How Deer Tick's John McCauley Finally Embraced His Unpredictable Band

With 'Deer Tick Vol. 1' and 'Deer Tick Vol. 2,' the singer-songwriter accepts the disparate acoustic and electric sides of his group

"We became this band where you never knew what you were going to get on any given night," says Deer Tick leader John McCauley. Credit: Laura Partain

No one seems to be eating any Italian food anywhere here at Smeraldo's, a restaurant in the Madison area of Nashville that looks like what David Lynch might have concocted, should he have directed The Sopranos: it's all exit-sign-red lights, floral wallpaper in faded color combinations and an ancient Silver City jukebox that still plays classic country for hours at a time. Apparently they have a good alfredo pasta here, too, but there's nary a dish in sight, and it smells more like musk than garlic.

Deer Tick's John McCauley likes to drink here because it reminds him of home back in Rhode Island – those working-class sort of places where you come to be anything but seen. These days, McCauley, if he goes out at all, just wants to be somewhere quiet, away from Nashville's increasingly hip, increasingly crowded scene. And he's been missing Providence a lot lately.

"I gotta get out of here," McCauley says, shrugging with a chuckle as he drinks a beer with a side of Maker's in one of the restaurant's booths. He and his wife, Vanessa Carlton, live in Nashville with their toddler daughter, but they've been itching to get back to the East Coast. "It's just strange raising a kid away from an extended family. And I don't really dig fresh water. I need the ocean. I don't like the way the bottom of the lake feels under your feet."

It makes sense that McCauley, in a white Los Straitjackets shirt, is comfortable here at Smeraldo's, a place oozing with local history and color yet still on the fringe: because that's how Deer Tick is too. McCauley's taste for both Hank Williams and the Replacements has always been the band's bread and butter – or, more appropriately, their ketchup and mustard. Those condiments are the motif across their newest set of records, Deer Tick Vol. 1 and Deer Tick Vol. 2, an acoustic and an electric duo of LPs, respectively, released last week. And at this point in his life, McCauley doesn't want to argue with which part of the band people want on their hot dog: one, the other, or both.

Until now, Deer Tick's unpredictability has been part of the package. Live shows and songs could be raucous and wild, or subdued and introspective. Records have carried both of these sides, too: 2013's Negativity went metal on "Pot of Gold" and softly waltzing on "Just Friends," and McCauley has written some of the decade's most potent combinations of folk and rock – "Dirty Dishes," "Christ Jesus" and "Twenty Miles" – all while Deer Tick have built a reputation as a band that could drink more than you, play louder than you and still get up in the morning to do it all again.

"On the earlier albums, I was more sonically obsessed with folk music," says McCauley. "Then the punk stuff started to rear its ugly head on our records. We became this band where you never knew what you were going to get on any given night."

McCauley started Deer Tick in 2004, after growing up in Rhode Island and developing a point of view that melded the punk and rock music he loved with quieter singer-songwriters. He discovered Hank Sr. when he was a teen, devouring writing that was "so simple and powerful and the words were so deliberate," he says, "it just kind of shook me." Those songs led to artists like Karen Dalton and Nick Drake; catching Kurt Cobain cover Lead Belly's "In the Pines" on MTV Unplugged was another important tip-off. To McCauley, melding narrative folk music and emotive blues with rock, like the "unrelated lines and contradictions" of Cobain's style, didn't feel problematic, and propelled the spirit of the band's 2007 debut, War Elephant. To some, it amplified the potency of tracks like "Ashamed," which is driven by acoustic fingerpicking but rattles with a ragged chug. To others, it felt jarring, never quite existing as one thing or another.

"John McCauley is a little bit Tom Petty, a little bit Johnny Cash and a little bit spectacular." –Stevie Nicks

But that balance within McCauley and Deer Tick is what led him to sing in a Nirvana reunion one night and then end up in Guy Clark's backyard another, picking "Baltimore Blues No. 1" for the late folk legend, who complimented McCauley on his guitar work. Maybe in a more patient world, material from Deer Tick Vol. 1 and Vol. 2 could have intermingled on one record, hopping happily between mandolin and fuzzy riffs. But they'd tried that before, and what Deer Tick viewed as adventuresome was often interpreted as inconsistent.

