Satomi Matsuzaki was a really fun interviewee. She’s as bubbly on the telephone as she is onstage, and I remember the interview as being one of those where you feel as though you’ve made some kind of personal connection by the end of it, rather than being something you had to do for work. Just a really chatty 30 minutes in which she spoke of her life as a ‘katakana character’, her psychic relationship with Paul McCartney, and her plan to trick teens into buying Deerhoof’s latest album.
It takes me a while to connect with Satomi — a case of confused messages and blurred international datelines; inevitable, really, when you consider how scattered the band members themselves are. As things currently stand, Greg Saunier (drummer and founder member) lives in New York, guitarist John Dieterich is based in Albuquerque, second guitarist Ed Rodriguez (and his dog) calls Portland home, while Satomi has recently left her Tokyo abode for a year on the road promoting new album Deerhoof Vs Evil. I caught up with the bass-playing vocalist outside John’s house, where they are currently holed up in the basement preparing to take on the world.
It’s 15 years since you joined Deerhoof. What has been the biggest change for you as a musician in that time?
When I moved to San Franscisco, I went to study film production but I joined Deerhoof right away. I had a musician friend and I was staying over with them and they introduced me to Deerhoof who were looking for a vocalist. They were like, ‘Do you wanna join?’ They played me a seven-inch and I thought it was like a noise improvisation band. I thought, okay — I don’t have any prior music experience, but it sounds interesting. I’ll just do it as an after-school activity, or something. Somehow that turned into my career! [Laughs].
Given your filmic past, were you heavily involved in the video for your new song, ‘Super Duper Rescue Heads‘?
We had a director, Noriko Ooishi. She’s a good friend and a big fan of Deerhoof. Last time we toured Japan she came along and wanted to videotape us. So she came to mind: lets make a video together! I was the only one in Tokyo, because Deerhoof members are all over the world, so I took over and worked with her and a Japanese fashion brand called Toga. I’m very good friends with the designer and she was like, ‘Oh, just go ahead and borrow my clothes!’ I borrowed everything! We were having like a snack party at her press office, choosing clothes. So much fun! This video didn’t seem like work at all. There’s this new venue called WWW in Shibuya — it used to be a movie theatre, but recently it became a live venue — the owner was also a fan of Deerhoof, so he was like, ‘Oh! Use my place!’ It was really like a friends project.
Would you say you’ve developed a lot since the beginning? I mean, you seem to have become internationally well known…
Really? [Laughs] I feel we’re still an indie band. We’ve been around for, like, 16 years and toured all over the world… Maybe we’re known on a kind of indie scene. I don’t feel like we’re big. Do you think so?
Well, getting bigger, certainly…
[Laughs] Yeah, maybe.
You supported Blur at Hyde Park, and you’ve played with Yoko Ono…
Yeah, we opened for Blur in Hyde Park.
That’s pretty big!
Yeah, that was big, but everybody was sooo drunk! It was crazy! Everyone was throwing beer and they limited the decibel level, so it was super quiet. Even when Blur played, everyone was singing along and that became the loudest thing in the park.
And you played with Yoko Ono as a new member of the Plastic Ono Band, right?
Yeah, that was in San Francisco last year. I’m good friends with Yuka Honda, who used to be in Cibo Matto, and we know Sean Lennon. I think maybe Sean is the one who recommended us. Actually, now Greg and Sean have a band together. They’ve got a show in New York on February 9. They’re really great; I think they have a really good match. They had a show last year after the Plastic Ono Band played, and Yoko came to see the show. She was very impressed, and she came up to Greg and said, ‘You know, what you guys just did was just like the ’70s.’ It reminded her of her old times when she played with John. I thought that was really cool.
Do you ever get star-struck when you play with these people?
I get more scared by their security! [Laughs].
What music did you grow up listening to?
When I was small, I was living in Tokyo. I liked the idol groups, I guess. I don’t know if you know them, but Boowy…they were a really big, male rock group in Japan. Oh, and I went to the big Michael Jackson show when I was about 12. Tokyo Dome! [Laughs] Yeah, that was really fun. He was soooo small, but his dancing was amazing. You know, ‘Smooth Criminal’ and stuff like that. I listened to him so much, but when I was in junior high school, I began liking Japanese indie bands and going to summer reggae concerts with friends. I went to high school in England, actually — in Surrey. I went to see Nick Cave. I liked The Cure, Joy Division, The Smiths… you know, things like that. Sonic Youth. Quite a goth! [Laughs] But I liked everything. During that time, I’d go back to the record stores in Tokyo, and they’d recommend me stuff. I really liked Carolina Rainbow from California. I really got into them, and when they came to Japan I became friends with them. I was going to go back to England for college, but they were like, ‘No! England is not so interesting now, musically. Come to America!’ I’m like, OK! I’ll try America! [Laughs].
Can you explain how a Deerhoof song comes into existence? For example, can you talk us through ‘Super Duper Rescue Heads’?
Well, that song was made by Greg. Do you know these kids games called Nintendo DS? You can programme music. He got that as a present and he started playing around and came up with the basic melody. Then he started layering, and he pretty much made that whole song on a game machine!
