Deerhoof’s new album is about the end of the world. Climate change is irreversible, infrastructure has collapsed, death is dealt out undiscerningly, and a small band of hopeful youth persist to bring art back into whatever time the world has left. “Gonna paint an animal on a cave wall/Gonna leave it there forever while empires fall,” sings Satomi Matsuzaki. These are the Future Teenage Cave Artists.
“We always loved fairy tales,” says Greg Saunier, the band’s drummer and unofficial mouthpiece, though the world he and Matsuzaki sing about doesn’t feel much like a fairy tale anymore. It’s hard not to see it as an album about 2020, not least when the cover features a cartoon virus drawn by Matsuzaki. But the album, which the band worked on for “two or three years” before its release, was finished before 2020 really became 2020—before the COVID-19 pandemic, before the murder of George Floyd and subsequent unrest, before whatever is going to happen at this year’s elections.
“It was completely done before 2020 started, but you could see everything coming,” says Saunier. “I think the only thing that has surprised us is the rapidity of calamity after calamity.”
Though the band mostly had climate change on their minds when coming up with the album’s concept, Saunier believes it’s a mistake to match the lyrics on Future Teenage Cave Artists with a specific cataclysm or current event.
“One thing that tends to happen in the news cycle is that we think of everything as isolated events,” he says. “The pandemic happened, then George Floyd was murdered, then a bunch of demonstrations happen. They aren’t isolated events. I don’t think these demonstrations would be happening if there weren’t this bottled-up rage.”
That might explain why no specific cataclysm is mentioned on the record. Matsuzaki’s lyrics tack toward abstraction; a typical lyric, from “New Orphan Asylum For Spirited Deerchildren,” goes: “Why would you shoot my Bambis? How could you shoot my Bambis?”
“I never asked [Satomi] what she meant,” says Saunier. “I don’t ask her for the answer. I don’t want the answer. It made me think of childhood—why would you crush my childhood?—but maybe she was just talking about sport hunting.”
The music is no less abstract, departing from the animated sound of records like The Milk Man or The Runners Four in favor of the rusty, diseased sounds of a post-human trash heap. The mix is bottomless, lo-fi and hi-fi sounds jostle uncomfortably, and the band members’ parts seem to collapse on each other.
Future Teenage Cave Artists was recorded remotely by the four band members, who all live in separate cities (Saunier’s in LA). The equipment used to record the band members’ parts varies drastically; Saunier recorded many of his drum parts on PhotoBooth, that goofy Mac plug-in one might use to take a selfie or a short video. It offers a solution to the problem of how to make an album during quarantine. The recording process is inextricable from the album’s sound and is part of what makes it so interesting.
Though the band’s planned tours were canceled, Deerhoof performed a livestream concert to promote Future Teenage Cave Artists. Saunier enjoyed the experience, citing his ability to see fans react in real-time to their music with text and emojis. But he’s not terribly optimistic about the post-pandemic music industry.
“[The pandemic] set a new expectation that the artist should do not only live free live streams but crappy free live streams,” he says. “Whoever already had good cameras or a good microphone home studio setup wins. Everybody else is sitting there in front of their iPhone with glitching Internet, and nobody’s getting paid for it.”
The inability to tour threatens to jeopardize Deerhoof’s livelihood and those of countless other bands—not to mention those of venue owners, 90% of which surveyed by the National Independent Venues Association this month said they would not survive the pandemic. Meanwhile, corporations profit off the desperation of musicians and music consumers.
“Spotify is laughing all the way to the bank,” says Saunier. “The idea that now we’re all happy because we’re getting together via Zoom—whoever owns Zoom is also laughing all the way to the bank.”
I return to that lyric from the beginning of the album: “Gonna paint an animal on a cave wall/Gonna leave it there forever while empires fall.” Is Future Teenage Cave Artists the animal on the wall? Is Deerhoof trying to create a masterpiece to weather the sands of time?
Saunier dismisses the idea. “You don’t know if you’re going to be alive tomorrow, you might not wake up tomorrow,” he says. “What does the magic masterpiece status mean when your future is day to day?”