strongest records yet. Ahead of the release show this Friday, longtime guitarist John Dieterich explained how the band's members were finally on the same weird page for this latest project — even though they've all moved to different places around the country — and why Deerhoof decided to leak all its new songs online before the album's release.
SF Weekly: You're all at home now?
Dieterich: We've mostly been home, which, for all of us, is in different places now. I actually moved to Albuquerque in August.
Are the other members still living in the Bay Area?
Actually, they're all over as well. We all moved within the last year.
Was that after the recording of the new album?
[For the recording], Ed [Rodriguez] and I were still living in Oakland. [We] rented a rehearsal space and were recording things for various other projects there for a while. We just kept the practice space and [Greg Saunier and Satomi Matsuzaki] came for a month. That's when we did the main tracking and stuff for the album.
Did you have the idea for Deerhoof vs. Evil in mind when you started?
We did have an idea. There was one point where Greg came to the Bay visiting, and we were just sitting down and just talking about what we wanted to do for the album. I remember realizing that we, miraculously, were very much on the same page in terms of what we wanted to accomplish. Our ideas for the album seemed very much related. I still don't really understand why, but somehow we seemed to be thinking about the same things.
What were the ideas?
The last album, Offend Maggie, was this very guitar-rock album. After that album, we had friends being like, "You guys should make a record with no guitars; it's too many guitars." And we agreed in a way. At the same time, we have some guitars in the band, and we were trying to figure out, "What does this mean? What do we want to do?" If we were going to be using these guitars, we didn't want to be referencing the same kinds of traditions; we wanted to explore the sound of the instrument in a different way. Not so much in the sort of rock language, but in some other language. We didn't exactly know what that was.
Really, those were the terms discussed — how to use guitars?
One thing I can say: We had done a cover of a song ["Travels Broaden the Mind"] from this band from the Congo called the Kasai Allstars. The instrumentation in that band is ... a bunch of electrified thumb pianos, and voice, and some drums and things. In the process of developing a way to attack that material, we discovered a way of possibly thinking about our own music, a new way of approaching our own music. The Kasai Allstars is probably like 15 people playing music at the same time — it was like, "How do we transfer that into something that the four of us can play?" I feel like in the search for that, or in the process of developing that, we learned something that we ended up applying to some degree on our album.
It sounds like Deerhoof is still very much evolving.
In a way, I feel like it's unavoidable. I've always felt like with this band, even when we were all living in the same city, we tended to all go in four different directions at the same time. For this album, I really felt like we got together, and everybody's individual visions for a new idea or for a new direction all made sense together in a very strange way. With some albums, we get together and I feel like we're on four completely different pages. And maybe that's part of an interesting sound. An album like that was The Runners Four. There were four really separate ideas of what it was that we wanted to do, and part of the process of making the album was producing it in a way that it sounded like one band. With this album, I felt it was a little less like that.
Deerhoof is 16 years old. Does it become a challenge to take things in a new direction with each album?
Yes and no. In a way I think it's hard to redo something, especially because we tend to not really know what we're doing. We ... can't separate the making of the album from the exploration of a new idea. I don't think any of us knows any other way to go about it. And so in that sense, no, it's not hard. At the same time, when we make an album, we are also thinking about previous albums, and we are conscious of the bigger picture. So it's not so much that we are fleeing from something, but it's that we want to create something that will make the picture more complete.
Has Deerhoof's popularity surprised you given the unpredictable, sometimes difficult nature of the music?
Yeah, totally. The fact that anybody pays any attention is completely incredible. It's a total surprise. One thing that I feel like has helped us a lot has been [that] we play a lot of shows. With Deerhoof, one of the things that I've really enjoyed and that I think has been good for the band has been this process of not just making a new record, writing new songs, and sort of reinventing yourself that way, but the reinvention of old material all of the time. There are times when you would think we'd be so fried on something, and you discover that this song has a whole new life and it has a whole new meaning that you never discovered before. Part of the fun of coming to a show is to see — even if [we're] playing the same song you've heard before — is to see it played a little differently. Or to maybe see us fall on our face, which we do all the time.
Really, you'd say that?
Oh, yeah. Those are the situations where it can get really interesting, too And as a music listener and as somebody who goes to shows, some of my favorite stuff is when something goes wrong, and you have to see [the band] deal with it.
Some wonder whether Deerhoof does things just to be weird. Do you?
Do we do something because it's getting too accessible? Absolutely, no. Our goal is to make music that communicates something and communicates something clearly. Now it's entirely possible that we fail. And that is probably what rubs people the wrong way. For us, we're just trying as hard as we possibly can to bring the ideas we have to life and be true to them. We're definitely not trying to alienate everybody. Though at the same time, it's fine if some people are alienated.
You've leaked every track on the new album prior to its release. Intentionally. Can you explain that?
It was basically recognizing the fact that it's going to leak eventually, and why not do it in an active way, and a fun way? Where it isn't some negative thing that happens at some point, and everybody's just kind of clenching their teeth and waiting for it to happen, but it's something fun and we're involved in it.
Were there frustrating leaks for you in the past?
Actually, no. In our case, it's always worked in our favor. For us it's just fun, the music gets out there. A lot of the time we'll finish a record and you have to wait six months for the world — for anybody — to hear it. And so that's frustrating. So on some level, when it leaks is a happy moment.