Interview and Photos by Erin Christie
Chicago alt-rock act Deeper — composed of members Shiraz Bhatti, Nic Gohl, Drew McBride, and Kevin Fairbairn — shared their sophomore album, Auto-Pain, in early 2020, and just before, I saw them perform at Rough Trade NYC, opening for Montreal-based Sub Pop-signed group Corridor. At the time, it was unbeknownst to any of us that this would be Deeper’s last show for a number of months, given the widespread pandemic that came to a boiling point the very next week. Thus, instead of celebrating their new album — a triumph in terms of tackling personal struggles with mental health and circumstantial grief, given the recent loss of a close friend that the group suffered at the time — the band settled into a new reality, cooped up indoors and forced to rethink their gameplan post-record release.
In the two years since, the band shared a deluxe version of the record, equipped with a number of stellar remixes facilitated by artists such as NNAMDÏ, Working Men’s Club, and PVA, in addition to live renditions of choice tracks. This month, I finally caught Deeper in a true live setting again, this time, opening for Spirit of the Beehive in Boston, MA.
Prior to the show, I sat down with the band to discuss the changes they’ve endured since their last album release, their feelings regarding touring again, how they would describe their sound, and any future projects bubbling under the surface.
To begin, from your perspective, how is touring going? And what songs have you guys been most stoked about playing each night?
Drew: Tour has been super sick, it's been really great. I feel like we actually have like, pretty high stamina for this point in the tour versus other tours. It's also like I feel more confident that there won't be dates canceled because of COVID or anything. So it's like, a little more comfortable than the little fall tour we did or even the one over the winter.
Shiraz: I think we also understand how to take care of our bodies, too. Like, week five doesn't feel like two weeks into a tour did a few years ago.
Drew: Yeah, it's very true. And songs we are most stoked to play...I think "Willing;" it's usually second or third in the set, so there's a couple songs to get everyone warmed up, and I think that's always the turning point where it's like, 'Alright, this has taken off.'
Kevin: I'm always excited to play "Lake." "Lake" and "BMC" are right next to each other a lot of the time and I think those are my two favorites.
Shiraz: I really like playing "Warm," the first song, because it helps all of us kind of get in the mindset. We play that every night to start with and we sort of just drone on the vibes for awhile. It helps me just get all the bullshit of the day out of my system and get ready.
Kevin: I think when we started starting the set with "Warm," that changed our mindsets about the context of all of our songs in the set and it changed the way we play, for sure, probably more than any other decision we made. Coming into the set feels like a whole different thing, and we only started doing that in September. That's kind of changed how we approach the set, I think.
Drew: Yeah, and the other cool thing is that "Warm" closes the record. When we were structuring the record, it seemed like the obvious thing to do would be to close it with "The Knife." But instead, we wanted to have this almost epilogue to the record that leaves the door open to the next one. So, playing live, it actually feels really cool to start the set with the end of the record and to open the door for everything else that follows.
What was the previous choice for the opener of the set?
Shiraz: Sometimes, we'd do "Should Be," or "This Heat."
Drew: I think we were usually like, "Let's just jump right into it." Now, I feel like it's more methodical.
Nic: Shiraz has been doing a land acknowledgment and since we started doing that, and it just felt like it worked with "Warm." And we get a lot of people coming up to us, especially coming up to Shiraz, and thanking him for doing it. And so it kind of puts everybody in perspective of what we're trying to do a little bit more.
It’s definitely a really moving way to begin things and get people acquainted with Deeper and your message. And jumping around, in terms of the renaissance of guitar music, Deeper could theoretically fall into that category, but if given the opportunity to describe your sound yourselves without any journalistic opinion, how would you?
Nic: Probably angular pop music.
Drew: Yeah, we kind of push away from the term post-punk because it's so broad, it almost doesn't mean anything anymore. Also, we fit in with some of those bands, but it still feels like we're a little bit separate. Like, I feel like the mixing styles, the way the guitars kind of influence Shariaz's drumming, and really everything, it doesn't quite fit into the same category.
