Always Moving: Deer Tick, Mi Ami, and Thank You, February 19 at RIBCO Print
Music - Feature Stories
Written by Jeff Ignatius   
Thursday, 12 February 2009 11:48

deer-tick.jpgIf you listen to the three bands on a Daytrotter.com bill at RIBCO next week, the impression their recordings leave might mislead you.

Headliner Deer Tick released War Elephant in 2007, and it's mostly a shit-kicker. But leader John McCauley said last week: "I'm certainly not a cowboy." And: "I was so sick of being called alt-country."

So he promises that Deer Tick's forthcoming album - due out this summer - will be more of a rock-and-roll affair. One can certainly imagine McCauley rockin' out, but it's hard to imagine him with less twang.

With Thank You, the drummer on last year's Terrible Two left following the recording and has been replaced. This might not sound like a big deal, but the drums are essentially the main instrument for the the spastic experimental trio.

"The sound is totally different now," said vocalist/guitarist Jeffrey McGrath. "I think it's just as eccentric, and it's just as wild. It's just a different voice."

As for Mi Ami, the third band on the bill, it's a good match with Thank You, with its emphasis on rhythm and hypnotic instrumentation under yelpy, androgynous vocals reminiscent of Jack White doing a constant falsetto.

Thank You and Mi Ami - who will be touring together - certainly belong together, but they have little if anything in common with Deer Tick. The latter's relatively straightforward sound will likely be a good balance to the difficult (but invigorating) sounds of the other two.

Deer Tick: A Severe Case of Influence

McCauley is a deadpan bullshitter who has claimed to be Matthew McConaughey's cousin and has said that he'd be happy to sell out.

The McConaughey claim is almost certainly false - "That's still open for debate," McCauley said, adding, "We're waiting to get the DNA tests back" - but the selling-out claim is less specious.

"This is our job," he said, and if somebody wants to pay the band a large sum of money for its music ... .

McCauley admitted that he does like to build up a mythology around Deer Tick - "I like to throw in little things you wouldn't necessarily hear from a guy in a band," he said - but there's also genuine talent there. He's an excellent tunesmith adept at delicate pop, country stompers, and southwestern hybrids in the vein of the Meat Puppets, and his phrasing makes excellent use of his rough whine. War Elephant comes off as slight at first, but it puts roots down.

He recorded the album mostly on his own - before he'd assembled a proper band - but the upcoming Born on Flag Day was done with the full quartet.

"It's kind of a move to a more rock-and-roll direction, but it'll very much satisfy the fans of War Elephant," McCauley said. "I wanted to change things up for us. I wanted to really sound like a band. War Elephant to me doesn't sound like a band."

There are a few country tracks on the new record, he said, with a pedal steel, and "they stick out a little bit," he said.

But the undeniable country flavor of War Elephant was an accident, he said. "It was never my intention, especially to be considered an alt-country act," he said.

The origins of that sound, he said, were songwriting icons Hank Williams, Townes Van Zandt, and John Prine. "I wouldn't call it imitation," McCauley said, "just a severe case of influence."

In addition to Born on Flag Day, McCauley said the band has another album in the can, but he wouldn't talk about it much, saying only that "it's a hell of a record" and that he'll probably put it out next winter.

Beyond that, he's talked about writing the album What It Takes to Be a Musician, whose title is drawn from an essay he wrote in seventh grade that would be included in the liner notes. "It's mostly about Aerosmith and Led Zeppelin," he said.

And he's talked about playing Vegas, but I wouldn't recommend taking him seriously on that front.

"Maybe if Deer Tick breaks up," he said. "Maybe I'll be the next Don Rickles."

Mi Ami: The Live Dynamic

mi-ami.jpgMany bands like to track their studio albums live - if they can pull it off. Mi Ami doesn't have a choice. Even though it's experimental rock music instead of improvisational jazz, the interplay among the three members is essential enough that the band couldn't record the parts separately; only the vocals are overdubbed.

Tracking individually "is literally impossible," said singer/guitarist Daniel Martin-McCormick. "We have to have a live dynamic."

While there is a structure to the songs, the variations from performance to performance are subtle, he said last week: "It's not so important to me that the songs be different each time in these sort of radical ways, but that the songs have room to grow, don't become hardened. ... We don't want the music to be a constraint."

Mi Ami might remind some of a Mars Volta more interested in atmosphere and texture, and the shrill vocals are even more of an acquired taste. The band's debut, Watersports, is due out February 17 on Quarterstick Records, and it's a striking combination of minimalist composition, aggressive vocals and guitars, and playful funk.

Both Martin-McCormick and bassist Jacob Long came from the Washington, D.C., punk band Black Eyes, but there was a break between the bands during which Martin-McCormick had to figure out his relationship to music.

Fed up with bands, he went to music school. "I didn't have any technical knowledge or vocabulary or training at my disposal," he said. "I was really untrained as a player."

And while music school wasn't for him, either, it did expand his horizons, and it got him excited to play music again. "What music school gave me was a perspective on my own playing, a vocabulary to use to talk about, training in new styles of playing," he said. "I came back [to bands] refreshed."

There's still a jaggedness to Martin-McCormick's playing, but it's clear that Mi Ami has broad appetites, with elements of jazz and ambient music and supple rhythms from Damon Palermo.

The band's three members are equal partners in composition, and the long-form songs develop over time. "They're at their freest the first couple months we're playing them," Martin-McCormick said, before they take on an "adult" shape.

Even then, he said, "they're free, too."

Thank You: A Whole New Band

thank-you.jpgListening to Thank You's Terrible Two, it's almost immediately apparent that the departure of drummer Elke Wardlaw should have been fatal to the band. The busy drums and rhythms are the show - the group's label, Thrill Jockey, calls the band an "athletic rhythm/action unit" - and as compelling as the guitar and organ and bass and vocal accoutrements are, they are still just accoutrements.

McGrath acknowledges that Thank You is different - "It's kind of like a whole new band" - but he said that new drummer Emmanuel Nicolaidis simply brings a different dynamic to the group.

"Maybe it's a little poppier," he said. "It's certainly a lot more tonal. It's maybe finer than it was - maybe a little less harsh." Nicolaidis is "very melodically inclined" for a drummer, McGrath added, and that informs a lot of non-drum parts.

But I'm guessing it's still busy and harsh, which prompted one befuddled writer to claim - seemingly seriously - that the band is capable of sapping energy from its audience. "That's still in litigation," McGrath said. "No one can prove that as of yet."

Deer Tick, Mi Ami, and Thank You will perform at RIBCO (1815 Second Avenue in Rock Island) on Thursday, February 19. The all-ages show starts at 5 p.m., and cover is $5.

For more information on Deer Tick, visit DeerTickMusic.com or MySpace.com/deertick.

For more information on Mi Ami, visit MySpace.com/miamiamiami.

For more information on Thank You, visit MySpace.com/wethankyou.