Getting to Know Deerhoof’s Satomi Matsuzaki

Photography by Chad Kamenshine

Photography by Chad Kamenshine

Deerhoof recently celebrated their 20th anniversary and the avant-garde indie band are still as strong as ever. Despite living in separate cities, the band is tight knit and constantly collaborating. Satomi Matsuzaki, the band’s frontwoman, joined the band while she was living in San Francisco and heard the band was looking for a female vocalist—the rest is history. I had the opportunity to chat with Satomi about La Isla Bonita, the beginning of Deerhoof, and the combination of cultures in her life and music.

 You’re recording now in Portland, right?

Yeah.

 Can you tell me a bit about that?

Yeah. We live in three different cities, Brooklyn, New York and Albuquerque, New Mexico, and Ed [Rodriguez], the guitar player, he lives in Portland, so when we get together it’s very important we do something together. Of course, we should always make music, because that’s our job and that’s what we want to do. We are not planning to make album out of this, but we’re just working together for a week. We have a show in Canada coming up next week, so we are just staying in Ed’s house. He has a basement where he has all the gears and we have recording equipment, so we are going to work on songs.

 Can you tell me about the songs you’re working on now?

We haven’t started. We came back from Seattle two days ago, and yesterday we were just working on other things. We had a long meeting talking about band’s schedules, and we are getting flights. We are going back to London in August.

Oh yeah, I saw you here in London in February. One of the best shows I’ve seen this year. 

You came to the Oval Space?

 Yes. 

Ed and I were so sick that day.

  Really?  You seemed to be so energetic on stage!

Yeah. We were squeezing out our energy, but the sound check guy was lying down whole time, and Ed too. We had fever and we barely could stand and stuff, but, yeah, it was fun.

 Yeah, I loved it; I could never have told that you are sick, so you looked really perky and everything.

That’s great! I really tried not to look sick on stage.

You’ve been touring for a while now, so what has been the best experience so far in these tours?

Best experience? This is our, Deerhoof, twentieth year anniversary, and so we’ve been touring twenty years. Tour is like part of our daily life kind of thing. If you want me to talk about especially this European tour in February, we had so much fun. All the shows, it was packed with people. People really seemed to like our recent album, La Isla Bonita. I worked with people in London for a videos for this album, so it was nice to see all the people who I worked together for the video, the “Paradise Girls” official music video. The director lives in London. I don’t know if you know him, Ken? Kenichi Iwasa? He does a lot of music events in London. Have you met him?

 No, I don’t know him.

Oh, okay. He directed this “Paradise Girls” video. People who worked with us came to the Oval Space, and it was great. We enjoyed, other than Ed and I were sick part of the time. It is pretty hard to tour with a fever.

It seems like it was definitely hard to perform well sick, but you did it really well. 

Oval Space is usually rave, right? Rave venue.

 Yeah, it is.

They don’t have much rock shows, and the sound was a bit difficult. I heard some people thought they couldn’t hear certain things from the stage. Have you been there other than rock shows before?

 No. Your show was the first one I’d been to there, so I wouldn’t be able to say.

We are coming back in August and we are playing in Tufnell Dome. It is a rock venue, so the sound might be better.

 You did live in England for a while during high school, right? 

Yeah. I went to high school in Surrey for three years.

 Do you think that living in England and growing up in Japan and then moving to the States influenced your music in some way?

Yeah, totally. When I was in high school in England, it was ’91, ’90 to ’91, somewhere around there, and I was into hardcore techno scene. It was really funny. I went to see some rock shows, too, I saw Nick Cave, but I was in dormitory, so the regulation was pretty strict. I couldn’t stay outside late at night. It was interesting, but after I left England in like ’91, ’92 or something, I went back to Japan and I got into a West Coast music, American West Coast music. That’s why I decided I was going to San Francisco instead of going back to England.

 You were studying film. What made you decide to change from studying film to focusing on music?

I always loved film. I never intended to become a musician until I moved to San Francisco. I applied to film school in San Francisco, and that’s why I came to San Francisco, but then I loved the music so much. I was already friends with musicians who live in San Francisco, and then a day after I arrived in San Francisco, my friend introduced me to Deerhoof, like, “You know this band, Deerhoof? They are looking for a vocalist. Do you want to join the band?” I’m like, “Sure. That sounds fun.” I don’t have any after school activities, so I joined kind of for fun.

When is the moment when you realized that this is going to be your life?

