By Alec Warkentin
CALGARY – The first thing one notices about Greg Saunier, drummer for experimental rock group and 2018 Sled Island guest curators Deerhoof, is that he is in surprisingly good spirits for a man stuck in an airport in Baltimore.
He’s not supposed to be here. He’s supposed to be in Philadelphia, on the third of six layovers while heading to Vienna, with Deerhoof kicking off a brief European tour which will find them playing Brighton, Luxembourg and Paris before making their way back to the States.
“Crazy day, so far,” laughs Saunier. “I’m in Baltimore still, and once I get to Philadelphia they’ve totally changed my routing.”
But Deerhoof are no strangers to dealing with distance, or delayed flights. Each of the four members of the wildly prolific outfit live in separate cities, leading to a recording process that finds each person working on new Deerhoof material solo, and in their own homes.
Such was the case for Mountain Moves, their latest record, produced under a tight deadline yet still managing to be one of the most feature-heavy of the bands massive discography released over the past 25 years.
“We felt it was time to bring some friends and heroes in, it fit the theme of the record,” says Saunier. “But every one of the collaborators did so much more work on it than we expected. Like we just sent simple scratch vocals for them to sing, but they’d be sending back harmonies and countermelodies and production ideas.”
Mountain Moves, the groups 14th studio album, features collaborations from rapper Awkwafina, singer Xenia Rubinos and Wye Oak’s Jenn Wasner (whose band was chosen to perform at Sled Island this year). It is also the band’s first return to the festival since playing in 2010, an experience Saunier remembers fondly.
“You can’t really imagine our shock, showing up to, you know, what we had been told was a major rock music festival, and our show was in a church,” says Saunier. “We start playing, we start doing soundcheck, and as a drummer it is incredibly rare to have the experience I had there… [being] quite literally incapable of making an ugly sound.”
“Every single thing that I played, and that any of us played, sounded so beautiful… Put it this way, if we had rehearsed and performed in that venue, every day, we would probably turn into a really bad band … It literally makes you sound good no matter what you’re doing.”
Saunier says Deerhoof jumped at the chance to be guest curators for the 12th year of the annual festival. Previous curators have included such heavy-hitters as electronic mastermind Flying Lotus (2017), iconoclastic performance artist Peaches (2016), and post-rock pioneers Godspeed You! Black Emperor (2015).
“There was no mitigating. Nothing but pure pleasure and joy at the prospect,” says Saunier. “We had been asked to curate one other festival in our career, and it was already many years ago… in Belgium. The process was really fun, but the actual weekend of the festival was one of the highlights of my life, for sure.”
“[With Sled Island], we came up with a list of acts that we wanted to invite so quickly. It was like, in a couple days we just had this list that you couldn’t believe,” says Saunier, noting that the funny thing about Deerhoof is that each of the four members never agree on anything. While the bands own background finds each person playing in an array of different side-projects, Saunier explains there was a calculated decision-making process in regards to the thematic intention of their picks.
“If we were going to try and represent Deerhoof’s taste on a curated festival, we were definitely going to be choosing the artists that, you know, that we think of as being more in our family tree. A bit more kind of aggressive, and less controlled,” says Saunier.
The result is a lineup of big names mixed with some of the more obscure, from garage-rockers Cherry Glazerr to hip-hop powerhouses Shabazz Palaces. Apart from those directly chosen by Deerhoof, however, Saunier says many of the acts he’s excited to see include The Body, Dirty Projectors and Flaming Lips.
“I mean, these are all friends of ours who we’ve toured with, which is an incredible coincidence that we’re on the same festival,” explains Saunier. “The list is so insane. Like, this has gotta be one of… the craziest artist lists I’ve ever seen on any music festival.”
“We had to organize with Sled Island some bicycles so we could make sure that we were going to make it to everything… we want to get the whole experience, and see absolutely as much of it as we can possibly can, and we’ll sleep some other time.”
Another draw with Sled Island, says Saunier, is how it differs from other more “corporate and annoying” festivals such as Coachella, which he explains are run by major media moguls who “make the bulk of the money.”
“Sled Island doesn’t have that, you know, unsavoury association with it, and seems very just about the fun of the artists and the audience,” says Saunier. “When that kind of situation miraculously comes together… I mean, you still get tired, seeing act after act, day after day, but it also becomes a kind of beautiful musical intoxication of its own.”
While the increased corporatization of the music industry continues to harm artists, says Saunier, there are also larger more political problems that Deerhoof attempts to address with Mountain Moves, and throughout their discography.
“Even though they have little incentive to listen, we wanted to discourage the people with the power to do so from terminating the human race, but also express gratitude for being alive, just in case the end is in fact on its way,” reflects Saunier later, in an email.
Back in Baltimore, Saunier stops briefly, listening to the news that his delayed flight to Philadelphia has finally arrived at the terminal. Time left for one last thought, an attempt to sum up a Deerhoof live show in one or two words.
“I couldn’t even sum it up in two thousand words,” Saunier chuckles. Perhaps an obvious answer, but a fitting one for a band with Deerhoof’s legacy and influence.
Deerhoof play at the #1 Legion as part of Sled Island on Friday, June 22 (Calgary).#1 Legion, Deerhoof, Sled Island