Curing Musical Monotony: An Interview with John Dieterich of Deerhoof and Caustics
SLUG is honored to premiere the music video for “Touch 8” (created by Sandy Ewen), the latest from improv group Caustics. Below the video, find an interview with Caustics’ (and Deerhoof’s) John Dieterich.
“It’s funny, there’s this pattern,” says John Dieterich. “In certain situations, I find myself getting bored.” He’s speaking specifically about the six-month period in his youth where he took formal guitar lessons before he grew tired of learning Black Sabbath songs note-for-note, but the sentiment extends past this early encounter with rote music. Throughout his career and with a countless number of collaborators, Dieterich has constantly upended conventions and searched for new modes of expression. This summer alone saw the release of two stellar Dietereich-featuring albums: The latest studio album from the long-active avant-rock outfit Deerhoof, and the release of Caustics’ debut album, the latter some 15 years in the making. On both these releases, Dieterich’s guitar improvisations and collaborative conceptualizing shines, showcasing a penchant for musical world-building that’s constantly re-cartographing what he sees and knows.
If there’s a complete antonym to artistic stasis, it’s Deerhoof, a group who’s constantly tinkering with and evolving their already colorful sounds. Part of this continued development stems from the group’s constant reframing of their approaches to their music. While the band exhibit some shared characteristics throughout their catalog—the sugary melodies, rhythmic ambiguities and noisy textures among them—the quartet (with vocalist/bassist Satomi Masuzaki, drummer Greg Saunier and guitarist Ed Rodriguez alongside Dieterich) always attempts to reinvent its relationship to the collective work. “The Deerhoof method is no method, essentially. There is no set way of approaching anything,” says Dieterich, noting that, instead, the group will often engage with rules or games to help focus their creativity—what if you only wrote on piano? What if you only wrote parts for other people to play?
In addition to these conscious decisions to reorient, Deerhoof’s geographical distance adds a serendipitous element to their collective growth. With all four members living in different cities for the last decade or so, time spent apart not talking and playing together eclipses full-group meetings. Living and growing apart leads each member to embark on their own musical path, such that writing together (when it happens) breeds different results than the original, uniformly Bay Area–based Deerhoof would have. Upon meeting back up, Dieterich finds that, “We’ve all learned different things. You always have to be negotiating the ways we’ve changed, but from this place of understanding each other.”
This mutual understanding is crucial to Deerhoof’s sustained creative streak. 20 years in, it’s no wonder that the band has concocted a sort of in-group chemistry: “Playing together for that long, you develop a kind of musical shorthand. Whether it’s in writing or in playing together,” says Dieterich. “We have, together, developed a kind of mental acuity with this material to be able to lock into it quickly.” While always on the hunt for something fresh, the band also relies on a a mutual memory of each other’s tics, preferences and tendencies.
“You always have to be negotiating the ways we’ve changed, but from this place of understanding each other.”
When it came to recording Future Teenage Cave Artists, Deerhoof chose technological simplicity and ease of access as a guiding principle. “One of the aspects of it is recording by any means necessary and not worrying about fidelity,” says Dieterich, “Intentionally limiting your means with this imagination of a situation where you might not have access to things.” Hence the apocalyptic tone of the album title: Future Teenage Cave Artist stems from a loose concept exploring a sort of new traditional art that emerges post-fallout. “In this post-apocalyptic potential hellscape, maybe you just have a little acoustic guitar with one string and some device to record,” says Dieterich of the recording process and self-imposed limitations.
Remote recording is (by necessity) in vogue right now, but Deerhoof have been honing their skills piecing together recordings from afar and unearthing the creative potentials inherent in this format for some time. This cut-and-paste construction, along with the guiding lo-fi ethos, defines the new album’s rich, varied sound. In particular, Dieterich notes Saunier’s atypical recording setup as a pillar of Teenage Future Cave Artists‘ sound: “Greg was recording videos of himself in Photo Booth. It’s completely distorted, he’s bashing as loud as he can,” he says. Many of the final drum tracks on the album are just these mono mp3 files recorded straight through a computer microphone, giving the percussion sounds across the album a bludgeoning quality.
If the percussive base lives in this grit, it’s only one face of the total picture. In keeping with the benefits reaped from Deerhoof’s collective/individual balance, Teenage Future Cave Artists‘ artistic prompt yielded different results from each member. “Ultimately, because we’re all recording separately, we’re all going to interpret these ideas in different ways,” says Dieterich. “People had their own levels of fidelity that they were willing to commit to.” With so much of the record created remote—only one track was tracked front-to-back in the studio—listening becomes a carousel of gelling hi-fi and lo-fi sounds. Where Saunier’s drums crackle and clip, Dieterich’s has a warmer, more measured fuzz while Matsuzaki’s vocals float along in a silky haze.
“In this post-apocalyptic potential hellscape, maybe you just have a little acoustic guitar with one string and some device to record.”
For Dieterich particularly, the process of minimal recording involved adapting his elastic, spontaneous guitar playing into this format. “One of the things I’ve been trying to do more and more is get a handle on what I’m doing so that I’m not hampered,” he says. “So that when you get an idea, you can just do it. It’s so easy when you’re working alone to get caught up in this technical side of it.” Without the necessary immediacy of group performance, a solo improviser must find ways to keep themselves engaged with their own practice.