"We need things in cleaner categories now," says Craig Finn of the Hold Steady, who toured with Deer Tick in 2014. "You think about Led Zeppelin, who had a lot of acoustic stuff, especially on their third record, after two very successful heavy ones. And there are two sides to [Deer Tick], so they might just be the perfect band to have a double release like this."

For Stevie Nicks, who presided over the marriage of Carlton and McCauley, those two sides are at the crux of what make him such a powerful artist, and "my favorite new singer-songwriter," she says. "John McCauley is a little bit Tom Petty, a little bit Johnny Cash and a little bit spectacular."

Deer Tick weren't even particularly sure they were going to make another record, and its members – Ian O'Neil, Chris Ryan, Dennis Ryan and now former member Robbie Crowell – were busy with other projects or personal pursuits. But after a set at Newport Folk Festival, playing together felt natural again. "We started sending demos and then we said, 'Are we going to make an album or what? Yeah, let's go make a fucking album. Let's do it,'" recalls McCauley. The band ended up recording Vol. 1 and Vol. 2 at Ardent Studios in Memphis.


To write the songs, McCauley, happier than he'd been in years and working to stay off the harder drugs (he still drinks, as evidenced by the several beers and two shots he has in this Italian restaurant), had to follow his fascinations to find material – never a particularly confessional artist anyway, he paid attention to the news, to corners of romance he wanted to address, or even to satire. He still wanted to capture Deer Tick's signature sense of light dipped in darkness, which was no longer as easy when it's not constantly at your back door.

"There is not a whole lot going on in my life that would be very interesting in a song," he says. "And I've never been too good at writing happy, feel-good songs. But I was a miserable prick for many years, and that experience helps me sometimes. I definitely had to look to current and historical events to just get riled up enough emotionally to put pen to paper."

On Vol. 1 and Vol. 2, that manifests itself in songs about the Orlando, Florida, Pulse nightclub shooting; vigilante George Zimmerman; and the media's preoccupation with turning artists who have overcome addition into heroic talking points, all while still glamorizing abuse. And he explores the shadier corners of romance, like in "Only Love," a tender ode to the moments just before the fire fizzles. McCauley has always been interested in shady characters, too, like the ones who might hang out at a place like Smeraldo's: "Baltimore Blues," one of Deer Tick's most well-known anthems, was written about organized crime and McCauley's obsession with gangsters like Henry Hill. "The Baltimore part came from when [Hill] was a younger guy and he used to go down to Baltimore and steal trucks full of cigarettes," he says.

Sometimes McCauley will play these songs alone – like he did on a limited City Winery run in 2015 – which gives moments like "Baltimore Blues" a chance to really show their emotional punch. He thinks about doing a solo record – maybe "a vocal album where I sing standards," or a tribute to his friend Phil Hummer, titled John Sings Phil. Then, when McCauley does his originals, he jokes he could simply call it John Sings. Those plans aside, Deer Tick is very much a band, not just his vehicle: O'Neil and Dennis Ryan are heard across Vol. 1 and Vol. 2, too.

"Even by the time that I first started getting to know them, there was an energy, an attitude, a mythology that surrounded the band and the stories about the band," says Taylor Goldsmith of Dawes, who played in the band Middle Brother with McCauley and Matthew Vasquez. "And it really felt like a 'band' in the truest sense of the term – a distinctive personality that cannot exist outside of this specific lineup. Not just some songwriter who found a handful of role players. But a true band with a DNA dependent upon each musician. But most importantly, the songs are always great. John seems to have a direct line between his inspiration and his finished song. He seems to know how to get out of his own way and communicate something pure and unadulterated."

There's no Middle Brother project on the table at the moment, though McCauley isn't opposed to it ("Seems like everybody wants to do it, but we are also kind of worried, since it was such a specific moment in time") and the band's focus is on touring – each night will be split into two sets, one acoustic and one electric, opened by a comedian. McCauley has intricate plans for the presentation, too, even down to onstage costume rules: "no more sweatshirts, no pajamas." And he knows that some people might only stay for the Deer Tick that they want to see. He's fine with that. He's an ocean guy, and no one can force him to wade out into the lake and like it.

"It would be nice if some people who have been on the fence about us could at least finally make a decision," he says before laughing louder than he has all evening – McCauley would rather be loathed than subject to indifference, anyhow. "We do these two different things fairly well. You don't have to like both."