Deer Tick is bitten by the maturity bug 

click to enlarge Deer Tick is, from left, Dennis Ryan, Ian O'Neil, John McCauley and Chris Ryan. - PROVIDED PHOTO.
  • Provided photo.
  • Deer Tick is, from left, Dennis Ryan, Ian O'Neil, John McCauley and Chris Ryan.
A few months ago, at a music conference in Philadelphia, I found a flat surface to set my cocktail on and leaned into the lyrics coming from onstage:

“Me and my man goes walking ’round the block

Me and my man ain’t got time to stop and talk

Got too many games to play

Oh boy, my man looks after me...”

Simple. Whimsical. Real. And, of course, that song, “Me & My Man,” is gonna catch my ear. We don’t have enough of them. Not ears - songs about dogs, I mean.

The band is Deer Tick, a quartet of alt-rock folkies playing a 6:30 p.m. Thursday show at Lincoln Hill Farms, the pastoral outdoor venue in Canandaigua.

The band was founded in 2004 by John McCauley, built on his solo career with the final touches of guitarist Ian O’Neil, bassist Chris Ryan, and drummer Dennis Ryan, who wrote and sang “Me & My Man.”

“We’re an incredibly close unit,” O’Neil said, pointing out Deer Tick’s lineup has remained unchanged for the last half-dozen years. All four band members live within five minutes of each other around Providence, Rhode Island. McCauley has a recording studio in an old carriage building behind his house. It’s the band’s hangout, perhaps serving the same purpose as that beach house The Monkees had on their television show.

“We’ve really come to depend upon one another through our professional and personal lives,” O’Neil said. Among our creative people, those worlds often cohabitate. McCauley was the officiant at O’Neil’s wedding, while McCauley’s wife, the singer and songwriter Vanessa Carlton, played the wedding song.

The O’Neils are pretty representative of the artsy types who inhabit bands. Ian’s wife, Laura O’Neil, is a portrait artist and all-around crafty person who makes some of her husband’s clothes. They have two kids, so when the band’s not touring, Ian O’Neil stays busy “tending to family lives.”

He was once on a dead-ahead collision course with art himself, studying figurative painting at a Manhattan art school. Then, as usually happens at such institutions, he dropped out to play in a band. (That appears to happen frequently in Rhode Island - Google ‘Talking Heads’ and ‘Rhode Island School of Design.’)

Further bolstering our tiniest state’s music cred is Thursday’s opening act, Rafay Rashid, a Pakistan native who relocated to Providence and is sometimes accompanied by one or two Deer Ticks.

O’Neil had previously been in the New Jersey indie-punk band Titus Andronicus. Naturally, he soon quit – Titus Andronicus has had as many musicians pass through its ranks as the University of Southern California marching band – and settled in Brooklyn, where he stayed on the fringe of music, playing “late-night hangs, a few solo gigs,” he says.

Then, in 2009, McCauley asked if O’Neil wanted to play in his band. “I think he liked having me around,” O’Neil said.

But maybe it was more than that.

“It was a showcase for my own material, and right in line with my taste in music,” he added, “It felt like a natural fit.”

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The band’s name is not metaphorical. While hiking in Indiana, McCauley was bitten by a deer tick. As is often the case with songs as well, “The meaning makes itself known to you later on,” O’Neil said.

A thread of humor runs through the music, as “Me & My Man” – written and sung by Dennis Ryan – clearly demonstrates. Fortunately, the song remains on the set list. O’Neil suggests Deer Tick is a bit like The Beatles, minus the drama and humongous radio hits, of course. Deer Tick features multiple songwriters expanding the sound.

But, as these times call for, the tunes, they are a-changing. Deer Tick sometimes takes seriously the songwriter’s traditional role of parasites feeding on social angst.

A new album, “Emotional Contracts,” will be released June 16, but Deer Tick is already allowing a few singles to reach public ears. Songs written throughout the pandemic. Like dogs demanding to go for a walk, these songs were eager to get out. Pieces of the lead single, “Forgiving Ties,” were lying in wait in O’Neil’s iPhone for the last year and a half.

“Forgiving Ties,” he said, is about coming to terms with moments of trauma in your life. “Agreeing with yourself to part with the trauma and pain of a situation, and move on.”

The pain could be the echoes of childhood trauma. Or O’Neil’s mother passing away after a short bout with cancer. Life traumas that reinforced what he calls “that sudden, shocking, dramatic feeling.”

And there was pandemic-induced trauma. “That idea just kept resurfacing, especially when we had so much time to kind of sit with ourselves in the early days of the pandemic,” he said, “And so much time to reflect. Because of that, I think a lot of the material I wrote for this record probably deals with more than it would have otherwise.”

These are serious times.

“Probably all of us felt this way, the songs for this record couldn’t be frivolous,” O’Neil said. “Life wasn’t frivolous anymore, in many ways.”

Circumstances were challenging Deer Tick as songwriters.

“It kind of just found its way in there,” O’Neil said.

The songs seemed to be writing themselves.

“The heaviest ideas were the ones that wouldn’t let go of us,” he said. “It’s a super downer of a record, but it’s definitely a high-stakes record.”

Perhaps it’s not simply the news that drives the rhymes. As with any artist, bands must grow, or else you’re Thomas Kinkade.

“Every time we put out a record, I want the shows to be bigger,” O’Neil said, “I want the shows to be wider.”

He’s not talking audience numbers. He’s talking songs that feel more fully developed, reaching for some kind of a universality.

“An arms outstretched feeling, something that comes with age, too,” O’Neil said. “I love Bob Dylan’s music after he was 30 more than when he was 22, just because, I think, I’m over 30 now. A more mature approach to everything is seems to be what’s settling in.”

Jeff Spevak is the senior arts writer for WXXI and CITY Magazine. He can be reached at [email protected].
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