“We thought it would be fun to challenge ourselves, separate our two personalities, and make two full-length albums out of it.”
For a lot of bands, it’s hard to know exactly when the time is right to put on the brakes. Once you gain that all-important career momentum, you don’t want to stop the money and exposure train for fear of getting left behind by your fanbase.
Yet after a consistent, decade-long rise, indie stalwarts Deer Tick felt they needed a bit of a breather following their super-successful celebratory tenth-anniversary shows in Brooklyn at the end of 2014.
“What happened was, after we wrapped it up on New Year’s Eve, we literally had nothing else on our books. Like, that was it, you know? And that was the first time that had ever happened,” lead singer/songwriter/guitarist John McCauley admitted to Digital Trends.
“Thankfully, collective thinking prevailed and the band lives on, stronger than ever.”
“And then my daughter was born a few weeks later,” McCauley continued. “That was it. I just settled into this nice, domestic life, and that was all I wanted to do. I don’t know if any of us were really sure if we wanted to do this anymore or not.”
That said, it wasn’t too terribly long before the creative juices got flowing once again. “I think the break definitely helped,” McCauley reflected. “But when I wrote the first few songs that ended up sparking this two-album idea, I still wasn’t sure: ‘Is this John McCauley solo? Am I gonna leave Deer Tick?’”
Thankfully, collective thinking prevailed and the band lives on, stronger than ever. The evidence lies within the grooves of the “two-album idea” McCauley referred to above — namely, a pair of stellar new Deer Tick releases, appropriately named Vol. 1 and Vol. 2, both out today in various formats via Partisan Records. Each volume focuses on two different facets of how well the band works as a creative unit, with a) their acoustic songwriting mastery dominating Vol. 1, and b) their more raucous brand of punklike abandon thundering forth on Vol. 2.
Digital Trends called McCauley at his Nashville homebase to discuss just how these two albums resuscitated Deer Tick as a creative force, what cover versions he may eventually tackle himself (and in what style), and his recent “vinyl mishap” at home.
Digital Trends: Did you know going into the writing phase that you were working on two separate albums, or did that come out in the studio?
John McCauley: We had the idea for the two records before we wrote anything. We had a handful of songs we thought wouldn’t work so well on one album, so we thought it would be fun to challenge ourselves and separate our two personalities, and try to make two full-length albums out of it.
I’m definitely proud of what we accomplished. We set out to do two albums, and our safety net was, if we couldn’t make two full albums with two full sides each, we’d at least have enough to make one full album — and then we could say, “We tried!” (both chuckle)
I think that comes through. Even though you present them as two separate albums, I still feel like it’s two pieces of one overall work. As a listener, sometimes I’m in a more laid-back mood for a song like Cocktail on Vol. 1, and other times, I’m in the headbanging mode for something like It’s a Whale on Vol. 2.
That’s the kind of music fans we are too. We like everything, and we wanted to put out a big collection. At first, we weren’t sure if we wanted to say it was a double record, or if we wanted to separate them. What it really came down to was we just really wanted to make sure that it stood out a little bit — and the idea of releasing two separate records definitely stands out a little bit.
True. What were the first few songs you wrote that made you think Deer Tick was a going concern again?
[Vol. 1’s] Card House and [Vol. 2’s] It’s a Whale are probably the oldest ones, and maybe Cocktail too. A lot of stuff was built on scraps of musical material I had never really done anything with.
It’s hard to tell exactly where some of the songs started. There’s a riff towards the end of [Vol. 2’s] Don’t Hurt that I had first recorded onto a tape when I was 15 years old [i.e., at least 20 years ago]. (chuckles)
Good things come in due time, right? You have a great line in that song too: “Come on John, sing us a stupid song.” Where did that come from? Did somebody else say that to you, or …?
(chuckles again) No, no — it’s just me mocking self-serious songwriters, myself included.
Your vocal character differs in a lot of the songs, and from album to album. Sometimes it’s straight-up raw, and other times it sounds like you used a little reverb. Did you and Adam [Landry, Deer Tick’s producer] work on that together, or was it more of an instinctual thing?
A lot of it was instinctual. I sang a little bit different here. My voice has slowly been changing, probably because of the constant screaming I did every night! (both laugh) And I still smoke every now and then, but I’ve mostly quit. Things change. I’ve gotten a little older, and my voice has gotten deeper.
You can certainly hear that vocal character change on a song like [Vol. 1’s] Sea of Clouds, especially in the middle section.
Yeah, yeah. It’s still all there; there are just new things I can do that have come with age, I guess. (chuckles)
Is there one song where you thought, “Oh, I never sang like that before”?
There is a bit of that on mostly the acoustic songs, where I laid back and sang a little softer, like I did on [Vol. 1’s] Only Love.
