Alt-Nation: An Interview with Deer Tick

After four years spent mostly on hiatus, Deer Tick are back with two new albums, Vol. 1 and Vol. 2, and a US tour that will bring them to Rhode Island for three shows. This tour, Deer Tick is doing something new; they perform two different sets — one acoustic and one electric. The two sides of Deer Tick get revealed with gems like drummer Dennis Ryan’s creepy infectiousness on tunes like “Wants / Needs” or front man John McCauley’s dreamy “Sea of Clouds.” Ironically, the only stops on the tour where Deer Tick will not be doing two sets are the Rhode Island shows because the band will do an all acoustic show at the Columbus Theatre and two electric shows at The Met Café. I spoke with McCauley to find out why it took four years to get a new Deer Tick record and to talk about the new record.

Marc Clarkin: Why the four-year gap to get new music from Deer Tick?

John McCauley: Well, after we toured on Negativity and had our 10-year anniversary shows, I had a kid. I wanted to take a little break. The 10-year anniversary shows were the final things on ourdeertick6971 books and that was the first time that ever happened where there were no more gigs on the calendar. I got pretty comfortable with my role of stay-at-home-dad while Vanessa (wife Vanessa Carlton) was on tour. By the time we decided to record a follow-up, which was sometime in 2015, I had the idea for the two albums and all that. We kind of ended up breaking our own rules by putting acoustic guitars on the electric songs and electric guitars on the acoustic songs. It was disappointing for me and for everybody else that we screwed up our goal of making an acoustic record and an electric record. So after a couple of sessions, we decided to scrap it. Honestly, I was torn on whether I wanted to try again or just call it a day. Then we did that acoustic tour (spring of 2016), which was really cool. Between the acoustic tour and doing the Newport Folk Fest shows last year, that really proved to me that we were really capable of doing this. While part of me was still thinking about breaking up the band, I knew we had to try just one more time. It was the right time, right place, Ardent Studios, everything came together really quickly. I was really pleased with the results we were getting. Everyone played really well and it was the best experience we ever had making an album. I don’t think anybody is thinking of breaking up the band anymore.

MC: Did the songs change drastically from the initial sessions?

JM: We started working on a version of “Cocktail” that was like a Rolling Stones country song, “Dead Flowers.” That didn’t work so well. There was a really strange version of “End of the World” from that session that was really unique. I think it would be worth releasing someday. It was a little disheartening how bad we screwed up our pretty simple goal of no acoustic guitars on the electric songs and no electric guitars on the acoustic song. Those were really the only two rules for Ian and I to follow.

MC: Were most of these songs written after the 10th anniversary shows when the band went on hiatus? I know “Hope is Big” and “Shitty Music Festival” were around before.

JM: As soon as Ian joined the band, which was while we were putting the finishing touches on Black Dirt Sessions, we started playing “Hope is Big” live. We tried recording it for Divine Providence, but it just didn’t turn out that good. I don’t think we played it much, or even at all on the acoustic tour. But doing that tour inspired that version of it, definitely. I got to play the bouzouki on that one, which is fun. “Shitty Music Festival” is the second oldest of the bunch. I had the first verse of “Cocktail” written for six or seven years, but just never finished it. The chorus of “Card House” I found written in an old notebook from when I was 18 years old. I have no idea what was going through my mind while writing it. I just found this little scrap in a notebook and thought I could turn it into a song. There is even a guitar riff on Volume 2 that I came up with when I was 15, but never put into a song. It is the guitar riff at the end of “Don’t Hurt.”

MC: The song “It’s a Whale” starts out with the line, “Heading nowhere with the last of my kind.”  What is that song about?

JM: That’s my anti-extreme right wing song. That song is from the perspective of a far right, cranky old man who just wants the world to be the way he wants it to be. He sees a more inclusive world as a threat to everything he stands for. As he should — diverse and inclusive people are coming for those motherfuckers. It’s my way of saying, “Don’t these guys like men’s rights activists sound dumb?” It is about playing that character to expose how silly and antiquated their thought process is.

MC: On “Don’t Hurt,” you sing the line, “Come on, John. Sing your stupid song.” Did that come out of the disillusionment when you didn’t know if the band would break up?

JM: That’s kind of a line that I snuck in there that doesn’t really have a whole lot to do with the rest of the song. That’s a little jab at very self serious songwriters, myself included sometimes. That’s a little elbow in your side saying, “Hey, have a little fun sometimes.”

MC: Was “Jumpstarting” about re-starting the band?

JM: No, that is about jumpstarting, in the way you would jumpstart a car. It is about trying to inspire somebody to overcome their addictions. I still drink, but personally know and love a lot of people who went through a lot of heavy stuff. Fortunately, in my case, I was able to stop doing drugs and still enjoy a beer every now and then. I’ve seen firsthand what addiction can do to people and how it ruins lives. Sometimes you’ve got to be the one to say something.

Deer Tick will do an all acoustic show at the Columbus Theatre on Nov 24 with Alec K. Redfearn and the Eyesores. The next two nights, Deer Tick will turn up the rock at The Met Café on Nov 25 and 26. Nova One will open the show Nov 24 and Gymshorts will kick off the ceremonies on Nov 26.

Hunger Down Benefit

While there is never a bad time to help those less fortunate, as the weather grows colder and the holidays come, the plight of those going hungry becomes more immediate. In that spirit, the RI Music Hall of Fame and Dusk are partnering up to launch the Hunger Down program, which will intensify efforts by Rhode Island’s local music community to reduce hunger in Rhode Island. A variety of local entertainment venues will be encouraged to provide food and monetary collection vehicles at all events to become a “Hunger Down Zone.” It all kicks off on Nov 18, right before the holidays when so many are in need.

Hunger Down Benefit with performances by Mark Cutler, Michael Graham, Jeff Byrd, Stev DelMonico and the Ghosts of Industry goes down at Dusk on Nov 18.

Ted Leo and the Pharmacists – The Hanged Man

On The Hanged Man, Ted Leo presents a collection of tunes that are more introspective than his previous work. Tunes like “The Little Smug Supper Club” combine the wit and hooks of The Kinks.  Leo takes on a late ’70s singer/songwriter vibe on “William Weld in the 21st Century,” a number about former Massachusetts governor turned washed up libertarian vice president candidate. The song takes on this Elton-John-playing-indie-rock kind of vibe. Don’t worry, though, Leo’s trademark fist pumping indie scorchers are also here with bangers like “Anthems of None” and “Used to Believe.”

Ted Leo and the Pharmacists and Bill Janovitz (of Buffalo Tom) will kick it up a notch at the Columbus Theatre on Dec 2.

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