Sara A. Lewis [VO]: Welcome to Points South. I’m your host, Sara A. Lewis of the Oxford American. Join us for a live recording from Austin featuring The Deer in conversation with Elizabeth McQueen.
SAL: Alright, hello everybody! Welcome to Points South Live. My name is Sara A. Lewis and I'm the executive director of the Oxford American and host of the Points South podcast. I'm a Texan, so I'm actually really, really happy to be here. You'll no doubt recognize the voice of our moderator Elizabeth McQueen, who—yes. Is a, she's a musician, composer, and host at KUTX, previously a member of Asleep at the Wheel. Elizabeth produces the podcast Pause/Play and This Song. Welcome, Elizabeth McQueen.
Elizabeth McQueen: Oh, well, thank you very much.
SAL: I'm equally as thrilled to be joined tonight in music and conversation, uh, with The Deer. Their sound has been compared to Mazzy Star and Fleetwood Mac, but they also delightfully defy comparison. Um, they're a cosmic and psychotropic brand of folk. Their new album, The Beautiful Undead, will be released this Friday, but… but you can snag a vinyl copy of the new album tonight. So, you can hear new songs tonight here in the building, and then take them home with you. Please welcome The Deer. All right, thank y’all.
EM: Well thank you so much, Sara. And hi guys. How's it going?
Grace Rowland: Hi!
Alan Eckert: Oh, It's good!
EM: So, this is a live podcast taping tonight, so we're gonna be talking and then they're gonna play some music and then we're gonna talk again and then The Deer are gonna play some more music and it's all new songs from their new record, The Beautiful Undead. You're in for a treat. So, thank you guys very much. It seems like it could have only been made by a group of people who went through a pandemic and, uh, social uprising and a crazy election and a winter storm and came out the other side with, like, stuff to say. And so before we get into the music and before we talk about the record proper, I was wondering if you guys could take us all back to March 2020, like get in the, the way back machine. You guys had just released a record called Do No Harm, and you had some tour dates set up, and you were getting a lot of accolades. So could you kind of tell us, like, what it was like for you when the pandemic became a reality and how that kind of impacted what you guys were doing back then?
AE: Well, I will say we only got to do one tour for that release in the fall of 2019. And couldn't really get that album out there as much as we had planned on, like many bands experienced. So that was, that was a little tough for us, for sure. But it was a signal just to get back to work and keep working on new stuff, because we were already working on this album that we're about to release.
EM: So were some of the songs in this album already in the works even before all that hit?
GR: The album Do No Harm released in January of 2021 officially. We were about to do South by Southwest [SXSW], and all of our gigs slowly dropped off and we hadn't really even had a chance to get this album out. And we were like, "Huh, I wonder what's going on. It should pass, right?" And then soon all of our SXSW gigs were gone. I had to cancel my wedding in 2020 and postpone it. We, we got married in 2022, so it's like—
GR: But, uh, you know, it was a…it was really surreal like this, it didn't feel like it was gonna stick around that long. Uh, just, everything was kind of like uprooted for a little while. It was really disorienting for sure.
AE: We actually didn't get together for a while—
GR: Like three months
AE: Like three or four months, yeah. And then we finally, you know, as we knew that everyone was good and healthy, we'd be like, okay, we're gonna block off this weekend and this weekend and just hang out with each other. And, like, we basically became a pod, um, to be able to keep working on this record.
GR: Yeah. We, we did a lot of this, uh, a lot of live takes for this record. When we had gotten together the first time after not seeing each for three months, we just got really excited. We partied way too hard. We all decided to do this thing that we never do, which is all three get into the vocal booth closet together and sing into the same microphone into each other's face. And like afterwards we were like, "That was probably not the smartest move right there." But like we just were like needing this like connection with each other and we had already completely, like bacterialized everyone in the room immediately. So.
AE: Yeah, it was a real pod.
GR: We kind of had to like, just like dive in all the way.
EM: Yeah. I mean, and it's, that's how like logistically you made things work, but how did it change the music that you were making? Like, cuz I'm assuming that you kind of had some ideas about what kind of record you were maybe working towards before the pandemic hit, but how did, how did the whole pandemic, those periods of isolation, the stuff that you went through, how did that start showing up in the music you were making?
