10 December 2013

IN CONVERSATION with DEER TICK


Deer Tick
Photography by Eleonora Collini


Something has changed in Deer Tick. Known not only for their beautiful alt-country music but also for their party animal reputation, the Providence, Rhode Island-based quintet seem to have somehow grown up. Just take a look at frontman John McCauley’s new look and you will know what I am talking about. Then listen to their fifth album Negativity that came out on Partisan Records on 24th September. Recorded in Portland with legendary musician/producer Steve Berlin (Los Lobos, The Blasters), the album is their most mature, personal and sonically richer to date.
I met up with guitarist/vocalist John McCauley and bassist Christopher Dale Ryan before their awesome London show at The Borderline. We chatted about music influences, the events that had a big impact on the writing of the new record (the imprisonment for tax fraud of McCauley’s father, his broken wedding engagement and trip to Africa), as well as whether or not they should take themselves seriously.

Eleonora Collini: How was working with Steve Berlin?

John: It was great, even better than I thought. He’s such a legendary musician and producer. He was able to bring out the best in each song, putting some cool effects on it. It was very easy to trust him.

Eleonora: How did you get to meet him?


John: I met him a couple of years ago at a show and then we started a band together called Diamond Rugs. Then I thought it’d be a good idea to have him work with Deer Tick.

Eleonora: I think the new record is more piano rather than guitar orientated. Do you agree with that?

Chris: Yes definitely.

John: Yeah, I wrote lots of the songs on piano. I don’t know, I am sort of losing interest in guitar playing.

Chris: Ha, really?

John: Yes. It’s because the piano represents a big challenge to me. I don’t get bored playing it. By now I kind of know how to do everything I want with the guitar and I don’t want to become a guitar virtuoso. But with the piano, the possibilities seem so much and that really excites me at the moment.

Eleonora: The sound is also more polished and richer than on the previous albums. For instance I can hear some horns here and there.

John: Yeah, we had a horn section from Grupo Fantasma, a very cool orchestra from Austin. They were Grammy award-winning. We used some string players too. And then Rob (Crowell), our keyboard player added lots of different sounds. I couldn’t really tell what he was playing lots of the time but he added lots of key instruments.

Eleonora: John, I am not sure how much you want to share about the personal events that happened to you before you started writing Negativity, with your dad going to prison and the break-up of your engagement, but do you think that writing about it was somehow therapeutic?

John: Yes it was. It released a lot of pressure for sure and I stopped worrying a bit by the time the record was finished. I think it was kind of necessary for me in a way.

Eleonora: You also took a long trip to Africa before or while working on the album. Did that have any influence on it?

John: I think it gave me the chance to renew my interest in the band and to inspire me to retouch and finish some of the songs I was writing for the record. I brought my guitar and a tape recorder with me and played a lot of music. That kinda motivated me to go in the studio. That was a fun trip. There wasn’t much to distract you in the middle of the night.

Eleonora: Whereabouts did you go?

John: I went to Namibia for about two weeks. Then we missed our flight in Johannesburg so we got to stay there for a few days.

Eleonora: Lyrics aside, is your writing process a collective effort?

John : Yeah I start writing the basics and then we all add our own things on top of it. That way everybody is kinda free to do their own thing.

Eleonora: And what about the songs you don’t sing on but Dennis (Ryan) and Ian (O’Neil) do?

John McCauley of Deer Tick
John McCauley
John: Yeah they kinda write them, then I just come in and play guitar and then everything turns out pretty naturally. It’s a very organic process. Nobody points the finger at you and say “Hey you have to play this John or Ian”. Everyone just figures out their own part.

Eleonora: It was the 20th anniversary of Nirvana’s In Utero a couple of months ago and you played this special Deervana show where you covered it on its entirety. How did you come up with the idea?

Chris: We grew up listening to Nirvana and we all started playing Nirvana covers when we were 12. Then our promoter asked us to be a Nirvana cover band for his birthday and our management happened to be there for the show and they were like “Wow this is really good, we should make a thing of this”. And for us it was very cool as it was like being 12 again and pretending to be Nirvana. It was pretty fun.

Eleonora: Still talking about your music influences, I know you guys are huge The Replacements fans. Did you get to see them at any of their recent reunion shows at the Riot Festivals?

John: No. We have been on tour for all three festivals, so unfortunately no. But I would have loved to. Maybe they will add some other dates soon and we can go see them.

Eleonora: How much attention do you play to media?

Chris: Not much. We mostly just read our interviews which I think it’s what you meant, right (laughs)?

Eleonora: Not necessarily, I was more talking about reviews….

Chris: I think it’s always nice to get a good review. But then if it’s a bad review you just have to see what the journalist is saying, if they are actually saying anything or they are just putting words together that sound like a good phrase. And if it is a negative but constructive point you can learn from it. But usually reviews don’t offer me much.

John: I had never read record reviews until Deer Tick started getting reviews (laughs). So I guess when reading them I just have to keep in mind that I used not to give a shit about this kind of things as they don’t matter to me.

Eleonora: John, you duetted with Vanessa Carlton on “In Our time”. How was working with her?

John: She is great. She is my best friend. I don’t know, I am not able to tell you any bad thing about her. Maybe Chris can do that (laughs).

Chris: I am a huge fan of Vanessa both as a person and as a musician. She is really one of the greatest people I have ever met.

Eleonora: Was there ever a moment in your music career when you were considering giving up and doing something else?

Chris: Yes, everyday (laughs). Everyday you question what you are doing, and ask yourself if that’s really what we should be doing. But at the end of the day you ultimately say “yes”.

Eleonora: And was there ever a moment when you felt that you finally made it?

Chris: Not yet.

John: There are lots of things that when I was young I thought they’d be surreal like playing on TV. But then when you do it, it’s really not that weird. For instance when we played for David Letterman for the first time it kinda felt normal. The only thing that would probably blow my mind would be if we had a number one hit single. That may be really weird and I may not even like it (laughs).

Eleonora: When you write music, do you try to write something that could be commercially successful, or are you just doing it for yourself, because you need a means to somehow express your inner emotions? Be honest….

John: I don’t know. Musically I am not really conscious to try to create a catchy melody or a hook. When I write the lyrics it’s more of a personal thing. But I would write anyway, whether they’d pay me or not.

Eleonora: Do you have any funny pre-show habits you want to share?

Chris: No I don’t think so. The last thing I do before going on stage is peeing as you really don’t want to worry about that during the show (laughs). But other than that we don’t have any pre-gig habits.

Christopher Dale Ryan

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