Deertick’s Delight

john mccauley

It’s raining in Santa Fe and I’ve been listening to the four discs of Bob Dylan and the Grateful Dead’s 1987 tour rehearsals that some kind soul sent me years ago. Some of that playful, truly American music actually reminds me of Deertick, a great young band getting a lot of praise lately. I received a copy of the new Deertick album the other day, and it’s definitely a worthy successor to War Elephant, the Providence, RI band’s gritty & soulful 2007 breakthrough.

Deertick plays an authentically country version of indie-rock that makes Wilco sound like Coldplay. Frontman and head-honcho John McCauley III, who is only 22, has a voice “like sand and glue” and knows his Hank Williams and Willie Nelson so well that it keeps him from trying to please the hipsters who might be turned off by some of Born On Flag Day, a dirty and sincere country-rock record which even includes a great version of “Goodnight Irene” as a secret track at the end. Anyway, I’ll get around to reviewing the new Deertick album soon, but in the meantime here’s an interview I did with McCauley last fall for Boulder Weekly:

“Parasitic Arachnids”
Indie-rockers Deertick Burrow Under Boulder’s Skin
by Adam Perry for Boulder Weekly
10/23/08

In case you’re wondering, Wikipedia has two short definitions for the word “deer tick”: 1) “a parasitic arachnid residing in the Midwestern and Eastern United States; and 2) “a folk rock singer-songwriter.” I believe the latter describes 22-year-old John McCauley III, the young Providence, R.I., indie crooner whose seemingly never-ending tour hits the Fox Theatre on Tuesday, Oct. 28. McCauley’s debut album War Elephant, on which he wrote all the songs (besides the classic tear-filled ballad “What Kind of Fool Am I?”) and played all the instruments, is making waves in the American underground.

The haunting textures, tormented poetry and desperate energy of War Elephant (due to be cleaned up and re-released by Partisan Records next month) defy the sometimes over-stretched songwriting and irritating musicianship (especially the inconsistent, childish drumming) that pops up throughout. McCauley’s songs are most effective when consciously short and succinct, like “Art Isn’t Real,” which is probably the highlight of the album, with its enticing country hop and pessimistic ruminations. “There’s gotta be some old recipe,” McCauley laments. “’Cause I gotta get drunk / I gotta forget about some things.”

The shoddy bass and cardboard drums that infect War Elephant are triumphed by beautiful steel guitar, playful keys, twangy Wilco-esque electric guitar and (most of all) McCauley’s forlorn country voice, which is equal parts raspy and tender and can somehow make clichés powerful with its Nashville vibe: broken hearts and bottomless drinks à la Hank and Roy. McCauley’s voice and vibe sound like that of a man twice his age and experience, but he told me his vocal style isn’t just a product of an obsession with Tom Waits and Bob Dylan or even booze and cigarettes:

“I screamed in a lot of rock bands in high school and started smoking at 14. It’s the only way I really know how to sing now. But I’ve been learning proper breathing techniques in order to hit higher notes and sing with a bit more clarity. It’s beginning to work for me, and it’s like I’m getting a whole new voice. But don’t worry, it’s still got that rasp.”

There’s also literate angst in Deer Tick’s music that help McCauley lean more toward early ’90s indie-rock than the country-rock of, say, Uncle Tupelo. It’s somewhat due to the attractively simple guitar lines and the basement slop of the rhythm section but also just the in-your-face attitude of McCauley’s lyrics and delivery. “I got nothin’ to look forward to / ’cause I killed all the flowers,” he sings in “Dirty Dishes,” one of the best breakup songs in recent memory. “I can barely see straight to the back of my skull / and I’m shivering all night long…dreaming about you.” But McCauley admits he’s not much of a reader and draws most of his lyrical inspiration from personal experience:

“If I can be honest, I’m really not too well read,” he said. “I read mostly true crime and history books. In a way, there is a bit of a Deer Tick fantasy world. Most of my lyrics are from personal experience or the experiences of people I know. To write a song I sometimes fill things in with situations or characters that I create. But there’s truth in everything.”

McCauley also told me that growing up in Rhode Island, where by preschool he already knew how to record favorite songs off the radio, has shaped his world view in a big way:

“Providence is a gorgeous city with so much to draw inspiration from. Living in some of the more undesirable parts of town has been inspiring. Seeing all the old folks walking around Carroll Tower in Smith Hill; seeing the East Side flood with college students in the fall; seeing people just getting by and seeing people like prostitutes, drug addicts, drug dealers and homeless people. They’ve all affected me in some way. Rhode Island is a beautiful state, too. And those beaches, man…”

Spending so much time in a van crisscrossing these United States doesn’t afford much time for hitting “those beaches, man,” but McCauley has assembled a group of musicians he loves to play and travel with.

“We get along great on the road. Lots of laughs. We’ve been together a bit longer than a year. Before I recruited Dennis, Chris and Andy, Deer Tick was either me playing by myself or a rag-tag group of unrehearsed musicians. The four of us have known each other, played in bands with each other, and lived together for a while. It just kind of happened one by one — I got the idea in my head that I needed a solid lineup and went out and started [finding] people I wanted to play with.”

Legend has it that new Deer Tick lead guitarist Andrew Tobiassen (“Andy T”) was discovered drinking Smirnoff Ice while on break from washing dishes at Margaritaville in Panama City, but perhaps that’s part of the Deer Tick Fantasy World, as well. Another recent John McCauley fantasy involved his beloved Boston Red Sox representing the American League in this year’s World Series. When we talked last week, he told me, “I feel pretty good… I’m keeping the faith. Ran into a Boston native in a bathroom in Nashville last night. We had some Sox urinal talk. Felt right at home.”

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