Jesse Dalton: We're just kind of like all building this huge chemistry thing. Um, and so this batch of songs in particular, it's more of us sitting around and uh, and hashing 'em out live doing 'em 10, 20 times. And then take 20 is the, is the take. And we've all felt each other's energy and know the dynamic of it. And then it sets in and then boom, there we go.
EM: Oh, wow. So it’s just kind of organically discovering the songs as you played them live together?
JD: Forcedly, yeah.
EM: Forcedly organically, okay. Well, and one of the things I, I kept wondering while I was listening to this record and, and while I was thinking about like that period that you guys—that leading up to, it was like, what were you guys listening to during this time? Cuz I think during the pandemic we all kind of turned to different things. So what were some of the things you were listening to? Or were you listening to music?
JD: Yeah, the whole time. I mean I think everybody listens to music all day. Otherwise, we’d go insane. But everybody in the band has their own like, you know, playlists going, and I'd say we all have pretty complete disparate musical backgrounds. So, altogether we, we say, "Hey, check this out, oh, check this out, check this out." And it's this whole breadth of like different genres and stuff. And maybe that portrays itself through our music. We're kind of like a hodgepodge amalgamation of different styles and so forth.
EM: I mean, I definitely feel that in this new record and I, I was listening to Do No Harm this morning, and I was trying to compare it to your new record. And it was like, Do No Harm is such a…it has like a soft feel to it and like a sweet feel, where this record is very out in front. Like there's a lot more, I don't know, it hits harder. Was that by design or was that just kind of what came out of these sessions?
JD: Both. There was a lot of teenage angst that we're finally getting rid of in our late thirties.
GR: Yeah, we needed to blow off some steam in a major way.
EM: Well, I could totally feel it.
Michael McLeod: There's something for everyone. Like it, it is kind of like a uniting feel. And very passionate, very fiery.
EM: I mean, it does really feel that way. And it feels like these, like for me, the three threads that I would keep coming up were like self-reflection—which is very pandemic—or, like, acceptance of chaos and death—which is very pandemic. Climate change keeps coming up, like this idea of actually, like, looking at it and dealing with it. On this record, you're really engaging with the audience in a lot of ways, like, actually trying to have a conversation with the people that you're talking to. Do you feel like that's something that you guys were trying to do?
GR: Yeah, absolutely. It was, it was a lot more like reaching out because we had, you know, been like weird and isolated, like before that, but not like this, like this really, like, set us into our own kind of space and trying to make it something that would be important for someone to hear who had a worse time than us. You know, we were, we were actually really lucky in a lot of ways. When it first started, I was like, "Ooh, I don't. I—no, like, no, I could not do a livestream show. I'm just gonna wait for this to blow over." And then I was like, "Damn, it does not look like it's going to do that. So, we need to get creative and we need to just like, love each other and just get the music out to people because they need, they need this now."
EM: And so it wasn't just... cuz it sounds like, I think we all kind of reassessed during the last couple years, like, what are—what am I doing and why am I doing it?
GR: Well, in the restructuring of the recordings, Mike was—has been a big proponent of doing live recordings. We had a couple years to do this album, we actually like thought we were done. And then we were like, "You know, we could really polish some of this." And a lot of it was like, we did a bunch of demos and we were like, "No, we really want to cut these tracks live. Like, we want to do as real of a feel as possible." And I think we were really able to do that and kind of like expand what we thought we could do. Because there wasn't any pressure.
EM: Yeah, there was nowhere to go. Yeah, well, I have more questions about your creative process, but I'm gonna save them for the next round of stuff. And I'm gonna definitely be talking to you, Mike, because I have questions. But I'd love to hear some of this music that you made during the pandemic. So, right now, are you guys ready for some music? Enough talking?
GR: We're gonna start with a song called "Baby Green."
EM: You know, you think you know what you're gonna get, cuz you've been listening to the record and then you come out and you see it played live and it's like, you didn't know what you were gonna get. I didn’t—that's like, that was incredible you guys…I was not prepared for it. You guys feel that too, like? So, now I was talking to some of the guys before the show, and I think, Jesse, it was you who said, like, you actually had to relearn these songs. Like, you made them, you recorded 'em, and then you didn't really do anything for like eight months with them or something. Is that, is that right?
