Rhode Island rock quartet Deer Tick are back with not one but two new albums, after a four-year hiatus that almost never came to its end.
Vol. 1 and Vol. 2, released simultaneously in September last year, are divided down the middle to showcase two band’s two sonic sides. The former catalogues their acoustic, generally considered folkier sound. Although behind the fingerplucking, particularly on their newer material, they could be deemed closer to acoustic rock, akin to something like Lemonheads with strong songwriting influences from Nirvana.
behind the fingerplucking, particularly on their newer material, they could be deemed closer to acoustic rock
Vol. 2 centres around their more plugged in rock sound. With 10 tracks on each record, Deer Tick went into the recording studio with one very strict rule – no acoustic guitars on the electric album, and no electric guitars on the acoustic.
We called up Deer Tick’s main creative force, singer songwriter John McCauley, at home in Nashville, where he now lives with his wife Vanessa Carlton (yes, that one) and daughter. Even before the move to Nashville, country is another label that often follows the band, although again, one that doesn’t accurately represent the band, despite John’s raw, drawling vocals with, admittedly, a hint of a country twang.
‘I don’t think I really did myself any favours by moving here in trying to get away from labels like that. I see where that comes from, but there’s also a lot of stuff we do as a band that doesn’t get the same kind of recognition, although we do it just as much, or even better than we can pull off country-sounding stuff.
‘I think maybe the tone of my voice has something to do with it and some of the instrumentation. I obviously look up to a lot of songwriters that would be considered country, or outlaw country. I think the fact that we dabbled in that kind of music at all was something that fascinated people, since we’re from New England.’
It is common knowledge that John seriously considered leaving the band during the break between 2013’s Negativity and the two new records. With the band’s other three members, guitarist Ian O’Neil, bassist Christopher Dale Ryan and drummer Dennis Ryan, also starting up their side project Happiness with Ravi Shavi’s Rafay Rashid in 2013, the prospect of the band splitting seemed increasingly likely.
On whether the end of Deer Tick remains a looming possibility, John says, ‘I’m always thinking about how I can make a sudden U-turn in my life, but I’m pretty happy with where we’re at now. I think after having all that time off, I got so used to it that it seemed like a good idea – sometimes it still seems like a good idea! But I think the break was definitely necessary for us as a band, at least for me to still have my heart in it.
‘It’s weird being in a band because you end up with a whole new family, and like family, you love each other but you don’t always see eye-to-eye on everything.
the break was definitely necessary for us as a band, at least for me to still have my heart in it.
‘What happened was we had our 10 year anniversary shows and then nothing else on the books after that. It was the first time that had ever happened, so with absolutely nothing in our future plans, it made me feel really comfortable with saying no to stuff. I was just turning everything down; I didn’t want to do anything.
‘I needed the time off and it was good. I got to spend all of it with my daughter, which is something that a lot of people who play in bands that have kids – and probably a lot of fathers in general – don’t get.’
Fortunately, the full band is back with a massive world tour to boot – and sounding better than ever. Both Vol. 1 and Vol. 2 are standalone masterpieces, although John tells us that it was a difficult road to get there.
‘After we had been off the road for a couple of years, we tried recording what would become Volumes 1 and 2. We had rules in place, with no acoustic guitars on the electric songs and no electric guitars on the acoustic songs. Pretty easy rules, but we managed to screw that up in our first attempt at recording. I became really unhappy with all of it, so we scrapped everything. That’s probably when I really felt the strongest about maybe just walking away. So we took a break and then we had to take another break.’
I became really unhappy with all of it, so we scrapped everything
A year later, they tried again and the result is two albums that demonstrate their full capabilities on both sides of the electric and acoustic spectrum.
‘When we tried it the second time, it just clicked. In preparation of doing the acoustic record, we did a whole acoustic tour, which really helped get us ready for that, because it was something we hadn’t really done before. If you’re only thinking about one style of guitar playing, it definitely makes it easier.
‘When most people are recording a song, you end up doing a lot of layers of guitars and you just keep adding parts to it, instead of trying to come up with just one part that is awesome and covers all the bases.
you end up doing a lot of layers of guitars and you just keep adding parts to it, instead of trying to come up with just one part that is awesome and covers all the bases
‘I think the whole thing has made us a little bit more caring about our record making process, so I’m sure it’ll rub off us in that way, in that anything we make from here on out will definitely be more thought through and we’ll be a more goal oriented group of musicians.’