So it was completely studio-based? It didn’t develop in rehearsal?
We rented a rehearsal studio and when we got together we worked on it for a month, then we layered it with guitars and bass, then we got together at Greg’s house a few months later and recorded vocals. But we never rented a professional recording studio. We did it all ourselves using Pro Tools. The whole album. And we mixed it on a car stereo while we were touring. Greg believes that if the music sounds good on a bad stereo, then it should sound good on a good stereo, right? He says that’s the best way.
What about the lyrics? Are they Greg’s?
The lyrics for ‘Super Duper Rescue Heads’ are Greg’s. One of our friend’s kids was screaming that sentence one day, and Greg was like, ‘Oh, that’s a great title! We need to use that one!’ [Laughs] The concept of this album was ‘Sweet 16’, because Deerhoof is celebrating our sixteenth anniversary. You know, kids and teens are into games and pop and colourful things; rebelious, short attention spans. ‘Super Duper Rescue Heads’ went well with that concept.
Does the album title Deerhoof Vs Evil have something to do with that?
Yeah! It sounds like a game, too! I’ve been telling my friends that maybe kids will buy our CD because they think it’s a game. [Laughs] They’ll buy it and realise it’s actually a CD.
You’re trying to trick people into buying Deerhoof albums?
Yeah! Trick them! [Laughs].
On recent albums you’ve been singing more and more in Japanese. Is that a conscious decision?
Since we tour all over the world, I think it doesn’t matter so much. I put the translation on the album artwork, but we wanted to minimalise the vocabulary on this album. I really like scat singers — they’re very universal. If I repeat the words over and over, they become really catchy and go into your brain more. So I wanted to make it less difficult to understand. It’s already difficult for people to understand what I’m saying anyway! [Laughs] People always ask, ‘What is Satomi singing about?’
But you’re singing in Catalan on this album! That can’t be easy for anyone…
I have a friend from Valencia and he said he wanted to help if I ever wanted to sing in Catalan. I thought that was cool, like a mix of Spanish, Italian and French. He said it’s been like 20 or 30 years since anyone wrote a song in the original Catalan language. I thought, wow! We should be the ones! [Laughs].
How do you divide your time between Tokyo and the States?
I moved to Tokyo again two years ago and I stayed there for one and a half years, but I had to tour so maybe I was there in total for six months. But we really don’t have a schedule. This year we have tours until November, on and off, so I can maybe go back to Tokyo twice for my private time. I hope I can be home longer…
What do you miss about Tokyo when you’re not here?
Food, of course, and friends. I made so many friends there, and I was with them, like, everyday. You know how it is when you’re in your own country — it’s so easy to connect. Japan’s so peaceful. It’s really nice.
Do you have any favourite restaurants here; places you like to hangout?
Yeah. I lived in Ebisu. My friends often have shows in the café at Liquidroom [Time Out Café & Diner]. The Toga designer I mentioned earlier — she’s always there, like three times a week, or something. That was like five minutes away from my apartment. I like a soba place, too, near Ebisu Station. It’s called Kaoriya. They have good duck. Oh, and Dommune. They have a very good VJ.
When you’re playing around the world, do you feel like you’re representing Japan in some manner?
I don’t really know. I’m in a wierd position, I think, because when I’m interviewed in Japan people call me Satomi Matsuzaki, which makes me sound like I’m from some other country. Matsuzaki Satomi is my name! And they put it in katakana, so I’m kind of like an imported/exported figure. More than half of my life has been spent abroad, but I was born and raised in Japan and went back to Japan quite often, so I feel like I’m a pure Japanese. In America they treat me like a Japanese, but I don’t really want to be one way or the other. I want to be an international person who just goes back and forth.
Any plans to play in Japan this year?
We’re still setting it up, but probably in November. Osaka, Nagoya, Tokyo, hopefully Fukuoka. That’s a great place — the people there really like their music. Hopefully we can do an onsen tour.
On a slightly different subject, why do you play the Paul McCartney bass?
Because it’s light. Not because I like him. The Hofner bass is loud, and it sounds really nice when I mute it with a rubber band. It makes a rhythmical tone. And I like dancing with the bass, but I can’t dance with a solid bass. I used to play a Rickenbacker and it just hurt my shoulders because it was as heavy as me.
Paul McCartney said a similar thing. It’s light, so he could move…
But I think I move more than him! [Laughs].
He’s also got a song called ‘C-Moon’, and there’s one on your new album with the same name. What’s going on, Satomi?
Really? Wow! I didn’t know that. I recently watched him on some documentary, and he put the song list for his shows at the exact same spot as I put it on the Hofner. Maybe we think in the same way…
And why does Greg play such a tiny drumkit? It seems like it’s nine times too small for him!
Ha! I think he said that if it was bigger he’d keep filling up the music. But we just went to a drum shop today and he bought a new kit, and now he has a floor tom. Maybe next time you see him he’ll be playing a full kit!
Originally published on Time Out Tokyo