Ian O’Neil: Deer Tick and Beyond
When you play in a band with a frontman as colorful as the always outspoken, John McCauley, it is easy to get overshadowed. But Deer Tick guitarist, co-singer and songwriter Ian O’Neil has slowly emerged from McCauley’s shadow. During the past few years, the band has naturally grown from a McCauley solo project into a true band with multiple voices and personalities. Deer Tick’s new studio album Divine Providence features two O’Neil-sung tracks, “Walking Out That Door” and “Now It’s Your Turn,” and contributions from several of the band’s other members. Since relocating to New York, O’Neil has also played sporadic shows under his own name and will perform at Brooklyn, NY’s Glasslands this Wednesday, December 7. In addition to Deer Tick material, O’Neil will deliver material from his forthcoming solo project and other scattered songs that may work their way into his future repertoires. Shortly before the show, O’Neil discussed Deer Tick’s dynamics, his previous band Titus Andronicus and how we got to be so rock and roll.
For more on Ian, be sure to read his recent MyPage in Relix.
You have a big show coming up at Glasslands this week. For some readers who have not seen one of your solo performances, can you talk a little bit about how you approach a setlist in this setting versus a Deer Tick show?
Since I’m by myself it’s a lot quieter, naturally. [Laughter]. There’s a lot of songs that don’t necessarily fit the Deer Tick mold or songs that are brand new that’ll be on the next CD. Maybe I’ll have some friends come up and play with me from Virgin Forest [who are also on tonight’s bill]. If anything, it’ll definitely be different. I’ll also be playing songs I play with Deer Tick.
Most of our readers probably first heard your name when you joined Deer Tick in 2009 but you were actually in the noted indie-punk band Titus Andronicus for a few years. How did that transition happen?
I’m from Western Massachusetts, and I moved to New York City when I was 18. I went to school for a couple of years, and I quit to join Titus. All the while, me and my friends intended on playing shows based our own music. Actually, me and the current bass player from Titus, Julian [Veronesi], had a project [concurrently] where we played some of my songs and some of his songs as well. It was this duo project—that’s actually how my solo thing started too. I would play these solo shows with my friends around Western Mass. and New York. Then I quit Titus—I was convinced that if I was going to do the whole touring regimen as a way to make money, then I wanted to do it on my own terms and do my own thing. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to really dedicate myself in that way unless I was doing it for myself. I met John [McCauley] in New York while I was at a show, opening. We just became friends. I put my songs into that band and started playing with them. And from New York I moved to Rhode Island.
Since John is Deer Tick’s primary songwriter, you may only have one or two songs on an album. With that in mind, do you write specifically for Deer Tick or when the time comes to introduce some new Deer Tick material, do you bring in some ideas you have been working on by yourself?
I think for everybody who writes in the band, including myself, you write and then you pick apart which songs would suit the players in the band. There are certain songs that we’d end up playing together that sound very different than if I did it with other people. So it’s like which songs do you feel your friends, in particular Deer Tick, would fit really well, and you need their help for it. You feel which ones work and which ones you might want to hold on to yourself. There’s no science to it, you kind of make the choice and say, “Hey, here’s a song. Do you want to do it?”
You had mentioned that the solo show is a little quieter, and Deer Tick is not a band known for having the quietest of sounds. What does a singer/songwriter setting offer for you as a performer versus Deer Tick’s more rowdy performances?
I think when you play by yourself, you can only rely on yourself to either make the mistakes or make it good. I think especially vocally, you can draw people in being quiet just as much as you can being loud. I think it really helps you. If you can perform by yourself you can perform a lot better with a group since you have more confidence. When I play by myself, I usually start with the song that’ll be pretty quiet, but pointed at drawing people in—something that doesn’t have too many words and that’s a little simpler. Something people can just listen to. Just a voice and a guitar. I feel people do like to hear that sort of thing. It’s fun to be sensitive sometimes.
Deer Tick’s known for a mixture of punk rock energy and folk rock sounds. Is folk rock something you were interested in before you joined the band or something you gravitated towards as Deer Tick’s sound took on that form? Or are you more of a punk rock guy?
I think the reason why the band gravitated towards that is because we all grew up doing that. Before we all got quiet, we used to be a lot louder. We all wanted to play rock n roll and we were kind of sick of being quiet. John made the decision to take these quiet ideas and play them really loudly—because all the songs are written quietly. Songs like [my own] “Walking Out That Door” were written personally, by myself. So it starts off as a more sensitive thing no matter how you dress it up later.
We’re touring all the time, we want to be able to perform these songs in a way that we’ll have fun and the audience will have fun. Not taking ourselves too seriously. I think that’s why we decided to get loud because its all just rock n roll.
Have you thought about making a solo album?
Yeah, actually me and Deer Tick drummer Dennis Ryan and Julian are working on a project together. I’ll give you the name of it—we’re calling it Dirt Naps. We’re setting up a recording studio in Providence, in our practice space, Central Falls. We’re going to record as much as we can and see what we get out of it. We don’t know when and if it’ll be released, but sooner or later when we get our recording skills down pat, we’re definitely going to do something and release it on Partisan.
Julian and I grew up together and went to high school and middle school together, and he’s a great songwriter. We used to write songs together. So we’re going to pull it back together, and Dennis is going to be producing it. Dennis has got the real set up. He records all the time by himself at home. He’s the perfect guy to do it with. He’s enthusiastic, and he’s going to contribute songs as well so it’ll kind of be our little band.
Titus has spawned all sorts of different bands and projects, from Deer Tick to Real Estate. A lot of roots trace back to them.
That’s a good point. That happens. I think everybody at this point is okay with cross breeding. Or if people leave Titus and have their own creative impulses. They generally tend to do pretty damn good themselves. Like Andrew Cedermark, I love that man. He writes some amazing songs himself.