Sea of Clouds: Q&A with Deer Tick


After a four year break of band members getting their lives together and starting families, Deer Tick has returned with a double album.

For about a solid seven years, the Providence, R.I.-based rock band put out stellar records just about every trip around the sun. With relentless touring and a strong back-catalog, the group has built up an underground following who find singer John McCauley’s nasally vocals and Americana tales endearing and the band’s greasy rock n’ roll sensibility to be righteous.

Now, Deer Tick’s “Deer Tick Vol.1 & 2” follows 2013’s “Negativity,” and features 20 tracks, with 10 of the “softer, folkier” variety and 10 of their “harder” side, effectively splitting the band’s hybrid sound in half. While the two albums might operate at different ends of the spectrum, McCauley’s thoughtful, introspective lyrics are present throughout with just the right amount of wit and grit.

Along with a deep and impressive body of work, McCauley, and his bandmates Ian O’Neil (guitar/vox), Dennis Ryan (drums/vox) and Christopher Ryan (bass), have built a reputation as a no-holds-barred live act, where you never know what may happen on any given evening. One thing that can be guaranteed is that it will never be boring.

We got a moment to talk with O’Neil about the band, the new album and their upcoming show at Mohawk, Saturday, Nov. 18:

HCN: How’s the tour going so far?

O’NEIL: We’re doing two shows a night. It’s like doing 10 shows in five days. It’s not that difficult to play that much music. All of the rigmarole of putting on a show can get exhausting, but yeah, the only problem is if you play too much for too long you tend to plateau with everyone jelling so it’s good to take a break.

It’s our day off, and we’re in Odessa. We’re playing in Dallas tomorrow. I’m probably going to see a movie and actually sit down for dinner. It’s probably the most exciting it gets.

HCN: So how often do you guys come through Austin?

O’NEIL: It used to be a very frequent stop. We had to cancel a show in Austin on the Negativity tour because John got sick and he had to fly back out east. It was briefly serious, then not. We used to do South By every year until 2013 and we’re excited to get back because we haven’t been in a couple years.

HCN: So what was your worst SXSW show, and what was your best?

O’NEIL: The worst I probably wouldn’t be able to remember (laughs). The best one we did was a Deervana set where we did a bunch of Nirvana covers from In Utero and that was really fun. We did like three shows.

HCN: You guys seemed to be releasing great records left and right for a bit there. Why the break? Is the double album more necessary to catch up?

O’NEIL: The quickest answer is that it took a while to come back with material that we wanted to come back with. We had been doing the one album per year thing and touring constantly and it was time for us to take a break. John had a kid, and everyone kind of got their life together and got married, bought homes or settled into places and family situations. Everyone found sure footing.

HCN: I imagine it can feel like you’re free falling when you’re constantly touring. Like you’re missing roots.

O’NEIL: Yeah, absolutely, it’s impossible not to feel that way. It was a lot of fun, but looking back on it, it’s hard to imagine how it was sustainable much further without some kind of recalibration.

HCN: So with that time off to recalibrate and get sure footing, how did you approach recording the new album?

O’NEIL: Some of the songs we tried to record about a year before we did this. That was interesting. We hadn’t fully committed to the two album thing, in terms of loud and quiet. The second time we went in we made really strict rules for ourselves, because of that I think John had a period of writing quickly before hand. It all seemed to come about in that period between “Negativity” and this one.

HCN: What was it like going in with two different approaches for each record in the studio? Did they bleed together, or did it feel distinct?

O’NEIL: It felt like we were doing two distinct albums. We were in the same room recording with the same people, and that probably makes it consistent on it’s own anyway. A lot of it was just live, and I think that was the way to drive home each album’s sound.

HCN: On the new album, I know you wrote “Hope is Big”. Could you tell me what’s going on in that song?

O’NEIL: I wrote that when I was pretty young when I was 18. It was a particular moment of change for me. I wrote it during the Bush administration and I was disillusioned with the world we were living in and losing family members at the time and moving away from where I grew up. It turned into a stream of consciousness of imagery. That’s the kind of stuff I was into at the time.

HCN: Did it feel like you were revisiting a younger version of yourself when you recorded it?

O’NEIL: I know everyone writes songs and they have to perform them constantly, no matter what age they recorded them at, but we tried to record it for “Divine Providence” but it didn’t suit the album. I’ve been singing it a lot too, it’s not like I’m not used to it. Singing it every night does feel like nostalgia kind of feeling.

HCN: How does Deer Tick write their music?

O’NEIL: It’s pretty simple. We operate as a group of songwriters and session musicians. One of us will bring a song and the other guys will start playing and coming up with their parts. We all pretty much trust each other and any suggestions or personal adjustments. It happens quickly. As long as the song is there, that’s the most important part. We have B-sides too, where one of them we just couldn’t find the right way to record it.

HCN: Does playing two separate sets feel like you’re performing as two different types of bands?

O’NEIL: Yes and no. Of course it feels like we’re expressing different sides of our personalities, and I think we get to let loose the second set in a really nice way. The first set is more like a theatre performance, know what I mean? And the second set feels like the older version of ourselves where we’re getting to have some fun and play our songs.