Providence, Rhode Island native John Joseph McCauley, III – frontman for Deer Tick – is a popular guy these days. His band was recently chosen by Rolling Stone tastemaker David Fricke as the “#1 breaking band” at this year’s South By Southwest, and NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams is a big fan too.
John’s raw, distinctive, howling voice and strong storytelling skills on his 2007 debut War Elephant put him on the radar as an artist to watch. Even more impressive, he played all of the instruments on the album himself. John didn’t envision Deer Tick as a solo effort, so Andy Tobiassen, Dennis Ryan and Chris Ryan have now joined the band. The four-man ensemble are set to release the highly anticipated Born On Flag Day on June 23rd via Partisan Records.
I spoke to John last week and discussed touring, Lil’ Wayne and breakfast cocktails.
R&G: I read somewhere that you mentioned Born on Flag Day sounds nothing like War Elephant. Can you discuss the differences?
John: It’s just the way it was recorded and how we all came together to work on it. I didn’t really know what I was doing when I was recording War Elephant, and I had a really good idea of what I was doing this time around. I just think recording-wise I had no thoughts or expectations of what I wanted it to sound like. I just kind of let it go. It’s a pretty easy-going record and I was actually working with the band, which was cool. I’m really excited about this record.
R&G: What was the experience like recording with a full band instead of by yourself?
John: It was a little more stressful because everybody needs their own amount of time to work, and I generally work pretty quickly in the studio. I feel like we’re wasting money or something, waiting around for somebody to do their thing. The band at that point, Chris and Dennis, have been touring with me for close to two years, so they were good to go. They knew all the songs inside and out. Andy had just joined a month before we recorded the record, so that was stressful, but he pulled it together and kicked ass on it.
R&G: Did the other guys write any songs or are you the primary songwriter?
John: I’m the primary songwriter. There is one co-written song on Born on Flag Day, but it’s not with a band member.
R&G: On War Elephant your songs are about your struggles with the ideas of faith and love. Are there similar themes on Born on Flag Day?
John: Born on Flag Day is more about people. It’s not about me. There are some songs that I’m actually writing from my point of view, but it’s not about questioning faith or terrible break-ups, but more about people.
R&G: What do you mean by ‘people?’
John: Like the people you watch walking down the street, trying to imagine what their lives are like.
R&G: Rolling Stone magazine’s David Fricke picked you guys as the number one band to catch at this year’s South by Southwest festival, and NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams says you’re his favorite new band. Does that blow your mind?
John: My mind has been completely blown. I don’t know what’s going to happen next. I had a dream last night that John F. Kennedy was a fan, even though our music is way after his time. Somehow, somebody went into the past.
R&G: Was it a vivid dream?
John: Not really. It all happened at Logan Airport in Boston – in the dream. I was coming back from a Red Sox game with my mother but we were going to fly back even though it’s forty minutes away from Providence. It was a really confusing, but yeah, somehow John F. Kennedy was a big fan.
R&G: Did he hear your music over the speakers in the airport?
John: No. I got a call from my manager.
R&G: Well, maybe you’ll get one from Obama. Are you going to reach out to Brian Williams? You should get him to one of your shows in New York.
John: We actually met him last week. We went to NBC studios and did an interview with him.
R&G: That’s cool. Did you ever think that Deer Tick would be featured in a magazine with Lil’ Wayne on the cover?
John: Lil’ Wayne – we’re boys.
R&G: Are you getting some gold teeth too?
John: If I get a tooth knocked out.
R&G: How about a couple of teardrop tattoos?
John: I had a teardrop henna tattoo.
R&G: For people who don’t follow your blog, there was an issue at South by Southwest this year about someone saying you’re a ‘hung-over flaky motherfucker’ for showing up late for a show. Can you explain that situation?
John: I can only do so much. I can blow my voice up pretty easily, and if I get sick it’s not a good idea for me to be singing. Pretty much, I got sick and I didn’t want to sing. I wanted to take the afternoon off because I still had more shit to do that weekend, and yeah, I got threatening phone calls and text messages telling me that my life was going to be a living hell if I played any other shows for the rest of the festival. Dumb shit went down. I got there and did it anyway, and then I heard somewhere that shit was being talked about me over the microphone before I got there, which really pisses me off because it was a friend of mine. I haven’t received an apology for that.
R&G: You have another album that is completed, or almost completed. It’s supposed to be a dark album.
John: Yeah. The next album is mostly songs that I wrote a few years ago about this one girl who was my muse for a long time. It was a shitty part of my life, I guess, and I had to go back and revisit that state of mind. We were isolated in a recording studio up in the Minisink Valley in New York. It was snowing the whole time and we didn’t really leave the studio. It was kind of a dark recording setting, too. It was cool. It came out really interesting.
R&G: When do you plan on releasing it?
John: If it comes out this year, it’ll be in December. But I think, realistically, it will come out January or February next year.
R&G: You’re a pretty funny guy. I read a quote from you that said, ‘I’m pretty confident I’ll find my place in the music world. I just hope its not behind the counter of a record store.’ And, when you were opening up for Jason Isbell you dropped a stink bomb on stage during his set. What’s your philosophy on touring and having a good time?
John: I feel like you do the work on tour when you’re driving to where you’re going and when you’re loading your equipment. Once the doors open in that club, for me, it becomes party time. I party onstage. I party in the crowd. I party backstage. Then, when the show’s over and they close the doors, I have to go back to work and unload my equipment. I saw a show last night in Boston. I don’t want to name names, but these are two bands that have gotten a lot of attention and critical praise, and it was the most boring thing to watch – ever. The music was great, but they all stood in the same place and didn’t move and barely talked in between songs. I was like, ‘What is the point of this?’ You could listen to the record. It’s got to be an experience.
R&G: What about the stink bomb?
John: We thought it would be funny to drop a stink bomb while Jason was playing. Basically, we went up at the end of the night during their last song to sing “American Girl” by Tom Petty with them. When we did it this time, as we walked onstage, I just kind of dropped it. We had planned it out. Chris, our tour manager at the time, steps on it and starts grinning so bad. It’s pretty obvious. Nobody on that side of the stage could drink. I could see Jason mouthing to one of the band mates, ‘Dude, it smells like sulfur.’ It stank so fucking bad.
R&G: Where do you get a stink bomb?
John: A novelty fireworks gas station kind of place.
R&G: Was Jason cool with it?
John: Oh, yeah. He was totally cool with it. We had an idea of their personality and if they would think it was funny or not. We concluded that they would.
R&G: You’re known for posting your favorite breakfast cocktails online. What’s your favorite morning cocktail to cure a hangover?
John: That’s got to be a Bloody Mary.
John’s Bloody Mary recipe:
2 Parts Ketel One vodka
3 Parts Mr. & Mrs. T’s Bold & Spicy Bloody Mary mix
Garnish with ground peppercorn medley, dill pickle, 2 baby carrots, pepperoni & salami