Hope Is Big: An Interview with Deer Tick

Photo: Laura Partain

A long break for the band yielded not one but two albums: one all-acoustic and one all-electric. Deer Tick are back, baby.

It'd be convenient to label Deer Tick as being simply one ebb of an indie folk wave that has washed over the United States since the early 2000's. But caught amongst countless artists championing that crisply bare, charmingly honest all-American sound, the band has always insisted on undercutting expectations and defying the genre mold set by their contemporaries. "We just kind of wanted to do something a little unconventional," singer-songwriter John McCauley says when PopMatters asks him of the band's upcoming material, pointing to a mantra that has defined his band for almost 15 years.

Deer Tick

Deer Tick, Vol. 1

Label: Partisan
Release Date: 2017-09-15

Deer Tick

Deer Tick, Vol. 2

Label: Partisan
Release Date: 2017-09-15

Deer Tick's desire to set themselves apart from the rest has never been more crystallized than on their latest albums: the simultaneously-released Deer Tick Vol. 1 and Deer Tick Vol. 2. This double album release in and of itself is perhaps not too unusual: Bright Eyes, Bruce Springsteen, and Tom Waits are just a few of the artists who have adopted the trend in previous years.

But Deer Tick's approach to the release mirrors the earnest character of their folksy sound and shows that McCauley and his crew are willing to tread on unsteady ground. Where one of the albums will be an all-acoustic, familiar affair, the other is quite literally the opposite, with the band barring themselves from using acoustic instruments to any degree on Deer Tick Vol. 2. Anyone familiar with the band's work will realize that this is no mean feat, with plucked acoustic guitars and orchestral strings peppering their earlier work.

McCauley admits that this may make it difficult for hardcore fans to warm to the record, but just as the band is powerfully loyal to defying expectations, so too are they adamant that the band regret none of the decisions made in the process. And with a string of sold-out shows in recent memory, a comprehensive tour in store, and international dates in the works, could you really blame them?

PopMatters sat down with Deer Tick's frontman and songwriter, John McCauley to chat about their latest releases, small-town shows, and playing with Billy Bragg.

* * *

Prior to releasing these two albums, Deer Tick were quite prolific in releasing records. Why such a big break this time around?

It all kind of accidentally fell into place. We did our ten year anniversary shows at the end of 2014 and after the last show, there was nothing on the calendar. That was the first time that'd ever happened since the beginning of the band. Then my daughter was born shortly thereafter and I just didn't really think about going back on the road or recording or anything for a while.

Was it always the plan to come back with two records?

When we first started talking about recording again that was definitely the plan. We never thought we'd do just one record, it was kind of this harebrained idea that I had that we, fortunately, were able to pull off. We had a safety net, because we thought, "If we record all this stuff for two records and it just doesn't work out, chances are we'll still have enough stuff to put out one."

What do you hope fans will get out of two albums being released at the same time?

I think we just kind of wanted to do something a little unconventional. There's been a lot of examples of releasing albums like this over the years, but it's not too common. We wanted to do something that would stand out a little bit and would be able to showcase the kind of duality that's kind of always been present in our band.

Were any of those previous two-album releases of specific inspiration?

The one that kind of has a very similar theme, an acoustic record and a rock record, was the Stereo and Mono record that Paul Westerberg put out. I actually forgot all about that record, or the comparison between the two until the other day when someone mentioned it. And I thought, "Oh yeah ... we kind of did the exact same thing." [laughs]

What was it like to consciously go in two different directions for each record?

Most of the songs we were able to figure out pretty quickly, or maybe there was no discussion about it at all, which album they'd end up on. There were only a few tricky ones that we weren't sure which album they'd fit better on, and that had to do with instrumentation. We had a couple of rules in place, for Ian [O'Neil, guitarist for Deer Tick] and I; anything on Vol. 1, there was no electric guitar allowed. Period. Vol. 2 was the opposite: no acoustic guitar allowed on it. Period. It's funny: [in] so many big rock songs, still in the background, there's an acoustic rhythm guitar. There were a couple of songs that we didn't know what to do with, but it all came together pretty naturally. It wasn't too difficult of a process.

Which songs were the difficult ones to decide on?

"Card House" was one that we were considering recording two versions of, to put one on each record, but the electric version just kind of never really came together. That was probably a good thing too because I don't think it would've lived up to the acoustic version, which was something we'd been playing a lot on tour, so we were really familiar with the arrangement. The song "Jumpstarting" was recorded as an acoustic demo at first. With "Cocktail", we were going to do a ramped-up electric version, kind of in the style of "Dead Flowers" or something like that, like a country-fied Rolling Stones song. But all in all, I think we made the right decisions.

Was there ever any concern that one of the albums would be well received, but the other would just fall flat?

