by carl wilson

'Hoof Has Seen the Wind:
On Deerhoof and Silences

I haven't had time/energy to see many live shows so far in '08, and wasn't especially regretting it. Aside from the head-detonating Veda Hille/The Fits/Tomboyfriend concert at the Gladstone a couple of weeks ago, and that Baby Dee snowstorm-night jamboree a couple of weeks before that, there hasn't been much to motivate me to drag my sorry ass out into this sorry, ass-dragging winter when I could be having lambchops and wine and reading or whatevering in my apartment. Thus I was millimetres away from skipping tonight's Deerhoof spectacle at the Phoenix, as part of the opening-night showcase of Canadian Music Week, even though I deeply love the band and had never (shocking admission) seen them, no doubt due to similarly short-sighted past decisions. That mistake was averted thanks to Jonny Dovercourt staring at me in disbelief earlier this evening when I mentioned that I was feeling too tired to go. Ah, good old shame!

You already know this, no doubt, but Deerhoof is the kind of band that makes you wonder how you ever felt going to see live music could be a chore. It's not just the three-rock-dudes-and-one-diminutive-pixie-singer dynamic; or bassist/vocalist Satomi Matsuzaki's theatricality (her stillness which explodes into thrashing, her secret semaphore-mime coded hand signals, the deadpan affect that makes her cooing, chirping voice seem to be piped in from Erewhon); or the extraordinary musicianship of the whole ensemble (especially the Keith Moon-meets-Han Bennink drumming of Greg Saunier); or the way that somehow '80s Tokyo noise-rock, jazz-exotica, prog, post-punk, mod 60s garage, no-wave, J-pop, Bartok, Zorn, Braxton and sugar-cereal commercial jingles all seem to soul-kiss in their music. It's not the catchiness of a music that plots in so many ways against catchiness. It's not even the light show, which consisted of a large light-emitting spinning propeller and a series of garbage-can-lids-on-light-stands that all together seemed (can this be right?) to be a sound visualizer, triggered by the peaks and valleys and frequencies of the music, like a multipart mechanical oscilloscope.

No, it's those peaks and valleys themselves, and most especially the deep valleys - that is, the silences, pauses, dead stops, 180-degree turns. It's the silences, I think, that account for the accessibility and memorability of a music so complicated as Deerhoof's, with its multiple time signatures, generic shifts, surprising dynamics and modal melodic meanderings. While stubbornly refusing to "add up" to a standard rock song, Deerhoof music respects the fact that the ear is apt to be overloaded and overcrowded by what they do, and so they build in rest stops that almost magically boost the listener's capacity to take all the content in. And at the same time of course all the stops and silences act as a tease, building anticipation so that when the music comes, it seems to gush back in a rush, a sexual release (albeit an animated-cartoon sexual release in Deerhoof's case). It's not just a gimmick they use here and there - Deerhoof plays silences all the friggin' time, as much a building block of their sound as Saunier's bruising kick drum or Matsuzaki's trilling coo. It's the simplest answer (though of course there is no simple answer) to the question that hearing this group inevitably raises: Why can't more bands do this? Why can't live music always be this transporting? Because too few musicians realize that they are architects.

The live rock bands that have had a similar effect on me psycho-somatically, that feeling of out-of-body transport and transcendence, by the way, all share Deerhoof's propensity for stop-start dynamics: the Pixies way back in their first incarnation, 1980s and 1990s-era Pere Ubu (not, at least the last time I saw them, the current version), The Ex, the Dogfaced Hermans, God Is My Copilot, Fugazi and even Bruce Springsteen. (For an easy example, think about "Rosalita.") In other genres - because, for example, of syncopation - that stop-start space is effectively built into the rhythms and polyrhythms - what is funk but a stop-start beat layered over a stop-start? There's "the 1" and then there's not the 1. I'll stop speculating before my musicological limits become apparent, but I'll extend the question psychologically and philosophically: Why, in noisy music, do separations and silences become so important? There's the need I already raised for suspense and release, for contrast, for relief from outbursts of ecstasy, but in some ways loud-quiet-loud forms, way over-used since Nirvana, serve those purposes.

