In Conversation: The Deadly Snakes’ André Ethier and Deer Tick’s Ian O’Neil Discuss Each Other’s Work

With Ethier’s new record Further Up Island out today, the pair of musicians/painters talk songwriting, portraiture, and being a self-critical artist.

Intermittent quarantines and periods of societal closures have given creatives ample time to create, experiment, and perfect their craft. Toronto’s André Ethier (of The Deadly Snakes fame) is no exception. Still in Toronto, Ethier is getting set for the release of his seventh record, the intimate and moody Further Up Island, which is produced by Sandro Perri (Great Lake Swimmers, Bernice) and serves as the final chapter of a trilogy that began with Under Grape Leaves in 2017. Though dealing with deeply personal—and at times heartbreaking—narratives, he made a concerted effort to be more displaced from the stories ingrained in each track. Instead of delving into the psyche of a specific character, he’s tried to trick himself into thinking each song is impersonal, ultimately resulting in an objective, richly described arc. 

Ian O’Neil, who since 2009 has played guitar in the eclectic alt-Americana band Deer Tick, is a self-described fan of Ethier, having followed him since his earliest days in the Snakes. Coming off a release of his own—2019’s Ten Years of It—O’Neil was equally enthused at Ethier’s latest effort, proclaiming it to be the best of the aforementioned trilogy. Finally able to meet, the two discuss narrative songwriting and self-portraiture (both musical and artistic), all while exploring the nuance of being a self-critical artist. 

Ian O’Neil: The first lines of this album are “Buddy of mine died in a factory fire, buddy of yours did too / Nothing survives a factory fire, buddy what ya gonna do?” I think it’s an incredible way to start an album, and it kind of sums up how I see the last three records of yours. What do you want your songs to be about? And how have you been writing and recording? 

André Ethier: I’m not so interested in, like, a subject for them to be about, rather than like a character for them to be about. Or a type of person or a type of personality. So that it’s this character’s way of communicating tragedy with someone. I don’t personally, as a writer, have to deal too deeply with tragedy. I only have to imagine what this person would say about tragedy. Then it makes songwriting easier for me. I displace myself a little bit. 

IO: Do you find that you need to have a morsel of something personal, or is it totally fictional?

AE: I don’t know how you feel about songwriting, but for me it’s easier to write a song if I believe I can fool myself into thinking it’s impersonal. Like, that I’m writing in character. But then, a year and a half later, I’ll hear my own record and be so embarrassed, like it’s only about me. 

IO: Yeah exactly. Like Randy Newman said about that song “Feels Like Home.” He wrote it for a play and it’s the sweetest, most earnest song he’s ever written, and he said he had to write it from the perspective of the devil in his mind to be able to write something so sweet and earnest [laughs]. I honestly have a hard time explaining it even to my wife, that these verses are not—in fact especially not—about you, and don’t be offended. You do what it takes to get the job done of the song, and your creative mind sees where this character that has some similarities to you can go and how bad things can get, or how they might be flippant about dealing with tragedy. 

AE: Before we move on, I was wondering if in your songwriting, like on that Ten Years of It record, I feel like there’s an autobiographical feeling to it. Do you intentionally try to write from what you know? 

IO: I think it’s something with age—that I’m aging out of in a weird way, that record in particular. It sounds really autobiographical and it’s taken from mundane life experiences. I find myself trying to at least write more literally now. I’m constantly trying to get away from being autobiographical because I think it’s just like…it’s embarrassing. [Laughs]. 

“I don’t personally, as a writer, have to deal too deeply with tragedy. I only have to imagine what this person would say about tragedy. Then it makes songwriting easier for me. I displace myself a little bit.” — André Ethier

AE: They say that every painting is a self-portrait. If you can write fiction then it’s still a self-portrait. I think any artist has to create all these sorts of fantasies in their mind about how what they’re doing isn’t embarrassing and isn’t revealing. That’s probably why so many singers wear sunglasses or have a costume that they wear—so suddenly, just before you step out on stage, you say to yourself, “Wait a minute, this is embarrassing,” but you still have to still go. 