JD: Yeah. Just like, we're in the, we're in the bunker in Alameda coming up with the, the blueprint plans and then we go into the studio and learn it like 15 times and then have this mini-explosion in the studio, right? And then nobody hears it. None of our—we don't even show it to our, our significant others and so forth. Then, uh, 10 months later on down the road, it's like, "Well, we better start playing these little bastards live," you know. Then we have to relearn the songs.
EM: I mean, what is that like to rediscover those songs?
MM: There's a lot more energy when the band is playing off of each other. Jesse writes a lot of songs on his own, in his own studio, and he'll bring him to the table and offer his drafts or demos or whatever, and be like, “Is this something you like, can we work with it?” And a lot of the time he has done a lot of the leg work concerning melodies, structure, uh, general ideas—which is so useful for, to hit the ground running—but we have a bunch of demos where we did, like Jesse said earlier, where you just layer and layer and layer. And that's an integral part of the writing process. Like, we write our parts through the recording process, but what's cool is through all those demos and drafts, we come….well recently, in the past I used to do a lot of the recording, but now we've been hiring out an engineer and going to bigger studios so I can focus on playing guitar. And it's been cool ‘cause now we can sit in a circle and actually play the songs and, uh, get that energy that we're hearing tonight, which might not be present in our drafts or demos.
AE: To add on to your question for Michael, I will say, like, to, to relearn them, um, we also have to choose the parts in the recording that we want to learn. Like, cuz there are so many layers—
EM: Oh, interesting.
AE: —that we use to arrange and some parts end up not being played live, like a lot of the guitar parts and fiddle and mandolin parts and stuff like that. Or even some of the vocals sometimes, like, we can't physically do that live. So, we actually started, um, recently in the process, like, trying to take away stuff in the recording that we can't do live. But we still have to pick parts in the live arrangement. So, relearning has a lot to do with that.
EM: I am obsessed with this band's creative process because sometimes there's, like, a person at the front who comes in with a fully formed idea and like, "This is what we're gonna do." And you’re—people are just executing it, but this seems, like, so intense because, like you said, Jesse brought in the song, but how does it even work? How do you take two or three poems that two different people have written and make a cohesive song?
GR: You just try stuff, and then when somebody's like, "No," then you're like, "Okay."
EM: Do I—
AE: You compromise.
JD: Compromise. That one was interesting because, um—we, Grace and I were in a part of a, a song of the week club that, um, Adrianne Lenker from Big Thief has started and uh, the Brother Brothers were in it and, uh, Luke, uh, Temple was in it. And anyways, the premise was everybody had to submit a song that they wrote per week to this online thing. And you had to listen to everybody's song, right? And the two rules were you couldn't give any criticism—positive or negative—and it had to be something completely new as of that week, or it had to be something that was old that you had expounded upon. And so that one was like this, like rough idea of, of this beat of in like a verse that had, and I shelved it forever. And then, um, we were out in Thomas, West Virginia, like messing around at a waterfall one day and then boom, there comes the, the pre-chorus. And then, uh, and then a friend of ours, who Michael and Alan were in a band with before, uh, before we, uh, found each other in The Deer, called Hendrikz McLeod—Michael McLeod and Dominic Hendrikz, of course. He was in town for like two weeks, and we stayed up all night, like, writing and, and making cool things. And then finally this like chorus came around and we flushed it out and then boom, I had a whole working song and then showed to everybody. He was like, "Hey, I got a song on guitar. You know, like let's, let's build, let's build something. We got something here."
EM: Well, do you guys ever get in fights? Like, do you ever say like, "Hey, how about this?" And someone says like, "Nah, I don't think so." And you go, "No, it is the best thing that I've ever written." Like—.
GR: Yes, next question.
AE: I actually have a really hard time letting go of the demos myself. But yeah, it's really hard to let go of ideas. I think that can be some friction sometimes, at least from me.
EM: So Michael, so were you choosing parts, specifically for "Bellwether," but I guess on this, you, you guys have talked about how you did a lot of live versions of these songs. You would record them and record them and then say, "Okay, well this is the one." Were you going through all of those recordings and trying to pick out stuff that would end up on the ultimate, ultimate recording?
MM: "Bellwether"’s a funny example because it was largely constructed before Jesse brought it. He'd already demoed it so much that we were oftentimes just playing parts that he had meticulously crafted. So a lot, like that outro melody I'm doing, Jesse wrote it. And that's what's fun about our band is, a lot of the times, even if I'm playing the part, someone else might have, might have wrote it. Like there's several songs that I wrote the bass part—
JD: Like "Six-Pointed Star," yeah.
