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Inside Nirvana's Secret Post-Rock Hall Show

Deer Tick's John McCauley takes us through one of the most exclusive rock shows ever

April 11, 2014 6:20 PM ET
John McCauley deer tick nirvana kurt cobain deervana
John McCauley of Deer Tick.
Douglas Mason/Getty Images

John McCauley is such a big Nirvana fan, his band Deer Tick routinely play covers-only shows as Deervana. So he had a hard time believing it when he got an email from Dave Grohl asking him to play with the surviving members at a Rock & Roll Hall of Fame afterparty at Brooklyn's 230-capacity Saint Vitus on Thursday night. "It was the day before April Fool's Day, so I didn't really get my hopes up," he says.

But it was true, and McCauley fronted Dave Grohl, Krist Novoselic and Pat Smear as they ripped through "Serve the Servants" and "Scentless Apprentice" at the gig, which also included singers Joan Jett, J Mascis, St. Vincent’s Annie Clark and Kim Gordon fronting the band. "I'm having a hard time believing it happened," McCauley says. "Even though they haven't been a band in 20 years, they felt just like a band to me."

Michael Stipe Inducts Nirvana into Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

Congratulations on playing with Nirvana. So far today, I’ve been refusing to believe it happened because I wasn’t there.
I’m having a hard time believing it happened too. You know how you wake up from a dream and can only remember certain images of it you don't really know what happened or how to explain it?

Is this the peak of your career so far?
Whether it was playing Nirvana songs or not, I’ve always fantasized about playing with Dave Grohl behind the drum set. He’s definitely one of my favorites. I’m just so thrilled about it.

How old were you when you became obsessed with Nirvana?
They had their big breakthrough when I was young, like five or six, but it was something my mother listened to and turned me on to. And once I became a teenager and a weird kid, labeled a "faggot" or whatever, that's when it really all connected with me. It was perfect angry music that at one time really took over the world –it was an inspirational soundtrack for my teenage years.

Who called you to do this?
I got an email from Dave personally. But it was the day before April Fool's Day, so I didn't really get my hopes up. It could have been anybody with a fake email account that says, "Hi I'm Dave Grohl." That would have been a pretty good prank to pull on me. I don't know if I would have fallen for it because I was skeptical for a couple days. But then I got an email from their manager. And then it got real legit. And then I was like, "Holy shit! This is weird, man. But let's do it."

Dave must have been aware you're a superfan.

Yeah. I guess I have a mutual friend who has told me that Dave was a big fan of our Divine Providence album. And that was cool to know he was even aware of us. That Deervana thing we did for In Utero got some pretty good press. And Dave found out about it and I guess he was tickled by it. And he asked me if I wanted to play at this afterparty after they got inducted to the Hall of Fame. [He said], "It's going to be a small, loud, drunk afterparty thing." I thrive in those environments. "Let's do it!"

Deer Tick Cover Nirvana’s 'In Utero' Live in Brooklyn

Was there any rehearsal?
Yeah, I went by their rehearsal space in midtown. We ran through a few songs and it was pretty funny. I'm the one guy nobody knew. Nobody had ever met before. When I walked in, they were running over their set with J Mascis. Their whole crew is there and stuff and I’m in the corner not really talking to anybody or anything. Krist is like, "Oh, I was wondering who that weird guy in the corner was." I was a ball of nerves when I walked in there. I knew I could play the songs and sing fine. It was just, 'How do I talk to these guys?'. But they were super sweet guys.

What were they playing when you walked in?
I heard "Drain You." It was cool. When i walked into Hibson Studios, which I guess used to be the Hit Factory, I rang the buzzer and somebody let me in. He said, "Where you going?" I said "Studio Six."

"What band?"

"Uh, Nirvana." It felt weird leaving my mouth. It was awesome.

What is it like to play onstage with Krist and Dave and Pat? 

It felt like when you're a kid and you sleep over at a friend's house and you become part of your friend's family for the night. Even though they haven't been a band in 20 years, they felt just like a band to me. When I got up onstage, it was a lull, because we were trying to figure out what song to do next and there was just feedback and us yelling at each other and Dave was like, "Wow this is like a real Nirvana show!" And my band has had a million moments like that onstage. I guess our bands are just of a similar breed, I guess [laughs].

Was there a moment onstage where it felt like Nirvana?
Hearing Joan Jett at the club was the most spot-on thing that I've heard from the whole night. It was pretty amazing. She was awesome. Everyone else was awesome too, doing their own thing, but you could close your eyes and kind of imagine that it was Kurt and not Joan Jett. It was cool. And the guitar tones and everything. Very Nirvana.

Did you feel the spirit of Kurt in that room with those guys playing?

It was so hard for me to imagine. It's somebody that I’ve never met, but I could definitely feel how emotional Dave and Krist especially were. It seemed like they were really happy to be doing it to honor their friend.

What was the feeling like in the club? Were people going nuts?
Yeah. It was great. Before they opened up the show space, the bar area was so packed, you couldn't get a drink. You couldn't take a piss. The show started and the bar area was completely deserted for the whole thing. Everybody was in there watching. It was cool.

Do you see this happening again? Would you want to go on tour with those guys?
I wouldn't count on it. I haven't heard anything about that. I don't know where that rumor started or if there's any truth to it. But yeah, I don't expect to do this again, but if they were to do it again and asked me, I don't think I’m allowed to say no.

How late did last night go?
I don't think I got home till 6 a.m. or something. It was supposed to be done at 4 but I don't think I walked out of there until like 5:30.

I heard there were cameras. When will we see this?
They had some cameras set up at the afterparty thing but I don't know who filmed it. I didn't sign any release forms, so I'm not sure, maybe they won't use my portion.

Maybe they'll blur your face out.
That would be funny. Disguise my voice like ex-criminals on TV.

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