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Deer Tick rises with "Born on Flag Day"

By Brian Baker, October 2009

Deer Tick vocalist/guitarist/songwriter John McCauley III is clearly a guy who lets his music do the talking. And on the day of our interview, the Providence, R.I. native is letting his talking do the drinking as he simultaneously enjoys a sunny Colorado afternoon and a margarita before getting ready to drive to Portland, Ore. for the next night's show.

"Wasting away again," says McCauley with an audible smile.

Given Deer Tick's fast track evolution and their fairly relentless road ethic - their current tour has them criss-crossing the country until early November and then heading off to Europe weeks later; they play in Amsterdam on Thanksgiving Day - wasting away isn't something that they do with any regularity.

When he contemplates the shifts from the first Deer Tick album, 2007's "War Elephant," to the band's latest, the June-released "Born on Flag Day," McCauley's answer is reflective of the fact that he doesn't spend an inordinate amount of time navel gazing about his work.

"I think I focused more on my guitar playing and singing, since I really didn't have any other concerns in the studio," says McCauley, referring to the basic difference between the one-man-band recording of "War Elephant" and the full band approach on "Born on Flag Day." "That kind of freed my mind up a little bit."

Deer Tick was officially launched in McCauley's bedroom 5 years ago, when he was barely 18 years old. Energized by his discovery of Hank Williams, he had just extricated himself from his duo situation (a project he had called My Other Face) and went on a camping excursion to contemplate his next move. At nearly the same time that McCauley resolved to start an actual band, he found a deer tick setting up a camp of its own on his head. McCauley decided to christen his newly envisioned band after his newly discovered scalp dweller.

For the first year, McCauley wrote songs and recorded them in his bedroom, making CD-Rs that he sold at gigs. To tour, he assembled a rotating cast of friends that helped him flesh out his songs in the bars and basements that were consistently booking Deer Tick.

Deer Tick performs Easy at KEXP, Seattle, June 25, 2009

At 19, McCauley went into the studio to record "War Elephant," which he decided to do completely solo. Mere months before "War Elephant" was released, McCauley began putting together what he hoped would be a permanent Deer Tick line-up.

"I picked everybody carefully that I wanted to play with and just kind of kept begging them to join," says McCauley with a laugh. "Luckily for all of us, it worked out."

McCauley contacted drummer Dennis Ryan to start, basically because they had played together previously and the musical chemistry between them had been apparent to both. Ryan couldn't accept McCauley's offer fast enough.

"Dennis dropped out of college to join the band," says McCauley with a laugh. "I got Dennis first because he's a badass drummer. I knew I needed a good drummer, and I figured if I could get a good drummer everything else would fall into place pretty easily."

That fall, "War Elephant" was released to fairly ecstatic and nearly universal acclaim, including glowing reviews from the New York Times and Spin. A good deal of the press called out McCauley as one of folk/country's most promising young songwriters.

Next up was the bass slot, which McCauley filled with an old friend that had two connections to the band. In addition to being an old school pal, Chris Ryan was also Dennis Ryan's half brother. "I had known Chris for a long time," says McCauley. "Our bands had played together when we were in high school."

This solidified version of Deer Tick hit the road for close to a year, playing the "War Elephant" songs as well as new material that McCauley had been working up. In August 2008, McCauley added Providence guitarist Andrew Tobiasson to the Deer Tick fold; a month later they all began work on "Born on Flag Day," their first studio project as an actual band.

"It made for a better product," says McCauley of his freshly minted band, including new guitarist Ian O'Neil, who joined after the recording of "Flag Day." "I knew what to expect because we'd been playing them live for so long. The way these guys add to my old songs, it completely changes them. I sometimes wish we could just go and recut 'War Elephant' as a band. Maybe even do 'Flag Day' over again."

It seems hard to believe that Deer Tick could improve on the gravelly garage folk spirit and indie country verve of "Flag Day." Weaving in elements as broadly spaced as Crazy Horse, Dwight Yoakam, Chuck Berry and Bob Dylan, McCauley's raspy vocals and razor sharp lyrics keep all of Deer Tick's disparate directions flowing down a singular path. In the live context, the differences are even less noticeable.

McCauley notes that the "War Elephant" songs have typically been the moments on stage when Deer Tick tends to go off the rails.

"That's the point in the set when it turns into a party, it's out of control," says McCauley. "If you come to see us live now, we're so far from a folk/rock band. It's just straight up rock and roll. When we play those songs with that energy behind it, people just tend to go nuts."

Clearly, McCauley has been inspired by the new incarnation of Deer Tick. He and the band have a new album and EP completed that they hope to have out soon and enough material written for the fourth Deer Tick album. In addition, McCauley is enjoying collaborating on new material with Dennis Ryan; Tobiasson and O'Neil have also turned out to be good foils for the band's primary songwriter.

"I tend to limit myself as far as what I write about and how I deliver my lyrics," says McCauley. "So collaboration has been a really healthy thing for me lately. I'm kind of realizing that singing songs about getting drunk and cheating isn't going to sustain itself for much longer. I'm going to have to broaden my horizons."