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Wednesday, Oct. 8, 2008

Deerhoof Leaves a Paper Trail

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  Few bands seem to have more contempt for the structural formality of sheet music than San Francisco's Deerhoof, a trio whose rhythms waver with all the precociousness of lead singer Satomi Matsuzaki's schoolgirl voice. So it was with some irony that the first taste of Deerhoof's latest work was a single released as sheet music well before a recorded version surfaced.

  "We were trying to do something to get the music out there, but in a way that would amplify eventually hearing a song on the album instead of diminishing it," says guitarist John Dieterich. "It's really fun to think that when people finally get to listen to our version of 'Fresh Born,' it will be just another version."

  The album, Offend Maggie, was released to stores this week. But versions of the advance track have been piling up on Deerhoof's site since July. There are free-flowing jazz versions of "Fresh Born" and medically precise ones, French techno and a halftime march written for third-grade band by elementary instrumental music teacher Jack Hasselbring of Holland Brook School in Readington Township, N.J.

  The sheet music experimental has been beyond successful, and has ultimately stressed Deerhoof as both experimental composers and as performers. Where some of the pre-covers emphasize a jarring tempo shift early in the song, and others find fluid transitions, only Deerhoof captures both. The other takes on "Fresh Born" emphasize how smoothly the original can surprise you. It's a brilliant project, even if it's one that Dieterich would never have been able to participate in.

  He can't read sheet music.

  "It's all right. I like the funny shapes," he says of the smattering of notes the band has distributed.

  It's a deficiency that has hindered Dieterich only once before, a few Christmases ago.

  There is no shortage of musicians in Dieterich's family. Well into this millennium, his paternal grandfather was a bandleader who would play jazz piano during visits. "It's amazing because, as you get older, you start to lose your memory, but his musical memory was absolutely flawless," Dieterich says. And on his mother's side, both grandparents wrote and played together. According to family legend, they were plagiarized together-one piece (maybe, perhaps) was stolen by a movie producer and used in a soundtrack. Since then, their songs had become a dormant stack of sheet music. Dieterich and his girlfriend decided to revive one.

  "Never before had I wanted to know how to read more than then. More than 70 years after they wrote it, we could go from this sheet of paper, play him something that was, in theory, very similar," Dieterich says.

  Knowing other musicians has its perks, and Dieterich had a friend help parse the sheet music. The result was a song written for a 10-piece jazz orchestra, including banjo and four-part vocal harmony. They rearranged it for two-person couple, and played it for his family over the winter holidays. His grandfather remembered the tune.

  Seventy years from now, someone could play "Fresh Born" for Dieterich, and with the ever-growing heap of adaptations he has heard, he too is certain to remember the work. The band still hasn't decided what it'll do with all of its fans' renditions-Dieterich, for one, is still listening to a number of them for the first time-but Deerhoof will be bringing the sheet music for its Milwaukee show. Get your third-grade band ready.

  Deerhoof headlines an 8 p.m. bill at the Turner Hall Ballroom on Wednesday, Oct. 15, with AU and Experimental Dental School.