Spotlight: Deer Tick

Michael Hoinski on September 3, 2010

From the pages of Relix’s August issue, here is our look at Deer Tick.

Photo by Shane McCauley

The guys in Deer Tick are hanging out with the girls in Those Darlins one fine spring day in Austin, Texas. The bands’ separate tours have converged, with Those Darlins playing a midnight show at The Continental Club and Deer Tick opening for Dr. Dog at Emo’s. “I’ve been having lots of sex and drinking margaritas,” slurs John McCauley, the 24-year-old singer and guitarist for Deer Tick, while dry humping Nikki Darlin, his fiancée, from behind.

Deer Tick eventually settles into dinner at a Mexican restaurant replete with cigarettes, margaritas, F-bombs. McCauley, despite being the son of a politician, looks like white trash. His porn moustache, slicked-back hair and gold tooth are framed by white, amber-mirrored sunglasses. Under the sleeve of his Black Flag T-shirt peak tattoos of a jukebox and a, uh, deer tick.

He’s going on about Nikki and how they can “really creep people out together.” Like at SXSW, when they took off their clothes, coated themselves in condiments, and pranced around the hotel living room. The rest of the guys – drummer Dennis Ryan, bassist Christopher Ryan, guitarist Ian O’Neil and a touring multi-instrumentalist who shuns being named – share an all-knowing laugh at this.

“I mean, her and I are both bound to get naked onstage,” McCauley offers, “so telling you about covering each other in mustard isn’t a big deal.”

Before Nikki, there were a number of other girls, some of whom inspired the best songs on Deer Tick’s third album, the recently released The Black Dirt Sessions. A boozy, bloody, cathartic collection of mostly old, unfinished folk-rock tunes, it was written by McCauley when he was growing up in Providence, R.I.

Take “Twenty Miles,” a love song with a circular guitar riff and a bow-graced upright bass that McCauley started writing in his head en route to a girlfriend’s house: “Raindrops like bullets on my fragile skin/ Insecurities I’ve had are creeping within/ Now I’m twenty miles outside of the place that you live/And I need one more chance now that time’s running thin.” Or the song “Piece by Piece and Frame by Frame,” wherein McCauley, over acoustic guitar, tears apart a girl he was obsessed with but who wasn’t obsessed with him.

Both songs showcase McCauley’s hoarse yet melodic voice. That’s one of the things that Thomas Cobb, fellow Rhode Island resident and author of the novel that the movie Crazy Heart was based on, likes about Deer Tick. "John McCauley’s voice reminds me of Ryan Bingham’s [who wrote “The Weary Kind,” Crazy Heart’s Oscar-winning song]," Cobb says. “It’s simple, honest, direct, and unpretentious.”

Prior to Dirt Sessions, Deer Tick released two roots-leaning albums, War Elephant and Born on Flag Day, the latter named in part because of the June 14 birthday McCauley shares with his “decorated war Vet uncle.” But the increasing quality of the band’s discography, through its embrace of genres ranging from sleazy blues rock to misty-eyed piano ballads on Dirt Sessions – all of which are bolstered by McCauley’s penetrating songwriting – is only half of the story. The band’s onstage antics are the other.

“I peed onstage in a bottle once,” McCauley says. “I really had to go.” McCauley then cites a show – a show the band didn’t get paid for – where he mutilated himself. “I was always impressed when I was a teenager seeing things like Kurt Cobain and Krist Novoselic making out on ‘Saturday Night Live.’ Just weird shit like that. Or like the story of Jim Morrison pulling out his dick onstage and getting arrested.” (The singer also exposed himself earlier this year in San Francisco, creatively strumming his guitar.)

This fascination with public displays of shocking actions materializes at Deer Tick’s show that night. The band ends its set with “Mange,” a western-turned-boogie number that McCauley equates to “this weird like Rolling Stones, like ‘Freebird’ solo, like fucking, you know, top down, beer bottle in one hand, steering wheel in the other, kind of summertime jammer.”

But before that, McCauley performs a duet with Nikki. “Just you and me playing in a bed of sand,” they coo, over a tropical island beat. A sloppy tonguing session. “When you’re in a jam and need a hand, I’m free.” Nikki grabs his crotch. McCauley smiles. It’s quite obvious he’s in love – after all, his band is on the rise – and condiments aren’t necessary.