By Richard Skanse
It’s high summer in the Hill Country, and the deer are as plentiful as ever in San Marcos, Texas — but sightings of the Deer ’round these parts of late are far rarer than they used to be.
Time was, not too far back, when San Martians could count on catching the homegrown group in the 78666 on a fairly regular basis; if the Deer weren’t playing to a packed crowd on the outdoor stage at Tantra Coffeehouse, right off of the Downtown Square, they could likely be found at a backyard jam or headlining their own festival in a farm field just outside of town. But that was before they got a taste of the plentiful fruit some 30 miles north in the “Live Music Capital of the World,” eventually establishing enough of a presence there that by the time press and blog notices started pegging the Deer as an “Austin band” — especially in the wake of the band’s ambitious new album,Tempest & Rapture — well, they pretty much were.
“Three out of the five of us live there now,” explains frontwoman and band founder Grace Park, one of the two hold-outs. “I’m still here, and our mandolin and fiddle player, Noah Jeffries, just moved to San Marcos, too, but I’m the only one who’s really still inundated in San Marcos culture.”
To wit, the petite singer-songwriter — and prodigious visual artist — says this between nibbles of an over-stuffed breakfast taco in the back room of the aforementioned Tantra, the walls of which are currently adorned with several framed originals of her intricate, surrealistic paper cuttings. “It’s kind of like my personal art storage gallery,” says Park, who also curates work from other local artists for the space and designs the coffeeshop’s chalk menu. For a short while, she even worked behind the counter. “I was fired,” she admits sheepishly. “I was a shitty barista.”
She doesn’t miss cleaning the espresso machine so much, but the salad days of playing local gigs on a more regular basis are another matter entirely. “It’s heartbreaking, because this was my home club down here,” she says of Tantra, which the Deer had started to outgrow even before the coffeehouse started scaling way back on its music bookings. That, along with the closing of the Triple Crown and the fact that the Deer’s peculiar strain of dreamily psychedelic folk pop never seemed quite right for the town’s storied Cheatham Street Warehouse, hasn’t exactly helped Park’s case in trying to talk the rest of the band into playing San Marcos more than three or four times a year.
“Those Austin boys — they’re spoiled!” she offers with an exaggerated (but not unaffectionate) sigh. “They’re like, ‘We have so many great venues up there, why would we come down here?’ Because it’s my town, fuckers!”
Park, 32, was actually born in Lubbock and spent her formative childhood years and teens in New Mexico and Marble Falls, Texas, respectively, but she’s called San Marcos home since college. That’s where — and when — she discovered her true calling as an artist, and also where she met both bassist Jesse Dalton and guitarist Michael McLeod, two of those now “Austin boys” who, along with drummer/keyboard player Alan Eckert and the aforementioned mandolinist Jeffries, comprise the rest of the Deer. It was Dalton, in fact, who encouraged Park to write her first song.
“Jesse and Michael were both in my favorite band ever, Acoustic Couch Conspiracy, which probably no one’s ever heard of, because they basically just jammed and made home recordings, but they were amazing,” says Park, who met the duo while attending Texas State’s School of Music. She’d taken guitar and keyboard lessons since her early teens, and had been in choir for years, but the idea of writing and performing her own songs had never been part of her plan.
“I was really shy and didn’t like to sing for people — it made me sick to my stomach, and still kind of does,” she admits. “So I didn’t really start writing until I was 20 or 21. I was having some pretty severe anxiety attacks when I was going to school here, and I remember really freaking out hard on a camping trip. I was like, ‘Who am I? What am I supposed to be doing with my life?’ And my heart rate was going up and I just thought I was going to die. But Jesse was there and he said, ‘Don’t call your mom to come get you, just play a song.’ And he played me a song and I started to calm down a bit, and then I played a song that I had known since I was a kid, ‘Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child,’ and immediately felt my entire physiology calm down.