MM: "Six-Pointed Star" we'll play on our next little round of songs. I played bass, uh, to record that one. And Jesse learned it on upright, and he's been shifting into electric bass more, but…same thing with Noah, he's recorded guitar parts on the album that I’ll now play, but we, we're all kind of multi-instrumentalists and we have no, uh, ego about sharing our ideas, depending on instrument.
EM: I mean it sounds like a really nice, democratic process that maybe leads to some conflict, but that maybe you guys have figured out some good conflict resolution stuff. Am I guessing? Okay, good. Yeah.
GR: Yeah, yeah. It’s just called dropping it sometimes.
MM: That's true.
GR: It’s like, I don't wanna die on this hill, or at all…I don't care if this gets adopted into the song. It's a good part. I'll use it for another song. It's—just give it up to God, you know?
EM: Right on. Right on. The first song you played in that last set, "Baby Green," is one of my favorites. Not just because it has the song title in it—I mean the album title in it, The Beautiful Undead, which I'm always, like, a fan of, but also ‘cuz it has one of my favorite lyrics, which is like, "I'm not really nasty, but thinking makes me mean." Yeah, I feel like that's a real, a real thing. But the bigger thing that, that struck me was that, like, that song seems to be about, in some way, making your peace with, like, all of it. With all of the stuff that we went through. Through an acceptance that, like, we're all gonna die?
EM: Is that pretty much it?
GR: Yeah, you nailed it. It's, it's kind of like, yeah, yeah…we're all gonna die. We're—we have a lot of songs about death, we have, um, a whole album about death, spoiler alert, if you don't know us. Um, so we're really familiar with that space and, and kind of, like, wishing to come out of COVID or like wishing to, like, come back from lockdown was like feeling, like, we were undead in a way. Um, and kind of like blossoming and being, like, more true to ourselves in a way of like, “Fuck it, we're all gonna die. Why are we holding onto, like, decorum? Why are we, like, holding onto these old like trips and letting it, making all these decisions based on fear and shame?” And um, it's about kind of dropping all of that and just, like, living after that.
EM: Well, that is one thing that struck me too. I, I did a lot of research for this interview, and I listened to an interview where you talked about the first time that you really sang and decided you wanted to be a performer. And that was like, you were kind of in the middle of a panic attack at the time. Um, and that like eased—singing eased the panic attacks. And then your second record, um, On the Essence of the Indomitable Spirit, that was written after the death of your friend, Stephanie Bledsoe, which was a bit like the entire band processing this shared grief. And now you have this record where you're kind of processing this shared trauma and grief that we all have felt like over culturally. I mean, is this—is that what music is for you guys? Like, is that something?
AE: Do you do, uh, psychotherapy on the side, or?
EM: You know, the funny thing was like, I would write this down and I'd be like, "There's no question in here." But I think there is, I mean really—.
GR: Do you do psychedelics on the side? ‘Cuz we do.
EM: ‘Cuz I guess that's the thing, it's like not every band is up for the task of processing the big scary shit…
EM: But you guys are. And so, is that—I don't know, there's no question there, but I just think it's, it's interesting.
GR: We're all like in our, in our late thirties here and, uh, we're just kind of over the, the um, you know, growth spurts. I feel like this is like, maybe this is a giant growth spurt for us, for sure. But, like, just, you know, after a couple of years of so many untruths, just the truth feels really good.
EM: And how does it feel when you sing it in front of people? ‘Cuz you've been playing these songs on the road, right?
AE: It feels amazing.
EM: Was that way back in the day? Like, when you first sang you might, could you tell the audience this story ‘cuz maybe not everyone knows.
GR: Uh sure, yeah. Um, so I always sang when I was a little kid, and I was in, like, choir and, like, church and stuff and, like, went to school for music and sang in choir and shit. Um, but I, uh, didn't really like to sing for people or like write my own music until I was about 20, 21. Um, and it happened on a, on a psychedelic trip, uh, mushrooms and out camping one day. I'm gonna go ahead and out us all. Um, sorry, everyone. And, I'm not a cop. And uh, yeah, it was, uh, I had a moment of just, like, panicking because I was like, "What am I supposed to do? What do I do with all this energy?" I felt it all just like spinning around inside me and like hitting the walls of my chest and just like feeling this energy, like pinging around and, and Jesse was—I was like, “Jesse—”
JD: "I gotta call my mom. I'm gonna call my mom right now—"
GR: “I gotta call my mom.” I went and I sat in my PT cruiser. I think this was like 2004. And I called my sister. Which—do not call your mom was good advice, ‘cuz my mom would've called an ambulance…
JD: Yeah, exactly.
