At the age of 25, John McCauley shouldn't have all that much to live up to. But when you're the head hombre of countrified post-Replacements rockers Deer Tick, and you get a reputation for ragged glory onstage and tenacious, Southern-styled rock on record, any move shy of guitar chucking and Jim Beam chugging results in widespread head scratching.
Released in June 2010, the band's third full-length record, The Black Dirt Sessions, follows last year's revved-up More Fuel for the Fire EP with the summer's best bummer. It's a heavy alt-country hangover dominated by the kind of lonely and ravaged piano ballads worthy of Alex Chilton or Neil Young at their most wasted. McCauley's songwriting is as direct and scathing as his voice — he's one of the best of the worst singers of his generation — and his band (featuring newcomer Ian O'Neil formerly of Titus Andronicus on guitar) can still dial up a dangerous, dive-bar groove.
B-Sides reached the Providence, Rhode Island, native at a Wal-Mart in Charlotte, North Carolina, where he was likely not checking on the stock of Deer Tick albums.
B-Sides: I don't know if you've followed the reviews of the new record, but the word "consternation" comes to mind. Were people expecting Deer Tick to make a party album?
John McCauley: Yeah, well, we didn't. We really didn't record it as an album. We just went into the studio and did whatever songs we'd been sitting on. Most of them are not so party oriented. It's from the same session as the [More Fuel] EP. Since there were an overwhelming amount of ballad-type songs, we took those songs out from the EP. We're talking about the next record, which will be completely different, way more of a party album.
The first half and the second half of the record are quite different. If you had a proper A&R guy, leading with the ballads would mean your career is over.
Well, we do things our own way.
Did the lineup change affect the record?
Around the time the record was recorded, Andy [Tobiassen] left the band and Ian [O'Neil] joined. They both play on the record. We have a new guy now, Robbie [Crowell], who plays keyboard and saxophone, but we don't have anything recorded with him yet.
I first saw the band opening for Jenny Lewis at the Pageant in St. Louis. You did a nice cover of John Prine's "Mexican Home." You seem drawn to bands and songwriters who are outside of your demographic.
I'm not that interested in newer music. A lot of it bores me. I tend to listen to older records. That's just what I like, you know.
If I were to make a Welcome to Rhode Island mix tape, what bands should I start with?
Bands from Rhode Island? There are a lot of different kinds of bands. There are some really good metal bands. The Body, Howl and of course, Lightning Bolt. The Low Anthem, they've been getting a lot of attention lately.
I forgot they were from Providence.
We just played with them in Virginia at a festival. I stole a golf cart and tried to get them to ride. I think they were absolutely terrified of how drunk I was on a stolen golf cart.
It's not like it was a Maserati. You're playing Lollapalooza in a couple of weeks. How did you relate to the big outdoor shows?
They're hit or miss. One thing that bugs me is we never get a good time slot. We actually got a decent slot at Lollapalooza. Sometimes, playing at noon, it's hot as Hell and sound onstage sucks, and everything is completely wrong. And you're trying to play through a hangover, that doesn't work to your benefit.