“My heart rate stabilized, my breathing stabilized … I just felt this energy that was reeling around inside of me finally go outward,” she continues. “Some of my friends who didn’t know know I sang were really surprised, but I just decided that I was going to start doing that from that point on, because it was really good for my heart. I had my outlet.”
Her teaming with Dalton and McLeod in forming the Deer was still a few years away, though; apart from a short spell with a band called the Warblers, Park’s first serious go at a music career found her connecting with guitarist John McGee (another former member of the Acoustic Couch Conspiracy) and cellist David Moss to form the Blue Hit. The Austin-based avant-garde folk trio lasted a good five years, producing a pair of live EPs and one studio album (2009’s Move In) and touring heavily both regionally and nationally; heavily enough, at least, that when Moss quit to move to New York and Park and McGee figured it was best to take a break from working together for the sake of their friendship, Park was more than ready to stick a fork in her days of hitting the road. All she wanted was to settle back down in San Marcos and focus more on her visual art, a passion she’d picked up in college around the same time as songwriting.
“I think I burned myself out with the Blue Hit, because we toured every two weeks for a couple of years, which is extremely taxing on my heart and mind,” she says. “I was also living in Austin at the time and hadn’t really settled into my professional art life, so it was hard for me to get projects done without peace and quiet.”
She still had at least a little bit of the old music bug, though — and “tons of songs” that either weren’t quite right for the Blue Hit or that the trio never got around to working up. “I wanted to start a solo recording project, because all these songs had nowhere to go,” Park explains. She says she had no interest in jumping back into any kind of full-time touring band again, but those songs still deserved an outlet of their own just the same. So she turned to her old friend McLeod, who knew a thing or two about producing and engineering (having worked on scores for film director Richard Linklater in addition to myriad other projects), to help her record what turned out to be 2013’s An Argument for Observation — a “solo” album in theory and original intent, but really the birth of something far grander in sound and scope.
“As we recorded that [first] album, we bonded a lot and found that we can communicate really well,” Park recalls, not just of her experience working with McLeod, but of the musical and personal chemistry she also discovered during the sessions with additional collaborators Dalton and Alan Eckert. In addition to his drum skills, Eckert, who studied jazz at the University of North Texas in Denton, was also a gifted a keyboard player, guitarist, and singer. But it may well have been bassist and banjo player Dalton’s all-in commitment that sealed the deal in convincing Park that they all had something really special together.
“Jesse had always been pretty unstable career wise — I mean, he’d been playing with so many different bands, traveling all the time, I never thought he would be interested in really focusing on a project with me,” she explains. “But he surprised me and said that he wanted to go into this with me. So we started looking at our business model and shifted to a little bit more of a collaborative machine, and started working on the second album shortly after the first one was released.”
Although An Argument for Observation had been credited to Grace Park and the Deer, by the time they released the 2015 follow-up, On the Essence of the Indomitable Spirit — inspired by and dedicated to the memory of their close friend Stephanie Bledsoe, who died in 2013 — the name had officially been truncated to just the Deer. Joining the tribe just in time for that album was mandolin and fiddle player Noah Jeffries, who along with Dalton also plays in the Austin-based acoustic combo MilkDrive. Park may not have originally been looking for another full-time band — let alone one that would soon find her hitting the road again — but when life hands you all the right ingredients and circumstances for a making a dream combo, you just go with flow. Especially when that new combo offers up an entirely new box of colors and possibilities.
“It’s a totally different world,” Park says of the contrast between the Deer and the Blue Hit. “The Blue Hit was more of an experiment of how a song could be stripped down to as few parts as possible. The Deer is more focused on how can we expand — how can we grow a song even further from just one melody line, one bass line, and one guitar line? I’ve slowly added on stuff that I have onstage; I started off with just one acoustic guitar, and now I have acoustic and electric guitar, amplifier, pedal board, and two synthesizers. So it’s been really exciting and good for me just to expand in that regard, to get my hands busy onstage.”