My guess is that the power of silence also has to do with the character of consciousness and experience. Consciousness is not a continuous process, but a chain of discrete moments forever vanishing before we can get hold of them - in a sense, of experiences slipping away before they are truly experienced. It's always now, and now and now and now, and as the bulk of Eastern thought and religion informs us, one of the basic dilemmas of life is that we seldom feel "in" that now: its elusiveness is its essence. It doesn't disappear by dwindling away, by cresting and falling, but always all of a sudden: This instant, this second, this hour, this day is "now" but in the time it takes to note that fact, the instant is now "then." As a survival mechanism, our minds create a continuity out of it, the way our optical processes narrate the discrete frames of cinema, stillness becoming an illusion of movement, but this is a constant, perhaps exhausting subconscious effort. Experience is as much made of total breaks, of gaps and aporias, as it is of content. Music, like (almost) all art, takes the chaos of experience and makes something more coherent of it because it has form - even the most abstract art has greater structure than the experience of consciousness. (Although it also might have more freedom than social experience, with its daily routines, etc. - a combination that helps account for its pleasure.) So perhaps this meta-genre of "stop-start" art feels especially elevating because it returns the fragmented experience of life to us, magnified and exaggerated, so that what feels day to day as a frustrating limitation of the mind can be transformed into a hosannah of glorious affirmation: "Praise be to the gap, to the disappearance and reappearance of the moment! What a miracle that time annihilates itself, because, behold, it also spontaneously regenerates in the very moment of its demise! What a happy universe in which a black hole becomes a big bang every instant! Let us observe it in slow-motion replay, and dance!"

And the delightful paradox is the way that the sudden stops and gaps superficially make everything feel more chaotic, but in fact are a rigid form of organization: You're hearing a song that consists of six different emotional tones, time-signatures and practically six whole different genres, and it seems like the silences are the knife-blade shredding them in an indifferent blender, but then you're flabbergasted to realize that these silences keep coming in the exact same place in the sequence, on the seventh beat of a thirteen-beat pattern, and this means that the musicians are marching in military discipline, their minds having to be synched to all these subtle patterns and kicking in formation like a can-can line, at the same time as the music is evoking the most interior experience of existential disjunct. As great music always does, they're taking privacy and making it social again.

So, er, way to go, Deerhoof.

By the time I got to the Phoenix (hey, mediocre venue, but aptly named!), I'd missed the first few bands (including intriguing locals ">Ten Kens, who've managed to elude most music writers' tracking systems till now, though they've been gaming world conquest in their lair awhile and their record, as Zoilus readers might like to know, was produced by Colin Stewart, who's helmed the board for among others Destroyer's This Night and Veda Hille). But I did see much-blogzzed-about (and, to be fair, New-Yorkerzzed about) L.A. duo No Age, who were affable kids with great energy and occasional songs. At their best, they're part of the current Jesus & Mary Chain revival but without the po'face, as if the Jesus & Mary Chain had been part of the Gilman Street punk scene in San Francisco - indeed, with youthy yelly exuberance such that I could almost imagine them as misplaced Torontopians, or more specifically drummer/vocalist Dean Spunt as Matt Collins from Ninja High School. I liked the way Spunt played riffs on his drums rather than just beats, and the way those riffs interacted with Randy Randall's tidier-than-they-seemed guitar figures, and the way they deploy electronics almost as a subversive stealth agent, and the way they sound even live like you're hearing them on a low-bandwith YouTube video, and the way occasionally that all added up, with the yelling, to an anthemic feeling. I like them best when they yell together so that what felt like bratty mischief suddenly seems like a conspiracy. But they'd go down a lot better at their home base at The Smell in L.A., or any cramped intimate room, with an audience of friends, than they did shouting "how are you feeling, Toronto?" on a slushy March night in the oversized pickup-joint that is the Phoenix with an audience of winter-weary Toronto Deerhoof fans and CMW takin'-care-of-businessers who spent their set wondering why they bother to come to see live music.