While I was going to school to learn film production, I worked as a preschool teacher, Japanese preschool teacher, and I used to be an editor in Japanese Bay Area community magazine. Deerhoof didn’t support my life. The income was low. At some point, I think maybe end of ’90s or something, or maybe 2000 or something, we started to tour more. We started to tour more far away instead of just the West Coast. We used to just play in the Bay Area and go into LA or something like that, but we started going to East Coast or trying to go to Europe. It seemed like we have an audience out there. Around the time we released Apple O’ and Milk Man, around there, we decided like, “Okay, let’s just all of us quit our jobs and just do Deerhoof.”

Since then, we are just doing music. It’s been working, and it’s really great. I appreciate, I feel so lucky to just focus on music and not have to think about other things to make income.

The band Perfect Pussy recently wrote in Jezebel about how much it meant for them to tour with you, saying that they greatly admired you while growing up.

Oh, wow, that’s cool.

 How does it feel to know that you form some sort of impact and influence in up-and-coming bands like that?

Yeah. I guess we’ve been around for twenty years, so we play shows and some people show up to me and say, “I’ve been listening to your music since I was like twelve or like thirteen or something.” They are like, “I used to not be able to get into the show, and now I can, I’m twenty-something.” That’s so weird to me. Like, “Wow.” They are totally much taller than me!”

Of course. It’s so cool. I’m surprised at people. I grew up in Tokyo, and the city people listen to music, but they grow up and they explore. Usually city people don’t listen to the music when they were thirteen, and then when they’re twenty-one they are listening to even completely different music. There are times I used to listen to jazz. I listened to everything, I listened to classical music and everything, but it’s really cool when somebody follows a band that long.

I’m so happy that Perfect Pussy did a remix of Deerhoof. That’s how we met them, and we asked if they want to tour and they toured with us. They were much younger than us, but I think that I feel connected to them energy-wise. I think Deerhoof, we keep kind of a teen spirit. We feel like we have energy to share with the audience when it comes to the live shows. That’s what it was about for this recent album, we wanted to bring out some punk rock. That’s great. It was a great match with Perfect Pussy.

You seem care a lot about your fans and everything, which is somewhat rare to see once bands become very successful. It seems like you’ve managed to stay grounded. 

Maybe it’s just our personality, but I think bands should always appreciate the fans. Stay grounded? I guess because we’ve been very DIY. We don’t have a manager. We always tour with the most minimal way. We have a driver, we have a sound engineer, but when we tour the United States, we book hotels by ourselves and we do everything. The band’s been that way for twenty years, and we never got spoiled. That’s why I think we’re surviving as a band. If we had a manager and if we had a tour bus, like a huge tour bus, then I don’t think we’d make any money. Then we have to get a job. We’ve been just smart how to operate under what budget we get, and then how to use that budget.

Ed wrote about that on the Facebook and it’s really interesting. If you have time, read. It was very interesting, because many bands, like young bands, they have no idea how to do a band. Young bands assume you have to have a manager, you have to have a tour bus and you have to spend all this money, and it’s not true. You can be slow, DIY.

 Do you consider your bandmates as some sort of family, you know, very close-knit?

Yeah. I spend more time with them than with my family, my entire life. I grew up in Japan. I stayed there until I was fifteen, so I feel very strange. I’ve been in the United States more than I spend time in Japan, and I spend more time with my band mates more than with my family. In a way, I’m more honest and open to my band mates than to my family, maybe. I feel more nervous or more polite with my family. Deerhoof, we get along so well. We don’t fight. It’s like a school or summer camp. When i talk to other musicians, they really think it’s cool that we get along so well and we have fun. Maybe that kept us going for twenty years.

If you stop communicating with band mates, then it’s hard to stay together. Especially when you go on tour, you spend time with them twenty-four hours. You have to be patient. We are old enough now, the grown-ups, that we know how to be patient. We are over with this … When you are young, you more have this anger or something, but that’s over now. I don’t know. We are so perfect together. I’m so glad that we met out of all these people. We love each other so much.

It seems like it was meant to be that you actually decided to join Deerhoof when you were young seeing as how great and successful it is as a band and everything.

Yeah. Mm-hmm (affirmative).

 You learned how to play bass and had your first experience in a band when you joined Deerhoof. Was that intimidating for you when you first did it?

Yeah. That’s funny, because it was. When I joined the band, my friend who introduced me to the band played a Deerhoof seven-inch, and it sounded like noise, noise box. I thought, “Oh, I don’t have to play instruments, I can just make noise.” That’s why I joined the band. I realized after I joined the band, “Oh, wait, they play notes.” Then I’m like, “Whoa, I have to sing in tune and stuff.” Then everything got more perfected or changed into these directions where we play in harmonies and stuff. In the beginning, it was very rough and we played improvised music where, even if I sing out of tune or just screaming, it was much, much free. Still it’s free now, but it’s more in tuned way, tune-up way.

