"We aren’t planning anything,” says John McCauley, Deer Tick’s founder, frontman and principle songwriter, regarding the band’s Monday night show at Flatbread in Edgartown. “But everything is possible.”
He laughs, clearly aware that his last trip to Martha’s Vineyard was filled with plenty of mayhem and misadventure, including missed planes and going missing. For the Providence, R.I. guitarist who hit the road at 16, building a base and forging a slightly rougher take on roots and alt-country music, living life to its extreme has never been something Mr. McCauley has shied away from.
Along the way, the 20-something musician has moved from the austere, almost Appalachian acoustic introspection of Ashamed from his 2008 debut War Elephant to the roiling, coming apart at the seams thrill of Divine Providence’s Ramones-evoking thrasher Let’s All Go to the Bar.
He has also explored evocative melodies (Twenty Miles), shiny harmonies (Art Isn’t Real) and Anthony Newley (What Kind of Fool Am I?).
That eclecticism is its own reward, and curse. When Divine Providence, easily the band’s most raucous project, was coming together, Mr. McCauley knew the response would be mixed at best.
“We were definitely expecting some of our fans to hate it,” he admits on the phone from New York, where Victor, his girlfriend’s long-haired dachshund, barks his own protest. “First and foremost, it’s music and the record I wanted to make. Our live shows are really different than our records. So we wanted to get in a room and hit record, just go there.”
What emerged was louder, more fun, or at least more debauched than prior works. Never intended as treason, it was more the expression of a band that had come together over time finding its collective muscle.
“It’s really just a matter of presentation. We don’t replicate anything, ever. We like to play, so we screw stuff up, and with my A.D.D., well, that [doesn’t help].
“It’s still us. I still write the same way. It’s just we change things up.”
For Mr. McCauley, those change-ups in part started with the implosion of an engagement, leading to an extended “lost weekend.” The good times that color Providence fade to something slightly more sobering on the project Deer Tick just recorded in Portland, Ore. with Grammy-winning producer Steve Berlin, who came to prominence with East LA’s 1980s roots/punk upstarts Los Lobos.
Vineyarders attending the June 10 show will be among the first to hear music from the unreleased Negativity.
“Its title is a tongue-in-cheek, over the top statement,” Mr. McCauley says. “But it’s a pretty dark album. Nine of the 10 songs are pretty autobiographical... A couple of years went by, then I got serious about [life].”
Enlisting Mr. Berlin, who first met the songwriter on the Diamond Rugs side project, meant creating an album that was more polished, more reined in and “very focused on the hooks and catchiest parts.” Not quite a grab for the mainstream, the discipline of working with an outside producer of some renown helped hone the vision.
“Giving up so much control [was difficult], but he gravitates toward the nastiest stuff in our songs,” Mr. McCauley said. “He picked up the more twisted stuff, so it was a good positive experience.
“He pushed us. But it was great, because it wasn’t like we were just meeting him for the first time. He took 30 songs, picked the best 12. It’s very melodic, but also a little creepy at times.”
The ability to interject the baseness of life into songs that work the exhilaration of a good time, the loneliness of alienation and the swagger of being young is what gives Mr. McCauley’s songwriting its enduring quality. But it’s the frisson the band finds, especially on last year’s EP Tim, that captures the listener. Low slung, the grooves are draped with a scraped-knuckle immediacy from the barbed wire guitar downstrokes and thick clouds of B-3 pads.
Evolution can be vexing for fans. Mr. McCauley knows it, and knows while it can make for intrigue on the bandstand, it often yields annoyance among the ticket buyers. But it’s not from a lack of passion from the hardcore, rather coming more from the diversity of the people who’ve embraced Deer Tick in its various incarnations.
“Our fans are insane. They’re all over the place in terms of what they want when they come to the shows, so it’s really hard,” Mr. McCauley says. “What you see is what you get . . . there’s no guarantees.
“And we don’t do the same thing exactly. That would suck. So you never know what you’re gonna get. It’s really hard to get away with not playing certain things. To not play Ashamed? That wouldn’t work at all.”
Mr. McCauley chuckles again as he admits this. Not quite marveling at the reality of the situation, but acknowledging that even a DIY guy who built it himself, colored outside the lines and became a regular musical guest on David Letterman actually has some realities he must respect.
Still, for the kid whose parents kicked him out of the house when he decided to drop out of high school, Mr. McCauley has defied the odds. He admits he knew the only thing he wanted to do was make music, and once he had no other choice, he began rewriting the “how to” rules of making the music work for the musician.
“The internet is really handy, especially [when it came to] booking my own gigs,” he says. “I made some friends who showed me how to tour . . . and I built up a big address book of addresses and names. Built it one by one.
“I had to work real hard, get into debt [to do it] and a lot of it is luck, too. Being in the right place, meeting the right people along the way. Those things you can’t make happen, but they make a difference.”
Deer Tick, like so many alt bands, defies labels. Not Americana or alt-country, they get compared to Lucinda Williams and Wilco. Not alternative or post-modern, Mr. McCauley’s Diamond Rugs includes members of the Black Lips, as well as Mr. Berlin. Not quite My Morning Jacket, nor Mumford & Sons, they fit many places yet belong nowhere.
“We can crossover into all sorts of different scenes,” Mr. McCauley acknowledges. “That’s what I like about our band. We have our own kind of following, all kinds of really unique people follow us, and they aren’t one kind of people. We aren’t like the Grateful Dead or Phish, but it’s the same thing in that all those different people who come, they keep coming. They may have nothing in common [except us], but it keeps them coming back.”
Those who’ve heard Negativity feel this is the record that refocuses Deer Tick consistently with all the various pieces of “who” they are, so it could be the record everyone agrees on. Mr. McCauley isn’t hoping for that, though. He just wants to get out there and rock.
“We like to play. We like to get out there, make music. It’s not always the same, but it’s always interesting. That’s what keeps us doing it. Especially with this new set [of songs], there’s a real sense of relief. I feel happier and lighter . . . I’m inspired, and that’s a weird feeling. It’s impossible to describe, but you can absolutely hear it.”
Deer Tick plays with local band DCLA on Monday, June 10 at Flatbread, 17 Airport Road, Edgartown. Tickets are $15 and doors open at 9:30 p.m. Call 508-693-1137.