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Both Sides Now

With companion acoustic & electric albums, Deer Tick showcases the band’s two sounds

Eric Swedlund Nov 9, 2017 1:00 AM

Having two distinctly different sounds was never a plan for Deer Tick.

But over the band's first decade, and the songs flowed out, there tended to be ones expressed in an acoustic folk style and ones that cranked the volume and distortion with a rock 'n' roll energy. Swinging between quiet and loud impulses isn't particularly new—think Deer Tick influences like Neil Young and The Replacements, and contemporaries like Blitzen Trapper—but for whatever reason, the band kept at it, developing a particularly rich well of songs on both sides of the equation over its first five records.

Then after 2013's Negativity came a bit of a hiatus as singer-guitarist John McCauley, guitarist Ian O'Neil, drummer Dennis Ryan and bassist Christopher Ryan one by one began settling down. They pursued individual projects and for a time wondered whether Deer Tick would continue, but re-evaluation turned into recommitment as the band set to work on its ambitious new twin record project.

"In certain ways, it is a reintroduction to the band," O'Neil says. "Essentially, it was John's idea to split our music up into two different realms because traditionally we've kind to fit both sounds onto one album. We wanted to focus our attention onto each side of the spectrum of our music."

Rather than recording and releasing a double album, the band decided to put out two records simultaneously, Deer Tick, Vol. 1 and Deer Tick, Vol. 2, released on Sept. 15. Deer Tick has always had fans that liked one side better than the other, O'Neil says, so each album, the acoustic Vol. 1, augmented by harmonica, mandolin and piano, and the ragged garage rock of Vol. 2, is meant to stand on its own.

"I don't know if we always thought we had two different sounds," O'Neil says. "We could always play a record store or something like that and play certain songs acoustic and that would make perfect sense. Or we could play a dive bar and just have a banger of a time. We just wanted to rein it in and refocus."

Part of the refocusing process came as a natural byproduct of aging. In the four years since the last Deer Tick record, each of the four band members have gotten married and McCauley now has a 2-year old daughter. The infamously raucous Deer Tick of old wasn't going to go on forever.

"The way we used to tour was insane," O'Neil says. "The way your tour when you're 18 through 26 or 27 is not the same way you tour when you're 29 to 32. We felt as though if we wanted to continue to do this, we needed to find a healthier, more sustainable way to do it. We reined in a lot of our late nights and made the jump to a tour bus, trying to get eight hours of sleep a night. It's things like that, just some self care."

Settling down did impact the band's music directly, O'Neil says, but the band has grown more importat as they make a push for longevity. "We care a lot more and have more ambition," he says. "Any ounce of laziness we've had when we were younger is gone."

Deer Tick began working toward acoustic-electric companion albums a couple summers ago, but the timing wasn't quite right, so the band put the project on hold, writing more songs individually with that focus on mind. So when the band regrouped last summer for its traditional after-party show at Newport Folk Festival, they were able to capture that momentum for the new albums.

The process played out smoothly, with most songs determined to be candidates for either the acoustic album or electric one fairly quickly.

"Some are easier than others," O'Neil says. "'Only Love' on Vol. 1 would be really strange on a loud record. But some songs could go on either record. Like 'Cardhouse,' we started off playing that a couple years ago at some shows and it was electric rock song. In the interim before going down to Ardent Studios, John said 'I want you to make up a mandolin part.'"

New to the mandolin, O'Neil put everything he had into developing that new skill. "In the past we've limited ourselves. We've had very particular tools," he says. "For the acoustic record, we wanted to learn some new instruments and get some new sounds so it wouldn't just be two acoustic guitars, bass and drums."

Big fans of The Replacements, Big Star and Al Green, Deer Tick selected the legendary Ardent Studios in Memphis to record.

"We've considered recording at Ardent for years and years. We were looking for something new, some kind of destination place. It was the right place, right time, right choice," he says. "The recording process really reinvigorated us as a band. We were so much more hands on and focused than we were in the past."

The Vol. 1 and Vol. 2 presentation carries over into the current Deer Tick tour, where they put songs not only from the new records into distinct acoustic and electric sets, but also pull from the band's back catalog for different tunes each show.

"Every night we check off two, one per set, so we can make it through our entire catalog during the tour. We want to make sure every set list is a little different," O'Neil says. "We get to reinvision old songs, so every night we're taking something and turing it on its head. More than ever, the four of us are really interested in playing music together and getting better at it. Doing two sets per night definitely facilitates that."