Rollo & Grady Interview With John McCauley III of Deer Tick

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John McCauley is a rock star, plain and simple. He’s an extremely talented musician with no pretense who is accessible to his fans and loves to have a good time. Like the fictional character Russell Hammond played by Billy Crudup in Almost Famous, it’s easy to envision John taking a hit of acid after a show and heading out to a late night party with his fans. He’s the kind of guy that would jump off the roof into the pool without any encouragement and without proclaiming, “I’m A Golden God.” There would be no guilty feeling the next day; he would chalk it up as a life experience. That’s the way John is wired.

Deer Tick began as a solo project in December 2004 when John was only 18 years old in Providence, Rhode Island. During that time he taught himself to play drums, guitar, piano, and pedal steel. He went on to record his critically acclaimed debut album ‘War Elephant’ at age 19. John’s distinctive, howling voice and tales of love and loss put him on the map with critics around the world. The music press anointed McCauley as one of folk/country’s most promising young songwriters.

Rollo & Grady Interview With John McCauley III of Deer Tick

John didn’t envision Deer Tick as a solo effort, so he invited Andy Tobiassen (no longer in the band), Dennis Ryan, and Chris Ryan to join the Deer Tick for their sophomore album, ‘Born On Flag Day’. At the time, John commented on the newly formed band, saying, “I tend to limit myself as far as what I write about and how I deliver my lyrics, so collaboration has been a really healthy thing for me lately. I’m kind of realizing that singing songs about getting drunk and cheating isn’t going to sustain itself for much longer. I’m going to have to broaden my horizons.”

Deer Tick’s brand of music has been described as country, folk/rock, and alt-country, but that’s selling the band short. If you see them live, you will see elements of grunge, blues, punk rock, and country ballads, with a primary focus on straight up rock n’ roll. Their live performances and non-stop touring have earned the band a loyal following of devoted supporters and fans.

In addition to performing with Deer Tick, McCauley is currently touring with Middle Brother, which is a collaboration with Taylor Goldsmith of Dawes and Matthew Vasquez of Delta Spirit. They are touring behind Middle Brother’s self-titled album, which was released last month.

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R&G: Hey John? What’s going on?

JM: I’ve been drinking vodka since 3 in the afternoon. [Loud peeing]. I read your interview with Arish [King Khan] where he took a piss during your interview. I thought I would do the same.

R&G: [Laughs] Honestly, that’s the best thing you could ever start an interview with.

JM: [Laughs – Still peeing] Yeah, I thought so too.

R&G: By the way, where are you?

JM: [Still peeing] I’m in Providence. I was in New Haven last night. I went to see Those Darlins show and I got back this afternoon.

Rollo & Grady Interview With John McCauley III of Deer Tick

R&G: How was their show?

JM: I thought it was excellent. I’ve seen them play three times in the past four days, and I think that was the best sounding show. The crowd was a little strange, but Connecticut can be a tough market even for us, and we’re pretty much local.

R&G: Their new album is excellent.

JM: I fucking love it. I think the songs are really well written. It sounds a little garagey, but it’s more mature than that garage rock scene. I think I’d rather listen to that record than ‘Exile On Main St.’

R&G: Are you and Nikki married or are you guys still engaged?
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JM: We’re still engaged. We were going to get married this summer, but with their new record coming out, it just didn’t seem like the right time. We want to have the right amount of time off afterwards to be newlyweds and whatever.

R&G: Is it going to be something where you guys want to make it a rock & roll wedding and hang out and bring all your friends and play music?

JM: I think the idea is that we have a pretty straightforward ceremony and have two crazy-ass receptions with our rock & roll friends and our families in different parts of the country.

R&G: When we caught up before your show, the Deervana show at SXSW, you had just dyed your hair pink. Were you trying to channel your inner Cobain?

Rollo & Grady Interview With John McCauley III of Deer Tick

JM: It was a very sarcastic way of coming out as Cobain for the evening. I knew it would get varied reactions from anybody with any strong opinions on Nirvana and Kurt Cobain and what they stood for, and that was what I was going for. Plus, I’ve never dyed my hair an unnatural color before and I thought it was time.

Rollo & Grady Interview With John McCauley III of Deer Tick
Image by Tim Griffin

R&G: Did you feel there was added pressure performing Nirvana’s songs?

