Deer Tick Is Aging Gracefully, Against All Odds

The band tackles middle age on "Emotional Contracts"

Deer Tick
Deer Tick
CJ Harvey

In a lot of ways, it’s fitting that the new Deer Tick album — Emotional Contracts, their first new LP in six years — comes out just a few days before Father’s Day. In the literal sense, the Rhode Island-based indie rock lifers (founded by frontman John McCauley in 2004, with their lineup solidified in 2009) are now husbands and fathers, but beyond that, this new record is all about being older and wiser, about looking back at your past self with the perspective that comes from growing up and settling down.

If you’ve been keeping tabs on the band, you already know that this evolution has been brewing for about a decade. McCauley cleaned up his act and married Vanessa Carlton back in 2013 — swapping a notorious cocaine habit for a tamer, healthier domestic life. That same year, he addressed his struggles with substance abuse on the group’s Negativity album. He and Carlton welcomed their daughter, Sidney, in 2015. In other words, the maturity and self-awareness on Emotional Contracts are hardly new developments.

And yet, when you think back to, say, 2011 or so — when McCauley was gleefully singing lines like “We’re full-grown men, but we act like kids/We’ll face the music next time we roll in” and doing things like lighting his own pubic hair on fire on stage — it’s hard not to marvel at how far he’s come when you hear a track like the excellent “If I Try to Leave,” an ode to the grounding force his family has become for him. (“If I try to leave, I won’t know where I’m going,” he sings on the song, which calls to mind some Keith Richards-fronted Stones classics like “Happy.” “If I reach up my sleeve, I’ll find my compass broken.”) Ask him how the Deer Tick of 10 or 15 years ago compares to present-day Deer Tick, however, and the first thing he stresses is their improved technical ability.

“I think we’re better musicians and we’re more reliable as a unit and maybe as individuals too,” he says. “We’re in our late 30s, so it’s just starting to get a little harder to wake up in the morning after…I don’t know. I’d say we’re slightly more responsible and much better musicians, but we’re still the same idiots that we were.”

“Yeah, I think the biggest difference is obviously that we have so much more experience under the wheels,” guitarist Ian O’Neil adds. “So I think that has given us an opportunity to write better songs. I think Bob Dylan’s best songs came after he was 30, you know what I mean? I think that kind of experience and just knowing what you’ve done wrong in the past with music or with your career or whatever, it just lends itself to a brighter future. So I think we’re just getting better.”

Emotional Contracts is proof of that. It’s the band’s most collaborative record to date, whittled down from 20 potential tracks to a concise, cohesive 10. It was mostly recorded live with producer Dave Fridmann (The Flaming Lips, Sleater-Kinney, Spoon), and it’s the closest the group has come to replicating their incredible, raucous live energy in a studio setting.

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“I think it’s been difficult to capture,” McCauley admits. “But I think the best way to do it is to just try to all play together and record as much as possible, in as little time as possible. I think we used to overthink things in the studio quite a bit, and it just kind of widened the gap between what our albums were and what our live show was. So I think we’ve definitely narrowed it down quite a bit to where, I mean this record, the bulk of it was really just recorded the four of us in the same room looking at each other, making eye contact and not too different from playing on stage. I think the best way for us is to just not overthink it anymore, and just press record and if it sounds good, then we move on.”

Of course, before pressing record, they spent a significant amount of time demoing the material that would eventually become Emotional Contracts — and in fact, thanks to pandemic-related delays, they experienced the longest gap between records of their career, giving them ample time to fine-tune.

“I think just living with them for so long, we really got to know a lot of the songs really well,” McCauley says. “So when we were finally able to get to the studio, I think, it made the process easier. But I mean, at first, it was kind of depressing. Because it was like, we were kind of forced into isolation, and if COVID hadn’t happened, this record would’ve come out maybe two years ago. But it would’ve been a different record, and it probably wouldn’t have been as good.”

One of the album’s standout tracks, the O’Neil-penned “Forgiving Ties,” which sees the guitarist handling lead vocals while McCauley voices the narrator’s inner monologue (“What are we doing? Who are these people? How did we let them get a word in edgewise?“), is a result of the band having extra time to tweak these tracks.

“Sometimes in the past, we’ll be in the studio and all have half-baked ideas that could have come to been really cool songs, but either, A, there wasn’t any time to finish them or B, you’re kind of like, ‘I don’t think that idea is good enough to bring to everybody,’” O’Neil explains. With “Forgiving Ties,” he says, “I was just like, ‘This is an idea that I have, and I don’t think it is as good as the other 19 ideas that we have.’ But then sitting with it for a long time and slowly being convinced by band members — for example, John had the idea of singing the second lead vocal in it, and that just kind of gave it a lot of new life, so I think having that extra time allows you to explore a lot more options that can make songs better.”

That collaborative spirit and willingness to help each other see their own potential is just part of the reason that Deer Tick is still rolling after all this time. McCauley and O’Neil have both played in other bands and side projects over the years, but they’ve been working in Deer Tick for the better part of two decades now, and they both insist that nothing compares to the work they’ve done together.

“I think it’s the love of music. It’s the love of each other. It’s a deep friendship,” McCauley says. “It’s like a marriage, but we’re kind of like in a semi-open marriage with each other. ‘Yeah, you can do your thing on the side, but you were here with me first.”

O’Neil laughs. “Yeah, we always come back together,” he says. “I think the desire to spend time with one another and [the fact that] we’re respecting each other’s creative choices and abilities is probably what keeps us working together. I like the way that my friends’ brains think as it relates to music especially. And I like to hang out with them and have some beers, and our families hang out together. We all live in Rhode Island now, so it’s just kind of one big family. And I think that nothing compares with any side projects I’ve done. Like, I’ve been playing a lot of solo shows and I just… I think I’m done with that. Really, it’s a boring experience, comparatively. When I play solo gigs in between Deer Tick tours, I just kind of yearn to be on stage with my band more than anything else, so that’s a good sign, I think.”

He’ll do exactly that this summer as the band hits the road behind Emotional Contracts, and ultimately, O’Neil says he’s eager to see the way these songs resonate with audiences.

“The record, by and large, is kind of little snapshots of entering middle age,” he explains. “Like having enough experience behind you to have gone through a lot of painful experiences. And I think that that’s what I’d want people to see themselves in some of these vignettes. Because they’re pretty common things that people go through, you what I mean? Loss, breakup, things like that. So I just think if you can see yourself in some of the stories in these songs, that’s mission accomplished.”

But this is still Deer Tick. “We want people to have fun while listening to it too, and I don’t wanna come across like we’re just a bunch of cranky middle-aged men,” McCauley chimes in.

“Of course,” O’Neil clarifies with a grin. “We’ll be rocking across the USA all summer.”

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