Deer Tick Plays Club Red, at the Palm, Thursday, Aug. 14
I love a band whose music is hard to pin down. Is it country? Is it alt-country, is it punk, is it indie rock? Some of the most interesting bands just slip through the cracks of conventionality and defy description. Such is the music of the Providence, R.I.-based band Deer Tick.
No one hates labels more than the bands themselves. No musician wants to be pigeonholed. Labels are tools that music labels, radio stations and media outlets use to sell records and neatly place a band in some kind of accessible context so that the next time a website does a “Top ten bands of X genre,” they might or might not include your band.
That said, if you were Ian O’Neil, guitar player of Deer Tick and you were sitting on an airplane and a beautiful woman – drop dead gorgeous – sat down next to you (O’Neil is single). A half-hour into the flight she said, “I saw your guitar, are you in a band? What kind of music do you play?”
O’Neil (from his home in Providence, R.I., not at 30,000 ft.): I would tell her rock ‘n’ roll. I know it’s general. But I feel we play rock ‘n’ roll music. We have loud guitars, quiet guitars, but we have guitars. We’re not Southern, we’re from the north, but our influences are all over the musical spectrum.
GH: Let’s start with your influences when you were young.
O’Neil: For me, when I was younger, when it comes to songwriting, Leonard Cohen, Roger Miller, Neil Young and Paul Westerberg are some who come to mind. As far as the sound of Deer Tick, we’re huge fans of The Band both lyrically and musically, and the Replacements in the way they would be irreverently loud and then tender on the next song.
GH: Deer Tick’s breakthrough album Born on Flag Day was a huge critical hit. Rolling Stone called it the Country-Rock breakthrough of the year (2009).
O’Neil: That’s not entirely inaccurate – we are influenced by country. It’s not good for business that we can’t be pigeonholed, but we could care less; we just want to be true to our fans.
GH: What’s up with the name?
O’Neil: It’s the same old story. A deer tick bit (lead singer/songwriter) John McCauley on his forehead in Indiana. He felt it was appropriately repulsive for a band name. Most band names are kind of spontaneous and irreverent, at least the bands I’ve been in.
GH: Where are you from? What were you doing before joining Deer Tick?
O’Neil: I grew up in western Massachusetts. I moved to Providence five years ago. Before Deer Tick, I was in a band called Titus Andronicus, a funk band from New Jersey.
GH: You joined the band in 2009, the same year Born on Flag Day was released. It’s a great record. Were you already a fan?
O’Neil: I was familiar with the guys as friends; we ran in similar circles. I knew them personally. They brought tracks to me and I listened to them and vice versa. It was more like a musician kind of thing, where we had a mutual respect and dug each others’ company. When I joined the band, we were touring on Black Flag Day, but they had just started working on Black Dirt Sessions (2010). I did a bunch of guitar work on that record. Divine Providence (2011) was the first record I was really involved with from start to finish.
GH: You contributed two songs on as a writer and vocalist on Divine Providence. “Walking Out the Door” is a rocker and “It’s Your Turn” is a slower tune. Was contributing as a singer and songwriter something you evolved into or was that always the plan?
O’Neil: One of the main one of the reasons I was invited to join the band was that the guys liked my writing. I wasn’t really singing in my previous band and I wanted to step out and do more singing and writing and it was a good fit.
GH: Divine Providence also featured keyboard player and Rob Crowell, and you’ve had the same lineup ever since (McCauley on lead vocals, brothers Chris and Dennis O’Malley on bass and drums respectively). The album was way harder than the first two records. Was this a natural progression of where the band was headed?
O’Neil: I think with Divide Providence we really wanted to try and make a record that reflected the energy of our live shows. Plus our producers (Cosmic Thug production duo Adam Landry and Justin Collins) wanted to showcase the edgier side of the band.
GH: On Negativity (2013), you worked with producer Steve Berlin (Los Lobos). The album has a much different vibe. It’s the most polished sounding from a strictly production standpoint.
O’Neil: We recorded the record in Portland at a studio called Acoustic Alchemy in two different sessions. The first was in February 2012 and we laid down some tracks, then toured for another year and came back in March 2013 with a bunch of more material. We recorded 30 songs, 95 percent of those in that second session. Steve and John had met and struck up a friendship. He came in for the second session and was a pleasure to work with. He had really strong opinions about things and we were willing to follow his lead. He really helped us with arraignments.
GH: On Negativity your song “Dream Is in the Sitch “is the single. You sang it on Late Night with Conan O’Brien. What was that like?
O’Neil: That was all kind of wild. The label wanted to go out with it as the single. It’s pretty counter-intuitive seeing as John is the lead singer. But the other guys in the band were behind it. It was very humbling.
GH: Sounds like 18 songs didn’t end up on Negativity. Could some of those end up on your next album and when might we see it?
O’Neil: We’ll see if we can flush some of those out. We have a couple new songs we’ve been paying live lately. We’re looking at getting together in October and November to work on some stuff, but we’re mostly touring. We’ll probably record it in 2015.
GH: You’re on the way to the Newport Folk Festival. Again, that’s not necessarily a layup at first glance.
O’Neil: This is our fourth year in a row. The festival has always been really open about including other genres of music that have been influenced by folk. We have been influenced by guys like Woody Guthrie, Mississippi Jon Hurt, Townes Van Zandt, all kinds of folk artists. And we’re from Rhode Island.
(Deer Tick’s performance was one of the most widely discussed and highly acclaimed shows of the festival. Rolling Stone wrote, “The real after-party has become Deer Tick’s tradition of cramming capacity crowds into the Newport Blues Café downtown and raging late with a selection of friends and family (including Jason Isbell, who opened the show). You can listen to the band’s set at the festival here.
GH: You guys did a bunch of shows as Deervana, in which you played all Nirvana songs. How did that come about?
O’Neil: A friend of ours asked us to play a Nirvana show for his birthday. It was just kind of a lark. We did it and it was a blast. We did it a few more times (one of the shows ended up on Spin.com as a free download) and suddenly we were getting offers for a lot of money to go out as Deervana. But we turned them down. It was just something we did for fun; we weren’t out to make any money at it. Trying to cash in on it would have been the ultimate insult to what Kurt Cobain was all about.
GH: Did you know if you google Deer Tick, your band comes up before the actual deer tick?
O’Neil: (Laughs) Someone told me that.
GH: So you’re not googling Deer Tick?
O’Neil: Noooo. That would be a horrible idea. I’m sure there are all kinds of disparaging things out there and probably some good stuff as well. You can’t concern yourself with any of that. Seeing people at our shows is enough positive reinforcement for us.
Deer Tick plays Club Red in Mountain Village at 8 p.m. on Thursday, Aug. 14. Tickets are available at Wizard Framing and Entertainment as well as online at http://www.ticketfly.com/purchase/event/580495. Show is all ages and tickets are $22 pre-sale, $24 day of show.