John does the majority of songwriting, although guitarist Ian O’Neil also contributes a few songs, including Hope is Big on Vol. 1 and Look How Clean I Am on Vol. 2. He explains the inspiration behind the subject matter, much of which explores darker concepts like doomed relationships and an often negative relationship with drink and drugs.
when you’re trying to put an idea forward that’s maybe kind of fucked up, you have to figure out a way to make it more palatable
‘I think a lot of my writing is based somewhat in reality. But when you’re trying to put an idea forward that’s maybe kind of fucked up, you have to figure out a way to make it more palatable. But I try not to worry about it too much – as long as I think it works as a song. Some of my favourite songs are just built out of unrelated lines and contradictions and if you read into it in a straightforward way, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense – something like Stay Away by Nirvana, for example.’
Part of the band’s early reputation was built on being your archetypal, raucous rock and roll stars on stage, until a big media break a few years ago around the idea of Deer Tick ‘cleaning up their act’. And while less of their public persona revolves around being off the rails, John says that this is a trope that got blown out of proportion.
‘Deer Tick without beer is not really Deer Tick to me. I think a lot of press got a lot of mileage from this one month where I was not drinking, but that was me hitting the reset button because I had become quite a mess.
I guess I find that having more balance in my life now is more rewarding than constantly being off the rails
‘I haven’t done anything to really reinvent myself, but I guess I find that having more balance in my life now is more rewarding than constantly being off the rails. As far as being on stage, maybe I’m not jumping around as much or knocking my amps over or diving into the drum kit or spraying booze all over the front row, or whatever the hell I used to do. But now I get to pay more attention to what I’m actually singing and playing.’
A topic that’s increasingly being talked about in the media lately is the mental health implications of aggressive touring schedules that come with being a successful artist, as well as the environmental trappings of regularly being around so much booze and drugs. It’s certainly something that’s affected Deer Tick along the way in their 14-year career and a subject that fuels many of their lyrics, for example Vol. 1’s Cocktail: Sometimes I feel like a corpse / With a lifetime subscription / Just a strange proposition / Or the thankless sacrifice.
sometimes fans put an unfair pressure on the performers that they like to be total train wrecks of people
‘I think sometimes fans put an unfair pressure on the performers that they like to be total train wrecks of people. And you don’t do yourself any favours when you present yourself that way. I have to avoid meeting fans after shows now because they want to buy me drinks, or they want to give me coke or whatever. I’ve become very comfortable with just saying no to stuff.
‘Even my voice doesn’t hold up the way it used to, so I don’t even do press on tour, that’s the limit for me. I want to just worry about doing the shows and it’s taken a lot of experience for me to get to this point. Somewhere along the way I could have easily overdosed or done something to completely ruin my career. I’m just lucky that I came out on the other side and that I never did anything terrible to hurt myself or somebody else.
I’m just lucky that I came out on the other side and that I never did anything terrible to hurt myself or somebody else
‘I don’t think I’ve met too many musicians on the road who haven’t been depressed in one way or another. It’s a weird way to live your life and I wouldn’t recommend it for anybody really, but if you think you’ve got what it takes then by all means you should try it out. Even though I’m making it sound like it’s complete chaos and hell, it really is quite rewarding.’
Deer Tick have four UK dates as part of a huge world tour, which in total spans five months from last November to this March. They come to The Fleece on 31 January, for what can only be a phenomenal live show that follows the split format of Vol. 1 and Vol. 2.
we’re going to do one long set with an acoustic portion upfront and then we’ll put those things away and play our electric guitars for a while
‘It won’t be the typical Deer Tick performance that we’ve done in the UK before. We’re bringing all our instruments and we’re going to do one long set with an acoustic portion upfront and then we’ll put those things away and play our electric guitars for a while, so you’ll get to experience both sides of the band. You’ll get to hear the songs as we have them on our new record – which is isolated. We’ll be doing stuff from our entire catalogue in both parts of the set.’
Photos by Laura Partain