Interview: Deer Tick’s John J. McCauley on making “Emotional Contracts”

Credit: C J Harvey

Parenthood may be a sign of middle age but Deer Tick’s enthusiasm for music still burns.

Not every band can keep a career going for twenty years, and even fewer manage a career refresh while juggling family responsibilities, but this is what Deer Tick have achieved with their new album, ‘Emotional Contracts’. Americana UK’s Martin Johnson caught up with singer-songwriter John J. McCauley who explained that the pandemic was one of the reasons Deer Tick took more time on ‘Emotional Contracts’  than earlier albums, and why the songs and arrangements are maybe more nuanced and had more input from the rest of the band. He also explains that the band are big fans of Los Lobos, another band that mixes genres and singers, who just happen to be celebrating their 50th Anniversary this year.  Finally, McCauley admits to the responsibilities that come with parenthood and that while on the road he uses his morning gym session to limit his alcohol consumption during the night before.

How are you and where are you?

I’m in a hotel in Pittsburgh. We did some shows around our home town for about a week, and we’ve just flown out to Pittsburgh two days ago, and we have a show in Cleveland tomorrow, and then we are really rolling.

How are the songs from ‘Emotional Contracts’ live?

Pretty good, we’ve managed to come up with some successful arrangements for just the four of us, without any of the piano or stuff like that. They are really fun to play, and they fit right in with our live show. They don’t feel like strangers at all, and we can get away with playing six or eight of them without it feeling too much at all. We play long sets anyway, and I think people lose count

How did you feel when you had finished recording ‘Emotional Contracts’?

We had waited so long just because of things that happened, like COVID and all that. It was such a relief to have it recorded and in the can, but it was also pretty depressing knowing we would have to wait another year before it would come out. We are really chomping at the bit with this one, and I’m just so excited it is finally out, and we can play these songs live and fans can get familiar with them.

The band have managed to re-energise themselves with the new record. Why is this and what happened to enable it to happen?

We got to live with these songs for a long time just because of COVID and stuff. In the past, when we had enough material for a record we would just go in and record it, and there wasn’t much else happening there. This time we were like we’ve got ten songs, let’s do a record and then with COVID we realised we wouldn’t be doing anything for a while, and that gave us more time to write more songs and finetune the ones we had written. We had a long time to make little re-writes and make little changes. It was a slow process, but ultimately, I think the music really benefited from it.

Did the band learn anything about themselves with the new recording process?

I think I know why I was so eager to put music out as soon as it was written because I got so fucking anxious about this one. What if I’m wrong about everything? I can see how we benefited from it, and I think going forward it would be smart of us to give ourselves a bit more time on what we are working on.

Is ‘Emotional Contracts’ more of a band record than previous records?

We’ve always kind of mixed it up with the writing and the singing, but there were more instances of writing together as a band which is sort of new.

Was that more enjoyable, or was it stressful?

No, it was great. It is good to know if I’m having trouble finishing a song or something I can just give Ian (Ian O’Neil, guitar) a holler because we only live ten minutes away now. He’ll come over after the kids go to bed and we’ll crack open a bottle, get the guitars out and be neighbours like that.

How did you get all those guests to play on ‘Emotional Contracts’?

Most of the guests are just singing. Steve Pultz has background harmony, and everybody else is singing like Courtney Marie Andrews, my wife Vanessa sings on it. As far as instrumentation goes, the only things other people played were horns, woodwinds, and string instruments. Basically, if it is a guitar, a drum or a keyed instrument, it is us playing it, because we know the structure of each song, and know those parts ins and outs. So, it wasn’t so hard to decide what to trim and what to keep. We had recorded two guitars, bass, and drums, and then me or Chris (Christopher Ryan, bass) would overdub the piano or keyboards. So basically it was like just figuring out how to do it without keyboards, which wasn’t too hard.

What material did you have left over from the sessions?

We had seven complete songs that didn’t make the cut and two that were kind of left unfinished. So we had nineteen songs total from the session.

Will those songs see the light of day someday, or does it depend?

I want to put them out as B-sides or an expanded edition, or whatever, but I don’t know whether I’d want to use them for another album, I’m not sure, but it is always good to have extra material. A lot of them are pretty solid, and it was kind of hard cutting some of these songs, there were definitely some hurt feelings.

If everybody’s writing, you can’t keep everybody happy.

Evidently not.

Does it feel as if the band has been together for twenty years, and if you could meet your younger selves what would they think?

I have no idea, I was never thinking too far ahead. It doesn’t feel as if it has been that long, it is kind of astonishing. If I had to go back and impart some wisdom on my younger self, I don’t know whether I would want to do that because part of being young and unwise was that everything was fun.

Steve Berlin is on the new record, and Los Lobos are talking about their fiftieth anniversary. Do you think Deer Tick will still be around in thirty years?

I hope so. Los Lobos is one of my favourite bands of all time, and they are just so solid. I will go and see them any chance I get, and they have always been a band to look up to for me. Just in the way we run the band, we have different singers and we play different styles of music, we are kindred spirits.

They could be said to be one of the greatest American bands, but they don’t seem to get the full recognition they deserve.

It is kind of baffling, but I think it is a little too much for some people when a band plays more than one style of music. They just don’t get it.

What do you hope to get out of the new relationship with ATO Records?

We can see that the way they have worked the record has been different from our past experience with Partisan Records in the US and stuff. It is just kind of working with a brand-new Rolodex. It feels like a fresh start in a way, and everything has been smooth, and they gave us a generous budget for the record. So, at this point, I’m pretty happy with it, and I think we made a good decision in moving onto the new label, if for nothing else just new experiences.

The way you are talking it sounds like Deer Tick has been really reinvigorated.

I think so. Doing an album release tour again felt really daunting leading up to it, but as soon as we got on it, it was like no time had passed at all. We keep each other young in a way, and having children made me feel older, but getting back with the band made me feel younger again.

You have to behave yourself these days.

I know that’s why I’ve just been to the gym. That’s how I make sure I don’t get too drunk on tour, I  know I have to go to the gym the next morning, you know.

Are there any plans for the Deer Tick to come to the UK in the near future?

There’s nothing on the books at the moment, but I’m sure we will get over sooner or later. The first ten reviews of the record were from the UK, and we’ve got to get back because I really love playing in the UK and Ireland. It is a great part of the world, and I’m always happy to visit.

At AUK, we like to share music with our readers, so can you share which artists, albums or tracks are currently top three on your personal playlist?

I’m going to tell you the last three albums I downloaded, ‘Near Life Experience’ by Come, Tommy Stinson’s new record ‘Cowboys In The Campfire’ and ‘Living with the Law’ by Chris Whitley. I’m not going to say those are my three favourite albums, but they are what I’m listening to right now.

Finally, do you want to say anything to our readers?

I miss you, it has been far too long, my dear.

Deer Tick’s ‘Emotional Contracts’ is out now on ATO Records.

About Martin Johnson 399 Articles
I've been a music obsessive for more years than I care to admit to. Part of my enjoyment from music comes from discovering new sounds and artists while continuing to explore the roots of American 20th century music that has impacted the whole of world culture.
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