Deer Tick: Change Is Good

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Growing up in Providence, Rhode Island, as the son of a state representative, John J. McCauley III took to music early – he started playing drums around age 10, later transitioning to guitar. After running into problems in public school, he transferred to The MET, a well-regarded nontraditional school in Providence that allows its students to choose their own curriculum. McCauley mostly used his freedom to screw around – “I would check in in the morning, go downtown, maybe find some pot” – though he also learned how to build guitars, and did music therapy for a year at a local mental hospital.

His first public performance was as part of a punk/metal band, Kadaver, at the guitar player’s girlfriend’s birthday party. The band only had a few songs, so they made the most of it by playing each song four times.

“I got really bored, so I took my pants off. If you ever read about me doing stupid shit onstage, like playing guitar with my dick or something, I started doing that pretty early,” he says.

Though McCauley’s parents were supportive of him pursuing music as a career, he says they questioned his choice to hit the road at age 18 under the Deer Tick name.

The only thing they wanted from me, they wanted me to have something to fall back on. But I had no interest in academics. It kind of broke their heart a little bit that I didn’t go to college,” he says.

Deer Tick’s lineup remained in flux for years, with McCauley the only constant, but around 2009, the current band – drummer Dennis Ryan, bassist Christopher Ryan, guitarist Ian O’Neil and multi-instrumentalist Rob Crowell –began to solidify. As the band’s popularity grew, so did the notoriety of their raucous behavior both on- and offstage. McCauley, in particular, played the image of the out-of-control rock singer to the hilt, peeing into a bottle during a show, throwing up repeatedly during a magazine interview and, yes, strumming his guitar with his dick.
“For a couple of years I honestly did not give a fuck, and a lot of our performances really reflected that attitude,” he says.

The band’s party-animal image has rubbed some listeners the wrong way, most prominently the taste-making music website Pitchfork. When Divine Providence came out in 2011, they got in a few good swipes: “borrowing swagger instead of owning it,” “drinking at you, not with you,” etc. And when McCauley put out the fine Middle Brother album that same year in collaboration with Taylor Goldsmith of Dawes and Matt Vasquez of Delta Spirit, Pitchfork conspicuously didn’t review it.

Though McCauley shrugs off the feud – “I can take a bad review if they’re writing about the music” – he’s also clearly taken some of that criticism to heart. “The more I [perform], the more I realize I kind of have to become this character. If I just go up onstage and represent exactly what I’m feeling, or how I’m feeling at the moment, I don’t think I’d be that interesting. I don’t think our show would be that interesting,” he says.

Which brings us back to the suit, and with it the recognition that performing onstage in a rock band is artistic expression, yes, but it’s theater too. And McCauley’s been giving some serious thought to ways of modifying his onstage persona to fit his new lifestyle.

“That’s what I’m beginning to understand, that it’s okay; it can be an act. I don’t have to be absolutely hammered onstage,” he says. “I can still do my beer trick with an O’Douls where I pick the bottle up with my teeth and chug it.”

And, he adds, “Anybody that comes to a show expecting us to be drunk or misbehaving, I’m not so sure how much I want those people at our shows.”

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In December 2012, after 22 years in office, Rhode Island state Rep. John McCauley Jr. resigned after being sentenced to 27 months in prison for filing false tax returns and conspiring to defraud the federal government out of more than $500,000.

Deer Tick’s McCauley hadn’t even started grade school when his father, originally a plumber and carpenter, was elected to public office. During his adolescence, he remembers his dad being a minor celebrity in his family’s neighborhood of Smith Hill.

“My dad would drop me off at school in the morning and honk his horn and wave at everybody in his big blue plumbing truck,” he says.
Contrary to some published reports, McCauley says his parents are still married. And if anything, he says, his father’s imprisonment has strengthened the bonds of their already tightly knit family, in which he’s the oldest of three siblings.

“We’ve always been close, and when something kind of big and shitty happens to your family, it draws you together. I definitely go up to Providence and visit my mom way more often than I used to,” he says.

Two songs on Negativity were inspired by McCauley’s family situation. “Mr. Sticks,” he says, is directed at his father, “about everything he’s going to miss while he’s in jail.” The lyrics aren’t so much angry as matter-of-fact: “A son gives his hand / A daughter gives her hand / But you’ll see the change in the world / For your littlest girl.”

He’s cagier about the deceptively bouncy “In Our Time,” which he and pop singer Vanessa Carlton perform as a duet. McCauley initially acknowledges that the song’s about his parents, then backtracks: “It could be. I didn’t write it. Dennis wrote it. I wrote the chords and the bridge, that’s it.”

In the album’s liner notes, “In Our Time” is listed as a McCauley composition. And it’s difficult to think of the lyrics, personal as they are, as being written by anyone but him: “You know I never meant to sink to the bottom / Why would I jeopardize what I built as a father? / Stay with me on some lost weekend / It’s a pain to see, but our hearts we can mend.” The song is unique among Negativity’s material in that it’s, ultimately, hopeful.

McCauley and Carlton, meanwhile, started dating late last year after being introduced by a mutual musician friend. A Nashville resident for the past few years, he recently moved into her Manhattan apartment. As he eases into this slower, domestic lifestyle, he says the idea of becoming a father himself someday has crossed his mind.

“I’d like to be a dad, not a deadbeat dad,” he says.

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