Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Deer Tick's John McCauley on Occupy, true crime, and recording with Steve Berlin

Posted By on Tue, May 15, 2012 at 9:32 AM

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Stumbling in the footsteps of legendary booze-hound acts like the Replacements and Guided By Voices, Providence quintet Deer Tick professes its love for alcohol pretty much every chance it gets. But judging from Deer Tick's work - most recently, the 2011 full-length Divine Providence and the new EP Tim, which contains leftover songs from the same sessions - the social aspect of drinking matters to the band as much as the buzz. Deer Tick's rollicking live show arguably does for the bar, pub and tavern what gospel music has done for the church. Bandleader John McCauley spoke to The Pitch by phone while on a van ride with his compatriots in late April, just as their 2012 presidential campaign-themed road trip was getting under way. Local residents can expect the band to arrive at the Granada in Lawrence tonight, May 15, with a supply of Deer Tick 2012 yard signs in tow. As if to underscore the profundity of his band's message to the people, McCauley opened our discussion by urinating into a water bottle.

The Pitch: There's an old interview posted online where you start pissing while answering questions over the phone. This just doesn't feel quite as special.

McCauley: Well, I've taken poops during interviews, too. [Laughs.]

Those are the truly lucky interviewers. You guys are on the campaign trail. How's it been out there among your constituents?

Well, we're not really sure that anyone else is running for Secretary of Dog-Catching, so I think we're pretty much a shoe-in. That whole campaign thing, our manager came up with that brilliant idea. At the time, when he came up with the idea, the Republican race was just fucking hysterical. It just seemed right to do a campaign-themed tour. But we're not really doing anything during our shows to make it seem like a debate or a speech or anything. It's a regular show, but we're wearing suits.

Why were the Republican debates hilarious?

"I don't think I said 'black man.'" [Laughs.] Shit like that. Also, Santorum's homophobic outlook on life. They're all characters, man. They seem like they're all out of a movie. It's just ridiculous. I'm not defending Obama by trash-talking the Republicans, but it just seems fucked. Whoever gets the presidency is gonna continue to piss at least half of the country off, and in a very big way. All the stuff that I've thought was pretty cool, as far as women's rights, it's like we're regressing back to a simpler time that feels way less American to me.

How has the response been to your yard signs?

They sold out. I think we made 200 at first 'cuz we weren't really sure how something like that would sell. They were gone in a matter of days, and we had to make a new batch immediately. I think we're gonna win!

How much have you seen any of the signs at random?

I personally have not seen one. I've only heard of one spotting, but on our Facebook people are posting pictures of the sign on their lawn all the time.

What was your experience like playing Occupy Wall Street?

We didn't really take sides. We did that show to raise awareness about some of the fucked-up police brutality that was going on. If I can speak for the whole band, I hope I'm correct in saying that we all believe in what the Occupy movement is all about. But I don't think we all think that they went about it the right way. So we weren't really taking sides with them. And of course, we weren't taking sides with the police. I think it was just more of us making a statement like, "Look, we love you all. Quit kicking the shit out of each other."

You have family in law enforcement.

I have an uncle in the FBI. It's not like I'm, like, "Fuck the police" or anything. Cops can be really cool, but you gotta know how to talk to 'em. If you get into a situation with a cop, you know that they can do anything they fuckin' want to you. So just don't act like a jackass. Don't bitch about how you got pepper-sprayed when you're fuckin' with 'em. Just talk soft, talk gently to them. Make them realize that you're a human being, too. If you can't relate to a human being on the simple fact that you're both human beings, then something's wrong.

How do you guys work your set list from night to night? There's a lot of spontaneity, cover tunes, etc.

Usually what we do is, we have the same four or five songs just to get into it and get a feel for the crowd. We'll write a set list for the rest of it, but after about song four or five, that's when we make a decision: Do we stick to the set list or do we start getting spontaneous? It's kind of funny when people ask for a set list after a show and it's like, "Well, here's the set list, but I'm warning you, it's totally inaccurate."

