Deer Tick’s guitarist/frontman discusses Cosmetics, the new album from his all-star second band.
When does a side project become a band? For Diamond Rugs, the answer lies sometime between a night in 2011—when Deer Tick’s John McCauley, former Black Lips guitarist Ian St. Pé, and Six Finger Satellite drummer Bryan Dufresne shared a beer and mused about working together—and the sessions for Cosmetics, the D-Rugs’ sophomore album.
After that beer, St. Pé continued his tour with Black Lips. By the time he finished, McCauley had recruited the rest of the Diamond Rugs lineup: fellow Deer Tick Robbie Crowell (bass, keyboards, sax), Dead Confederate guitarist T. Hardy Morris, and Los Lobos’ Steve Berlin (horn, keyboards).
Back at Nashville’s Playground Sound Studio (where the band recorded their self-titled 2012 debut) the sextet worked fast, recording to one-inch 8-track tape with minimal overdubs and editing. The result solidifies D-Rug’s cable-knit rock ’n’ roll sound—the “loosely tight” feel that once defined bands like the Rolling Stones and Faces, but is increasingly rare in the digital age.
It’s a vibe almost impossible to create with a bunch of musical strangers or session players. But then, as St. Pé explained just before Cosmetics was released, Diamond Rugs isn’t just a collection of talented individuals. “This is definitely a band and not a side project,” he says. “The only difference is that we don’t play together that much because of our other band obligations.”
Why bother organizing so many people when you’ve got your regular band to worry about? “It was a good way to keep busy and keep in touch with some friends I don’t get to see often enough,” McCauley replied when we caught up with him. He went on to explain how this particular group of friends created something special.
Now that you’ve got two albums out, it’s clear that Diamond Rugs has a sound distinct from your main bands.
John McCauley: It just organically turned into a thing with its own vibe. It was just an experiment at first. We didn’t get together the first time 100 percent sure we were going to make an album. I don’t think any of us expected to record more than a couple of songs.
Photo by Mick Orlosky.
Six members from five different bands? That’s a lot for a side project!
Originally it was just going to be Ian, Bryan, and myself. It was just kind of a joke: We thought we’d write all these songs about weed and call ourselves Star Drama. But then I ended up meeting Steve Berlin, and he was asking about Middle Brother [an earlier McCauley side project] because he really liked the way that recording sounded. So I told him I was going back into the same studio to do something on the side with Ian from Black Lips, and he was like, “Oh, I love Black Lips!” So I invited him down to check out the studio and maybe play on something. Then I asked Robbie if he wanted to come down—he’s a great multi-instrumentalist. Then Hardy called me out of nowhere to say hello. He’s just a few hours away in Georgia, so I asked him “What are you doing this week? Why don’t you come to Nashville and check out what we’re doing in the studio?”
What were your goals for Cosmetics?
There wasn’t a whole lot of planning other than getting us all in the same place at the same time [laughs]. We wanted to do something pretty similar to what we did the first time. The only problem was, this time we knew we were a band! But in terms of songwriting, I approached it the same way. I didn’t bring in much material. I wanted to write it as we were going along. We limited ourselves to 10 days. It was kind of hectic.
Wait—10 days to write, rehearse, and record the whole album?
Yeah. That’s how we did it the first time. I’d be like “I have an idea—let’s riff on it.” We’d roll tape, and then I’d see if I could write some lyrics for it. That was it.
Did you do all the writing?
Hardy brought in some songs he’d written, but didn’t get to use with his band. He did that the first time, too. Also, Ian has the George Harrison syndrome in the Black Lips—they give him like one song per record, so he had a few he’d written.
Selfies of all the members of Diamond Rugs.
It’s striking how well you all interact musically. Is playing together as comfortable as it sounds?
It’s surprising to me most of the time. With Deer Tick, we have a thing—we’ve just been doing it for so long. We may not see each other for a couple months but when we get back together, we know what to expect from each other. With Diamond Rugs, when we get together, everybody’s thinking, “Well, how’s this gonna go?”
Is that a challenge?
More than anything else, I have trouble remembering all the lyrics to the Diamond Rugs songs because I don’t sing them every day. So there’s a little uneasiness to it, especially when we play live. But when we get in the groove, something cool happens with the six of us. It wasn’t something that we really expected, but it’s a result we’re happy with.
