This Friday, November 17th, Americana-flavored indie rockers Deer Tick will return to the City of Brotherly Love and Sisterly Affection for not one, but two concerts, with a Free At Noon performance at World Café Live in the afternoon (There are still spots remaining.), and a full-length set that night at Union Transfer. The dates are part of the band’s tour supporting their eighth studio album, Emotional Contracts, which dropped this June, and is the band’s most impressive effort since their 2011 fourth LP, Divine Providence, which I have half-jokingly characterized as being better than The Velvet Underground & Nico. The new album is the band’s first on ATO Records (home to many phriends of PHILTHY) and their most collaborative yet. While John McCauley remains Deer Tick’s only original member, the rest of the band has been in the fold for around a decade and a half now, having more than established themselves as essential parts of the equation. The album also features contributions from Steve Berlin of Los Lobos, Courtney Marie Andrews, Vanessa Carlton (McCauley’s wife), Kam Franklin, Angela Miller, and Sheree Smith. I recently got a chance to chat with Deer Tick’s newest member, guitarist Ian O’Neil (who joined the group in 2009, between third LP, The Black Dirt Sessions, and Divine Providence), who tells me about the making of Emotional Contracts, playing live, and what Deer Tick has planned for 2024.
Izzy Cihak: Emotional Contracts has been out for a while now. Have you had any favorite reactions to the new work, whether things that have been written about it, things that fans have told you, or just reactions you’ve gotten from live audiences? I know you’ve been on the road for a while now.
Ian O’Neil: The reactions to the new music have been very positive. We play about 6-8 of the 10 new songs each night. A fan in Homer, NY called the album a “greatest hits” record, which was a big compliment. You can’t ask for much more than that.
Izzy: I just realized that it’s been more than half a decade since your last studio LPs. How do you feel like Emotional Contracts compares to previous releases?
Ian: Emotional Contracts is the most measured and labor-intensive album we’ve made, if only because of how much we wrote for it. We took our time with the whole process, which is probably the biggest difference from previous records.
Izzy: I’m a big fan of Dave Fridmann (especially his work with Sleater-Kinney, Low, and Black Moth Super Rainbow), who produced the record. How was it working with him? What do you feel like he brought to the sound and process?
Ian: Dave is really a genius, but most specifically with mixing. The mixing stage is really where a lot of the experimenting begins and it’s a fascinating process to witness. He found something very interesting or strange to highlight in each song.
Izzy: I know this is your first album for ATO Records, which is such a great label. How is it working with them and being a part of that family?
Ian: We’ve had a great experience with ATO. They’ve been hugely supportive of this record. Can’t wait to put out another one!
Izzy: Do you have any particular favorite labelmates? JOSEPH and Margaret Glaspy are some of my favorite people in music right now, but I also totally love Emily King, Honey Harper, Mattiel, Neal Francis, and Pink Mountaintops.
Ian: They have so many great artists, but we played with Amyl and the Sniffers some years back in Australia. They were great.
Izzy: Since this is a Philadelphia publication, I’m curious to hear your thoughts on the city. You’ve played a lot of shows here over the years, from a ton of shows at Union Transfer, to a few at World Café Live, a super weird one at an auditorium at UPenn where I once saw David Lynch speak about TM (Your show there was actually on my 27th birthday and such an experience, despite the fact that you couldn’t drink…), and a few others… Any favorite memories from the city?
Ian: We always love Union Transfer and XPN, and we’ll be doing both this week. Our band has a deep, abiding love for your roasted pork, broccoli rabe, and provolone sandwiches.
Izzy: On a related note, do you have a particular favorite setting to play? I feel like, classically, you’re such a “barroom” or “black box rock club” kind of band, but you also play a number of places that are a little more elegant, in addition to a number of outdoor festivals.
Ian: I think a setting like Union Transfer is ideal. I like a big room, but prefer a standing audience to a seated one.
Izzy: What can be expected of the live show this time around, when you return to Union Transfer? It’s been about two years since you’ve played there, but I don’t think I’ve seen you there since 2017.
Ian: You’ll hear songs from across our catalogue and probably a few from beyond our own material.
Izzy: You have a pretty huge catalogue at this point, so I’m curious how you decide on what songs to include on a given tour. Does it have to do with what you happen to be feeling, what your fans most want to hear, or what might work best with the new material? Or is it a bit of all three of those things?
Ian: We’ll always have a few cornerstones that tend to remain in rotation, but we’re really trying to reach some far corners of our albums that may have gone underrepresented in recent years. A song like “Make Believe” is really fun live but hasn’t been played much since Divine Providence.
Izzy: Finally, what’s next for you? What are you hoping and planning for the end of 2023 and the start of 2024? I saw that you’ll be playing Mexico with The Avett Brothers in April.
Ian: The holidays! In all seriousness, there’s already plans for writing 1-2 new albums and we have a lot of leftover material already recorded, mixed, and mastered from this last album. We’ll see what happens with that in the near future.
*Register for Free At Noon here.
**Get your tickets to Union Transfer here.