Deer Tick’s ‘cult band’ status is one owed to almost fifteen years of authenticity and commitment, energetic live shows and an expanding catalogue of outstanding recorded music. Founded by singer and songwriter John McCauley in late 2004, the group have toured hard, remained independent and unpredictable, weathered line-up changes and sticky situations, made great records and left an important legacy in their native Rhode Island, with renowned Newport Folk Festival afterparties they curate each year.
The band recently returned from a summer break with two cuts from their forthcoming record, Mayonnaise: a collection of original material, covers and alternate takes, rounding off their subsequent companion records, Deer Tick Vol. 1 and Deer Tick Vol. 2. Both songs are testament to McCauley’s reverence for great songwriting: original cut Hey! Yeah! possessing country-rock licks and a classic, Tom Petty vibe, while the second covers Run of the Mill, a track written by Petty’s travelling musical compadre, George Harrison.
Deer Tick perform at Night & Day Cafe on 9th November and ahead of the show, we had the pleasure of catching up with their frontman about his and wife Vanessa Carlton’s appreciation for a classic rock song, the band’s experience at Ardent studio and their plans for the immediate future.
You’ve just enjoyed a little time off following a busy start to the year. What have you done to unwind and how creatively stimulating has it been to take stock and have your mind elsewhere for a while?
JM: ‘I’ve been doing little things here and there, trying to get my home studio up and running. It’s a bit overwhelming. I haven’t been writing all that much. I suppose my mind has been somewhere else.’
Deer Tick were one of the first groups to ink a deal with Partisan records and have been with the label for a decade now. How significant is your relationship with your label, when it comes to producing and releasing your work? Is security and creative freedom the most important thing a label can provide a band in that respect?
JM: ‘We’ve always had a pretty cozy relationship with them. They don’t interfere with what we do and they’ve always been incredibly supportive. I think we’ve furthered each others’ ambitions as we’ve grown as a band and they’ve grown as a label. So that’s nice.’
Both yourself and Vanessa have covered some wonderful songs by artists such as John Prine, Neil Young and John Lennon. Is your mutual appreciation of classic rock songwriting one of your musical meeting points and do you each derive pleasure and learn from studying and covering the songs you love?
JM: ‘Oh yeah, totally. When we moved in together and merged our LP collections I was surprised by the overlap. I think I’m a bit more obsessed with learning other people’s songs. If you take a look at all the songs we’ve covered on setlist.fm you’ll see it’s pretty varied, and a very long list. On the other hand, Vanessa’s the one who just put out an EP of six cover songs. That was fun when she was making that. I suggested Little Bit of Rain and she ended up recording it. Pretty cool.’
The group’s brief hiatus was given a fair bit of attention when you returned with Vol. 1 & 2, but as bands like yourselves, Fleet Foxes and Sleater-Kinney have proven, time away can reap creative rewards. Given your experience, is an extended break something you think important for artists to consider and given the option to go back and do it all again, would you still opt to take that break?
JM: ‘If it’s something you need to do, I think you should do it. I wanted a break really badly, and I was about to have my first child. I also needed some time to write. I was feeling a bit uninspired and sick of playing so much. I’m on the opposite end of that now. I may not be writing much, but I’m really excited to travel and play shows again. When that fizzles, I don’t know, maybe we’ll take another little break. I don’t know that we’ll come back with two whole records next time. That may be a once-in-a-career move.’
You made Deer Tick Vol. 1 & 2 at Ardent studios with co-producer Adam Landry. What was it like to first step foot in that history-steeped space? Had you selected the studio for specific reasons or to use specific facilities, and did the space enable you to achieve anything that may’ve been less feasible in another studio?
JM: ‘Ardent is really wonderful. It’s a living museum. It’s a little intimidating, seeing all the records that were made there, just hanging on the wall, as you’re walking down the hall to take a piss. Many of those records are why we chose Ardent in the first place. But then Jody Stephens comes in the control room and tells you he digs what you’re working on… It’s kind of surreal. We got comfortable there really quickly. We were also able to stretch our budget quite a bit because that year they were running a sale on studio time. I think it was the 50th anniversary or something. It felt like home after a while. Some studios have no vibe at all; very sterile. But this place was the opposite. The studio itself becomes a band member. I couldn’t picture us recording Vol. 1 & 2 anywhere else.’
Given that a couple of tracks could’ve fallen either side of the acoustic/electric divide on those albums, do you anticipate playing any of that material slightly differently on tour, or are you going to stick to the arrangements you hit upon in the studio?
JM: ‘We already have to do that a little bit. It’s not always possible to travel with all of our acoustic and electric instruments. Especially me, since I play in 3 different tunings, that’s a minimum of 6 guitars I have to bring. Traveling with the electric stuff is much easier. We will probably bring a couple of folk instruments with us though.’
Having achieved such ambitious goals in recent years, with the dual volume album, 10th anniversary film and Newport afterparties, what feels like the next move?
JM: ‘We’re putting out a compilation record early next year, and we’ll probably do a small tour around that. There’s also an upcoming film we’re supposed to do the music for. I don’t know when the next real record will be. In my downtime I’m just going to continue chipping away at my little studio here.’
Photo credit: Scott Alario