When I joined the band, they were so open to me. They just said, “Enjoy.” Sometime they just enjoy the music, so it’s great. I never got judged by anyone. I don’t know. I never learned music beforehand. Just playing music with Deerhoof I learned how to play music and never had to go to school or anything. I don’t feel like I’m a professional traditional musician, but at the end I think music doesn’t have to be, you don’t have to be a great musician technically. You can make great music by playing with people who inspire. I feel like I get inspired with the other members, my band mates, and that’s how I always got motivated to keep going.

There are some feminist themes in La Isla Bonita, especially in the track “Paradise Girls,” which is a very, very empowering track. What inspired you to focus on that theme for that song?

We wanted to make this La Isla Bonita as a punk rock record, and I wanted to give the message to all the girls who want to play music in a cheerleading kind of thing where I’m saying, I’m cheering them, “Girls, come out and play music and have fun. Go in front.” That’s why this music video I made with Ken, who lives in London, is kind of a cheerleading and we have this choreographed dance movement with these girls. That’s how it came up.

La Isla Bonita seems very high-energy and more up-beat than some of your previous albums. What inspired this sound behind it?

It’s our punk rock album. We played in basement last year. We haven’t played in basement for like more than, I don’t know, fifteen years, and we thought it was such an inspiring show to play in a basement where no managers, and I was screaming and people were head banging and stage diving and all that. No stage in a basement, but people were like mosh pit and stuff. We though, “Well, we want to make album where people want to dance to and want to scream to and they want to sing along to.” That’s why it was a kind of bright and it was raw and something. It’s not like high production, like high-cost production album. We recorded in Ed’s house basement, and we recorded ourselves.

It was done in ten days in the basement, and we made every song together as we went. We were doing it so fast that we didn’t revise so much to perfect it. I think rawness comes out from not so … If you go back and revise too much, I think that it loses the freshness. I think La Isla Bonita sounds fresh because it was very fast-paced album, not so nit-picked on.

What is the song writing process like? Do you write first music and then write the lyrics, or how does that work?

For La Isla Bonita we recorded music first for ten days and then we did record a vocal later. We had a vocal melodies, and after recording the instruments part we … I live in Brooklyn, and Greg [Saunier] also lives in Brooklyn, and we rented a studio for three days. It was this DIY studio. Not the recording studio, but our friend’s studio. We recorded the vocal for three days, and that’s it. We had prepared for the songs before we got together, but the total time of actually recording was over two weeks, which was very fast.

That’s incredible, only two weeks.

Yeah.

Who are some of the artists who inspired you while growing up, even though you hadn’t started music yet?

Yeah, I listened to so much music. In Japan, classical music education’s very important or something. As I was growing up, the teachers and the whole school always played classical music through those little speakers in the classrooms. I know so much classical music from those time, growing up there for fifteen years. I started listening to punk rock when I was a kid, just like Americans I think. I grew up in Tokyo, so I went to record stores every week. I lived near Record Town, which is in Shinjuku. I listened to reggae, classic jazz, funk, punk and hardcore and world music. I used to also waitress in Tokyo and I was also asked to do a DJ, and they had all kinds of Beatles, Rolling Stones, The Who, all kinds of rock music.

I’ve just educated myself is world music, worldwide music, while I was in Japan. After I moved to San Francisco, of course I was hanging out with music friends, so they played all kinds of new contemporary classic music, like twentieth century music, electronic music especially. Just so much of it I learned when I went to San Francisco. John [Dieterich], our guitar player, he was learning electronic music in college to master degree in college, and Greg was learning composition. I went to see concerts every week. It was fun. San Francisco is a very, very music nerd town. Did you know?

No. I’ve only been to San Francisco once, so I don’t know much about the music scene there. Can you tell me a bit about it? Because I actually haven’t heard much about it.

Yeah. San Francisco, I didn’t know before I went there too, but all these music nerds are gathered. It’s a mecca. There’s a record store called Amoeba Music and Aquarius Music and all these music geeks who work there and they know all kinds of music. I met people who have incredible collection of records, like super rare stuff. If you go there, I think you’ll me all these people. It’s quite amazing. All their age was around there since late ’70s or something. It’s really fun. I don’t know if they still live there, because now all these Google and Apple people moved into San Francisco. The rent’s so high. My friends got evicted.

  Oh, no.

Yeah. Many people just moved out, moving out of San Francisco.

Do you think that the music scene has changed there a lot since then?

I don’t know, because I moved out six years ago or so, so I don’t know what’s going on. I sometimes go there, but probably the music scene has changed. Where I used to live in San Francisco used to be like a punk rock street, but now it’s all cleaned up and many expensive restaurants. It’s very different now.