How did you track the album?
We did most things live to 8-track. We’d leave two or three tracks open for any overdubs. Sometimes, we’d leave the lead vocal off [the initial take]. We’d do all the drums onto one track. There are some songs with up to five instruments on one track. We had to do some really careful punching in and out. We actually made some mistakes and blew over some stuff that we couldn’t do again.But it’s fun. It’s a challenge, and it keeps you creative.
Is that different from how you record with Deer Tick?
On Deer Tick’s last record, we did basic tracks to 24-track tape, put them into Pro Tools, and did our editing and overdubs there. Every instrument was very isolated. Every drum had its own track. I don’t necessarily love recording like that, but I do like the product that comes at the end.
Diamond Rugs is much more than blowing off steam, though blowing off steam is the first thing that comes to mind. It’s quick and it’s pretty simple, even blending guitars to get them onto one track. It’s just kind of careless. We play, and we’re like: “Doesn’t that sound good? Because it’s not going to change much, even when we mix it. This is it!”
Does the live approach make you more focused in the studio?
I suppose—or maybe not. It just forces you to make really quick decisions. I’d like to try some of that with Deer Tick on our next record—we could use an experience like that.With Deer Tick, though, I feel a bit of added pressure because it’s much more my career and my life than Diamond Rugs. I guess it would be worth a try. We’ve done a few tracks in that style for compilations, cover songs, or whatever. I think we’re going to get together this spring for a week in Nashville and see what happens.
Diamond Rugs bring their raw, ragged energy to Philadelphia’s World Café in this six-song concert.
Touring must be hard on everyone’s schedule. How’s that working out?
With this tour and record, everybody wants to do a good job. We’re going to practice for a couple of days and do a warm-up show. We’re not touring with a horn section or anything. We talked about the idea of using social media to find local musicians. My job is pretty simple: just play guitar and sing. I don’t even play that many leads. I just have to remember all my lyrics [laughs]. That’s my biggest challenge!
Taking the mystery out of compression with a new easy-to-use and solidly built pedal for bassists.
Bass pedals have of course been around for years, but recently, some of the more notable guitar-pedal wizard have been dabbling in the bass pedal game. Keeley Engineering’s Bassist Compressor is a fine example. Keeley has always been perceived as a pro’s pedal builder. And when Robert Keeley’s compressors were introduced more than a decade ago, fast became a common sight on pedalboards. With a simple design and superb transparency, the Bassist may could well see the same success.
Pressed into Service
Compression for bass works on that same principles as any other audio compression. Essentially it evens out your signal by kicking in when you push it too hard. You set the threshold to determine when compression will kick in, and the ratio to determine how much compression you want. Using a compressor assures even tone for hard players, keeps your signal from peaking, can prevent you from damaging gear with dB spikes. And depending on how you apply it, it can increase sustain or add potency to your signal.
The Bassist’s heart is a THAT Corp. 4320 “Analog Engine” integrated circuit. The 3-knob design is as straightforward as a compressor can be. The first control sets the compression ratio, which ranges from 1:1 to infinity. The threshold control in the center has a very wide range to help tame spikes in volume, and the gain control regulates volume between the pedal’s engaged and off positions.
Color Me Compressed
The Bassist is a very quiet pedal and can handle hot signals, so it’s equally suited for active and passive basses. I checked it out using both an active Warwick Streamer and a passive Fender Jazz through an Aguilar Tone Hammer 500 and matching SL 112 cabinet.
The green LED indicator light below the threshold dial lets you know the Bassist is powered up, and the blue LED above the threshold knob lights up when the pedal is engaged via the true-bypass footswitch. I set the threshold right at the point where the green LED started turning red, which alerts you that compression is being applied. A good starting point for the pedal compression ratio was 4:1 (noon on the dial). Here the bass still breathes and doesn’t sound too cramped or unnatural. The setting also tamed harder-hitting riffs, which allowed me to dig in at will. Dialing the ratio to 5:1 is a great set-and-forget position for slap bass, which tends to generate more peaks than fingerstyle playing. And the 10:1 ratio works for serious heavy hitters and slap players or synth-type bass tones. Impressively, the bass continued to sing at a 10:1 ratio without totally killing my tone or vibe.