And No Age might sound a lot better if they found out that little secret about silence.

General | Posted by zoilus on Thursday, March 06 at 2:08 AM | Linking Posts | Comments (8)



What I want to know is: If everyone digs music with dynamic shifts, why do so few of us make it? My thoughts: ego, childish lack of control, and the false identification of volume with intensity. I've played in several bands and inevitably when someone's piece calls for quiet, people balk, noodle (usually with increasing volume), or ignore the instruction altogether. I just read on Alex Ross's site about a Webern piece which calls for something like three notes from the trombones. I have never met a rock musician who could keep quiet for so long. Maybe we need notation, too?

Great post. And incidentally, if there's anyone in NYC looking to make music, get in touch. My output these days is all too silent.

Posted by Jake on March 11, 2008 4:18 PM



Fantastic post. I've spent a significant amount of time thinking and writing about silence and its power in a rather different (non-musical) context in the recent past and what you've written here both offers some interesting parallels and gives me a great deal to think about. Thank you for your insight and your eloquence.

Posted by rgsc on March 9, 2008 1:48 PM



Hey Carl, FYI, the rainbow windmill and trash-can lights are by Toronto artist and musician Peter Venuto. (Haven't been as giddy at a rock show in a while--I likewise wasn't planning on going the other night, despite having seen them before and loving them live...)

Posted by Craig D. on March 7, 2008 1:20 AM



Really interesting post -- thanks! You're dag-snappin'-right-fuckin-truckin-on-ten-four-good-buddy about the charm of the full stop silence. A TON of recent hits, from R&B; to teen pop to pop-grunge (or whatever it's called) have dramatic full band stops. Recent-ish songs by Erykah Badu, Prince, bands whose names I never remember but am always happy to hear on the radio, the contemporary "hit" in that Hugh Grant-Drew Barrymore songwriter flick -- all have dramatic full band stops. In one of those books that came out a few years back about how recording technology changed music, a classical musician was quoted to the effect that classical musicians were reluctant to let full-ensemble rests linger for as long on record as they could in live performance. I immediately thought of "The Little Girl I Once Knew," a Beach Boys single from right before "Pet Sounds" that they rereleased on "Spirit of America," with those loong full stops. So cool! I think that similar aesthetic/psychological dynamics are at work when people complain about paragraphs going on too long (there are novels by Beckett that I could neeeeeever read), so, on that note . . .

Posted by john on March 6, 2008 5:09 PM



Re: Deerhoof. What he said.

Except that I was one of those old grumps who endured the No Age set wondering why I go to see live rock bands anymore.

Who are these adolescents? And I haven't seen them at every basement show in every small town in Ontario--and haven't I always stepped out for a breath of fresh air during their set? Not only do they not understand silence or dynamics, they have minimal understanding of rhythm (which any guitar/drum duo should have, from Hella to the White Stripes to Ruins to the Inbreds), a thin grasp on riffs or melodies or hooks--all of which would be fine if they pushed in other directions, which they decidedly do not (those electronics are a red herring and a poor crutch), resulting in a beige bog with no soul and no spirit that left me feeling sad and empty.

Then, of course, I realized that the point of yawning through a shitty rock band merely prepared me for one of the greatest rock bands of our time.

Posted by barclay on March 6, 2008 9:58 AM



Great post, Carl.

Posted by Richard on March 6, 2008 9:39 AM



If you think you're having a hard time dragging your ass out of your house to see a band these days, think how we musicians feel when we have to drag OUR asses out of the house and go to work. Many a night this winter I've looked out and seen the snow blowing sideways and thought...why oh why? But ultimately it's worth it, as we end up playing to a bunch of folks that made it out the door past those why oh whys.

Posted by Colonel Tom on March 6, 2008 9:30 AM



That's how winterized I've been. Possibly my favourite band and I had no clue they were playing.

Posted by Half on March 6, 2008 8:54 AM




Zoilus by Carl Wilson