Deer Tick frontman John McCauley is well aware that his band's last album didn't go over particularly well with many longtime fans. The 2011 LP, Divine Providence, was a loose, hard-partying collection that the singer says mirrored his life at the time. The forthcoming follow-up, Negativity, is more of a morning-after album.
"It's a very dark record. There's nothing silly about it," McCauley tells Rolling Stone. "It seems pretty focused, too. I think anybody that thought we lost something with Divine Providence will probably like this one."
Deer Tick spent a month in Portland, Oregon, recording Negativity with Steve Berlin of Los Lobos, with whom McCauley first collaborated in his Diamond Rugs side project. The band presented Berlin with demos for close to 30 songs, and he chose the 12 he thought were the strongest. McCauley credits Berlin with helping the group hone in on the essence of those tunes.
"He really trimmed the fat from all the songs. He was very much about, 'Let's get to the point, and focus, and kind of forget everything else,'" says McCauley, who adds that Berlin's hands-on approach took some getting used to. "I'm not going to lie – it pissed me off sometimes," he says. "But it was good, it was a good experience for us. We've been pushed a little bit in the past, but this was a whole new level of that."
Though McCauley has always written songs from his own experiences, he had more material than usual to work with: the singer split up with his fiancée a couple years ago, and he watched his parents' marriage fall apart – developments that took a while for him to be able to write about.
"I think I kind of went off the rails a bit after that," he says. "I fucked a lot of girls and did a lot of drugs and didn't really think too much about how I felt about it. And then once I kind of pulled myself out of it, I was able to finally reflect on it and get my shit together."
The album, due late this summer or early in the fall, includes breakup ballads, a song about smoking crack that McCauley says is "very autobiographical" and a duet, "In Our Time," about a crumbling marriage that features the pop singer Vanessa Carlton. McCauley met Carlton through their mutual friend, Patrick Hallahan of My Morning Jacket, who played drums on her 2011 album Rabbits on the Run.
"We started trying to write something together, and it just really wasn't working, but I had this song, and I thought it would work well as a duet," McCauley says. "We kind of became really close friends pretty quick. She's a wonderful singer." The album also includes contributions from the Grupo Fanstasmo horn section and lead guitar from Jimmy Russell of Portland rockers the Quick and Easy Boys.
Together, McCauley says, they helped Deer Tick apply the rollicking immediacy of Divine Providence to songs that have more in common with the band's earlier work. "It's a little closer to our earlier records, but any Divine Providence fan should appreciate how we can still keep it pretty rocking," McCauley says. "I kind of consider it War Elephant's evil twin brother."