In order to escape the trappings of hermetic fiddling, Dieterich looks back to the artistic ethos of an old painter friend from Oakland for guidance. “His method was often just […] getting very much involved in something and then destroying three quarters of it,” he says. “He could never understand how you could use digital media, where you can undo things. His whole process is the impossibility of undoing; everything is only doing.” With this outlook, crtl+Z is helpful, but also paralyzing in its eternal promise of revision. “For everyone, there’s gonna be different answers, but I developed techniques to make it impossible for myself to undo certain kinds of things as much as possible,” Dieterich says.
Among these techniques is Dieterich’s home recording set up. As of late, he’s taken to using an amp given to him as a gift. It’s small (about a four-inch speaker), completely metal and, “If you just turn it up all the way, it just sounds like the world is ending,” says Dieterich. “It’s just such a wonderful sound.” Playing a guitar that sounds like the apocalypse fits neatly into Teenage Future Cave Artists‘ framework, but it also speaks to one of the guitarist’s core ideals: a construction-via-annihilation. Not a violent destruction, but a self-willing dismemberment driven by the search for unexplored music.
This desire to un-create, to hone an approach based on fluidity, chance and game play finds a strange analog in Caustic’s Touch. The revelatory album was recorded throughout five or so improvised sessions in 2005, edited down from hours of recordings over the next five years then more or less shelved for a decade. Now, with the backing of Deathbomb Arc and Moone Records, Touch finally finds a public audience
The original impetus for Touch stemmed from a framework of unfiltered exploration. “It was […] a group of people—some of them had never even met and didn’t know each other—coming from different musical worlds, but they were all people really deep into their approaches and things,” says Dieterich. Alongside him were drummer Josiah Wolf, bassist Devin Hoff and modular synth wizard Yasi Perera. Dieterich credits much of the album’s characteristic “weird haze” to Perera, who used his Buchla both as its own sound source and as a means of live processing the other three members’ performances. Dieterich says they were “filtering the stuff through Yasi’s sounds world into almost like its own kind of electronic music, that’s very organic and physical.”
While Touch’s co-mingled sonic identity offers its own level of tactile uniqueness, the album’s playing prompt creates a greater nuance of improvisational textures. Similar to Deerhoof, the Caustics quartet aimed to escape the confines of traditional music-making—even if that tradition is the supposedly open minded avant-garde. More than just searching for new playing techniques, though, Caustics aimed to wipe away any sense of inherited knowledge. “[We were] trying to imagine a different kind of music [and] develop a language together that was simple,” says Dieterich. To challenge themselves even more, Caustics aimed to subvert a purely novel construction, instead imagining a deep-rooted musical culture. “[We were] trying to invent something that has a whole history that we don’t know about,” says Dieterich.
“[We were] trying to imagine a different kind of music [and] develop a language together that was simple.”
As far as what this looked like, 15 years of breathing room have somewhat blurred the memories, but Dieterich recalls a few key concepts. “I know that the idea was digging into a sort of rhythm-based music,” he says, explaining that there was a collective decision to conceive of Touch as “a kind of dance music.” The resulting album is a barrage of rock-adjacent improv. The quartet will often approach a groove, only to have this pattern melt back into Perera’s ever-morphing vat of textures. It might not make listeners dance in a conventional sense, but the album’s organic drive certainly makes you bob along to these almost-rhythms. It’s both disarming in its mysteriousness and welcoming in its simple physicality.
With a near-marathon of audio to work with after tracking, Dieterich and (to some extent) Perera sat down and culled together around 30 minutes of material that best illustrates Touch‘s goal. “We had these acoustic sounds, guitar and things, [and] it was always this sort of balancing act of trying to make it attach the physicality of someone playing something to [these] bizarre sounds,” Dieterich says. “It’s about trying to find a balance of actual physical people playing something and this sort of heightened exaggeration of the sound world.” This mediation often feels haunted, with the loose rumblings of the analog players echoing back to themselves out of Perera’s synths. This cycle repeats ad infinitum until the dividing line has faded into a gelatinous web of music.
To coincide with the long-awaited release of Touch, Caustics solicited the skills of improvising guitarist/architect/artist Sandy Ewen to craft new videos for three of the album’s tracks. The beguiling 3D models are built out of home recordings Dieterich made of household objects in his backyard, but Ewen uses software to create her own world that exists in between the digital and corporeal. “For me, it was the most perfect accompaniment or analog to what the music is doing,” says Dieterich. “[A] very physical and sort of disturbing imaginary space. It’s something you really can feel. [She uses] AI technology to find ways of breaking certain aspects so it becomes eerily human. And the tension between that and the sort of mechanized aspect of it is really cool.”
“In certain situations, I find myself getting bored.”
While both Caustics and Deerhoof are the product of collaborative music-making, they both share the thread of John Dieterich. He thinks about writing and guitar playing in deep nuanced ways, but much of it seems to come down to a guiding philosophy: “Creating accidents; creating holes to fall into that you then have to solve […] later. Ultimately, it ends up being more interesting and more fun,” he says. Dieterich can perform a litany of styles with a variety of other musicians and “be” nearly anything, but if there’s one thing his music is certainly not, that’s boring.
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