The shuffler: Greg Saunier, singer-songwriter-drummer and co-founder of San Francisco avant-rock band Deerhoof. Saunier and his mates—including his literal mate, Deerhoof's lead vocalist Satomi Matsuzaki—are currently touring in support of the energetic, engagingly experimental new album Friend Opportunity.
Johnny Nash, "I Want Jesus To Walk With Me"
Greg Saunier: We were in Japan last year, and this interviewer was giving me a hard time because she thought we released albums too fast, and she wasn't sure she really liked our style of music. So finally, I was like, "We're starting to think about our next album, What do you want to hear?" [Laughs.] And she doesn't even think about it. She comes out with this perfectly formed answer the second I ask the question, as if she's been expecting it. She's like, "Well, I think clearly you guys need to be doing a cappella vocal harmonies recorded with one microphone in a large room. And it needs to all be gospel music." [Laughs.] And I'm like, "All right." So, basically, as soon as we get home from that trip, I went through the entire gospel section of iTunes. Like, 30 seconds of every gospel thing ever recorded that happened to make it onto iTunes. And the ones that caught my ear, I ended up buying. This was one of those. But I don't think it's what she was looking for.
The A.V. Club: Johnny Nash's most famous song is "I Can See Clearly Now," right?
GS: That was much later. This was early Johnny Nash, like from the late '50s or early '60s. It has no drums or anything. It sounds like Lawrence Welk.
Stevie Wonder, "Maybe Your Baby"
GS: Stevie Wonder is known by anyone who visits the dentist as a man who writes very heartwarming, touching love songs that play on "light rock, less talk" stations. And he's known by connoisseurs of cool music as somebody who made really good funk-related music in the '70s, and played all his own instruments. But he's known by me as somebody who once in a great while would do really funny songs. "Maybe Your Baby" is one of those. He's sort of painting a portrait of a really hopeless character whose girlfriend has apparently left him for another man. And he just puts it in the most sarcastic way. He uses this mocking voice as he's singing, "Maybe your baby done made some other plans," and he's got these synthesizers that sound like the comedy cue in some sitcom. [Laughs.]
I think it's an amazing song. The drums on it are incredible, because they're so incredibly sparse. One of the most interesting things about Stevie Wonder is the way he would layer the instruments. Most people start with the drums, but Stevie Wonder would always put the synthesizer first, and make it rhythmic. Then he'd add the drums later, like they were an afterthought. On this song, you can really tell, because the drums stop for long periods, then come in with some crazy fill or something.
Miles Davis, "The Time Of The Barracudas"
GS: I'm should probably make sure that everyone who played on this song is no longer living so that I don't get sued, but this one was a LimeWire find. Actually, it's not even the complete track. Halfway through the download, the computer I was getting it from got turned off or something, so I only have half the song. But I just couldn't bring myself to delete it, because it's so good. I think it's something that his quintet from the '60s recorded for a play. Just really, really strange. Basically, it was never released until it popped up on a box set years later. It's a little difficult to get reliable information from a LimeWire MP3, but I can pretty much tell it's something related to his most famous quintet, from the '60s. It sounds like it has Tony Williams on drums and Herbie Hancock on piano. Anyway, it's a very bizarre song, because it sounds a bit like—and may be—just 10 takes or so of the same thing.
If I were really put on the spot and had to pick my favorite band of all time, it would probably be this particular Miles Davis quintet. His most famous quintet—actually, it was a sextet, I guess—was the one that made Kind Of Blue in the late '50s, but then, basically within the two to three years that followed that album, he was sort of inactive and starting from scratch. By '63 or '64, he'd come up with a totally different lineup that lasted until about '68 or '69, and did tons of albums.
Tony Williams… I don't know. I wouldn't even know quite what to say about him. He's the drummer that I've put the most effort into trying to imitate. The most explosive, unpredictable… At the time he joined Miles Davis' group, I think he was 18. He stayed with Miles Davis until he was a whopping 23 or something, then started his own fusion group with John McLaughlin. Just incredible energy and thundering… I mean, he played much louder than a jazz drummer is supposed to play. Constantly shifting the beat. I think, if anything, what I really get most from his style is how often what he would do seemed irrelevant to the music, as if he wasn't listening. But of course, he was listening really closely. He was just trying to interject these thoughts. [Laughs.] It's really hard to find the right words to describe it. Just a constant source of musical ideas and prodding, always prodding his bandmates.
AVC: Did you study drums formally, or is your technique all just picked up?
GS: I didn't study formally, unless you count playing snare drum in the school band, which I did. When I was in high school, I took any music-related classes that I could. Chorus, band… I mean, I have two music degrees, but they aren't in drums. Any amount that I like Miles Davis is totally my own decision. [Laughs.] Under no influence from any music teachers.
The Staple Singers, "Glory, Glory Hallelujah!"
GS: This just shows you. These iPods hold like four days of music or something, and two of them come up from this little gospel foray I made. This one is probably more like what that one interviewer was hoping our album was going to sound like. And by the way, our album turned out nothing like gospel, country, a cappella, one-microphone-in-a-large-room music. So we totally missed the boat. But I'm not casting aside all hope that we may still attempt something like this someday.
Kind of like Johnny Nash, who later became famous for that pseudo-reggae song you mentioned, The Staple Singers later became famous for that "I'll Take You There" song, which became a Toyota commercial or something. But this is super-early Staple Singers. I'm actually not sure what year. I would guess the early '60s, but it sounds like it was recorded centuries ago. If you can apply the word "timeless" to any music, apply it to this album, In Praise Of Him. It's this family of voices that sing in the most gut-wrenching harmonies, with just a hair of Papa Staple's guitar occasionally plucking out a few notes to keep them on pitch. You can barely hear that guitar. It's practically a cappella, with this kind of weird echo that makes it all sound so… I don't know what the word is. It has a patina about it or something. It seems hallowed, or ageless in a way. It just must be one of the greatest—to me, to my nonsensical tastes—one of the greatest albums I've ever heard. Every song on it is just so intense that once you listen to them, it's not like you get any one particular song stuck in your head, but the sound of all the songs. You get enveloped by it for the next couple of days.
The Swingle Singers, "Sonata No. 15"
GS: The Swingle Singers may still exist in some form. In fact, my mom told me she saw them a couple of years ago, but I think it's a totally different group now. At this time, it was the mid-'60s. This guy named Ward Swingle, from Alabama or something, moved to Paris and formed this bizarre vocal ensemble of all these Parisian singers. They would do Bach fugues or whatever, but all with voices. They'd put syllables to it like it was scat singing, and then they'd have bass and drums playing really quietly along, sort of jazzy. Considered at the time to be totally irreverent and shocking by the classical-music establishment, who cried treason.
Of course now, it's just the opposite. Somebody hears this and thinks it's the most lightweight, annoyingly overpleasing music. But I'm a huge fan. We often have Swingle Singers songs playing at our shows between bands. Their first record was all Bach, and Bach is really kind of abstract music, that can be played by anything. It's indestructible. But then once the Bach album did well—really well, actually—they started moving beyond. And then it becomes more interesting, because they're re-working pieces like this one, which is originally for piano. Yet they still went in and arranged it for voices, with jazz drums tinkling in the background. [Laughs.]
I just absolutely love this idea of trying to find the essence of a piece of music, and proving that essence exists by basically doing a cover version that's quite different from the one people are used to. If everyone is used to this particular Mozart piece being played on piano, then it's not treason to do it with voices and jazz drums. It proves how indestructible the composition is, that it still works, and to my twisted ears, works better.