Thursday, May 8, 2014

Deer Tick's John McCauley: The Cream Interview

Posted By on Thu, May 8, 2014 at 1:31 PM

Deer Tick is a band bred on grimy bars and rowdy crowds, and while that foundation remains the same, we've seen a wider variety of creative material from the band in the past year, both on the stage and in the studio. Their latest full-length, Negativity, reveals a more refined sound, and while John McCauley maintains his riotous energy as a frontman, things come off as a little more cool and collected these days.

It's a composure that seems like a natural evolution, given McCauley's wealth of collaborations since breakout album Divine Providence. He's sat in with members of Dawes and Delta Spirit to form a band called Middle Brother, and expanded upon his rock 'n' roll roots to form a supergroup of sorts in Diamond Rugs. But recently more than ever, McCauley's had a lot going on: extensive touring, a slew of festival appearances, recent marriage to singer-songwriter Vanessa Carlton (Stevie Nicks performed the nuptials, no big deal) and a move back to Nashville. Oh, and last month he sat in with Nirvana's remaining members at a secret after-show celebrating the band's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction. There was that.

Tonight, Deer Tick will play Mercy Lounge along with Adia Victoria and Steelism. Read my feature on Deer Tick here, and see my chat with McCauley after the jump.

You fronted Nirvana the other week after their Hall of Fame induction. Can you tell me a little bit about that?

Well, that was "Childhood John" dream come true. You know, "Adult John" would have never had such ... unrealistic expectations. Adult John would have never even wished for that to happen. I thought someone was playing a prank on me or something, because it was the day before April Fools'. I didn't think it was real.


How did it come together?

Dave sent me an email with the address of a studio, gave me a date and a time, and I showed up. The receptionist there was like, you know, "Who are you here for?" and I'm like, "I'm going to Studio Six." "What band?" I'm like, "Uh, Nirvana?" That's not like a real answer to a question, you know? But it was! It worked.


Obviously that was probably a result of your history performing as Deervana. How did that whole thing originate and evolve into this?

We did it originally just for a friend's birthday party. We only did it a handful of times. We did it at South by Southwest, just to kind of, you know, make a mockery of our appearance at the festival, you know? That's definitely not what you're supposed to do when you play at South by Southwest. To show up as a cover band. But it wasn't really a stretch for any of us. We all knew the songs. At least for me, Nirvana was a pretty profound impact on my life.

We probably only played like, six shows as Deervana ever. It's just for fun, we're not like — I dunno, we're just having a good time. A lot of very serious — I wouldn't even call them Nirvana fans, they're more like Kurt Cobain fans, you know? — they definitely do not appreciate shit like that [laughs]. I guess my advice to them is just to lighten the fuck up.

The whole party after the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame [induction ceremony], it was great. I mean, it was a party. That's what Dave described it to me as, in his email. That it was just gonna be some loud, drunk after-party type thing. I was like, "Oh shit," you know. A guy like me, I thrive in those places. So I was like, "Let's do it." It was a nice celebration of his impact. It was a big honor for me, you know. To be asked to do it in the first place. It was super cool. I just tried to do the songs justice, and everybody else did the same that performed with them. Great night. You could tell it was kind of emotional for the band and for the fans. It was a really special thing to be a part of.


Even beyond Nirvana/Deervana though, Deer Tick is a band that's done a lot of covers. What makes a song one that you want to cover?

For me it only takes one requirement, and that's that the song has gotten stuck in my head, you know? The only way to get it out, so it can stop bothering me, is to play it. But you know, back in the day when we were playing like 250 shows a year, and we would play little dive bars and stuff, you know we'd have all night to play. We'd normally play for two to three hours, and we'd have to learn how to play a lot of songs. So we've got a pretty good bar-band repertoire. We know all sorts of different styles and artists. It's all stuff that we dig. I mean, we don't really ... I guess there have only been a few occasions where we've covered songs that we aren't necessarily really big fans of.


With so much to choose from, how do you make a setlist? Are you playing the same stuff every night?

We used to just fly by the seat of our pants; we usually wouldn't make setlist. Basically play what came to mind, whatever anybody shouted at us. We had no problem going into it, whether or not the results were good or if it was a disaster. But now, I mean, I guess we take our live show a lot more seriously than we used to. Well, now we make a set list, y'know. And now, if we haven't played a song in a while, I think we'd be less inclined to just try it and see if it works and potentially combust onstage. If we're gonna attempt something we haven't played in a while, we're probably gonna rehearse it first. I guess we're more doing what bands actually do, you know?


I guess you could expect that just listening to this last album, Negativity — the songs were a lot more polished than you'd find on some of the former Deer Tick albums. A lot more piano too, and a duet with your now-wife Vanessa Carlton. Can you tell me about that?

I originally did that song in Nashville with Adam Landry and Justin Collins, the producers who did Middle Brother with me and Divine Providence and the Diamond Rugs album. I did a session with them, I guess January 2013, so a month or two months before we recorded Negativity. And just had some friends come down and play, had Scott Lucas from Local H. Vanessa came down. We were just kinda like, "I wonder what would happen in we got in a room together and hit record." So that was kind of the point of it… it's just kind of like a sloppy session that was kind of fun to listen to, but we didn't really know what to do with it. But I wrote that song and recorded it just as a single vocal and not a duet, but Vanessa did harmonies on it and I thought I might want to use it on Negativity. It's a song that I wrote about my parents.

We both really liked the way Vanessa's voice sounded with mine harmonizing. And I thought, "You know, the way it's written, I don't really have to change a single word if I just kinda give her the second verse. It just automatically becomes a duet, kinda cool." So we tried it that way and everybody dug it.


So your wedding: Stevie Nicks did the ceremony. How did that happen?

Vanessa's been friends with Stevie a long time. We were gonna run off and get married — we didn't really want to have a wedding. It's just not both of our styles. But she said, "You know there's one person who could marry us. And we could have a little wedding. Let's ask Stevie, see if she'll do it. If she does't want to do it, then yeah, we'll just elope." But Stevie, she was into the idea, and she got her minister card or whatever.


You and Vanessa are buying a house in Nashville, is that right?

We just closed on it, bought a house in Inglewood. A fixer-upper. It's a 1930s bungalow, we're into it. I lived in Nashville for about four years, and I moved to New York last July. You know, New York … I dunno. You know that Jim Croce song, "New York's Not My Home"? It's just how I've always kind of felt about the place. I like it, but I don't really like living there, you know? I guess Vanessa could tell I missed Nashville a lot, and luckily she loves the city too. We found a house down there; we're still gonna keep the apartment in New York. Do the back-and-forth for however long we can afford it. The longer we hold onto the apartment in New York, it's just appreciating in value every year.


So lastly, can you tell me a little bit about the record store release? Why you decided to release those B-sides, the title, etc.?

Well, the two songs that are on it were just kind of hanging around. They're actually from a session we did with Steve a year before Negativity that was kind of like an ambitious week, where we thought we could record an album. But, y'know, of course that did not happen. We had these songs laying around. We ended up putting one on the record, "Trash," and these two we were like, "Let's do Record Store Day. We've got two songs — perfect 7-inch." We named it Eel Bowel, because since it was for Record Store Day we thought maybe record geeks would recognize the name from Longmont Potion Castle, the surrealist prank phone calls. It's kind of essential listening for any record nerd, so we thought maybe the name would be familiar to some, well, record store geeks. Ringing the old bell for them.

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