(from The Black Dirt Sessions available in June from Partisan)
People often wonder how a 23-year old from Providence, Rhode Island, can write such profound country-influenced songs. Maybe it’s because John McCauley III—Deer Tick’s front man and main songwriter—didn’t find his “calling” until hearing Hank Williams, Sr. Maybe it’s because he was a depressed eighteen-year-old, living in a cold apartment in New England who drank to stay warm, resulting in the songs on War Elephant and (more recently) Born on Flag Day. Sure, both records have the classic country themes of heartbreak, drinking, and more heartbreak and drinking, but of course, no one can actually call it country since the band is young and the songwriter is from New England. In talking to McCauley during a journey across historic Route 66, I found that at heart, Deer Tick is meant to be a traveling band and country is just traveling music—whether from Brooklyn to Providence or Sante Fe to Lubbock, its songwriters can’t stay in one place for too long. Let’s cross out the labels they’ve been stamped with—freak-folk, alt-country, indie rock, and the like. Let the music (and McCauley) do the talking. This interview by Ilyse Kaplan.
How’s the tour going so far?
John McCauley III (guitar/vocals): It’s special. I don’t know if it’s special in a good way or a bad way, but it’s special. I think it’s been like a tragic comedy of a tour. I don’t know how to really describe it. It’s a romantic tragic comedy. I guess it’s just the boozing and the good times and the hanging with old friends and the really long annoying drives and the shitty food. I think it’s making us all go crazy.
How has the response been to the new album? Or would you even still consider Born on Flag Day a new album?
John McCauley III: Hell no. That is old news. No matter what’s out we always get ahead of ourselves with our live shows anyway. We’re playing a lot of unreleased material. It’s exciting for us. We play some of the songs in our live set but I don’t want to get too bored with the album. We’ve been playing mostly stuff off Flag Day, I guess.
I know you guys don’t consider it new anymore, but probably some readers still consider it new…
John McCauley III: Hell yeah—it’s still a baby of an album. The first half of the record is really fun to play live. As for the second half, it’s fun to do “Friday Xiii” whenever we have Liz [Isenberg, guest vocalist and musician] but she’s not on this tour so we’re not gonna be playing that one.
Everyone is always talking about this interview you did with Brian Williams from MSNBC for his BriTunes webisode band interviews.
John McCauley III: Yeah, it’s annoying.
I think you shocked him at the end when you said, ‘My life will change when a girl calls me and says “John, I’m pregnant.”‘
John McCauley III: That was actually right at the beginning of the interview—it really broke the ice. Whoever edited that thing did a really horrible job. They decided to pick the most uncomfortable and boring parts of it for the video. We sat down and talked to him like real people for about a half hour and it was really fun. I don’t know who put that thing together but there’s definitely some more interesting and more comfortable things that went on in that room. I guess the whole idea of us getting together with Brian Williams is kind of awkward anyways. He’s actually a really nice guy. He’s a big music fan. It was pretty cool to get to hang out with him.
I know you guys are from Rhode Island. I’m a New Englander as well. When I was in high school all I saw was emo or hardcore kids.
John McCauley III: Really? I missed that.
I heard you had some involvement in the New England noise and experimental scene, which I must have missed.
John McCauley III: I guess I was involved in it. I went to all the shows or whatever. I think a lot of the qualities in our [Deer Tick’s] live show are just feeding off of the qualities that I witnessed as a young kid at these noise shows and shit. I wasn’t really part of the scene—I was part of the audience. I was in a band that played a few shows at unconventional warehouse venues but it just wasn’t my calling.
So did it take you until you were eighteen to find your calling? When you heard the Hank Williams Sr. record Gold?
John McCauley III: No. I was really into it, though. Aside from playing music and being in bands, I was really a songwriter. Hank introduced me to the whole song-writing universe.
What was the first song you ever wrote?
John McCauley III: I wrote this really really shitty song when I was like ten. It was an all inclusive holiday song. It was like ‘Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukah, Happy Kwanza,’ dumb-ass song. I can’t remember how it went. I remember a couple years ago, finding this notebook from when I was ten and being so embarrassed by everything that I wrote. I tore out every page.
What was the first song you wrote that you were actually proud of?
John McCauley III: I don’t think I’ve ever taken that much pride in what I’ve written. I don’t know why. I guess compared to my all-inclusive happy holidays song, I’m way more proud of the Deer Tick stuff.