IO: It’s such a funny business, because you’re asking people to hang on your every word and then it’s almost like the best songwriters, probably within their heart of hearts, are also apologizing for that at the same time.  

AE: Yeah, I think you’re right. The most generous singer and songwriter can somehow apologize, or make people comfortable with their presentation.

IO: Another thing I’m curious about is, this is the last in a trilogy of records? 

AE: Yes, I think so.

IO: In general, just listening to this last one, I noticed a few production differences: There’s more slide guitar and vocal effects than on the last two. How is your working relationship with Sandro Perry? When you guys put these parts in, who does what? 

AE: Well, Sandro certainly does a lot. The songs are written for guitar and voice. When we first started, we were intentionally making a record, the very first one. He was learning to use a new studio that he was working from, and so he said, “If you wanna come in and record while I’m learning how to use the studio, we can do this together,” but we had talked a lot at the beginning about them being solo records, and so he would encourage me to play all the overdubs and stuff, even though I was trying to act as a much better musician than I am. I’m barely a musician, so I would always be asking him to play a solo on it, or make it sound  better, and he would always be pushing against that and saying, “I think that if you play it by yourself, it’ll be more you.”

IO: That’s part of production, because otherwise it might end up being a duo record.  

AE: I think there’s so many things that slowly crept in, little elements of sound effects and keyboard use. Slowly there were all these new shades, like colors added to what we felt was OK within the universe. 

IO: It seems like you’ve gone somewhere, that you have a sure footing in this aesthetic. 

AE: Yes, it’s like a world, and I think we’re pretty sure about what doesn’t fit.

IO: Yeah, what doesn’t fit? 

AE: Other people. [Laughs.] Like, there’s this saxophone player, Joseph [Shabason], who plays on it. He’s amazing, and Sandro lets him in. It’s silly, he’s allowed in for some reason, like he’s a part of my psyche or something. So Joseph is in there, but any other musicians coming in would have felt too much. Suddenly the song sounds like there are other people, like it doesn’t exist only in an imaginative world. Once you bring in other instrumentation, or other players, the listener starts seeing this music as existing in the real world, instead of being held together only in the confines of the concept of a record. 

IO: Some of your songs are purely instrumental—how do you see those parts of the narrative of the record and of the environment?

AE: Yeah. I don’t know actually, but we do certainly work on the instrumentals as much as we would on a vocal song. All the recordings are always done like guitar and vocal first and then we build it up. So when we’re doing overdubs and developing the songs, the guitar instrumentals would be just as relevant to us as something with vocals. I’m always looking for a way to erase myself, erase my voice from the record. This new record…I feel like the last three or four songs almost feel like I’m forgetting that I’m making a record. There’s this feeling to it where I’m just slowly fading. Like a ghost, out of the record, or fading out of making records. Like I’m just slowly erasing the protagonist. I guess the flip side of it is I can say that I like erasing myself, but I’m also aware that the longer an instrumental is, the bigger the impact is when a vocal comes in. It’s like a Hendrix guitar solo or something. It’s huge when a voice comes back in.

“It’s such a funny business, because you’re asking people to hang on your every word and then it’s almost like the best songwriters, probably within their heart of hearts, are also apologizing for that at the same time.” — Ian O’Neil

IO: Exactly, yeah it’s the withholding. I think it makes “On the Wheel” great—you think it’s going to be an instrumental, but within the last 20 seconds or so, you’re referencing the birds laughing at you while you’re rising. How do you choose how many words need to go into a song?

AE: The fewest words I can get away with is how many words I put in a song. As soon as I feel like it’s done, I can stop. I would prefer not to have words. 

IO: “Nature Compels Me” has one lyric in it that I’m kind of obsessed with: “Naturally it’ll happen one day / I’ll get in front of it and I’ll leave it behind.” It seems like such a significant part of the song to me, because a lot of the rest of the things that you’re singing about are about contentedness within working life. And that seems like a really significant lyric. Can you talk about that a little bit?  

