ASPEN — The music blasting in a Denver record store distracts me as I try to conduct my interview with Robbie Crowell, a multi-instrumentalist in the band Deer Tick. And I'm not even in the record store — I'm in my otherwise quiet office in Aspen, speaking with Crowell by phone. It's Crowell who's in Denver, but he doesn't seem bothered at all by the sound, which comes in unpredictable spurts. When I mention the music, he just makes a musically savvy observation.
“Sounds like a Gretsch through a big amp,” he said, referring to the brand of guitar often played by Neil Young, the Reverend Horton Heat, and the Who's Pete Townshend — all of them known for cranking up the volume. Instead of looking for a quieter spot, Crowell shrugs off the blare: “I'm at the mercy of whoever is DJ-ing.”
Being a member of Deer Tick, it turns out, means not only tolerating, but actively embracing loud, in-your-face sonic gestures. In the early years of the band, which was founded by singer-guitarist John McCauley in Rhode Island in the mid-'00s, their sound was often described as alt-country, even as folk-oriented. That rankled Deer Tick: reviewers were listening only to the recordings and not taking in the fact that onstage the band was a throwback to rock ‘n' roll's rowdier, louder past, that McCauley was putting his voice on the line with his full-throttle screaming, that Deer Tick wanted to send audiences home reminded by the ringing in their ears that they had been to a rock show.
The band set out to correct any misapprehensions with their most recent album, 2011's “Divine Providence.” An explicit attempt to capture the feel of their concerts, the album opens with the crunching guitar chords of “The Bump.” The first words out of McCauley's mouth are “Got a lust for life and a dangerous mind.” The song rumbles forward with backing vocals that are screamed, not sung, and a stomping drum beat that has nothing to do with folk, and finally arrives at its chorus: “We're full-grown men but we act like kids.” The ends with some well-chosen curse words. “Divine Providence” has its smoother passages, where full-throttle rock mixes with meditative sounds, but listening to the entire album, no one would confuse it for folk. It lands right where the band, in the current bio section of its website, says it was aiming: in the vicinity of “Exile on Main Street”-era Rolling Stones, Nirvana's “In Utero.”
“I don't think we've consciously moved in any direction,” Crowell offered over the record store din. “But it has gotten more rock ‘n' roll, louder, especially in the time around ‘Divine Providence.'”
But already, Deer Tick might be dialing back the volume. The band — which plays Saturday at Belly Up Aspen — has a new album completed (though it is not due to be released till fall). On the whole, the new recording steps back a bit from the thrash of “Divine Providence.”
“I hate to use the term ‘polished,' but there's an influence of '80s pop,” Crowell said. “And there's a lot of different material, a lot of heavy stuff. Some of it as rock ‘n' roll as ‘Divine Providence.'”
The new album, recorded in Portland, Ore., was produced by Steve Berlin, the saxophonist from Los Lobos. Berlin is a member of Diamond Rugs, a side project that also includes McCauley, and Crowell on bass.
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Crowell was raised in the eastern provinces of Canada, and bears the genial personality of a Canadian. Growing up he played a variety of instruments, and in Deer Tick he plays keyboards and saxophone, but perhaps the most significant preparation he got for his current gig was as a drummer in a thrash metal band.
McCauley, who is 27, spent his early music years trying to scream like Kurt Cobain. (Deer Tick has occasionally performed under the alter-ego Deervana, doing nothing but Nirvana covers.) He launched Deer Tick in 2004 as more or less a solo project, with various musicians shuffling in and out, not wanting to commit on the level that McCauley was. But he always envisioned Deer Tick as a genuine band, with other members contributing songwriting and lead vocals. Over time, beginning with the 2007 debut album “War Elephant,” that original vision came into being. Guitarist Ian O'Neil and drummer Dennis Ryan both wrote songs for “Divine Providence,” and Crowell co-wrote one tune.
Crowell spent a few years in the band of Arkansas-born singer-songwriter Christopher Denny, and was introduced to Deer Tick when Denny opened some shows for the Rhode Island band. Crowell recognized McCauley's writing talents, liked the rest of the members of Deer Tick, was fond of the group's intensity. And on some level, he probably felt the depth of the band's rhythmic sensibility. It's probably significant that Deer Tick's lineup features three musicians who are or have been drummers, including McCauley. And as Crowell says of the band's current drummer, “There's not too many drummers like Dennis out there.”
McCauley's vocal approach recalls his past as a drummer. He is aggressive to the point of dangerous. In an interview with The Aspen Times in 2011, he said, “I'm trying to clean up my voice. It's not something that can last. I've had some vocal problems. I'm trying to learn some tricks.”
Listening to McCauley sing — or even better, watching him in action — you see the potential damage he's doing to his vocal cords. But Crowell isn't all that worried. “John's a better singer than he'll ever let on,” he said. “He tends to underestimate himself. He can tell when he's getting tired and needs to take a rest.”
Chances are an audience will never see McCauley, or the rest of Deer Tick, truly taking it easy onstage.
“All five personalities being up in the mix — that's what this band is about,” Crowell said.