Can music save the world? Recently we had a discussion with Greg Saunier from Deerhoof, ahead of their upcoming show at Brudenell Social Club (Leeds), to discuss this among other things…
1) Can you briefly introduce who you and Deerhoof are?
This is Greg, who is the drummer of Deerhoof. We also have Satomi Matsuzaki on bass and vocals, and Ed Rodriguez and John Dieterich on guitars.
2) Why are you anti-war and a supporter of nuclear disarmament? Does the rest of the band agree with your stance?
I don’t think you’re going to find too many people saying they’re actually pro-war. Weapons companies maybe. And their policy wing, the governments of the big military powers. But even they aren’t really going to say they’re pro-war out loud. It is always presented as self-defense. Even a straight-up illegal invasion, like the US going into Iraq, was sold as defending against the possibility that Iraq may in the future develop a nuclear bomb. “We don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud” etc. My guess is that kind of pre-pre-emptive model is exactly what Putin is using to sell his latest invasion.
3) In what ways do you think the current political climate, where there are rising nuclear threats across the world, has influenced your current and may influence your future output?
Irony there is that “nuclear threats” never came from places like Iraq, whose military capability was reduced to hear non-existence after Gulf War I. The real nuclear threat comes from countries with…nuclear weapons. And the more they have, the bigger the threat. Missile systems can malfunction. The silos in the US aren’t well maintained. Mental health being what it is in 2022, I don’t quite trust some random employee or Jack D. Ripper-type general not to set one off.
The biggest nuclear threat is of course from the leaders of the big military powers. Their campaign strategists have determined that they need to project “strength,” which for some reason translates as having no hesitation about pressing the button. Which is no different from saying they have no feelings whatsoever about terminating the human species. And journalists are satisfied with that. Not curious to ask a follow-up question about what possible circumstances would in their opinion warrant killing everyone, or how their brand of nuclear war would somehow avoid that fate.
In the US many of us were laughed at for suggesting that the political and media fixation on Russiagate could ramp up tension with another nuclear country. But as we can see, nuclear tension can be just as threatening under a Democratic president as under a Republican one.
The A-bomb has always hovered over our songs. Satomi’s mother was a little girl when Satomi’s adopted country dropped them on her native country. Mushroom clouds are on two of our album covers.
4) Should we still be optimistic about the future? If so, why and are you?
I got no reason to be optimistic when The Bulletin Of Atomic Scientists says we’re as close to nuclear annihilation as our species has ever come, including the Cuban Missile Crisis, when the whole world was holding their breath. And disarmament would be a miracle. The US military’s control of the government, and its share of our taxes, keeps going UP every year, not down. Important people’s salaries depend on a thriving arms race. Important candidates for office depend on appearing at least somewhat psychotic.
5) You come from a conservatoire background and have some very passionate political opinions, which we can evidently see in your work with Deerhoof. I’ve noticed that the band has such a broad range of songs, from ‘Come See The Duck’ to ‘I Will Spite Survive’, so do you ever worry whether the serious messages you might like your audiences to engage with might be overlooked or not taken seriously enough?
No, I love the way our audience engages with our songs! They are the best.
6) We’ve noticed a diminishing presence of younger activists in our local peace movement, which may be due to the increasing importance of climate activism or perhaps just the distance from nuclear threat post Cold-War. How could we engage a disengaged youth with anti-war politics?
If people are engaged with climate, or with labor issues and strikes which are also getting a lot of energy now, I’m not going to complain. Both are critiques of capitalism, or whatever you want to call this form of total corporate takeover we now endure. They are also critiques of political leaders, when those leaders are simply stooges of the CEO class, as is the case in today’s neoliberal countries. Arms dealing, war, and the threat of war all exist to feed the bank accounts of the CEO class. So I see these struggles as unified.
7) People have been writing anti-war songs for years. From John Lennon to Ed McCurdy, the list is plentiful. So what are you doing differently and why do you feel the difference of Deerhoof’s tone to ‘Last Night I had the Strangest Dream’ is worthwhile for a contemporary audience?
Well I’ve never heard of Ed McCurdy but I know John Lennon, and that man had hits. We don’t have that problem. We’re in the sweet spot. Making just enough from music to survive. Once music becomes a highly profitable undertaking, and you’ve built your reputation on being anti-war, then you’re forced to hope for war so you can keep selling records. War is only one among Deerhoof’s many thematic and spiritual interests. If the movement for disarmament is mercifully successful, we will still have plenty to sing about. Most of our songs are about falling in love and looking at flowers.
8) As an aficionado in noise music, are british/american activists making enough noise at the moment?
People should make whatever music they want. But I do notice that the word noise has a different meaning now than in 1994 when Deerhoof had our first rehearsal. It was bumpier then. Now it means smooth drones.
9) Deerhoof has previously expressed an interest in the collaboration of science, academia and music. One example of this was in 2015 during a collaboration with CERN. As the European Organisation for Nuclear Research, could you tell us more about that experience and whether there were any conflicts of interest?
My mom used to work at a museum gift shop in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Los Alamos just a 45 minutes’ drive away. I was in the shop once and picked up The Making Of The Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhoades. Hundreds and hundreds of pages of physicists studying particles, then becoming convinced that they were doing the right thing by developing a bomb to save the world from Hitler. Then in the final hundred pages, Truman and a few advisors walk in and make a bunch of snap decisions that end up changing the whole narrative, unnecessarily slaughtering hundreds of thousands of human beings, and altering human history. It taught me a lot.
CERN is a rarity in today’s scientific world in that its work is not for commercial or military purposes. I loved it and felt no conflict. I did however read some pretty interesting conspiracy theories in YouTube comments that we were Satanists intent on creating a black hole. There was lots of evidence and it was pretty convincing…