Stoner Drama: A Conversation with Diamond Rugs’ John McCauley and Steve Berlin
On paper Diamond Rugs sounds more like a party than a super group. A loose blend of Americana heart, garage-rock energy and the occasional brass punch, the band started as a side-project for Deer Tick’s John McCauley (vocals, guitar) and Black Lips’ Ian Saint Pe (vocals, guitar). But before the outspoken indie rockers had time to enter the studio or play a show, the group grew to include close comrades like Dead Confederate’s Hardy Morris (vocals, guitar), Deer Tick’s Robbie Crowell (bass, sax, keys) and Six Finger Satellite’s Bryan Dufresne (drums). A more unexpected addition to the team was Los Lobos multi-instrumentalist Steve Berlin, who McCauley bribed with a bag of mushrooms to join the project on horns and keys. Last August, the ensemble spent a few spirited days in Nashville recording last with producers Justin Collins and Adam Landry, both of whom helped make McCauley’s indie-roots trio Middle Brother more than the sum of its parts. The resulting record, the band’s self-titled debut, is a surprisingly “more serious journey” for a group of musicians whose Jim Morrison-style antics and punk attitudes often oversaw their creative output.
After toying with a few different names, Diamond Rugs made their official debut at Atlanta’s The Earl on December 29, 2011 and reconvened for a few shows during Austin’s SXSW in March. Shortly before the release of Diamond Rugs release, McCauley and Berlin discussed the group’s recent recording sessions, blissed-out first meeting and other stoner dramas.
Between Deer Tick and Middle Brother, you’ve been extremely busy in the studio John. What was the impetus to start yet another project?
John: Well, I guess I set out to make a record with Ian. It was never supposed to be a solo project—I don’t know why people got that impression. But then I met Steve [Berlin] and he agreed to come be a part of it, and we took a more serious journey, I guess. We did it all in like a week and a half in August last year.
Steve, how did you first meet John?
Steve: He came up to me with a bag of mushrooms after a show and I couldn’t say no. He had me at “mush.”
Had you heard of Deer Tick or Middle Brother before or was John just a particularly friendly fan?
Steve: Yeah, that’s really why I jumped in—because I was a huge fan of both bands and, in particular, the sound of the Middle Brother record just completely wrecked me when it came out. I couldn’t believe that anybody could make a record sound like that in 2011. I was like one of those people that take apart all the Kennedy assassination films, you know? I kept on playing it backwards and forwards trying to figure out how they did it. So when the opportunity came to get inside the temple, as it were, I had to jump on it.
John, do you remember the show where you first approached Steve?
John: It was the Park Theater in Cranston, Rhode Island. It’s an old theater but it’s pretty huge. I heard Los Lobos was playing, and I didn’t have a car at the time. So my friend Joe texts me and said, “Hey, what’s up, Park Theater tonight?” And he picked me up, we drove to Cranston, smoked a joint, and I brought some mushrooms along. We didn’t even have tickets at the time. We sat up in the back row of the balcony and the show kicked ass. They were doing a meet and greet afterwards so I shook hands with everybody and then I approached Steve and that’s what got us talking.
Rob from Deer Tick is also a member of Diamond Rugs, which makes the band feel closer to a Deer Tick project. Did you initially plan to include him in the process as well or did his participation come about later?
John: No, no. Actually my friend Robbie, he and his girlfriend had just broken up and he’s such a fucking wonderful musician that I figured it would be good to get him in the studio.
Steve: He was kind of our secret weapon. It was just mind-boggling how great of a musician he is. He kind of made everything a hell of a lot easier, and it was great to have someone that amazing on board.
John, according to the interview you did with Relix when you were recording Diamond Rugs, Los Lobos was actually one of the first bands that you saw live when you were much younger. Is that true?
John: Yes, that is true. It was the Newport Folk Festival in ’89…was it? Steve, do you remember?
Steve: I don’t remember. [Laughter.] I remember you even then, in the crowd. I had never seen a five-year-old with a mustache and a beard before. [Laughter.]
It sounds like Diamond Rugs came together pretty organically. Once Steve signed onto the project, did you immediately get into the studio? Or had you and Ian already started to record together?
John: We had been planning on recording. I think when Steve started we had to change the schedule around a little bit, but it actually worked out better. I think at the last minute Ian wasn’t able to do it or something like that so because of that we had to push it back until Ian was able to do it again. And then Hardy from Dead Confederate happened to be around and it all just fell into place.
I’m sure your management and booking companies embraced the prospect of corralling members of six bands who are always on the road.
John: Yeah, it’s a logistical nightmare.
Steve: That’s all how it happens though. It’s kind of like a solar eclipse, everything just lines up at the same time.