Deerhunter at The Fillmore, by Ian Young
Deerhunter (photo: Ian Young)

The show started like this: the Fillmore chandeliers dimmed from yellow to a dark glass color, the room now dark, and a recording of Bradford Cox reading Arthur Rimbaud's A Season in Hell came over the speakers. Everyone besides Cox, the singer of Deerhunter, walked on the stage and slipped into a semblance of a song while his voice continued reading the poem, his body still unseen, reading about demons, visions, salvation, heaven and hell. The recording accumulated delay, his recorded voice bouncing back and forth, repeating itself and filling up, until it stopped and he appeared on stage, singing the first words of "Rainwater Cassette Exchange."

Two weeks of misery/ capture my heart and destroy me/ destroy my mind and my body/ invade like a disease and conquer me.

From where I stood, it looked like he came straight from the ground. Pushed out of the Fillmore soil up into the middle of the stage. What I didn't realize 'till I saw Ian's photos was that Cox was was walking in front of the stage before he sprang up on it, handing flowers to the people in the front of the audience, invisible to me in a paperboy cap and baggy suit jacket.

02 Deerhunter at The Fillmore by Ian Young

Album to album Deerhunter have a reputation of completely reworking their palette. But a touring band doesn't have the sort of sonic vocabulary they have album to album, recording studio to studio, and with the various shufflings of equipment. When a band is touring they're sort of forced to look at their discography from a single vantage point — the stage. The exact makeup of this vantage point is of course hard to say, but Cox drew a concept map for their last album, a web of various influences, and I think a lot of the details are helpful in thinking about Deerhunter last night.

INXS, Tears for Fears, Tom Petty and R.E.M. were the couple bands on the concept map, and they felt true last night, at Deerhunter's more composed moments. The band is usually four people, but for this tour they're joined by Javier Morales on keys and saxophone and Rhasaan Oyusaba on percussion. A lot of the songs were played with deep, synthetic drum patterns on top of the acoustic drum kit, the electronic drums rich in reverb, in the same vein of, uh, Tears for Fears. At times their songs sounded more polished and honed in than they usually feel. "Dream Captain" for example lost a lot of the spikiness from the album version. "Living My Life" was upbeat, with a four-on-the-floor bounce, it had a saxophone part, and Oyusaba rifled through about five or six different rhythmic instruments — all of which differed from the recorded songs. The performance reminded me of what I've heard about The Talking Heads' live shows, and how they performed in ways that emphasized the "work" side of things: they would wear matching jumpsuits and choreographed rigid synchronized dance moves.

Deerhunter weren't so explicit, but something about their performance did seem acutely aware of its performative side, the fact that they were, after all, a band the audience paid to see. Cox moves, talks, sings and plays guitar like someone who is being watched, and like someone who's watched a fair amount of people move, talk, sing and play guitar. I don't want to paint Cox as a duplicitous performer, because he seemed completely sincere from beginning to end, but watching him front a band almost feels like watching an actor front a band, like watching someone enact what a performance looks like. I think it's because his presence on stage is so move-oriented. He has moves. For example, in the first song he picked up a tambourine, but he didn't play it at first, he held it up to the audience with one hand underneath, like a prop in a magic trick. Later in the show he pointed his guitar at the audience like a gun, washing the audience in feedback. His presence on stage reminds me of when your mom, or dad, or friend plays nurse when you're sick, taking your temperature and bringing you soup; it's not the real thing because it's warmer. In my mind, this is one end of the Deerhunter spectrum: that they are an exercise in genre, a rock n' roll simulacrum, a band about bands.

09 Deerhunter at The Fillmore by Ian Young

Deerhunter write incredible songs, catchy beyond belief, quick to please your most basic music needs, but on the other hand they're completely willing to ignore those sensibilities and wail in feedback for minutes on end, reminding you that Deerhunter are never far from the world of ambience. Even their recorded songs tend to drift off at one point or another, they follow a thread and get lost in it. That's the spectrum I'm trying to draw up, the distance traveled from their suit and tie, buttoned-up pop songs, to the unbridled noise they make with equal confidence. 

Before pretty much every song the band had what seemed like a loosely planned segue. A minute or two for the band to feel their instruments and meander up to the song only they know is next. It's something a lot of bands do. I think Grateful Dead are most known for it. It's a downright magical way to start a song live. Everyone in the audience presumably knows the song coming up, or at least they wonder if they know it, but instead of starting from the same footing of the recorded version, the audience follows a new beginning, something literally "unheard of." It's intimate, as if in person the only way to get to the world of the songs we know is through a completely new walkway. The way they wove from familiar songs to uncharted jams and back again is something that only happens with their bodies on stage, and it reminded me how exciting it is to see a band you know well do something you've never seen, or something you can't predict.

"It makes me forget about things," I've heard people say about music they like. But erasure is reactionary. Last night I think Deerhunter did something a little different for me. When they're in the 15th minute of "Nothing Ever Happened," an otherwise six-minute song, they aren't reacting to anything. When they embark on another round of soaring feedback, their music doesn't want anything. Ambience is one of their most moving states. Last night, I thought Deerhunter felt best when they had strayed far far away from what I knew. In the final throes of "Nothing Ever Happened" Cox and Lockett Pundt exchanged turns letting their guitar feedback, the only way to end that song. Feedback is hard to control, it changes shape, volume and pitch in a moment, from a low hum to a spiked out squeal with little warning.

Watching a band let their instruments scream and growl is empowering. The juxtaposition of how lost the songs got and how sure the band seemed felt political to me. It felt political in the sense that it stood in relation to the way people organize themselves around each other or anything else they like.  Music is coded, and when people hear it they're actually just hearing all the ways they've heard it up to that point, they're relying on the things they know and the things they can describe, culturally or musically. So when Deerhunter shred their songs apart, when they're in uncharted territory of a song they've played hundreds of times, it's probably best not to scribble observations in the dark, because you'll end up writing the phrases you already know. When they play the song you love and they destroy it, they pull it apart, it disarms you and at that point it's nobody's song. I don't want to hear music that takes me somewhere, and with Deerhunter at the Fillmore last night, when you heard the noise you let it take you nowhere, because that's a harder place to find.

Photos by Ian Young