Deerhoof tours a lot. Each time we rent a minivan, and jam the four of us, plus our sound person, our gear, and our merch inside. There’s no room for anything else. I mean packing it in is a complete science. And when we fly, well for the past few years there’s been insane baggage limits, and just for the guys to bring along their guitars is like $50. Sometimes we can’t even our bring merch. We have to ship it ahead or sometimes we don’t even sell it.
But even when I’m at home, if you saw my apartment—you’d see it’s like a monk’s with just about no objects, only the barest things I need. I moved to New York with only two suitcases. I don’t have any prized possessions like a bass drum or a great cymbal. As a drummer, everything I touch is broken a few weeks later. Nothing that I’m playing on now is the same as what I was playing on a year or two ago. The sticks go at the sound check!
And take a look at my shoes. This is what a bass drum pedal does. I have gone through many pairs of these, each lasting only a leg of a tour. This pair happens to be black but they’re not always black. For example the canvas can be one color, the eyelets another, and the laces still another—and you can even have another color on the back of the tongue, which no longer exists on this pair. I just got a new pair in dark green. They look incredible… for now.
My bandmates know that while the objects I bring along don’t survive the tour, there are certain things I can’t live without. For one, I’m inseparable from a bag of sunflower seeds. We’re in the car for many hours a day and I get fidgety. I don’t like to eat anything else that’s sold at truck stops and rest areas. Also when I’m drumming I get sweaty and I’m always craving salt. So needless to say our touring van is always littered with the cast off shells of sunflower seeds.
When it comes to our tour rider, it’s so small that the promoter often misses it or assumes it’s a joke. But the one thing I always get is Earl Grey tea. I don’t drink, so we don’t have the typical requests like tons of beer, Jim Beam, Wild Turkey, or champagne—I don’t know what else—but in my case I need something to drink and I love Earl Grey. I love the scent of the bergamot. On tour you’re always on the verge of getting ill and hot drinks are the best! I can’t often find Earl Grey in gas stations, etc., but every night when we play I get a box, and they’re often different brands—especially if we go to England where you’ve got the Tesco, you’ve got the PG Tips, you’ve got the Twinings, you have Clipper, and so on. I come home at the end of the tour with ten different boxes to carry me through till the next time I leave again.
On tour, or not on tour, when I’m with others or when I’m alone, there is one other object I can’t do without. In fact if I didn’t collect this object, I’m not sure Deerhoof would have any records! I’m talking about the little pads of paper you get free from hotel rooms along with a ballpoint pen. And the kinds of hotels where we stay—absolute bottom of the barrel—they still always have these things. I need them because you never know when inspiration will strike!
I always keep a pad next to my bed because throughout my life I’ve woken up many times in the night with a melody in my head and I want to write it down. Later I’ll find the scrap of paper and ask myself what was that? But other times it’s pretty good and maybe I’ll turn it into a song. But either way for me it’s that kind of twilight consciousness when ideas tend to happen the most, and I want a way to keep them.
Whenever we arrive at our next tour venue, it’s non-stop sound. We have our sound check to do, and then it’s the opening bands, and our set, and everyone’s yelling, and at the end of the night, I’m still screaming so that folks can hear me when they come to our merch table. At the end of it all, the silence is so cherished.
We never play music in the minivan, and we don’t really talk too much either. It’s our down time to kind of get in the zone. John’s usually driving, I’m in the front shotgun, Deron and Satomi are behind us, and Ed’s in the third row surrounded by gear. At any given time one person—hopefully not the driver—is sleeping. Sometimes I’ll nod off but I’ve trained myself to keep the pad nearby if I happen to wake up with some new idea. A lot of the time it’s silence on the road, and sometimes it feels like I’m out there all alone with my ideas, and creativity comes from finding my way out of boredom.
I once played a concert with Laurie Anderson, and rehearsed over at her house, and I was completely blown away with the way she has made every room a kind of “creative idea” room—every one had a chair and table with a book that was open to some kind of inspiration, like maybe something she was reading, and place to write down ideas. For a certain kind of musician, and for better or worse I think I’m also one of these, there’s no real clock out. It’s great to have some way of capturing your ideas when they come to you.
Some people like to record their ideas on a phone. I don’t have a phone right now—I lost it on tour actually—and I’ve been on tour so much and so constantly that I haven’t been home long enough to organize an overnight delivery of a new one. And anyhow it’s just my style, and maybe it’s something about the notation of music on paper because it’s completely mental and abstract, coming straight from the imagination and not from the voice or the fingers, that appeals to me. Maybe it’s because it’s not sound, and maybe will never even become sound for another year when I find that scrap, that I also like. I have this stuff laying around the house, song ideas, set lists, brainstorms that can be songs but can also be political thoughts, personal tribulations, journal entries or conceptual ideas for future albums. These pads become a world I can’t live without.
We were just in Portland where our guitar player, Ed, lives. We were recording a bunch of new song ideas in his basement, and one of those came from a sketch I made on a pad from this current tour—but for any one idea on a particular page there are others that won’t get developed soon or maybe ever. I’d say maybe ten percent or less will become songs, but they exist as potential. And even the ones we use get changed from their original form as soon as collaboration begins. They often happen because someone in the band says something when they’re not consciously thinking about it.
We have a song called “Dog on the Sidewalk” that started when we were walking on the sidewalk and Satomi saw a dog and just started singing. And of course she didn’t intend at that moment for it to become a song that we ended up recording and performing on tour for years. If I hadn’t had a pad of paper with me at that moment I doubt we would have remembered the song by the time we got home from that walk.
All in all I’d say I’m a pretty unsentimental person, and I always want to cut down on things, and I’m not able to bring many things along with me when I tour, and what I do bring along always get destroyed. My most prized possessions aren’t mementos. They are always “next” things—the next pair of drum sticks, the next pair of shoes, the next bag of sunflower seeds or tea, the next blank note pad, the next idea, the next song… What I want/need/love most are possibilities.
Wanted/Needed/Loved: Musicians and the Stuff They Can’t Live Without is an illustrated column where musicians share the stories behind meaningful objects. As told to Allyson McCabe and illustrated by Esme Blegvad.
After training as a classical musician at Oberlin Conservatory of Music, Greg Saunier co-founded Deerhoof in 1994. The New York Times has described the band as “one of the most original rock bands to have come along in the last decade,” and Pitchfork has called it “the best in the world.” Deerhoof celebrated its 20th anniversary with the release of 2014’s La Isla Bonita. The band is currently touring and planning a new live album. Saunier has also collaborated with other musicians, including Sean Lennon in the band Mystical Weapons, and Brian Chippendale on a self-titled drum duo album and accompanying documentary.