GR: Um, and my sister was like, "There's like white light around you and unicorns and you're in space." And I was like, "This isn't working. I gotta go home." And, "Jesse, I'm gonna go home." And he was like, "Don't, we're two and a half hours away from your dorm. No, we're not going home. Just sit here. I'm gonna sing you a song and then you're gonna sing a song. And you're just gonna tell me—if you feel weird still, I'll drive you home myself." Which was probably not true. I felt all that energy that was like pinging around off of my, the walls of my body just come out of my body and just, like, see it go out. And then I saw my friends' faces who were like, "You sing?" And I'm like, "I, I'm in choir with you, in music theory, like, yes." And they're just like, "Well, that's weird, like, okay." And I was like, I'm never gonna not do that. Um, that's medicine right there. It calmed, calmed my heart rate and my palms stopped sweating immediately. And, and brought me back to earth really.
EM: Well, it is medicine. And I have to say, I was actually driving here, I was listening to NPR, and they were talking about how people measure heat and how we're all gonna have to reassess how we measure heat because the world is getting hotter and the ways that we measure heat are not an effective way of saying how much danger someone might be in. Because maybe you didn't know this, but the heat index, which is like the “feels like” temperature is measured from the shade, you guys. It's not from, like, standing in the sun, which I didn't know ‘til I heard this NPR thing. And I started to have, like, a bit of a panic thing, like, "Oh my, okay, the world is heating up and, and like it's coming and oh my God, I have kids and ah—" And then I thought, "Well shit, I get to go see The Deer. They wrote a song about this and I think it's gonna make me feel better." So, so thank you guys for the medicine ‘cuz it’s, I definitely need it as much as anybody, so.
GR: Thank you for receiving. Thank you for hearing it.
EM: And I think maybe that's a good time to say, like, can you play us some more medicine? And by medicine, I mean music?
GR: These ones might be really loud.
EM: Okay, I'm excited about it. Much love to you guys. Thank you guys so much. And thank you guys for listening and thanks to Oxford American for asking me to come out and talk to these amazing musicians. Thank you guys for the music.
Noah Jeffries: Yes. Thank you, Oxford American. Thank you, Long Play. Thank you, Elizabeth McQueen.
GR: This is a song we wrote in the woods and then made into a song that came out of the woods. It's called "Six-Pointed Star." We do not know what it is about. Do tell us.
SAL: Well, thank you guys so much for coming out tonight and it's a little bit redundant, but let's get another round of applause for The Deer and for Elizabeth McQueen. So, just so y'all know this, uh, this episode will air at the end of the month, um, on the, the podcast is called Points South, and you can get it anywhere that podcasts are streaming. So check it out at the end of the month. Thank you to Long Play East for hosting this evening and creating a space for conversations and music like this, it's really awesome, um. A big thanks to the staff, of course tip your bartender—goes without saying. And I hope you've all grabbed a copy of the magazine in the back, there's actually a really special guy in the audience tonight named Mike Reddy. He's the art director of the magazine, so he's the person who makes sure that it is as beautiful as it is. We are often cited for our art and he's the reason. So I'm really happy to be, that he's in the room tonight to experience with us.
So I have to put on, I had a hall monitor hat earlier, right now I have an executive director hat, and I have to say that as a nonprofit, we are only able to present freely to the public thanks to the generosity of folks like Long Play East and folks like you. Um, so I hope you'll consider, if you're able, making a donation to the Oxford American, you know, consider what a ticket to a program like this would cost, um. Head to oxfordamerican.org/donate to give and also use the QR code on these cards that are here. But mostly we just wanna say, thank you. We love you. We love Austin. We're happy to be here. And we hope y’all have a good night. Thanks to everyone.
SAL [VO]: This event was produced with support from the National Endowment for the Arts and Long Play Lounge East. The episode was produced by me, Christian Brown, and Christian Leus. Post production by Spacebomb. Special thanks to Elizabeth McQueen, The Deer, Ryan Harris, and Jonathan Chandler.