Kevin: Even just the direction of the production, you know? When I think of post-punk, I almost think of post-punk, I think of analog tapes and bedroom stuff, like Bandcamp.
Drew: [Post-punk] also feels like very singular, and I feel like we have like a lot of different kinds of sounds; it's hard to put a label on it.
Nic: I almost just like to say we're a rock band [laughs].
So, Auto-Pain obviously came out during a stressful time, given all the shit that was going on with you guys personally and with the world, and it's probably kind of weird to answer questions about a record that came not only during a tough time, but two years ago now. That said, though, does it feel kind of cathartic to revisit the material and re-share a record that came out so long ago, and to go back to the mindset you were in while writing it?
Nic: I don't feel like I have the same mindset; I don't think any of us have the same mindset we did when we wrote the record, or even when we were recording it during the pandemic. I honestly think having time away from it makes me appreciate it more. You know, losing Mike and stuff, and then the pandemic really changed everything. Like, we were like, are we even gonna be able to play music. We were like, "Are we even going to be able to play music anymore?" But I think now, having been able to take basically two years off, and then go back at it and still have people coming out and now everybody's sat with th songs, it feels way cooler. It's cool to have people come up and be like, "Hey, this is a record I listened to all through quarantine." People have, like more ownership over it than they would have if it just came out like a normal record.
Drew: Right, and also, we had four months of touring lined up for the record — you saw us right at the beginning of it. So, not having [tours] really changed how a lot of people discover new bands and stuff, so it's like, not having that experience really sucked but the flip side is like, we think it's a really special record, and it's been cool over the last two years for more and more people to still be getting turned on to it. We still have people messaging us and coming to the shows like, "Wow, I just discovered you guys like a week ago, and I had to make the show." So, that's been really cool.
Kevin: The first time we played Chicago after Auto-Pain came out was in September and that was more or less or Record Release Show, but a good portion of the crowd was singing along to the words, and that was awesome. That's always floored us when that happens, and that wouldn't have been possible if we just played a release show the day after the record came out. So, we're like, "Man, we never want to do a release show the day it comes out again. Let's wait a month or two." The response is really special.
And it's also cool that you guys had the chance to revisit the record with the Deluxe version. How did you guys go about deciding who you wanted to collaborate with on the remixes, and how did you choose which tracks to share in a new light?
Nic: It's one of those things where NNAMDI was a friend, so that's how that went down. But yeah, we just asked everybody.
Drew: We asked people we respected, like Fire Tools, her remix is totally insane. It was cool to see her take, and to see how other people interpreted the tracks.
Shiraz: We wanted to see what people in different genres could do with our songs, and just totally make it their own.
In general, how would you say things have changed for you guys, as musicians and songwriters, since Auto-Pain came out? And have you been working on shit and potentially gearing up to release something new?
Nic: We're just older now, and I feel like everybody in the world has aged a significant amount in the last two years. But being able to understand how time works and how nothing has to happen overnight and that some things just take more time than others, like that's probably the best thing I learned throughout these last two years. What will potentially be our next record has been a process of just taking your time and relaxing and not being so like, you know, "I have to do this. I have to do that." Or, "These people are doing this; why aren't we doing that?"
Drew: Well, two things: one, because of the pandemic, it's like any sort of focus on urgency is thrown out the window. So it's like, you gotta focus on what you're doing as its own end, instead of a means for touring or something else. So, yeah, reinforcing the next point, then, since the record came out, we've all grown as a unit. I feel like we're playing a lot better. We had a lot more time to get our tones dialed in — like different, smaller parts of the live show are a lot more refined than even the fall 2019 tour. This is also the first iteration of this lineup playing together, too. So, in some ways, the pandemic allowed us really refine what we're doing right and come out to the shows feeling like we're at the top of our game. Like, the last time you saw us, we didn't know how to play most of the songs on Auto-Pain, so it gave us two years to perfect things.