I think we all know full well that people will probably tend to be more interested in Vol. 1, just because it's a completely acoustic record. I know we have a lot of fans that really, really love our folkier stuff. I could see how Vol. 2 could end up getting the shaft here and there, [laughs] but I'm still proud of it. I still think it was necessary to create. No matter what, that stuff is a big part of our band and always will be. But the allure of an acoustic record, that must sound real good to some people, much more than the sound of a loud rock record.

Your upcoming tour has got quite a lot of smaller city dates, such as Providence and Saxapahaw. What do you get out of playing in these smaller areas?

Most of us grew up in Providence, so we kind of all share similar small town mentalities. We've always had a lot of fun going off the beaten path a little bit and playing in smaller cities. We'll go down to Texas and we'll just play little border towns where no bands go, and they're just so happy to have a band coming through town, that everyone comes out and has a good time. So we try to do that the best we can while still being able to sustain a tour. It's important for us to play in Providence especially, being our hometown. Providence kind of gets the shaft too because it's kind of in between Boston and New York, so a lot of tours skip right over it.

Tell us about selling out all three nights of your Newport Folk Festival after party shows.

[Those shows] became a tradition. I think this was the seventh one that we did. In the past four or five years, they've all sold out. It's kind of crazy. This year all the tickets were sold out in like 30 seconds. Those shows are really fun. We get to have a lot of cool moments on stage where we've played with some of our idols, right there on that stage in that little club. This year we got to play a few songs with Billy Bragg which was a dream come true in a way. It's always unpredictable what's going to happen or who's going to show up. I think sometimes people buy the tickets and they sell so fast because of that element of surprise.

What's next after the tour?

We'll be going overseas, over to Europe. Then we'll do the US and hit all the towns that we missed the first time. Then I don't know, just gotta keep busy for as long as we can, and then go make another record.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Keep reading... Show less

Pauline Black may be called the Queen of Ska by some, but she insists she's not the only one, as Two-Tone legends the Selecter celebrate another stellar album in a career full of them.

Being commonly hailed as the "Queen" of a genre of music is no mean feat, but for Pauline Black, singer/songwriter of Two-Tone legends the Selecter and universally recognised "Queen of Ska", it is something she seems to take in her stride. "People can call you whatever they like," she tells PopMatters, "so I suppose it's better that they call you something really good!"

Keep reading... Show less

Morrison's prose is so engaging and welcoming that it's easy to miss the irreconcilable ambiguities that are set forth in her prose as ineluctable convictions.

It's a common enough gambit in science fiction. Humans come across a race of aliens that appear to be entirely alike and yet one group of said aliens subordinates the other, visiting violence upon their persons, denigrating them openly and without social or legal consequence, humiliating them at every turn. The humans inquire why certain of the aliens are subjected to such degradation when there are no discernible differences among the entire race of aliens, at least from the human point of view. The aliens then explain that the subordinated group all share some minor trait (say the left nostril is oh-so-slightly larger than the right while the "superior" group all have slightly enlarged right nostrils)—something thatm from the human vantage pointm is utterly ridiculous. This minor difference not only explains but, for the alien understanding, justifies the inequitable treatment, even the enslavement of the subordinate group. And there you have the quandary of Otherness in a nutshell.

Keep reading... Show less

A 1996 classic, Shawn Colvin's album of mature pop is also one of best break-up albums, comparable lyrically and musically to Joni Mitchell's Hejira and Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks.

When pop-folksinger Shawn Colvin released A Few Small Repairs in 1996, the music world was ripe for an album of sharp, catchy songs by a female singer-songwriter. Lilith Fair, the tour for women in the music, would gross $16 million in 1997. Colvin would be a main stage artist in all three years of the tour, playing alongside Liz Phair, Suzanne Vega, Sheryl Crow, Sarah McLachlan, Meshell Ndegeocello, Joan Osborne, Lisa Loeb, Erykah Badu, and many others. Strong female artists were not only making great music (when were they not?) but also having bold success. Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill preceded Colvin's fourth recording by just 16 months.

Keep reading... Show less

Frank Miller locates our tragedy and warps it into his own brutal beauty.

In terms of continuity, the so-called promotion of this entry as Miller's “third" in the series is deceptively cryptic. Miller's mid-'80s limited series The Dark Knight Returns (or DKR) is a “Top 5 All-Time" graphic novel, if not easily “Top 3". His intertextual and metatextual themes resonated then as they do now, a reason this source material was “go to" for Christopher Nolan when he resurrected the franchise for Warner Bros. in the mid-00s. The sheer iconicity of DKR posits a seminal work in the artist's canon, which shares company with the likes of Sin City, 300, and an influential run on Daredevil, to name a few.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.