In the summer of 2007, I saw Rush on the “Snakes and Arrows” tour at an outdoor venue, the Smirnoff Center in Dallas (or whatever they are calling it this year). It was an outdoor show in the middle of a particularly bad Texas heatwave – heat index 108 degrees after sundown. Last night, I experienced its counterpart when I was Deerhoof at the Mohawk here in Austin. When I left the venue, my phone said that it was 27 degrees. I had on some serious layers on my torso, but of course, no thermal underwear. Its hard to find that kind of thing when you only wear them once every two years. I can’t imagine what it must have been like to play in that environment. I had wool socks on my hands, which were planted firmly in my pockets, and they still were numb. When the wind chill hit, I started looking for a Tauntaun (nerdboy reference).
Deerhoof is an interesting band. While they are probably not bombastic enough to earn the “prog” label, they are certainly quirky enough to be considered “art rock.” Something about them that reminds me of the Talking Heads - perhaps Satomi Matsuzaki’s awkward Japaneseness reminds me of the ways in which David Byrne used to capitalize on his own whiteboy gawkiness. Unarguably, Deerhoof has better technical chops than the Talking Heads. Drummer Greg Saunier takes a page from the Keith Moon playbook, rifling out seat-of-the-pants fills just to see what he can pull off.
Last summer I picked up “Milkman,” and it was definitely a slow cooker, but I came to like it after many, many listens. There is something that is missing, though, that keeps Deerhoof from being a favorite, rather than just an interest. Trying to find out what that thing is might be what keeps me listening to them. The point of going to see them live was to perhaps gain a better understanding of the band, and although I walked away satisfied, I can’t say that I am any more or less a Deerhoof fan than when I started. I still just like them. To be fair, I got their new release “Deerhoof vs. Evil” last week, and it comprised the majority of their set. That recording is still simmering for me, and admittedly, it does sound a little different after the show. Additionally, I was not familiar with a lot of the work that they played. I have one other album, while they have an extensive catalog that spans around fifteen years. Being kind of a weird band on an oppressively cold night, the whole thing may not have invigorated my interest in the group like I thought it might, but it might not have been a fair sample.
On the other hand, maybe it is fair. When I walked in the door, the opening band, who I had never heard of before, immediately caught and held my attention. Comprised of a keyboard player and a drummer, this group, calling themselves “Ben Butler & Mousepad,” totally blew me out of the water. I have tried to find a clip that represents this group well, but unfortunately they all seem to be like the one I personally tried to capture – OK video, but totally blown-out sound. This one kind of gives you an idea....
Keep in mind the drummer probably can't feel his hands here. For a better live tidbit, check out my later post.
The thing that really disturbed me about the overall experience, however, was that after Ben Butler and Mousepad, Deerhoof seemed a little….archaic. Despite the Deerhoof’s killer chops and impressive energy in a hostile environment, their guitar-centric approach left me a little cold (pun intended). Conversely, the keyboard and drum approach of Ben Butler and Mousepad fascinated me.
One of the things I enjoy about music is unraveling the tapestry of its performance. Figuring out who plays what part at what time is very satisfying to me, and kept me listening to some songs for years. When you add this new wave of “soft” sequencing, where laptops can be made to react more like instruments, I find myself really curious as to how it is being done.
Keyboard and laptops present another problem, however – that of stage presence. It is difficult to make keyboard playing and computer-controlled accompaniment look cool. Ben Butler and Mousepad deftly circumvented this problem by employing hyperactive drumming and charismatic crowd interaction, allowing their music to bridge the gap between Keith Emerson and Thomas Dolby. Although they were danceable, they were also virtuosic, adventurous, and above all, fun. Any group who tries to get the audience to clap and dance to a song in 9/4 has the kind of Zappa-esque humor that I appreciate.
I bought their CD "Formed for Fantasy" and, predictably, it does not quite capture the live performance, although it does have its moments. Once I get some distance from last night, I might be able to be a little more objective.
Finally, a portion of Deerhoof’s performance was also marred by some drunk guy with an accent and a microphone whose enthusiastic thrashing about was encroaching on my space. Of course, I became annoyed, and when he turned to speak to his girlfriend I took great joy in barking into his microphone like a junkyard dog. I’m pretty sure he never actually caught me doing it. Regardless things improved when I made the miraculous realization that I could pretty much stand wherever I wanted to. After I moved about five feet back, he became someone else’s problem and I got back to enjoying the show. Lesson learned.