Unfortunately, there’s also already a holiday song that is an all inclusive holiday song. We used to sing it in chorus. Have you ever heard that song?
John McCauley III: At this point in my life, I try to stay as far away from holiday music as possible.
Understandable. Do you still live in Brooklyn?
John McCauley III: Hell no. got out of that place. I didn’t really spend much time there between the band and our shows. It just felt like a waste of time and energy trying to live there. I made the drive back and forth between Providence and Brooklyn so many times that I got so sick of it and knew it was definitely time to leave. I never felt like a New Yorker when I was there.
Why do you think living there for such a short time caused people to lump you in with the Brooklyn indie scene?
John McCauley III: It’s just because we’re young and we play small venues. I have absolutely no indie rock sensibility, whatsoever. I like rock ‘n’ roll, I like folk, I like country music, I like blues and I like Nirvana. I think it’s pretty stupid to call us an indie rock band. I guess that’s what we are in a sense but it’s not what we look like. I mean, I guess you can call Husker Du indie rock—essentially that’s what they were, a rock band that was on an indie label. Until they got picked up by a major. That’s the funny thing—a lot of ‘indie rock’ bands are on majors. I don’t really know what the fuck indie rock is.
How would you describe your band?
John McCauley III: I’d call it ‘one euphoric night with a gnarly ass hangover.’
What happened in your life to make the lyrics you write wise beyond your years?
John McCauley III: You could over-analyze the shit out of it. Where I’m coming from, I really believe that anybody could do it. You look at ugly shit and you try to find something beautiful in it. I guess that’s what I try to do. With songwriting, I don’t aspire to anything. I wait it out until the song comes to me, I don’t try to force anything. I don’t think I’m wise beyond my years—I think I’m just patient with my song writing.
You said War Elephant was more of a collection of songs you’d been playing for quite some time. What about Born on Flag Day?
John McCauley III: I’ve never conceptualized a record or thought, ‘Oh, this song would go well with this one.’ Some of the songs on Flag Day are actually older than the songs that ended up on War Elephant. It just came down to what I wanted to record and what I had time to record. That tradition [of using songs accumulated over the years] will be continuing for the third record but for the fourth record we’ll be fresh out of old material. We’ve been trying to work on a bunch of new songs over the past few months. The fourth record will be really cool because it will be adults playing adult songs, not adults playing kid songs. I’m definitely not as angry anymore. My new songs are more light-hearted but are really sharp. There’s a dark sense of humor to it. We’ve been listening to a lot of ‘70s and ‘80s albums. It’s like that Tom Petty lyric: ‘Let’s roll another joint.’ You’ve gotta loosen up a bit before writing that sad, dark, masterpiece.
So there’s no reason why your songs were sad and dark? Was that just where you were in life?
John McCauley III: I was depressed, I was doing a lot of drugs, I was obsessed with this girl that didn’t like me, I didn’t have heat in my apartment. You know how cold a New England winter is. Everything just seemed really bleak and kind of meaningless. I wrote from that state of mind for a long time.
Did you use music as your therapy or a way to wallow in that feeling?
John McCauley III: I think it was just my only option. It could do anything. It could make me more happy or more sad. It could be self-help or self-deprecation. Music can be all of that and it was all of that. Music for me now is just a really enjoyable thing based on where I’m at with life.
Did you find it more enjoyable once your band came full circle and you got the other members? Once it wasn’t just you anymore?
John McCauley III: For sure. It’s a lot more fun just having that chemistry that comes with the band. You get into trouble, you have all these stories to talk about. Music kind of became good times with this incarnation of the band. We try to write songs together. Some of it is fruitful. Some of it doesn’t go anywhere. With the band I think our biggest focus isn’t how the songs are written but how they’re presented.
Anything you’d like to leave readers with before we close the interview?
John McCauley III: I’d like to quote the late great Warren Zevon and say, ‘Enjoy every sandwich.’
AQUARIUM DRUNKARD PRESENTS DEER TICK WITH DR. DOG AND PEPI GINSBERG ON TUE., APR. 27, AT THE MUSIC BOX AT THE HENRY FONDA THEATRE, 6126 HOLLYWOOD BLVD., HOLLYWOOD. 9 PM / $22.50 / ALL AGES. GOLDENVOICE.COM AND AQUARIUMDRUNKARD.COM. DEER TICK’S THE BLACK DIRT SESSIONS WILL RELEASE IN JUNE ON PARTISAN. VISIT DEER TICK AT DEERTICKMUSIC.COM.