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Recovering from the brief loss of his voice and relishing in the final day of the Newport Folk Festival, John McCauley and his Deer Tick bandmates are in rare form as they discuss their careers, the evolution of their sound and life in the band. There is seriousness to their tone, but also a content joy, joking around and soaking up the surroundings. When asked what their favorite instruments are, it’s hard to get a clear answer.
As a collective they are surprisingly soft-spoken, no one wanting to outshine the other. They dance around the question with answers like ‘wine bottles’ and ‘milk jugs,’ giving the impression of being happy to play whatever they can and enjoying a good joke or two in the process. Bassist Christopher Dale Ryan, however, expresses an earnest interest in owning a “left-handed Stratocaster from the Paul McCartney era. I’m a lefty and that would be a dream.”
While the jokes are abundant, it’s clear they mean business when it comes to their music. After the release of numerous albums, they’ve honed in on a style of play that not only suits them but also entices fans, and yet they’re still able to experiment with texture and style – never getting pinned into one place.
“We have a sound that our fans like; that’s clear. But we want to try new things to see if something else fits,” says John Joseph McCauley, the band’s primary singer/songwriter. Their new album, Negativity, gives fans a taste of old and new. “It’s definitely helped with this album that the band has stayed the same. That continuity and the fact that we’re rehearsing and practicing more seriously has given the album a different sound,” says guitarist Ian O’Neil. “Yeah, I actually know all the songs on this album,” jokes McCauley. “But seriously, it’s a bit of a departure but in a good way. We’re really happy with it.”
Negativity introduces listeners to the incorporation of horns, something new for the band and covers the wide array of topics that they’re known for exploring. “There isn’t a lot we won’t write or sing about,” says McCauley. “Politics, I guess. My dad was in politics and I won’t write about that kind of stuff, or the weather,” he adds.
While many artists tend to take an either strictly collaborative or independent approach to the songwriting process, Deer Tick opts for more of a hybrid, allowing each member to take the lead when it feel right. It’s this approach, they feel, that allows their music to evolve organically. “The songs usually come together in a way that makes sense to everyone,” says O’Neil. He continues, “Sometimes one of us will just run with it, but everyone gives their feedback and then we just have something we like.”
“It’s not really about the process, but the quality of the songwriting. The final product is what’s most important,” echoes McCauley. In the case of Deer Tick, everyone seems more than pleased with the set up and with how it’s materialized on Negativity. “We’re really excited about this album. It’s not always easy to take an album to the live stage; we work hard on that and I think with this [record] it’s going to be really great,” says Rob Crowell (keys, sax).
There seems to be a collective pride over the journey the band has taken. They’ve fought hard to get where they are and yet don’t seem to take things too seriously. “I think it’s a mix of luck and perseverance. I’m not sure you can have one without the other,” says McCauley. “Although, I’m not sure what we did to get here, other than work our asses off.”
While originally from Rhode Island, the band members now call many places (including Nashville and New York) home. “I don’t think there’s ever been any pressure to relocate. I don’t think geography played a crucial role in our careers, it’s just where it all started,” says McCauley. “Its not really about where you are, so much as why you’re doing this,” Crowell comments. “I don’t think any of us would be here if this isn’t what we wanted to be doing”
Whether at Newport Folk Fest, a small venue in New York or hammering out tracks in the recording studio, Deer Tick has hit their stride. Their gravelly and gritty sound is universally recognizable and despite a sometimes-rotating line up, they never fail to produce music that’s both captivating and provoking.
photos by Anna Webber