In 1992, Greg Saunier, recently graduated with a degree in music composition from Oberlin Conservatory of Music, joined a short-lived San Francisco quartet called Nitre Pit, on drums. In March 1994, when the two guitarists of this short-lived project departed suddenly, Greg and bassist Rob Fisk found themselves with several booked shows and no idea what to do. Out of necessity they quickly concocted an elastic, hyper-expressive style to make up for their stark instrumentation, and Deerhoof was born.
Though seen by few, Deerhoof soon developed a reputation in Bay Area musicians’ circles as some of the wildest and weirdest music in the underground. But ironically their most pivotal early experience would occur in the very heart of “love rock” territory, at the 1995 Yo Yo A Go Go Festival in Olympia, WA, in front of an audience instantly polarized by Deerhoof’s jarring ferocity. In the audience was Slim Moon, founder of the independent Olympia record label Kill Rock Stars. Moon signed Nitre Pit (as they were still called at that point) on for one 7″ single, at which point the duo renamed themselves Deerhoof.
The name came from the title of a brief tape Rob had recorded in winter 1993, of improvised bass and harmonica solos. It was released in an edition of just 5 copies, and featured fallen leaf fragments glued to recycled Billy Squier promotional cassettes, then spray-painted in black and gold.
The duo, budget-less, recorded themselves on Greg’s four-track and released “Return of the Wood M’lady” (1995, Kill Rock Stars). Its distorted bass, heavy drums, and dark tone revealed the influence of Japanese psychedelic trio Fushitsusha, San Francisco noise band Caronliner, and Nirvana. Side B was especially cacophonous, presenting separate songs in the left and right channels. Rob drew the cover art, which was then xeroxed for the release. He also etched into the vinyl master at the mastering session, his drawings appearing on the record in place of a label. The single did not sell well, but Deerhoof’s do-it-yourself ethic turned out to be an apt match with Kill Rock Stars, and Deerhoof has remained on this label for the entirety of their career, ultimately becoming the longest-running artist on the label’s roster. Moon has described them as the “seminal classic KRS band”.
By the time the single was released, Greg and Rob were already feeling the first waves of creative restlessness that would characterize Deerhoof’s career. No longer able to afford their rehearsal studio, they began practicing in their kitchen, Greg hitting the drums with chopsticks, Rob plucking the bass with a cow hoof that doubled as his dog’s chew toy. They needed a singer, as their instrumental acrobatics precluded any ability to bring off the more melodic vocal ideas they were tentatively trying to bring into their sound. Through a mutual friend they met Satomi Matsuzaki, who had just arrived in SF from Tokyo. She had no musical experience whatsoever, but remarked dryly that she couldn’t possibly make Deerhoof any worse, and is on tour with the band within a week, opening three west coast shows for Caroliner.