Deer Tick feature story

Skipping Rehearsals and Selling the Bus

“I think we want to do something that’s lean, and record something that can give the audience a similar experience to what we do live.”

“Touring in Europe is a strange experience because everything is out of your hands. A lot of the times you don’t know the language, and you don’t have a phone to call your loved ones.”

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Sometimes things fall apart so that better things can fall together. Such seems to be the case with Deer Tick, who has been gathering and shedding band members since 2004, but thanks to founder John McCauley’s unwavering musical faith and perseverance, has remained in existence and sonically consistent. “The band was hectic when I first joined,” Ian Patrick O’Neil (guitar, vocals) admitted in an interview conducted through a phone so old it still has an antenna. “Then we got a keyboard player [Rob B. Crowell]. When he joined, he was talented in a schooled kind of way. We’re more rocking than we have ever been, I would say. [The dynamic] definitely changes when you bring new personalities into it.

The product of shuffling so many different people in and out of Deer Tick over the years is displayed in the band’s latest album, The Black Dirt Sessions, released this summer. The album is a compilation of songs that McCauley had written years prior and never released. He presented them to their label, Partisan Records, and they liked them so much that they told the boys to work on them to see what could happen. The result was a batch of songs that hardly resembled the original products, but rather a melancholic emblem of the band’s wonderful ability to harmonize and arrange music without ever rehearsing. That’s right, Deer Tick has not once gotten together for a rehearsal session, nor do they memorize their songs for their live performances. Their recording sessions represent the performance of five men, guided towards one another by the will of an unseen force.

There’s no bickering involved in the creative process of Deer Tick, no fighting over whose ideas are better; it seems as though these musicians play off of one another’s energies organically and add to each other’s ideas seamlessly. “John brings songs and I [Ian] bring songs now, and Dennis is gonna start bringing songs too. It differs from song to song. I brought one song where the structure was pretty strict. These dudes bring something to the song that makes it much bigger than what it was before. It kind of just happens after we perform it live a couple of times.”

Deer Tick thrives in their live performances, but that also poses a few occasional challenges. “Some people like and some people don’t like how different our live performances are from our record,” claims O’Neil. “It’s a challenge sometimes to execute that in a way where it’s still a great performance and we’re entertaining ourselves and keeping ourselves happy in terms of playing the songs over and over again.” Keeping themselves happy is the driving force for most of what they do.

Perhaps what really makes Deer Tick tick is their lack of desire for structure or any sort of label on what they do. Their music is catchy, folky, and sometimes almost country, though the band actively rebels against that label. “We’re proud not to sing with a twang,” claims O’Neil, further commenting that rock ‘n’ roll is both a Southern and Northern thing, and that their Northern location influences them to be more of a rock band than a country one. Regardless, the country-rock label permeates the opinions of many of their listeners.

They derive their inspirations from few bands that have anything to do with country, however. “Currently our drummer, Dennis, really likes hip-hop. He particularly likes the Notorious BIG. A band I’ve been listening to a lot is called The Body from Providence, and we like The Replacements a lot, too.” In terms of performance, the band considers Sam Cooke to be somewhat of a king. Drawing from hip-hop, R&B, alternative rock, and classic rock, it seems fair to say (and to hear) that Deer Tick has quite the original sound.

As far as what the band is up to post-release of their new album, Deer Tick has invested some of their energy in giving back, by trying to help the victims of the recent floods in Pakistan. Recently, Deer Tick auctioned off  “The Flagship,” the tour bus they used on all of their 2009 U.S. tours. They sold it in September for $2,000, and donated the majority of the proceeds to Oxfam for the Pakistani relief fund.

In terms of the music, they are currently in Europe touring through Belgium, Germany, the United Kingdom, and Ireland. It seems bizarre that a band that has gone through so much turnover and turmoil can come together and conduct a European tour, but this is not their first time across the pond. “It was surprising how many people came to the shows. A lot of people know us over there,” says O’Neil. The band enjoys touring Europe, though it can often be a little uncomfortable. “Touring over there is a strange experience because everything is out of your hands. A lot of the times you don’t know the language, and you don’t have a phone to call your loved ones. You’re in the hands of the tour manager because he speaks the language. It can be stressful. You can’t bring all of your equipment. There’s a lot of flying. There’s a lot of growing pains when you get there.”

The fact that the band can pull together again (with the same cast they had last year) and do trans-Atlantic tours speaks volumes about how far Deer Tick has come. The band finally has an established set of members who magically work together, and are looking towards the future as a singular unit, hoping to create an album that can communicate what they are doing live, but in a recorded session. “I think we want to do something that’s lean, and record something that can give the audience a similar experience to what we do live in terms of an album.” This means more time together as a band, moving forward not only to create something new, but also to experiment with their chemistry in a different capacity.

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