You shy away from doing the more intimate songs you've written live. Why?

We want to pick songs that match the energy and chaos of our live performance. I felt like we were confusing people for a long time. It's not like we're going to keep going in that fuckin'-drunk, who-gives-a-fuck attitude. There are things on that album that are a lot more personal than they seem, either because of the production or the style we chose to play the songs in. I've been doing this since 2004. Obviously, my life has changed from being on the road for fuckin' eight years straight. I'm not in the same state of mind as I wrote War Elephant. We'll see where it goes. I just went through a terrible breakup, and I'm getting some great material out of that. [Laughs.]

Again?

Yeah... again. [Laughs.] It's kinda like I have breakups and then I write a shitload of songs about them. I'm not one that takes too well to breakups. I was with a girl for three years. We were making wedding plans and all of a sudden it turned to shit. That brought back a lot of those old shitty feelings that I had when I was writing stuff for War Elephant. We're working on a new album right now, and I'm kinda considering it War Elephant's evil twin.

Around the time that Deer Tick went from a solo vehicle to a band, you said that you tend to limit yourself with what you write about. That singing songs about getting drunk and cheating wasn't going to sustain itself, and that you were going to have to broaden your horizons. How's that going?

I've always been a true-crime fan. Some of the characters in my songs come from that. I've written from the perspective of Henry Hill, the infamous mobster that Nicholas Pileggi wrote Wiseguy about, which got adapted into Goodfellas. I've written from the perspective of Judas, the guy who betrayed Jesus. And most recently on the Diamond Rugs album, there's a song "Call Girl Blues," which I wrote about Sharon Stone's character Ginger in Casino. Stuff like that fascinates me. It's good creative fodder. I'm still learning to write outside of my comfort zone. Whatever I do, it's working, but I'd like to get into writing more like those classic songwriter songs like Johnny Mercer and Harold Arlen. All that stuff that Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis sang - that's something I'd really like to get good at. I think I'm still far off.

Drummer Dennis Ryan wrote "Clownin' Around" about serial child murderer John Wayne Gacy on your latest album, Divine Providence. It's a jarring jump from "Let's All Go to the Bar" to that. But if you didn't know it was about John Wayne Gacy, it could just be about an average guy who has a secret.

It's a creepy song and it could be about anybody. I guess that's the most frightening part about serial killers, another thing I'm fascinated by. So I was really happy when [drummer] Dennis brought that song to the table.

You've been pretty open about your struggles with drugs. How reasonable do you think it is to manage a drug addiction and drink as much as the band does?

I was using coke daily for years. I stopped doing that. I'm not a daily user. I don't think there's anything wrong with using drugs recreationally, be it coke, pills, marijuana, alcohol... You gotta be careful and you gotta use your mind over matter. I like drugs. I'm not an advocate for drug usage, but I'm certainly not against drugs.

How limiting is it when people expect you guys to be the rowdy, hard-drinking bar band? How much do you feel like you have to play up to that?

We can play a completely rowdy show and be completely sober. Or we can be totally trashed and play a completely pro show. I think it has more to do with the crowd than it has to do with us, honestly.

How real are those burps on "Let's All Go to the Bar"?

[Mocks thoughtful consideration of the question.] I think some of them are real, and some of them are acted out. That was fun doing that song because we got the staff from our favorite bar in Providence, the E&O Tap, to come in that day and record all the gang vocals. It was really fun having all my favorite bartenders singing along. But that song was intentionally... [searching for words] stupid.

That's pretty clear.

It's just such a fun, stupid song. If there's any bigger meaning behind it, I wrote it from a character's perspective. We all know a person like this, a creepy older dude that takes young girls out to the bar. Sometimes girls that are not even old enough to drink legally yet and have fake IDs. It's definitely a party anthem, but there's a character in there that's supposed to disgust you.

