Interview with Ian O’Neil from Deer Tick: Standing At The Threshold

The band may call Providence, RI, home, but much like the real ixodes scapularis, Deer Tick has kind of been everywhere lately. Frontman John McCauley’s wanderlust aside, they’ve been making frequent appearances on Pandora and college radio. A soothing blend of American rock ’n’ roll, country and garage blues with sincere, driven lyrics pushes itself through the speakers and crawls into your ears like it was made specifically for them. You hum along, you tap your foot. There’s a certain enchanting quality to McCauley’s voice; it sounds traveled. A little bit rambling, a little bit bluesy—not something you’d really expect from a singer under the age of 45. It’s commanding. It’s real. It’s got a story to tell, and you’re going to listen.

What originally started as a solo project for McCauley in 2004 has been molded into what it is now by several lineup changes and extensive touring. “We’re five very different people with common interests playing rock ’n’ roll,” says guitarist and vocalist Ian O’Neil (formerly of New Jersey indie rock/punk band Titus Andronicus) when asked how he would describe Deer Tick to someone about to hear them for the very first time. “There’s sometimes a clash of our musical tastes, and you can hear it. We’re a bunch of weird guys with a stupid sense of humor.” And maybe so, but it’s far from unrelatable, judging by the growth of their fan base since the release of their first full-length, War Elephant, in 2007. With three full-length records, the last of which being the highly regarded Black Dirt Sessions released in 2010, a handful of EPs and singles, and a brand new record due out sometime in October, one can’t foresee them fading away anytime soon. Their fans simply wouldn’t allow it.

“The relationship between us and our fans is very good. We’re social, we hang out frequently at shows, get drinks. We always try to take the time to meet and talk to everyone. We give them the respect they deserve. I think that has a lot to do with it.” Forging that connection on a personal level with the fans who support you is incredibly important; a lot of musicians seem to forget that, but not these guys.

Friendly exchanges aren’t the only thing that keep people coming out to the shows, though. Live, these boys are a handful. “If you don’t want to get covered in beer or confetti at one of our shows, I’d suggest not standing up in the front,” reads the disclaimer written by McCauley, on the Deer Tick website.

“Oh, the live shows are crazy,” Ian says. “We like to make it memorable, and we don’t take ourselves too seriously. A lot of really, really good bands come to town and play, sounding exactly the way they did on their record. We have fun with it. A lot of times kids are playing to kids and they’re so serious and rigid, that’s not how it’s supposed to be at all.”

High energy and a damn good time with a few awesome covers sprinkled throughout a set. Deer Tick has covered songs by Hank Williams, Warren Zevon, The Sex Pistols and even Sean Kingston; they’ve also been known to do full sets covering Nirvana songs, under the moniker ‘Deervana.’ “Yeah, we have quite a few covers in our repertoire,” Ian says. “And we‘re working on even more. As far as covers that I get to sing, I really enjoy ‘Down South New Orleans,’ originally by Bobby Charles. We also do a really sweet cover of ‘La Bamba,’” he laughs.

It took a while to get the perfect combination. Many adjustments to the lineup were made over the years since Deer Tick’s inception, with John McCauley being the only founding member, but now it seems to be just right. Alongside he and Ian are Rob Crowell (keyboard, organ, saxophone, vocals), Christopher Ryan (bass, vocals), and Dennis Ryan (drums, vocals). Five musicians from five different and diverse musical backgrounds; how does all that tie into Deer Tick’s sound? “Oh, it’s a huge part of our writing process and how we play,” Ian muses. “Rob, our keyboardist, he’s really into jazz. That’s where our jazzy, R&B side comes out. We all came from different independent music scenes, we all bring a different influence to the music we play now.”

Whatever they’re doing, it works. The sound is always fresh and constantly evolving. But has the rising success of the band affected their outlook on the music? No way. “No, not at all. We are evolving. At this point we’re all comfortable walking into the studio and picking up whatever instruments. We got the lineup right, we work well together and we love what we do. We’re not changed by the fame. Some of the songs we write reflect it a little, as far as subject matter goes, because we write about what we know—fame, tour—but we haven’t changed. It‘s always about the music and having a good time.”

I ventured to ask if the work O’Neil had done previously with Titus Andronicus helped prepare him for the music he is currently making with Deer Tick. I was curious as to how one affected the other. “It’s very different now. I mean they’re equally great bands, I had a real good time with Titus Andronicus. It was special. But before I joined them, and even during, I was playing music on my own that sounded more like Deer Tick. I think I left Titus Andronicus with my punk rock ethic, and maybe some of that sneaks into the music now. I don’t know.”

Prior to signing with Partisan Records in 2008 (the band’s first studio album was released through Feow! Records but disputes over royalty payments lead to a split and War Elephant was re-released by Partisan in November of 2008), John McCauley worked on a mostly DIY basis, traveling extensively at the young age of 19 and writing songs along the way. While some in the DIY scene might view signing to a label as ‘selling out,’ Ian says it’s just been a lot easier to focus on the music without all the logistics being in the way. “I think it makes sense now that things are a little easier with the help of a label. It’s nice not to have to worry about every detail. Obviously we still participate in the way things are run; things happen that we’re uncomfortable with and we change them. We won’t ever just stand by while someone else has full control. It is our music. We’ve been fortunate to work with some really great people though; we have a great team backing us up.”

However, in true DIY fashion, the band’s website was made by McCauley himself. No flashy graphics, no HTML overload. Just bare bones, black-and-white, matter of fact information; only what’s necessary. I asked if perhaps the band had a very minimalist approach to the Internet, and O’Neil laughed. “I feel like that website is totally a testament to our sense of humor. These days having a personal website is almost obsolete, and running it can get frustrating with all the work involved in maintaining it. But this is simple and direct. I think it does a good job of telling everyone who we are and what we do.”

As far as new music and touring is concerned, Deer Tick has a lot to look forward to. They’re releasing a new record, titled Divine Providence, in October, and Ian is happy with the band’s refined sound. “It’s like a totally different band from when it first started out. It used to be all John, writing the songs and making things work. It’s been more of a collective, collaborative effort now. You can definitely tell it’s five different people working together.”

A supporting tour will be in the works for the record, but for now they’re focused on and excited about a free show they’ll be doing at Pier 54, Hudson River Park on August 11 (doors 6 p.m.) with Dom, as part of the RiverRocks series, noted for showcasing up and coming talent. “We’re really excited about it; we love playing in NYC. Manhattan, the piers, the Bowery… it all has such crazy, creative history. It’s gonna be a really good time.”

The show is totally free; all you need to bring is a bottle of water to keep yourself hydrated and you’re set.


The Deer Tick will play a free show at Pier 54 on Aug. 11. For more information, go to