Although typically classified as indie rock due to their having been on an indie rock label (Kill Rock Stars) for the entirety of their career, the unconventional nature of Deerhoof's music makes genre identification difficult. But several recurring features can be said to constitute Deerhoof's distinctive sound: unassuming vocal delivery set against hyper-expressive instrumental playing; an elastic approach to group dynamics and rhythm more akin to the rubato of classical music performance practice than rock; odd melodies; harmonic sophistication and dissonance; disjointed, condensed, asymmetrical and otherwise unconventional song structures; raw and at times strident sound surfaces; and improvisation.
One such show where Fisk and Saunier were called upon to substitute for their former band was the 1995 Yo Yo A Go Go Festival in Olympia, WA. The audience was instantly polarized by the jarring ferocity of this unknown duo, but among them was Slim Moon, founder of the independent Olympia record label Kill Rock Stars. Moon signed Deerhoof on for one 7" single. The duo, budgetless, recorded themselves on four-track and released "Return of the Wood M'lady", featuring the drawing of visual artist Fisk. Deerhoof's do-it-yourself ethic turned out to be an appropriate match with Kill Rock Stars, and Deerhoof has remained on this label for the entirety of their career, ultimately becoming the longest-running and best-selling artist on the label's current roster.
The histrionic instrumental style and massive volume of the early duo made vocals difficult to perform, so in 1996 Fisk and Saunier began looking for a singer to join them. In May of that year, through a mutual friend, they met Satomi Matsuzaki, who had just arrived in San Francisco from her native Tokyo in order to study film. Although she had no musical experience, all three quickly agreed that her calm singing style was what had been lacking in Deerhoof's sound. Within one week of her joining, Deerhoof went on their first tour as a trio. In this early incarnation she sang into a strange microphone Fisk had constructed out of papier mache and Walkman headphones.
Matsuzaki began teaching herself to play bass and Deerhoof toured the U.S. several times over the next several years, often leaving audiences confused by the cheerful pop elements that seemed incongruous in a noise rock band.
In 1998, Deerhoof added Kelly Goode on keyboard, and by the release of 1999's Holdypaws, Deerhoof had once again drastically altered their sound, focusing on extremely strict performance of tightly composed songs, completely removing any element of noise, improvisation, or unusual instrumentation. The artwork was once again by Fisk and echoed the newly dark tone of the music. One could say that all of Deerhoof's subsequent albums have fallen between the aesthetic extremes posited by these first two.
Sales were low, band and label were losing money, and Deerhoof seemed destined for obscurity. When both Fisk and Goode quit in fall 1999, they left incomplete a third album, Halfbird, begun before Goode joined. When it was released in 2001, it revealed an increasing compositional sophistication, as well as a more subtle and layered orchestration that belied their modest DIY recording methods. The artwork was by Fisk.
By the end of the recording process, the band had developed a close relationship with Chris Cohen, then playing in his band The Curtains. Cohen joined Deerhoof, primarily as a second guitarist, Saunier joined The Curtains for several years, and Cohen and Dieterich formed another band called Natural Dreamers. For the next three years Deerhoof toured and recorded as a quartet, slowly building towards the international renown they receive today. The formerly shy Matsuzaki developed into a commanding stage presence. During this time Deerhoof released Apple O' (2003), Milk Man (2004), and The Runners Four (2005) in rapid succession, each receiving more critical attention, sales, and airplay than the previous. Milk Man is notable for being the band's first release to be distributed in Europe by ATP Recordings, who have done the same for all major Deerhoof recordings since that time. A lesser-known EP, Green Cosmos (2005), was also released during this time.
Despite the addition of Cohen, or perhaps as a result, Apple O' strips away the multi-layared and often electronic sounds of Reveille in favor of simple, live-sounding production without overdubs. Most of Apple O' was recorded in one nine-hour session with Jay Pellicci engineering. Exceptions were "Sealed With A Kiss", which was apparently created entirely on home computer using only samples from songs about apples, and the final two tracks which were acoustic and folksong-like. Matsuzaki's role as vocalist was larger than on Reveille, although she still often sounded like another instrument along with the guitars, which sometimes doubled her melodies in unison, a recurring feature of Deerhoof's music. Apple O' focused its artwork (again by Fisk, though he was no longer in the band) and lyrics around mythic themes of love and war, featuring repeated allusions to Adam and Eve, the atom bomb, and extinction.