JM: No. We just wanted to make sure that we knew the songs well enough to do a pretty good performance of it. We took an hour or two before the show and got together in a hotel room and listened to all the songs we were going to do. We also kind of felt like we to do some instrument smashing.

R&G: So that was staged?

JM: It was staged.

R&G: Did you guys feel like you put on a good performance?

JM: I thought so, considering the chaos of people running on stage and stage diving and whatnot. My pedals came unplugged. I think everybody came unplugged at different points in the night from people tripping over cables and whatever. We were hoping it was going to be like that and it was. I think it was a fun idea. It was Saturday night; people had been going to shows for four days straight and trying to take it all in. I think it was a great way for people that were there to totally fucking let loose and kind of relive something from their past.

R&G: Do you plan to do an extended Deervana tour?

JM: We’re trying to be really careful about how many more of these shows we do. We’ve got an unusually large amount of requests from promoters and festivals for a Deervana fest and we’ve turned just about all of them down. It looks like we might be doing one or two more, but it’s also kind of unlikely, though. I don’t want to be associated with some sort of tribute act. I don’t want Deervana to become a common, cheapened version of Nirvana, and I don’t want Deervana to steer people away from our main focus, which is Deer Tick, obviously.

R&G: Let’s talk about Middle Brother.

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Poster by Ben Kramer

JM: Hell yeah.

R&G: The album is fantastic. Are you happy the response it’s getting? What are your thoughts about the collaboration with Taylor Goldsmith [Dawes] and Matthew Vasquez [Delta Spirit]?

JM: Man, I think it’s a really fucking sweet band. I have no regrets about the way we made the record at all. There are probably four more songs that we did that didn’t come out in any form that I hope someday will. Other than that, I think everything else about it is great. Working with Matt and Taylor… We had Griff [Griffin Godsmith, Dawes] in there too, who we love. Working with them in the studio, with the combination of the producers, Adam Landry and Justin Collins, opened my eyes a lot to how to approach making a record. I think everybody walked away with a little bit of each other’s personality. We’re definitely approaching the next Deer Tick record the way we did the Middle Brother record.

R&G: What do you mean by “approaching”?

JM: We want to have it sound more like you’re just kind of letting the tape roll, you know? That’s a lot of how the Middle Brother record came about. It was kind of like get in the studio whenever and just kind of roll tape and see how it goes. Mostly, every song we did was totally unfamiliar and foreign to everybody else but the guy who wrote it.

R&G: Do you think your experience with Middle Brother made you a better musician?
Rollo & Grady Interview With John McCauley III of Deer Tick
JM: Definitely. I learned a lot about figuring a song out kind of on the fly and choosing your role in the song and sticking to it. It just makes life in the studio so much easier. It’s like, I think with the current line-up of Deer Tick, which we’ve decided is the definitive line-up; we need that kind of… It’s this weird combination of recklessness and discipline. It’s like let’s have a fucking party in the studio, but don’t stray from your part. It’s more than that, and it’s kind of difficult to explain. I guess, everything on that record is either the first, second, or third take. That’s what I want to do: don’t over think things too much and just play along and let the music do its own thing. You’re there to serve the song.

R&G: You recorded in Nashville, right?

JM: Yeah. Nothing fancy: basically in a garage.

R&G: Was it an easy process? Did everybody write the songs that they sang on the album?

Rollo & Grady Interview With John McCauley III of Deer Tick
Images by Michael Orlosky/Rollo & Grady

JM: Pretty much. Yeah. The original idea was supposed to be more of a writing collaboration, and it was originally just supposed to be just me and Taylor, and then Matt heard about what was going on. Matt came in the day we entered in the studio and I had drunkenly met Matt once before. I don’t remember this, but he does. To me, I was meeting him for the first time when I picked him up at the airport on the first day of recording. I tossed him a beer and we drove back to the studio having a beer and he was like, “How’s it going?” and I was like, “I don’t know. We haven’t started recording.” and he was like, “What?” I said, “Yeah, you’re here from day 1, buddy.” He came in prepared with a bunch of songs that I guess he or Delta Spirit didn’t feel like fit into their catalogue and we Middle Brotherized them. Prior to that, before we started recording, me and Taylor hung around the house that we’d subletted. We sat around the dining room table all afternoon with our guitars, but working independently of one another. At night, we’d go out to the bars and party or whatever. Kind of repeat that every day for two weeks. Corndawg [Jonny] would pop in every day and just be like, “How’s it going?” That’s how we came up with Middle Brother. Middle Brother, the song, that’s the only real collaborative song-writing on the record. That was written by me, Taylor, and Corndawg.

