Stoner Drama: A Conversation with Diamond Rugs’ John McCauley and Steve Berlin
Steve, were you familiar with Dead Confederate or Black Lips or any of the other bands involved with Diamond Rugs?
Steve: Dead Confederate, no. Black Lips, yes, but not as much as Deer Tick or Middle Brother. But now I’m a huge fan of all those bands. There’s an insanely talented group of people in this band.
In terms of actually recording the album, Steve, you’re known as both a producer and performer. Could you talk a little about your role in this album? Did you work on the production side of things or did you just focus on the song craft aspect of it?
Steve: I think it was more the song craft. We had incredibly capable producers with Justin Collins and Adam Landry so from my view, it was kind of more relaxing than the shit that I do where I have to be on top of everything. It was fun and neat to just come in and react to the material and help out in any way I could. I think that was kind of everybody’s attitude—almost collegial in that respect because that was everyone’s personality. Every song was “all hands on deck,” and I have to say the batting average of the ideas was incredibly high. Pretty much everything everybody tried worked on the first take.
Most of the recordings that made it on the album are actually first takes?
Steve: Yeah, one of them took a little longer to figure out but almost all of them worked out by the second or third take, in my opinion. In my recollection, at least, it seemed like it took no time at all to get through the songs.
Steve, despite being a longtime member of a classic rock band, you’ve worked with a lot of young bands in recent years—from String Cheese Incident, Leftover Salmon and Jackie Greene to Clap Your Hands Say Yeah’s Alec Ounsworth. What is it that keeps drawing you to work with younger acts?
Steve: I would say it’s the tiger blood that keeps me young. No, but, you know, I don’t really think about it that way, I just give equal opportunities. I mean like this, for example, there was really no reason for me to go to Nashville in the middle of August but it sounded intriguing so I went. I guess I enjoy being in challenging musical circumstances every day, all day, so wherever I find them, I go. I don’t look at it as an age-related issue so much as an idea-related issue. I’m just looking for great ideas.
Right, and it also shows your diversity as a musician. There’s a lot of different sounds on this album, and one of the things that struck me was the horn section.
Steve: For me it didn’t necessarily stand out to have the horn section. The song seemed to ask for it. From my end, as the songs were developing I think all of us thought, Hey, a horn section would be cool. I don’t think it was ever like, Okay we’re going to do this record and it’s going to be this, this and this. I don’t think the horns were a central plan from the beginning.
John, you’ve been involved with a lot of different projects recently. When it comes to the songs you particularly wrote for this album, did you write them specifically for Diamond Rugs ?
John: Well, it’s not like I couldn’t play it to any of those three bands I’m currently in. It’s just like, I happened to be recording with Middle Brother when I did “Daydreaming,” or I happened to be recording with Diamond Rugs when I did “Call Girl Blues,” or I did everything I did with Deer Tick because I happened to be with them at the time.
Steve: So basically you’re a slut is what you’re saying.
John: Yeah, I’m a big slut. The only song I really had written before we went in for Diamond Rugs was “Christmas in a Chinese Restaurant,” which I hadn’t finished. I had played it for Adam and Justin, the producers, when we did Middle Brother, but I couldn’t finish it, so Adam actually reminded me of it while we were doing Diamond Rugs and kind of gave me an assignment to finish the song. I’m glad he did because I probably would’ve forgotten about that song forever.
I heard that Diamond Rugs actually evolved from a band called Stoner Drama, could you talk a little about that project?
John: Stoner Drama was how Diamond Rugs came to be. It was me and Bryan but we never recorded anything or wrote anything. We had an idea that we’d make this stupid little punk album and every song would be about what two stoner roommates might argue about. We came up with a couple song titles but that’s about as far as we got. Like, “Dude, You Ate All The Fucking Chips,” or “When’s Your Girlfriend Gonna Start Paying Rent?”
Steve: I would’ve loved to do those songs.
I know that Diamond Rugs hasn’t played too much yet, but you did play down in Georgia right before New Year’s Eve and you did a few shows since then where you have played the album in order. Going forward, do you plan to expand your repertoire or stick to this set of songs?
John: We’ve only done album stuff so far—in order. We’ve talked about doing covers or doing Deer Tick or Black Lips songs, but it hasn’t happened yet.
What was your impression of those first shows?
John: Personally, I enjoy every single show, but I felt that we didn’t have our shit together as well as we maybe should have. But I didn’t really let it bother me because we had no time to rehearse. You know, we just showed up and played without having seen each other beforehand and we had a huge fucking band. We were an 11-piece band.
Steve: We pulled it off.
My last question is for John. Given that this is the second kind of all-star project with this group of producers, did you find it easier this time around?
John: It was definitely different than anything I’ve done before. With Deer Tick I usually have everything written ahead of time and with Middle Brother we did two weeks of writing and then two weeks of recording. This was just kind of everything crammed into ten days. It was really a fast-paced process and I enjoyed it. I don’t know how many records I want to make like that but I’m sure this won’t be the last one.