Around this time, the quartet decided to leave their jobs and tour fulltime. Matsuzaki had been editing a San Francisco Japanese magazine, Dieterich and Saunier had been doing data entry for legal and consulting firms, and Cohen had been a waiter at a Thai restaurant.
Milk Man began as a cartoon character created by Japanese artist Ken Kagami, a longtime friend of the band. Using this drawing as a starting point, they created lyrics and music that told an ambiguous story about an all-white, masked character with fruits stabbed into its body, who takes children on a magical journey during the night. In contrast to the earnest guitar rock that predominated on Apple O', Milk Man featured a broad palette of orchestral colors, echoes of music theater and camp, polished and gaudy arrangements, Stravinskian harmonies, and a more stylized, anonymous playing style resulting partly from recording most of the instruments at separate times rather than playing together as a band. Milk Man's connections to both music theater and to children were embodied later in a theatrical version created by Courtney Naliboff and performed by children of the North Haven Community School in North Haven, Maine in fall 2006. The Milk Man Ballet was later released on DVD.
The EP Green Cosmos was the first Deerhoof release to be sung almost entirely in Matsuzaki's native language of Japanese. Musically Green Cosmos took the aesthetic of Milk Man a step further by combining an even more expansive orchestral sound, some live playing as fierce as anything Deerhoof had recorded, and references to disco that at times completely replaced live drums with programmed beats and samples. Artwork was created from original tarot cards designed by Dawn Garcia.
In the fall, Deerhoof released The Runners Four. Unlike the short albums of Deerhoof's past, The Runners Four was in essence a double album, with 20 songs, the result of several intense months of recording together in their rented practice space in Oakland. The idea was to give each band member equal say in its creation, and to work out arrangements as a live band rather than in the computer. Matsuzaki and Cohen reversed instrumental roles, with Matsuzaki playing guitar and Cohen bass. All four members were featured as vocalists at various points. This was their wordiest release, a contrast to the telegraphic simplicity of Reveille and Apple O'. Lyrics were ambiguous, but certain motifs - time travel, smuggling, allusions to Noah's Ark - recurred throughout. Artwork was by Trevor Shimizu, formerly of The Curtains.
After an extensive world tour, Deerhoof was invited by the San Francisco International Film Festival to perform a live, original score to a silent film of their choosing. They chose Heaven And Earth Magic by Harry Smith, and performed their hour-long soundtrack, largely composed by Dieterich, in spring 2006. This was to be Cohen's last activity with Deerhoof, as he left to pursue The Curtains fulltime. The split was apparently amicable and, to commemorate Cohen, Deerhoof posted one of their occasional free mp3 EPs on their website. The band didn't assign a name to the EP, so reviewers referred to it as Untitled E.P.
Using the Heaven And Earth Magic score as a starting place, the trio began recording a new album. In contrast to the raw and at times "retro" guitar rock sound of The Runners Four, Friend Opportunity was marked by the extreme clarity of its dense layering of sounds, both acoustic and electronic, and one could detect a hip hop influence for the first time. Matsuzaki, Saunier, and Dieterich did not divide their contributions according to their onstage roles, and each contributed percussion, guitar, bass, keyboards and production. The stylistic incongruities between songs were large even for Deerhoof. It was mostly recorded in late summer 2006 in Dieterich's Oakland apartment, between two legs of a concert tour opening for Radiohead. Though self-produced as always, some portions were recorded once again by Jay and Ian Pellicci. It was mixed largely while on the road. Lyrically dark, it moves through the promise, development, corruption, and negation of human relationships. Paintings were by well-known Scottish artist David Shrigley, whose compilation Worried Noodles features the Deerhoof song "Kidz Are So Small." On Worried Noodles, the song is entitled "You, Dog (AKA Kidz Are So Small)."
When Friend Opportunity was released in January 2007, Deerhoof began a world tour that continues at present. The album has been their most critically successful and best-selling work. In early February, 2008, guitarist Ed Rodriguez joined the band as a full-time member.
Six songs from Offend Maggie were performed in a concert given in Prospect Park, Brooklyn on Friday, July 18th, 2008; the songs were "Fresh Born", "Chandelier Searchlight", "Buck and Judy", "Numina", "Basket Ball Get Your Groove Back", and "The Tears and Music of Love". The performance was aired live on WNYC2 and NPR Music with host David Garland. At the show, Deerhoof also gave away an additional song from Offend Maggie, "Fresh Born", in the form of sheet music, with the intention that fans create their own versions of the song. WNYC Culture created the first, in the form of a video The sheet music was then made available online by Deerhoof and Cash Music.