Do you think that being introduced to such eclectic music inspired your music in some way? Because it seems like you had so many influences from so many different countries and subcultures and everything.

Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah, totally. It really opened me up after I came to America, because people were so … I don’t know. America in general, I feel like I’ve met so many people who just makes things by themselves. In Japan, for me, I was young too, but I didn’t meet people who make record players or something. I met people in San Francisco that if they just pick up a computer on the street and then they fix it by themselves. I didn’t know such a thing is possible. Or like I met people who build theremin or just amazing things.

  Having moved from Japan to America, what do you think was the biggest change for you in the culture and everything?

San Francisco, it’s a melting pot, and so many different people from different countries, different culture, all combined. It was so confusing in the beginning, but I opened up to different cultures by talking to all these different people right away. Tokyo still has many foreigners, but not as much as America. I was always interested in exploring different cultures. I fit in right away. Of course, I loved the music, too, from different cultures. Deerhoof, we never decided, we never want to decide, what genre we want to play. It was so open that we could play, if we decide we want to play reggae, we can play that. We can play Japanese traditional music, we can play that. For me, it was fun to explore all these different kinds of music. I could go to see live performance from different countries in San Francisco. San Francisco is such an open city to different cultures. As you know, this is a hippie place. It was great for me.

I noticed that you use a lot of different languages in your songs. What inspired you to use various languages in your music? 

Oh, you mean like Spanish, Japanese, and English?

Yeah, and Catalan too, right?

Oh, yeah. I had a friend who was a Catalan and we were hanging out. I thought it would be fun to make a song in Catalan because he said there hasn’t been an original Catalan song for a long time. I forgot, ten years or something. I’m like, “Wow, that’s cool if some kind of American foreign band sings in Catalan.” That was fun. We actually played that song in Barcelona in Primavera festival. Some people speak in Catalan in Barcelona, so that was fun. Spanish … John, when he was in college, he spent time in Spain for a year or something, so he can speak Spanish. Japanese language and Spanish language, we pronounce things kind of similar, so for me it’s easier to say something in Spanish accent-wise. That’s why we made a song in Spanish, Desaparecere, but it was the lyrics written by John. Other songs I sing in Japanese because it’s my first language and it’s fun for me to write lyrics in Japanese sometimes.

What advice could you give women who want to be in a band but are inexperienced in being able to play instruments and feel like they are not comfortable enough to actually form a band?

Do you think there are women who want to play music but they don’t feel comfortable to play?

In some cases, yes.  I’ve met a few girls so far in college in the States  who say, “Oh, I want to be in a band, but I don’t know how to play guitar, I don’t know how to play an instrument, and I feel like I’m too old to do this.” I feel like women are somehow discouraged from doing that compared to men, who feel more confident. I don’t know exactly why.

I really think that nobody needs to have a proper equipments to start playing music. You can play tambourine, and that’s still music. You can sing. Just do it. I think it’s more important that you get out there and then you just find the people to play with. If you are comfortable doing solo, I think that’s great, but I think it’s great if you find friend who don’t have to be even musician. Just ask your friend, “Hey, you want to play music together?” and then just go to some place where you can make sound. You don’t need expensive equipment. That’s how I started. When I joined Deerhoof, I played in a kitchen of Deerhoof members’ apartment. The dog was walking around. I sung acoustically, and Greg was playing drum with chopsticks because we can’t make loud noise.

That’s how I started, so I really recommend girls to be confident and just do it. I played in a band for twenty years, and if you play, even if you don’t play well on the instrument, as long as you keep going, you keep practicing, and then you can play any instruments. From my experience, I know that, just like you know how to use fork and knife if you keep using them. Yeah, I really think you should just, everyone who want to do it, just do it. Then, you don’t have to be young, too. My dad started playing shakuhachi after retirement, too, so that he doesn’t space out. It’s good for his memory. I recommend all age group and women or men that they should just go out and play music.

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3 thoughts on “Getting to Know Deerhoof’s Satomi Matsuzaki

  1. Love Satomi and Deerhoof. Thanks for the interview.

    I admit that I stumbled across this because I was searching for more info about the Greg/Satomi relationship. I heard that they were married but now they are living separately? They seem like great people so I want them to be this happily together couple, and if they are broken up that makes me a bit sad (also because they remind me a little of myself and my wife). But I am realising that it is no good to worry about it – I don’t respect how people get obsessed with celebrity couples usually, so why should I allow myself to fall into that trap just because in this case it’s a couple from a cool band? And they clearly don’t want people to know too much about their relationship etc.

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