It’s whatever works best for the song. I tried singing Card House delicately, but Adam was like, “No, you gotta give it some growl on this one.” My voice isn’t much like a crooner’s voice. It’s maybe more like, I don’t know, Joe Cocker singing a standard, or something like that. (chuckles)
There you go! I like that. Maybe you can pick one of Joe’s songs for a covers album somewhere down the line.
Oh, I’ve been talking about doing a standards record for, like, forever. I would really love to do it, yeah.
When you say “standards,” are you talking more in the Tony Bennett/Frank Sinatra vein, or more of a ’60s/’70s classic rock vein?
There’s stuff I like from both eras. I would love to do some old ones from the ’40s and ’50s, but then there are newer ones, like The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, that I wouldn’t mind taking a crack at. [The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress was written by Jimmy Webb, and first covered by Joe Cocker in 1974].
I like that too. I think One More for My Baby (and One More for the Road) [written in 1943, and later popularized by Frank Sinatra] would be another good one for you to do.
Oh yeah — that’s on my list, for sure.
Lou Reed did a great cover of it on Rob Wasserman’s Duets album [in 1988].
I haven’t heard that. I’d love to hear it.
You’ll love it. That’s totally in your wheelhouse too. Though if you do wind up doing a duet for that album, it seems almost a requisite that you and Vanessa [Carlton, McCauley’s wife] do Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around [the classic Stevie Nicks and Tom Petty duet from Nicks’ 1981 solo album, Bella Donna].
Oh yeah! We almost did that at Newport Folk a couple of years ago. (chuckles) We came up with the idea at the last minute, but we could not find the key we were both most comfortable singing in, so we had to abandon it. (chuckles again)
Ah, that’s too bad! You mean you couldn’t call your friend Stevie Nicks and ask, “Hey Stevie, what do we do here?” [Stevie Nicks officiated McCauley and Carlton’s wedding in December 2013].
Yeah! “How did you and Tom figure it out?”
I could see you doing another Tom Petty cover, like maybe I Won’t Back Down.
Deer Tick used to cover Breakdown a lot and a couple others, like Here Comes My Girl.
With all these cover versions lined up, we now know what you’re doing next! (both laugh) Is vinyl the best way to hear songs like Sea of Clouds?
“We listened to the test pressings so many times and kept coming back with notes.”
Oh yeah, we had it all mastered separately for vinyl. They ended up doing two, three, or maybe four masters of it, because we listened to the test pressings so many times and kept coming back with notes.
When we got the good test pressing we were all happy with, I took it home and put it on our turntable. Our needle was a little dull, so I had to use the little trick where you put a coin on it [on the label part, to stabilize it].
I actually had a few drinks by that point, and I accidentally pressed down on it — and I ruined Sea of Clouds! The needle skipped right over about 20 seconds of it. (laughs)
Oh man! Do you hear that skip now every time you play it back?
It actually fades away, then it goes [makes harsh noise], and then it comes back and skips 20 seconds more into the song.
That’s a bummer. Both of the album-ending songs are opposites in tone and sound. On Vol. 1, Rejection has a melancholy acoustic vibe, while of Vol. 2, Mr. Nothing Gets Worse has a windout, Rolling Stones kind of vibe.
And [spoiler alert!] we put that false ending on there too! It’s kind of like, “Oh, wait — one more thing …” (chuckles again)
In the stereo soundfield, you’re the one playing guitar in the left channel, and Ian [Patrick O’Neil] is on the right.
Yeah, I’m on the left, and Ian is on the right for pretty much the whole record — except there are a couple of times where it’s swapped, or if one of us doubles or guitar. In [Vol. 2’s] Jumpstarting, I doubled my electric guitar. One is panned hard left, and the other is panned to the center.
That solo is just to the right of center, which lends it an interesting sense of space. Did you cut everything in the same room together?
A lot of it was done live, yeah, but every instrument was isolated. For some of the electric stuff, the amps were in the room with the drums. The amps were turned up real loud, so the guitars are all over the drum tracks.
I’m all for bleedthrough like that. it sounds a lot more real to me. I love hearing a guitar riff vibrate off of a snare drum, for example. That’s when you know things are being played live.
I love that too — when you can hear the snare rattle and buzz when there’s no drumming happening. I love the character of a lot of older rock & roll records that do stuff like that.
So do I. Finally, how much of Vol. 1 and Vol. 2 will get into the live sets you’ll soon be doing? Have you guys worked that out?
I don’t know yet. We’re going to be doing two sets every night — an acoustic set and an electric set. I don’t think we’ll end up playing either album in its entirety on any given night, but you never know. We’ve still got a lot of older songs people want to hear too.
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