Although the Deer have always been adept at experimenting onstage — not necessarily by going full-on jammy without a map or point, but certainly letting their songs, melodies and instrumentals graze a bit more freely than on record — the new Tempest & Rapture finds them making a conscious effort to push themselves farther than ever in the studio. The result is by far their most compelling and expansive album yet — and their longest. Tempest & Rapture fits onto one CD, but its 17 tracks and hour-running time require a double-album configuration on vinyl, which was very much by design. The album’s title is meant to reflect two separate “identities” of the band, with the more “bare bones” first half sticking somewhat closer to what Park refers to as “our kind of brand of Americana, which we like to call ‘transcendental Texas folk.’” By contrast, the second half — LP 2 on vinyl — is more of an adventurous “mishmash” of their myriad different influences, which range from trippy jam-rock and jazz to bluegrass to indie-rock acts like Wilco and Sufjan Stevens. Somewhat as an aside, Park even cops to a bit of a modern prog-metal fetish, noting that she and McLeod first met through a shared love of Tool and Opeth. And though you may never actually hear much of that in the Deer’s music — certainly not in Park’s singing (“I can’t do everything,” she concedes a little wistfully) — the point is, it’s all in the band’s DNA somewhere.
“I think we’ve always had an identity crisis, but a really healthy one in that we’re really open to trying different things,” Park says. “The second album, On the Essence …, was a real intense mixture and experimentation with sound. And this one went even further with it. To split it into two different identities I think is a statement on how vast our range is.
“This is the fifth album that I’ve ever put out, and it is by far the most satisfactory,” she continues. “I always look back on those older albums and remember where I was and think about, ‘What if I had just tried to do this …?’ Like, I had recorded in several studios before, and I never just tried to pick up one of their synthesizers or cool guitars that they have sitting there, or was never really open to letting the engineer produce a lot of it. We’ve always produced our own stuff, because we’re control freaks. But this time we let somebody else take the reins a lot — our engineer, Grant Johnson, who really taught us a lot about what’s actually possible in the studio. I think that before this moment in my life I was not open to that lesson, unfortunately. But now … it’s a game changer.”
It was also, she adds with a grin, a lot of fun.
“We had access to all sorts of really cool analog equipment, tape effects, synthesizers out the wazoo, different guitars, pedals … so we just went nuts with it,” she enthuses. “Grant used a lot of reverb, like actual analog reverb using like a 10-foot-long wooden box with rotating plates. I knew that was the principal behind it, but it never really sunk in until I saw one and he explained how it worked to me. And we opened up to messing with a lot of the panning, because we set things up pre-meditatively for vinyl. I’m really excited about that. We got our test pressings recently, and it just sounds so big.”
Tempest & Rapture may have been conceived and recorded with vinyl in mind, it took a while to find its way onto that particular format. Although the album was first released on CD and digitally back in mid-May, the double vinyl edition finally makes its debut on Aug. 20. It’s long overdue release comes at the tail end of what’s been the band’s busiest period to date, marked by a summer-long national tour that found them playing shows in Tennessee, Colorado, Oregon and California. Back in late May, Park talked excitedly about the then-impending trek, as well as the band’s plans for an East Coast run later this fall. Clearly, she’s had enough time to get over that little spell of road burn-out she had at the end of the Blue Hit, or she’s so caught up in the tempest and rapture of making music with the Deer that the prospect of touring is no longer the anxiety trigger it once was.
But no matter how far and wide the music takes her, she’s still got her beloved San Marcos to come back home to. And on very special occasions, the rest of the band comes back home, too. The Deer currently have a handful of Austin gigs lined up for before they hit the road again (including Strange Brew on Sept. 3 and the UTOPiAfest pre-party at Antone’s on Sept. 27), but first up on the agenda is their official Tempest & Rapture Vinyl Release celebration, going down this Friday (Aug. 19) right back in San Marcos at — where else? — Tantra.