Deer Tick’s Ian O’Neil on Songwriting, Old Gear and Nirvana’s Influence

When Ian O’Neil joined Deer Tick in 2009, the band was in the thick of recording its third studio release, The Black Dirt Sessions. And as they neared the end of the recording sessions, it was clear that the band was heading in a harder and darker direction.

O’Neil and Deer Tick lead singer John McCauley had met previously in New York, and there was immediate vocal and musical chemistry when he was invited to join the band. Prior, O’Neil had left school to play rhythm guitar and travel with critically acclaimed indie band Titus Andronicus in 2008 and ‘09, and had toured with his high school pop noise band La Guillotine in Western Massachusetts.

They quickly wrote and released Deer Tick’s fourth album, Divine Providence, in 2011, an in-your-face rock ‘n’ roll portrait of the legend that is Deer Tick. Their live shows — packed with hard-partying powerful rock and manic antics — enraptured audiences and paved the way for touring schedules that would buckle your knees.

After releasing their most recent record Negativity in 2013, you can sense the controlled chaos Deer Tick has become. Some of the more destructive habits are falling away, but the intensity remains. This is rock ‘n’ roll from a radically functional and musically capable family of heavy songwriters. With the “Acoustic” tour winding down, O’Neil spoke with Reverb about songwriting, old gear and Nirvana’s influence.

Can you describe your songwriting process?

This is the most cliched answer to any question, but it's true: there are different ways. The best periods of writing tend to come in spurts of four or five-song batches, and they come quickly. The trick is to concentrate when your brain is having a substantial moment of inspiration.

On the other hand, you can be lazy and sit around with 10 half-written songs, as I often do. In this case, it takes work and time. But this laziness can be a veiled blessing because it can help me avoid being overly sentimental or narcissistic. The most important piece of advice on creativity I got in art school: Begin. If you start messing around, the inspiration can come halfway through and you're on your way.

Are you using any new equipment, or old equipment used in new ways? How does your gear influence your technique or sound?

I tend to play mostly old gear. I’ve been using a mid-’70s Silverface Twin Reverb for nearly 10 years, and it has never failed me. I had it modified to break up quicker, which is crucial. It has cigarette burns on the top from putting them out at music festivals and looks to be falling apart. It's my most trusted companion on stage. I use pretty basic pedals. I don't see much use in using more than four or five. A delay, overdrive, added reverb and tuner are what I tour with always.

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My favorite new brand was started by a friend, Tom Kogut. They're called TOMKAT pedals and I get him to make me prototypes, which are used daily in the studio and often on the road. I have about six electric guitars, which is already too many. My most significant one is my 1966 Guild T-100 that I saved up for for a while. I love my new Jazzmaster and Jaguar, which Fender has been so kind to give to me. I recently modded an early Japanese Fender Strat with a Porter pickup and it's quickly become my favorite.

Any stories behind the guitars? Any good ones that got away?

I started off renting a crappy pawn shop guitar that looked like a ‘60s Japanese guitar. In retrospect, that could have been great to keep. When I was tour with Titus Andronicus in Europe, I had my Fender Thinline Tele stolen. Deer Tick's label head gave me his ‘70s Howard Roberts Gibson Fusion, which I love and will always cherish.

How do you think your sound or technique evolved?

I'd say my sound developed when I accepted that every instrument has its own place on record or on stage. My sonic space does not have to occupy bass, treble and middle territories. When I wrapped my head around that, I decided I could step out and lay out more often.

Deer Tick - "Big House"

Who do you consider your influences?

The sound of Nirvana’s In Utero floored me at a very young age. Another obvious choice is Neil Young. Of newer players, I tend to really love the guitar work in Parquet Courts, Savages and Ian Felice of the Felice Brothers.

Did you go to music school, or had you prepared for any other sort of career?

I went to school to get into design as a way to move to New York in 2006. I still continue to paint and contribute a lot to the design of the band. I wrote some of my best earliest songs at that point.

Gear List for Ian O'Neil of Deer Tick

Pedals:


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