The Unusual Power of Influence
Randy Nordschow: When I first met you, and John as well, you were both at Mills in this academic program studying with Pauline Oliveros, Alvin Curran, Fred Frith and the like. Do you think that time influences what you did later with Deerhoof?
Greg Saunier: Actually, yeah. I mean, it did in my case. I think I had a very strange experience at Mills. At least among people who deal in academic music, Mills has a reputation of being the John Cage-aesthetic stronghold. The people there are always doing the wacky music or the experimental music as opposed to say, something more professionally viable. It’s a lot of free improvisation, a lot of laptop music…
That’s the weird thing, because I went to Mills with this idea that that’s what it was going to be—and in fact that is what it was—but I had this really odd experience. I ended up taking a seminar on the music of Beethoven and suddenly to my utter surprise that was the total eye-opener for me. It just completely changed everything for me when I took that class. I had never particularly gotten into Beethoven’s music that much before. I mean everybody knows [sings opening of Beethoven’s Fifth] but to actually study it closely and just basically to be forced to listen to quite a few pieces in depth, it got me really excited. Ironically looking back, that was the thing that had the big influence on me from Mills. And the Beethoven aesthetic in many ways is like a deep philosophical clash with the John Cage kind of aesthetic because Beethoven it’s talking about doing things deliberately. It’s determinacy and it’s using musical logic and it’s constructing things very deliberately. It’s also about expression and it’s not random. A lot of what was happening at Mills, not that I think it was bad at all, but I did feel like everywhere I turned people were doing music where in the hierarchy of important musical parameters, sound was at the top. Timbre was like the coolest thing about everybody’s piece. “I’ve never heard that sound before,” you know. Somewhere down there was pitch, rhythm, you know, stuff like that [laughs] and obviously that represents an inversion compared to Beethoven were pitch is at the top, that’s the first thing that matters.
Randy Nordschow: Speaking of Beethoven, I remember a student-organized concert on which a piano piece of yours was played. In a way it sounded very Beethoven-esque.
Greg Saunier: I was listening to it so much I couldn’t help it. [laughs] I was listening to it non-stop.
Randy Nordschow: And then there was another concert where you did a piece that was kind of like a Schubert song, and you sang through this little toy megaphone that had different settings to alter your voice, like “robot” and “baby,” which as I remember is the setting you chose. Both of those pieces ended up as songs on Holdypaws, “Great Car Tomb” and…
Greg Saunier: That’s right. And “Satan.” [laughs] That kind of was exactly my point, because the irony is that I think I was influenced almost negatively when I was at Mills to want—in a more extreme way than I ever had before—to write music where sound was completely unimportant, where timbre was just like, I didn’t care, you know what I mean. You could just look at it on the page and enjoy it. It doesn’t matter what it sounds like.