Pantless Wunderkinds: Deer Tick Returns
by Adam Perry for Boulder Weekly
Four male musicians in their early 20’s ramble on stage to the hoots and hollers of several hundred fans packing a small club or theater. The bassist is blond and clean cut in glasses that give the impression his mother bought them as a Christmas present. He looks like a computer programmer whose biggest thrill probably consists of occasionally drinking 2% milk instead of skim. The lead guitarist, with unkempt brown hair and a gigantic, innocent smile, seems like he belongs in the Butterfield Blues band circa 1966. The big-boned drummer, whose appearance suggests he hasn’t shaved, showered or changed his t-shirt and jeans in months, is so straight-faced one wonders if he’s a really serious guy or simply about to throw up from drinking too much beer.
And then the singer-guitarist and ringleader, a skinny blond kid in a Custer mustache, cowboy boots and cheap sunglasses, stalks onto the stage with sincere intensity, carrying a case of Budweiser. Sometimes he’s in his underwear. Once, in Manchester, England, a few years ago, he was naked the whole show. And yes, that’s a real California Raisins tattoo.
The brash young frontman is John J. McCauley III, and the band is Rhode Island’s Deer Tick. From their appearance, the boys of Deer Tick look at first sight like your average group of scenesters playing supercharged Buddy Holly-influenced indie-rock ala the Hives or the Strokes, but in fact Deer Tick is about as authentically country as contemporary popular music gets.
Through three LPs—the first, 2007’s lo-fi War Elephant, written and performed entirely by a 20-year-old McCauley—Deer Tick has quickly climbed the underground ranks via constant touring and songwriting, expounding on McCauley’s love for Hank Williams, Roy Orbison and Richie Valens while performing alt-country with a decidedly punk rock attitude and volume. Along the way, the group has earned fans as diverse as Neko Case and NBC’s Brian Williams, and completed a successful tour with Dr. Dog.
When Boulder Weekly last caught up with McCauley two years ago, Deer Tick was making its Fox Theatre debut as War Elephant gained steam in diverse circles and McCauley’s beloved Boston Red Sox were eliminated from the 2008 baseball playoffs by the Tampa Bay Rays. This time around, McCauley was just about to return home from a month-long tour of Europe—where he says “the deli spreads in the dressing rooms are better”—when I asked him about his band’s recent debut on The Late Show with David Letterman, which involved a deviation from CBS’ song selection.
“It was a compromise between us and the network,” McCauley says. “We couldn’t get our keys player, Rob, in the country for the show. He lives in Halifax, [Nova Scotia], and at the time he didn’t have his work visa. The songs they originally wanted us pick from would have sucked without Rob, so we suggested ‘Baltimore Blues’ and they said that would be OK. Everybody seemed to be happy with it. We went on there to make new fans, so I don’t think it would have mattered what we played—as long as it had a hook.”
In any situation, it takes a special group of young musicians to revel in performing an obscure (and beautiful) indie-swing tune from their debut album when given the chance to promote a just-released album on national television. But publicity, for Deer Tick, has come from unlikely situations and proponents.
“Dirty Dishes,” the broken-hearted breakup ballad that turned heads nationwide in 2007 and 2008, eventually ended up on NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams’ much-publicized BriTunes playlist. The truly despairing track includes McCauley’s now-famous Dylanesque lines “I clearly see straight to the back of my skull and I’m shivering all night long…I’ve been dreaming about you and only you” and resembles numerous other Deer Tick songs in its possession of both a hook and a generous helping of McCauley’s earnest, raspy and exceptionally nasal crooning.
As the group’s success has ballooned, Deer Tick’s subsequent longplays, 2009’s harder-rocking Born on Flag Day and this June’s melodiously confessional Black Dirt Sessions—which falls somewhere between Blonde on Blonde and the sweeter side of Nick Cave—have seen musical and engineering improvements over the frugal early days. However, McCauley’s poignantly harsh voice and consistently remarkable songwriting have remained the heart of Deer Tick since the beginning.
Still, McCauley—who says he “grew up listening to everything”—is more than a beer-swilling, pantless wunderkind blasting country-rock for raucous young audiences. On The Black Dirt Sessions, the New England-bred singer—supported only by piano—admits in “Goodbye, Dear Friend” that “some stories break your heart / very deep inside where it’s OK to cry.” Even more touching, Deer Tick is currently auctioning off the tour bus they used for all of 2009, with most of the proceeds going to benefit Pakistani flood victims.
“The situation over there is so critical, but it seems that very few people are aware of it,” McCauley said in a recently circulated statement. “Maybe it’s the stigma with that part of the world, I’m not sure. Either way, we feel really strongly that people should be more aware of the situation and hopefully we can help with that.”
McCauley seems conscious of how fortunate he is to be making a living by playing music in this tumultuous new entertainment world, in which an artist’s pay is almost solely dependent on the quality of his or her live performances. So far, he’s written virtually all of the lyrics and music Deer Tick has recorded; that’s about to change and, according to McCauley, the group is such a tight-knit unit that, “By the next album it will become clear that Deer Tick is a band effort. We’d probably stop playing as Deer Tick if someone were to leave the band for any reason.”
As for the arc of his outfit’s career from The Black Dirt Sessions forward, McCauley says that passion, rather than luxury or stardom, is paramount.
“I just like writing and playing. It would be nice to have a hit, but I’d rather just make albums we can all be happy with and see the world.”