Photo: Laura Partain

Hope Is Big: An Interview with Deer Tick

A long break for the band yielded not one but two albums: one all-acoustic and one all-electric. Deer Tick are back, baby.
Deer Tick
Deer Tick, Vol. 1

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’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.

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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.