In Aspen: Deer Tick a throwback to an earlier era of rock
July 25, 2011
ASPEN – John McCauley, leader of the Rhode Island band Deer Tick, is something of a throwback to when rock ‘n’ roll had a devil-may-care attitude, when rock wasn’t squeaky-clean, and the people who made it weren’t expected to be.
“I drowned myself in a tall glass of whatever, or does it matter to you?” he sings in the boozy, kiss-off song “Piece by Piece and Frame by Frame,” from Deer Tick’s 2010 album, “The Black Dirt Sessions.”
“We’ve never been perfect little angels,” the 25-year-old McCauley said from his Providence home. Deer Tick doesn’t turn into proper lads once the band hits the stage. The band has earned a reputation as a live act that is slightly rare these days: They rip it up, and they want to leave their mark on the club, the crowd. And in old-school style, McCauley put his views in combative terms. “A lot of bands out there don’t care what their audience is doing. They want to completely replicate their album. There’s not a lot of improvisation, or getting weird. And that’s the stuff I like. We’re all fine with getting f—ing loud.”
McCauley has the voice to match the attitude. On “The Black Dirt Sessions,” he sounds like he’s had his share of the bottle, nights without sleep, evenings of shouting into the microphone. In fact, mostly what people are hearing is too much effort he put into trying to be like one of his idols, another rocker who was determined to leave nothing behind after a performance.
“All I wanted to do was be Kurt Cobain when I was a kid,” McCauley said, adding that The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and Los Lobos, the first band he ever saw in concert, have also been major influences. “I learned how to scream pretty good.”
But though Deer Tick occasionally does the all-Nirvana tribute set, billing itself as Deervana, McCauley, at 25, gives some indication that he doesn’t want to reach the same end as Cobain, who, along with Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin and now Amy Winehouse, are all dead at the age of 27. At the very least, McCauley aims to be cautious regarding his voice, with the idea that he will be around long enough that his voice needs caring for.
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“I’m trying to clean up my voice,” said McCauley, who has been performing for 10 years. “It’s not something that can last. I’ve had some vocal problems. I’m trying to learn some tricks.”
Another thing that might separate McCauley from an older generation of bad-boy and -girl rockers is a shortage of narcissism. McCauley launched Deer Tick in 2004 as more or less a solo project. But this was only because none of his side players was up to being in a major touring band. In fact, McCauley always had envisioned a band where he was one of several integral pieces.
“I always imagined a band where everyone was considered equal,” he said. “But Deer Tick kind of took off … .”
The band now resembles the original vision. On the band’s next album, “Divine Providence,” McCauley shares the spotlight with Ian O’Neil and drummer Dennis Ryan, both of whom contribute songs. McCauley says those songs fit in well with the Deer Tick theme.
“I guess a lot of people think me or my voice is what seals the deal,” he said. “But in my opinion, for this record, it works well. It doesn’t sound weird. Everyone n Deer Tick is equally talented, equally gifted. And what we’re on the same page with is, we want to be colorful and in-your-face and initiate something with the audience.”
While the sound has plenty of grit and power on “The Black Dirt Sessions,” McCauley believes the band didn’t capture quite the intensity and attitude as it does in concert. The album, after all, opens with a song titled “Choir of Angels.” Which might give the wrong impression of what happens when the band hits the stage.
“If you’ve only heard us on album, that might be hard to imagine,” he said.