AE: I think people may think it’s about addiction. I like that it sounds heavy, but what I’m imagining when I was writing the song is that it’s all about being the one among your team of working people that doesn’t mind climbing the ladder. Then I just imagined that it was like this cartoonishly comedic thing from Mad Magazine or something. Like a Sergio Argonese kind of cartoon where someone moves the ladder, and he’s in front of the ladder, and then floats away into the sky. But there was no intention—I didn’t write that song with an intention other than to finish writing the song. 

IO: Do you find it funny to explain to people that songwriting is as much of a mystery to you as it would be to them? 

AE: I don’t think people believe songwriters or painters even when they’re painting, that they may have improvised the writing. Even if it takes hours to do, every moment of it is just a step deeper into the mystery of that thing you’re working on. 

IO: My paintings recently are mostly just portraits and exercises, but yours seem to have a lot more going behind them. How does your process work with painting? 

AE: I’ll sometimes have an idea like, “Oh, I’m gonna paint a face, or I’m gonna paint a landscape,” but I’ve been painting so long that I don’t really draw or keep a sketchbook or doodle. I doodle a painting, so I’ll just start and then what it begins to look like is what I continue to make instead of fighting against it. And all my worst paintings are if I have an idea and I try to paint that idea, they always are much stiffer.

IO: I went to art school for a little while, dropped out to play music, and I have a lot of paintings from that period where I would just get drunk and paint. I definitely had a lot more of an approach where I’d be like, “Oh, I’m gonna follow that path,” and I’d be like, “This is awesome.”

AE: I have a friend who’s a painter who works completely in the opposite—like, he would never rely on his intuition in painting. He’ll take a photograph and then divorce his ego. It’s very Buddhist in that he’s completely trying to separate that ego and be in service to the image that’s supposed to be made. So there’s an element of that service that I think can be really dignified, that can make for a dignified painting that when people see it they respond to the humility of that.

IO: Before you were doing this record with Sandro you did the Blue Fog records. The song “Pride of Egypt” is an epic jam—it kind of feels like Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde era lyrically, in that there’s that abstractness, but it’s punctuated with punchlines at the ends of verses that feel really personal.

I don’t think people believe songwriters or painters even when they’re painting, that they may have improvised the writing. Even if it takes hours to do, every moment of it is just a step deeper into the mystery of that thing you’re working on.” — André Ethier

AE: It’s like a series of images that’s very abstract—to me I don’t know what it means, but it’s funny. I don’t know if you can relate to this but one of the problems with writing directly from your subconscious is that sometimes you don’t like what you see. It’s like the way you can’t control your dreams. Someone was asking like, “Oh, is this about Israel or something?” And I was like, “Woah.” I’d just gotten married and the Snakes had just ended a couple years prior, and there was just a big shouting feeling and emotion—kind of being loose again, or wild. It was a song about being free—not lyrically about it, but the way it’s performed or played. 

IO: One more tune I wanna get to: The song “I’ll See Myself in Your High” kind of feels like one of your more traditional songs. It’s beautiful, but if I’m showing your music to a friend of mine, or sitting around a bonfire, and I were to pick a tune for them to be eased into your world, that’s sort of where I’ll start. It seems to follow something of a pattern on your songs of the last three records that feels like settling into domesticity, or working life, or post adolescence.  

AE: Well, it’s way post-adolescence. I usually perceive my characters in these songs as being older than me, so it’s a way of writing aspirational music for myself, and it’s what it might be like to be even older than I am now. I don’t really tour all that much, but it’s about a character who’s talking to someone who maybe continues to tour.

IO: Knowing that you’re writing from the perspective of characters, what’s revealing about this conversation to me is that there’s probably loads of people who whenever they hear a singer/songwriter singing these words in the first person, assume that it’s about their personal lives. Usually there’s some spark from some personal experience or something like that that sets you down the path of the character. I mean, how could it not be about you? FL

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