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Published: 2014/12/23
by Mike Greenhaus

Are We Not Men? We Are Deer Tick!

Deer Tick has survived their first decade. Singer/guitarist John McCauley founded the hard-partying band in December of 2004 as a solo project under the name My Other Face. With roots in harder rock and a rekindled interest in classic country artists like Hank Williams, McCauley quickly settled on a wholly original sound that married his disparate influences with a loose, rock-and-roll vibe and lyrics that are far deeper than his rowdy persona gives off. At first Deer Tick was primarily a solo vehicle, but shortly after the completion of his 2007 debut War Elephant, McCauley settled on the permanent rhythm section of drummer Dennis Ryan and his bassist brother Chris. (It is worth noting that woodwinds player James Falzone, former Dirty Projector Brian McOmber and current Dirty Projectors member Nat Baldwin contributed to War Elephant.)

Deer Tick went through a number of personnel changes early on, but for the past few years has held strong with the steady lineup of McCauley, the Ryan brothers, guitarist/singer Ian O’Neil and keyboardist Robert Crowell. Albums like Born on Flag Day (2009), The Black Dirt Sessions (2010), Divine Providence (2011) and Negativity (2013), all of which were released on Partisan Records, have helped Deer Tick make inroads in the such varied scenes as the indie, folk, garage, punk, jam and somewhat amorphous modern festival communities. In a parallel world, McCauley’s participation in supergroups like Middle Brother and Diamond Rugs have placed Deer Tick in a unique Venn-diagram of open-eared listeners. Throughout, Deer Tick has developed into a true band to the point that O’ Neil now actually writes and sings lead vocals on core Deer Tick songs.

Later this week, Deer Tick will celebrate their first 10 years with shows at New York’s Brooklyn Bowl from December 26-31. In addition to performing War Elephant on December 26, the group will cover a range of their favorite albums: Lou Reed’s Transformer (12/27), The Beatles’ Meet The Beatles (12/28), Devo’s Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! and Elvis Costello’s My Aim Is True (12/30). Each night will also feature a selection of Deer Tick originals and, on New Year’s Eve, they will perform a special “fan chosen set.” Then, the band will take some time off while McCauley prepares for the birth of his first child with his wife, singer Vanessa Carlton, and Deer Tick starts writing toward their next album.

Deer Tick are about to celebrate their 10th anniversary with a series of six shows at Brooklyn Bowl. In addition to playing your first album, War Elephant, in its entirety, you are going to cover complete albums by a range of artists you like—from Lou Reed and The Beatles to Devo. Can you describe the process of choosing which albums to cover?

Well, covers songs, for better or for worse, will always be a certain part of our live set. Originally we had more of a concept for the shows. On the first night, we were going to do our first album and a first album that we really loved by a band and then, the next night we were gonna do our second album and a second album by a band we really liked and so on until we did all of our albums. But that turned out to be too high of a concept for us. We’re just not a high concept band [Laughs.]

We just tossed around some ideas—some albums that we thought would be fun to play together. I threw a bunch of ideas out there and Ian threw a bunch of ideas out there since he and I were the ones who would be doing most of the singing. Then, everybody decided, “Now we’re doing all these records.”

Both the most obvious and least likely album cover choice is The Beatles’ Meet The Beatles, which was the breakthrough album released in the US but has kind of been forgotten by time in certain respects. [ Meet The Beatles was only released in the US and includes several singles not included on its British counterpart albums Please Please Me and With The Beatles. In certain respects, despite its cultural significance, the album is not considered part of the band’s current canon and was not released on CD in the US until it came out as part of a box set of US Beatles releases in 2004.] Did you ever get any pushback from covering that album?

[Laughs.] That was Ian’s idea. He was just like, “What about Meet the Beatles !” And we were like, without a question, “Yes!.” We’re not too cool and we think The Beatles are a band cool to cover, so fuck it! And, actually, I think we’d be able to pull off the later, more artsy Beatles stuff easier than the early Beatles stuff—the harmonies are just really weird. We sounded pretty good. We rehearsed it a couple times already and it sounds great.

How familiar was the band as a whole with these albums when you decided to cover them? Were they already ingrained in your muscle memory or was there an unlikely Deer Tick period of studying up and pulling out the old vinyl to get ready?

Well, I can’t speak for everybody, but for me, I definitely knew every album inside and out. I have been listening to them again and trying to learn how to play almost everything again but it wasn’t that big of a deal. Getting them together with the whole band was a really good challenge and it has been fun rehearsing everything. We focused on one album at a time. We haven’t rehearsed any of the Devo stuff yet though. It’s a real start up memory. It should be interesting.

That record was—out of all the records we are going to play—the Devo record was the one I listened to the most all throughout high school. It was just like my favorite record. It’s pretty funny to go back and listen to it and play all the songs. It’s probably almost 10 years since I’ve gone back and listened to that record. It’s pretty awesome.

Did you ever see Devo live?

Yeah, once in 2010 or 2011. It was at Coachella. I saw Mark Mothersbaugh backstage. I don’t remember what I was on, I was on ecstasy or something, I don’t know. That was a time when I was being stupid and I just went up to Mark and said, “Mark, thank you.” And he said, “You’re welcome, I’m glad it all worked out for you.”

As a music fan it must be fun to revisit some of these albums you haven’t listened to in a long time. Obviously, as you said, each of these albums has been really important to you at different points of your life, but some of them have slipped off our current playlists.

Yeah, it’s pretty interesting. I mean, it’s not like I don’t like Devo anymore. Devo is just like a really big phase for me when I was younger. I am a big Devo fan but there’s so much music out there. There’s still so much I haven’t discovered.

In terms of your original album concept, you decided to charge ahead and do your first album, War Elephant, which you performed in its entirety during a rowdy Newport Folk Festival after-show in 2012. In terms of your own canon, what strikes you when you listen to that record? Does it feel like a naked baby photo or do you feel like it still resonates even though it was recorded with a different lineup?

I like the Deer Tick now. I haven’t really listened to that record in so long that it sounds to me, it sounds just like the songs [in their raw form]. We still play a lot of those songs but they sound pretty different with the band we have now. It has been a few years since we played the album so I am glad we gave it a rest. It was just kind of strange going back and playing our old songs, which I know are like some of our most popular songs anyway. I guess it gives me a boost of confidence. Some songs, they get old, and they age well, but some don’t age well for the writer. So I try not to think about that [Laughs.]

We’ve never done War Elephant in New York so we thought this would be a good time to do it. [Deer Tick played most of their other albums and major EPs during a similar holiday run at Brooklyn Bowl in late 2012.] We decided to do it at the NRBQ night because we thought that of all the records we are doing that record was the that would probably be the least familiar to our fans. So we thought that would add a little more to that show. They’re a great band.

It’s funny actually, looking at the tickets. It looks like our fans don’t appreciate Devo as much as we do. It’s the one night that we’re having trouble pushing tickets for! It will be fine but it’s funny right now, it’s just like, “Man, no one wants to see us play Devo.”

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