ABOVE: IAN O’NEILL AND JOHN J. MCCAULEY III IN NEW YORK. PHOTOS: SHOJI VAN KUZUMI. PHOTO ASSISTANT: NICK DABAS.
“This record is still kind of new,” Deer Tick frontman John J. McCauley tells us of the band’s new album, Negativity. “I don’t really have the option to be far removed from any of the songs yet.” The title is not abstract; there are several very real reasons that the quintet’s newest album is called Negativity. As you can imagine, none of them is uplifting; instead, they involve family incarceration, relationship disintegration, and addiction.
But the New Englanders are not afraid to talk—or play—about these still sensitive subjects. Nor have the lost their sense of fun: two weeks ago, the band played a show at Brooklyn Bowl as Deervana, their Nirvana-only cover band alter ego, to celebrate the 20th anniversary of In Utero. “I listened to it when I was 10,” explains guitarist Ian O’Neil. “And there’s nothing else from the ages of 10 to 18 that I still like.”
EMMA BROWN: The press release for your new album mentions a lot of personal trials that John especially faced in the last year. Is it difficult to talk about when you’re promoting the record?
IAN O’NEIL: It just started, so I don’t know. John’s pretty candid about it. He’s pretty candid about everything in his life. It seems like in the past we’ve been pretty dodgy with questions, so it’s about time be a little bit more open about things. If you can’t hide from it, you might as well talk about it. But it might become a tiring subject a year from now.
JOHN J. MCCAULEY: Writing the record was kind of therapeutic for me. So no, I feel like the hard part is over. I’m just excited to get this out into the world. It seems like people are taking to it quite well so far. Getting it out into the world—aside from me being really impatient about the release date—feels easy and the right thing to do.
BROWN: Do you think it’s important for people to know the history of how you made the album and what you were going through while recording it?
MCCAULEY: Not necessarily, but if it’s something that interests people or makes them enjoy it more, then good—I’m glad that information can be available to people. I don’t think it’s a requirement for listening to or enjoying the album. I certainly know that I’ve played it for some people that have no clue what’s it’s about and dig it.
BROWN: Do people ever come up to you and share their outlandish interpretations of your songs?
MCCAULEY: Oh, yeah. Actually, my own mother does that. [laughs] At the Newport Folk Festival, we played the album from start to finish. After the show, she was like, “That song ‘Big House,’ that gets me every time—I know it’s about me. It’s okay. It’s my song, I know it is.” I was like, “No, Mom, it’s not.” She’s completely wrong, but if that’s what she wants to believe, that’s fine.
BROWN: That’s really cute. Does she do that every time you release an album?
MCCAULEY: No, I don’t think she ever felt a connection like that with one of my songs before.
BROWN: How have the past couple of years been for you, Ian?
O’NEIL: I think for everyone in the band it’s been pretty exhausting. We put out a record that was a real rock record, Divine Providence (2011). It was a party record, and we made that a reality every night for two years and we kind of burnt ourselves out a little bit. I think it lead to a lot of shifting and lifestyle changes for the band recently just because everyone got really exhausted. It’s good to come out of the haze a little bit of the last two years and get some clarity for the new record.
BROWN: If you could go back in time, would you turn the record down a little?
O’NEIL: No. We were really gung-ho about making that a live band album, and anyone who had a problem with that, we were like, “Whatever, deal with it.” Even with our live shows, though, it’s not like all we would do was play that album. We were pretty dynamic and gave people what they wanted from other albums too. I think it was what we needed to go through to get to the point where we were able make this album, which has more different types of music on it.
BROWN: Have you already started thinking about your next album or are you taking a break while you’re touring?
O’NEIL: No. We just recorded this one in March—it wasn’t really that long ago. We’ve just been working on the artwork for it and painstakingly going over a lot of things for it. It just took forever to do the layout and all the promotional stuff and pictures. Now we’re doing a lot of press for it, so it’s all that’s been on my mind, at least. It’s difficult for us to write music when we’re in the middle of all this kind of stuff. You kind of have to go through a year of this then come back to try to put another record together.
BROWN: Do you think about the future a lot?
MCCAULEY: I do now more than I ever have. I think I’m at that point where I’m ready to take myself seriously enough to consider things like fatherhood or owning property. Like, what’s my credit score? [laughs]
BROWN: Did you listen to other people’s music when you recorded Negativity?
O’NEIL: We don’t really listen to any music. When we recorded in Portland, the house we were staying in—it was a family’s house—they had a full drawer of CDs and a six-CD changer thing. It was like the Spin Doctors and Tracy Chapman and all these ’90s bands, so we were listening to those records.
BROWN: Do you have a favorite ’90s one-hit-wonder? Was it in the ’90s? [laughs] I’m going to go with Fastball.
O’NEIL: [laughs] LEN.
BROWN: Oh dear.
O’NEIL: I’ve been thinking about LEN recently, actually.
BROWN: Why? Are they coming back?
O’NEIL: I have no idea. All I know is that that song “Steal My Sunshine” has been coming up in my life a lot recently.
BROWN: What’s a band you wish you could have been in?
O’NEIL: I guess the obvious answer would be The Band. That seems like a lot of fun.
BROWN: The Band when they were playing with Bob Dylan or just The Band?
O’NEIL: Just The Band themselves, they were great. I think Big Star too. A three-piece band like that sounded awesome for three people.
MCCAULEY: I’d really like to know what it would be like to be in the Butthole Surfers for a day—a week on tour with the Butthole Surfers would be a pretty awesome.
BROWN: Vanessa Carlton appears on the song “In Our Time.” How did that collaboration come about?
MCCAULEY: Love makes you do crazy things. [laughs] Vanessa and I, we met back in November. We tried writing together, and we did a fun few days in the studio with Scott Lucas from Local H. It was just all for fun—we didn’t really get anything written together—but I came up with that song and I wanted to put it on the new Deer Tick record. She came out to visit me while we were recording, and I didn’t even have to change a word. It worked as a duet if you just share the vocal duties on it.
BROWN: Did you meet through mutual friends or just by chance?
MCCAULEY: The whole story is kind of ridiculous, but I tweeted at her and said, “Hey VC, let’s get a beer.” She called Patrick Hallahan [of My Morning Jacket] wondering if she’d met me at the Newport Folk Festival last year and had forgotten. He was like, “No, we were invited to go to one of the parties and didn’t end up going, but I know John and it sounds like maybe it was John that tweeted at you.” So Patrick called me and was like, “Is it cool if I give her your number?” I was like, “Yeah, of course.”
BROWN: Have you met other bands from Twitter?
MCCAULEY: No. [laughs]
BROWN: Did you think anything would come of it?
MCCAULEY: Nothing like this, no.
BROWN: I really like that song “In Our Time,” can you tell me a little bit about it.
MCCAULEY: That song is about recent challenges that my parents have had to face—my dad going to jail and all that. From my point of view, their marriage always looked really happy. They’ve been together since I was born, so it was kind of the first time that I saw their relationship look really shitty. It’s been a tough couple of years for him, and I just kind of wrote this song from my dad’s perspective. It’s like an apology but a non-apology at the same time—”I thought I was doing what I had to do to support our family.” It’s a ballad or whatever. [laughs]
BROWN: Have you played it for him?
MCCAULEY: No, he won’t be able to hear it ’til he gets out of jail. But my mom seems to enjoy it. [laughs]
NEGATIVITY IS OUT NOW. FOR MORE ON DEER TICK, VISIT THE BAND’S WEBSITE.