Before the hit band comes to the Strand-Capitol on March 11, Deer Tick’s singer-guitarist John McCauley took a moment to talk to me about the band’s progress, life over the past year as a father, his evolution as a musician and other endeavors.
BW: Why acoustic?
JM: I figured it would be the best way for us to kind of reconvene as a band after almost two years of not being on tour, and just to get together and work on something different. Not playing the same old songs the same old way. I don’t know, just to try to get us excited about making new music together.
BW: So you’re trying to write as you’re on this tour?
JM: No, I just think working together with the bare minimum equipment will be healthy for us for when we go back into the studio later this year.
BW: I realize over the past year you’ve had a baby – congratulations.
JM: Thank you.
BW: Have you seen parenting or marriage creep into your creative process?
JM: [Laughs] Well, I haven’t really had a whole lot of time to create. [Children] go to bed, and you think, “Great, now I have time to do something.” But you’re just so damn tired.
BW: Are you nervous at all about touring and being away from your family?
JM: No. My wife’s [Vanessa Carlton] been on tour a bunch, and I’ve been home with the baby by myself a lot, actually. I know my wife has really missed the baby, since she’s been gone for long stretches, so I think it’ll be good for them to hang out for a few weeks while dad goes and does whatever dad does.
BW: How do you combat becoming a polished alt-rock band while staying true to the original sound?
JM: [Laughs] What’s the original sound?
BW: You know, a raw, raspy, folksy band. I can only imagine it’d seem all too easy after all these years to become a more polished and pop-y band.
JM: Oh, well, I don’t know. I guess with every record we kind of move on to something different. But we’ve always been influenced by the same stuff, you know? Not a whole lot has changed in that department.
BW: Is that frustrating at all?
JM: No, I don’t think so. There’s a lot of stuff that we’ve yet to explore. And our live show has always been kind of a whole different animal. I mean, recently, we’ve made a few changes. Like, let’s not play so drunk [laughs]. Maybe, let’s rehearse a little bit. But there’s still a spirit of unpredictability and reckless abandon that follows us on to the stage. Playing live with Deer Tick has always been interesting.
BW: Is it true that you’re a Hank Williams fan?
JM: Yeah. I guess, not the first time I heard Hank Williams, but the first time I listened just kind of gave me the courage to write just for me, you know, not for the idea of, we’re a band that has to sound this way. I was in all these heavier bands who were just really trying to fit in in Providence, where I grew up. I was always writing like a songwriter, like punk songs for a punk band. So then, when I finally listened to Hank, I just said, “Fuck it” to the whole thing I’d been working on and started writing songs that would eventually turn into the first record, “War Elephant.”
BW: Is there a specific song that resonates most with you?
JM: I think “Angel of Death.” That’s kind of one song that can transport me back to this punk house I was living in with no heat and drinking a bottle of brandy that I stole from my parents, and sitting in my room, listening to that over and over again.
BW: I understand you have a relationship with Jana Hunter [of Lower Dens].
JM: Yes, Jana is the best. Jana was one of the first people that I played with outside of Providence. We kept in touch for a while and toured a little bit together, and she started a label, and put out my first record.
BW: That’s really cool. She seems like a lot of fun to just sit around and bullshit with.
JM: Yeah, she definitely is. Unfortunately, I haven’t really sat around and bullshitted with her in many years, it’s long overdue.
BW: Your side group Middle Brother – is there anything new coming up with that, or was that just kind of a random thing that was just for fun?
JM: I can’t really say what is in store, but something is.
BW: OK, thanks for that. Can you describe the differences in creativity between Deer Tick and Middle Brother?
JM: Deer Tick has always been more like, somebody writes a song and brings it to the band. And usually the litmus test is me – if I think it fits with our thing. Usually it works out because Ian and Dennis usually know what I’m going to think. So they bring their songs that they think will fit in. But Deer Tick started as a vehicle for just me and my songwriting. It’s gradually evolved into a more collaborative environment, whereas with Middle Brother, we’re basically just a bunch of people who weren’t too familiar with each other in a room and just hitting record.
BW: I guess that gets into my next question – how do you see yourself evolving as an individual musician over the years?
JM: I think, like most guitar players, after turning 30, you’re starting to get sick of the guitar. I’ve been playing a lot of mandolin and bouzouki, and I’ve been trying to get a lot better at playing piano. The mandolin – I’m not sure why I picked that up. I guess I just felt like, in a band like Deer Tick, someone would pick up the mandolin and play it like a guitar, and I didn’t like that. So, I thought it would be cool, if I’ve got a mandolin and actually learned how to play it, kind of like an Italian guy. I picked up the tin whistle, but I’m kind of all over the place in trying to find stuff that inspires me.
BW: Have you seen any other musicians creeping in there and influencing you?
JM: I’ve discovered that my daughter really loves The Pogues. She always dances whenever The Pogues come on. Most other music, you really only have like a 50-50 shot at getting her to dance, but The Pogues work every time. That made me start playing the tin whistle.
Deer Tick will perform at 7 p.m. Friday, March 11 at Strand-Capitol.