It's good that you explained that, because I didn't get that part of it at all.

One of the lines goes "I don't care what Daddy says, you're coming out tonight."

I thought that was nothing more than you wanting to round up your friends and a female companion and insisting that you were going to drag her out.

Nah, man. I like older women.

The album you mentioned by your new group Diamond Rugs just came out.

I don't know how the hell that thing came together. I just kept meeting people and thinking, "These are people I want to work with." It was never supposed to be like a solo thing for me, which is what's been in the press for some reason. That's inaccurate. I just wanted to get a bunch of dudes together to make a new band. I think we did a pretty good job of that. It doesn't sound like a side project to me.

What was your impression of working with Steve Berlin?

He was the fourth person I brought in. Originally it was gonna be me and Ian Saint Pé from Black Lips and Bryan Dufresne, the drummer from Six Finger Satellite. I'd randomly met Steve and told him about it, and he was like, "Oh, I love the Black Lips. I want to record you guys." It's fuckin' Steve Berlin, so I was like, "Hell yeah!" So I called everybody and I was like, "Yo, Steve Berlin wants to be in this band." We had to move the dates around a little bit, but we were more than willing to do that. That guy's got a good ear. He's a producer. And he's also the fuckin' best baritone sax player ever. So after Diamond Rugs, Deer Tick started working on a record with Steve. Having Steve as a producer gave us a better perspective on how to make gnarly pop music. We listened, because he's somebody we really fuckin' respect. The dude played at the fuckin' White House. [Laughs.]

He's worked with all sorts of bands.

Yeah. The Blasters, the Flesh Eaters... Los Lobos is one of my favorite bands. He played on All Shook Down by the Replacements, and Graceland. That's a guy you fuckin' listen to.

So he is producing your next album?

He didn't produce the Diamond Rugs album. Adam Landry and Justin Collins, who did the last Deer Tick and Middle Brother album, produced that. We brought him in to work with Deer Tick, and it was a really good move. We're far from done with the record as it stands right now. It might not happen as soon as I want, but I'm hoping it'll be out by spring of next year.

This recent Deer Tick EP, Tim, has songs that were recorded at the same time as Divine Providence. How much had you been playing those songs live, and how likely is your audience to hear an unreleased Deer Tick song they've never heard?

We did "Born at Zero" for years and then we just kinda stopped playing it. We recorded it and got excited about it again. We're doing one new song from the Steve Berlin sessions, called "Mirror Walls." It's about wasting away in a hotel room with mirrors all over the walls. I stayed in this hotel in Reno, and you could tell it was a prostitute sex room. There were mirrors in every corner around the bed, on the ceiling and shit - that room was made to fuck in, and to be able to see every angle of that fuck. For that song, I put myself in that mindset of just lying on that bed alone and thinking "What the fuck am I doing here?" I would like to go on record: I have never bought sex - and never will. Although I do find prostitutes very fascinating people and a very good subject to write about, I am not going to get down with them.

OK, glad we could clear that up.

A lot of friends of mine in bands go over to Europe, and they're in, like, Hamburg or something and they all get prostitutes, and it's like, "I can't. No way." I don't see the appeal in that.

You'd think that people in bands are the last people who need to go to prostitutes.

Yeah, it's kinda funny like that. I don't get laid every night, but when I'm not gettin' laid, the last thing on my mind is to hit up a call girl. Come on, I've got a laptop and a hotel room.

You've said before that you don't write songs anywhere other than in the studio. Why?

It's not entirely true, but that's been my vibe lately. I don't know what it is, but it's something to do with being in the studio and having that pressure. Like "Oh fuck... we're paying for this." Something about that is very inspirational to me.

How much pressure does that put on the other guys?

We play together so well. Our songs might slowly evolve as we play them live more. But, for just laying something down in the studio, even if it's just a first, second or third take, it's something we can live with. [Laughing.] This is not a very long process we're talking about.

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