To employ the Bassist as a limiting amplifier, I simply set the threshold dial with the help of the indicator light, and cranked the compression to infinity. Voilà: The pedal became a hard-knee limiter. Yes, the tone was noticeably squashed with loss of presence and punch, but that’s the trade-off when using such an extreme setting on the limiter and I wasn’t going to blow any speakers. It’s a good feature to have.
Another nice bonus is that by dialing the compression to a 1:1 ratio and set the gain higher than the amp-matched volume, you’ve got as much as +20 dB of boost to work with.
It’s easy to like the Bassist. It’s quiet, it doesn’t color your tone, and it’s got great clarity, which makes it a great friend for the studio. It’s easy to use and forgiving too. Bass compressor pedals are nothing new, but when one of the industry’s more respected compressor-pedal manufacturers brings one to the table, it’s impossible not to take notice—in the case of the Keeley Bassist, it’s worth the attention.
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How science nerdery makes you a better musician than guitar-god worship.
I don’t know if it’s boredom, demonic possession, or maybe one of those Toxoplasma gondii brain parasites that makes rats try to hang with cats instead of run away from them (they say 3 billion of us humans have it, too), but the more time goes on, the more I veer toward stuff that’s bad for me. Or stuff I used to think was bad for me. I’m not talking about juggling chainsaws or parasailing in tornados—I’m talking ideas.
I got pretty good grades as a kid, but I wasn’t super into biology, chemistry, or any other science-y subject. My strobe-light project in electronics class barely worked, and my stupid distortion pedal kit was D.O.A. And I loathed math. I pretty much only liked history and English. The rest of the time I pretty much prioritized daydreams about guitar crap, ladies, and skateboarding, not necessarily in that order.
But now I’m totally into that nerdy stuff: Tim Urban’s recent “The AI Revolution: The Road to Superintelligence” blog posts blew my mind. Scientific American’s article on that parasitic toxoplasmosis junk has me envisioning an animated miniature William Shatner jumping from my fat-ass cat Viktor to me and controlling my body from his office in my brain, just like he did to Bill Murray in Osmosis Jones. And another recent brainiac piece has me wondering whether a theorized disk of dark matter in the middle of the Milky Way is about to reach out and wreak havoc on Earth with another of its pesky 30-million-year bouts of fiery comets and rampant volcano madness.
I’d rather read this stuff than some biography about Elvis, the Beatles, Zeppelin, or almost any other musician. I dig their tunes and respect them, but I don’t need the minutiae. Sure, there are rare exceptions. I once read a book about Radiohead (spoiler alert: they almost break up every time they go in the studio). And every day on the job at PG gives me a pretty good fill of cool music and guitar knowledge. But unless that little Shatner protozoan is yanking my chain, I think this nerd bent I’m on is just better exercise for my mind.
I’m still no good at the subjects themselves. Maybe I just like reading this stuff because it flushes out my brain. Or maybe it’s because there’s always unexpectedly cool angles that can relate back to my music obsession. Just one example: I found inspiration for my life outlook and my playing 10 pages into the Dancing Wu Li Masters, a book on quantum physics given to me by my pal Andy Ellis—a mentor and hero of mine since long before he was senior editor here at PG.
In it, author Gary Zukav describes a conversation with Chungliang Al Huang, the philosopher and tai chi master who inspired the Dancing Wu Li Masters name. Asked how he structured his tai chi classes, Huang said, “Every lesson is the first lesson. Every time we dance, we do it for the first time.”
Zukav balked. Certainly Huang had to build on the foundations of previous lessons.
“When I say that every lesson is the first lesson,” Huang replied, “it does not mean that we forget what we already know. It means that what we are doing is always new, because we are always doing it for the first time.”Zukav pegged this holistic approach as a trait of a true master. To me, there’s something in that idea for all of us, no matter what we’re into. But the quest for mastery as Huang sees it is the reverse of conventional wisdom—it’s not about slavish repetition and physical mastery, it’s about the wonder of being in the moment, every moment. That’s something I can put my dancing shoes on for.