Rollo & Grady Interview With John McCauley III of Deer Tick

R&G: How difficult is it for you to write a song, or a song that you think is worthy of an album?

JM: It’s tough to say. Middle Brother was a whole new experience for me. I’d never forced myself to write because I felt like I had to or there was some kind of deadline, and that was the case with the Middle Brother record. I think I handled it really well. I write songs here and there, just on a day-to-day basis and a lot of them just get lost or forgotten or after a day or two I just don’t think they’re good at all.

R&G: I read an article that mentioned the Middle Brother collaboration was also a way for you to shed light on the three bands you guys front.

JM: Yeah, that’s definitely what I think we knew was going to happen. As we were making the record, it became pretty clear that that’s exactly what it was going to do. That’s cool with everybody. I think we’ve all gained a lot of fans from each other’s respective fan bases due to this crossing. It’s just good for everybody.

R&G: Were you disappointed that Pitchfork didn’t review the album?

Rollo & Grady Interview With John McCauley III of Deer Tick
JM: No, man. I couldn’t care less. They probably would have had a field day trashing it, which, I guess, would have been pretty entertaining to read. Press is press. Journalism is what it is. There are always going to be publications or blogs or whatever that don’t like you. Fucking deal with it. I could care less about Pitchfork and at the same time I could kind of care less about a lot of the press we get, even if the publications champion us. I just want to make music and fucking have a good show and meet interesting people.

R&G: Rumor has it that you are playing the Kentucky Derby.

JM: That was something that was offered, and now we’re taking a closer look at it. It wasn’t actually going to be during the Kentucky Derby. I guess the money wasn’t right. It would have required us flying Rob out from Halifax [Nova Scotia], which is always fucking expensive. They didn’t want to cover his travel or something like that. We would have had to do the 24-hour driving day to get there. Then, we didn’t have shows to connect us down to Bonnaroo and it turned into quite the headache, so we declined the offer.

R&G: So is this your first Bonnarroo?
Rollo & Grady Interview With John McCauley III of Deer Tick
JM: Yeah.

R&G: Are you excited?

JM: I am. Yeah. I think our goal is to pick up a bunch of LSD in Nashville and drive to Manchester and park our RV for four days and have a good time.

R&G: I hear that the cops are all over the drug thing down in Tennessee. But tons make it into the festival.

JM: [Laughs] Well, maybe we won’t pick anything up. I’m sure we can find it at the festival.

R&G: In our interview two years ago we discussed Lil’ Wayne’s gold teeth. I said, “Are you going to get gold teeth too?” And you said, I thought jokingly, “If I get a tooth knocked out.” So, you have one now. Give the story behind that.

Rollo & Grady Interview With John McCauley III of Deer Tick
Images by Michael Orlosky/Rollo & Grady

JM: Well, I do this beer bottle trick, where I’ll do a guitar solo and I’ll get on my knees and pick up a beer bottle with my teeth, and chug the whole beer while I do the guitar solo. It’s not good for your teeth. Yeah. I’m sure you can fill in the rest.

R&G: Why did you decide to go with gold?

JM: Why not? If I have a cavity, I choose to get silver fillings instead of white ones because I think it adds more character to you. I got a shit ton of tattoos. Why not make some kind of jewelry a permanent part of my body?

Rollo & Grady Interview With John McCauley III of Deer Tick

Middle Brother is playing the Echo on Thursday, April 7th (tix info)
Download Middle Brother album – (iTunes)
Download Deer Tick Catalog – (iTunes)

Deer Tick – Straight Into A Storm [Daytrotter]
Deer Tick – Easy
Deer Tick – Friday XIII
Deer Tick – Still Crazy After All These Years [Paul Simon]
Deer Tick – Nebraska [Springsteen]
Deer Tick – Dead Flowers [Rolling Stones]
Middle Brother – Me Me Me
Deervana – Lithium
Those Darlins – Screws Get Loose

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