Deerhoof’s Satomi Matsuzaki on Japanese Minimalism, DIY Music, and Werner Herzog


Deerhoof’s Satomi Matsuzaki on Japanese Minimalism, DIY Music, and Werner Herzog


It’s hard to believe Deerhoof is closing in on their 20th year anniversary. For the past two decades, they have helped define experimental indie music through infusing noise, pop, and classical rock into their own signature DIY style. Simultaneously erratic and calculated, Deerhoof’s sound cannot be classified into any one genre and is a testament to the creativity each member brings to the table. Perhaps the most significant turning point of the band’s history was the arrival of Satomi Matsuzaki back in May of 1995. A film student with no previous band experience, Matsuzaki immediately started touring with Deerhoof as their lead singer, combining her native Japanese culture with the band’s Bay Area origins to create a sophisticated blend of minimalism and West Coast garage punk. Now, almost 20 years later, the band is celebrating their anniversary with a new album called La Isla Bonita that drops November 4th on Polyvinyl. We caught up with Matsuzaki to talk about the creation of Deerhoof’s latest album and the singer’s philosophy to making indie music.

How does La Isla Bonita differ from Deerhoof’s previous albums?
This time we tried to make music from jamming. We usually make songs and then assign each other different tasks, like, can you make this beat and play this guitar? This time we just sat down and doodled. Greg started playing drums and I started playing bass and John and Ed started playing things that went along with them. It’s kind of a new way to do things that hasn’t been done in a while. It was really fun punk-rock DIY style that we’ve always been doing, but this time around it was done in a classic way.

So it was more impromptu then?
Yeah, it was more instinctive and there was more of a natural connection. We felt more creative and stayed together for ten days in Ed’s house; we got up in the morning together, we cooked together, and then we went to the basement and made songs every day. It just came together so quickly. There wasn’t any pressure, there wasn’t any tension. We’ve been together for 20 years. We feel like we’ve reached a point where we can make music and songs together so easily. It’s magical.

What was the entire music process from start to finish?
We all brought different pieces of music to try out, but mostly made music from scratch in Ed’s basement. Then, we got together in New York and sat down and worked on lyrics, which we rarely did collectively. Later we did three days of vocal recordings and worked with Nick Sylvester. It was our first time where we had a producer. I went to the studio with him and Greg, and Nick would tell me, “why don’t you sing this way?” We never had that kind of director before. And it was fun for me.

What were some of Nick’s suggestions?
I’ve always been told by critics that I have a very childish voice. I never tried to sing in a childish way, but maybe it sounds distinct because my first language is Japanese. I don’t have a deep voice, so Nick would encourage me to sing more openly and try out different voice styles.

You mentioned that your first language was Japanese. How do you think your Japanese heritage has infused with Deerhoof’s Bay Area origins?
Japan imports a lot of aspects of Western culture and turns it into something sophisticated. I feel like I do something similar and take other band member’s styles and give them a different spin. I’m not necessarily saying I make their music more sophisticated, but I do think I try to make it more minimalistic. If something is too gaudy or has a lot of layers, I ask that it’s cut down so all the harmonies are clear instead of confusing.

So would you say it’s about a commodification of culture?
Well, I’ve spent most of my life outside Japan, so I consider myself a really weird hybrid. It’s not so much as being from Japan, so much as it is being a really good organizer. But I do love minimalism in all forms, whether it’s visual art or electronic music, and I think traditional Japanese art tends to be very minimalistic and very clear. I like things when they are barebones.

I read somewhere you originally wanted to be a director. What was the shift from film to music?
I tried to make films when I first arrived in San Francisco, but after I moved I joined a band immediately. I still made films in schools, but my teachers were old, struggling filmmakers and my music friends were much more positive. I felt more connected in the San Francisco music scene and music was working for me more than film. I felt music was much more economical as well, it costs a lot of money to make a movie and I didn’t want to move to L.A. But I still love to get involved with film, whether it’s doing a soundtrack for a movie or shooting a music video.

Would you say some of your earlier filmmaking experience still comes out to a degree when you’re making music?
I’ve never made feature films, but I love writing scripts. So in that way, I make up stories the same way I make up lyrics. I work with a lot of mediums. I recently did a children’s storybook that’s coming out in March where I collaborated with a Japanese artist in Tokyo. Writing stories, making music, and doing graphic design is all part of how my brain works.

Do you think there are currently any filmmakers today with similar styles to Deerhoof?
I really like Werner Herzog. I think he’s quite the DIY, you know? With the documentary and story stuff he does, he’s really free. Deerhoof is similar. We don’t choose a genre, we just do what we feel like and what is challenging. I admire him a lot. He’s so patient with his subjects that he’s focusing on, and that’s how I want to be in music.