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Band with a plan

Led by a singer who predicted fame early on, Deer Tick finds itself on the verge of stardom

(Christine Hochkeppel for The Boston Globe)
By James Reed
Globe Staff / April 21, 2009
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PROVIDENCE - Deer Tick's three-page biography reads like a road map for a band that started like any other but then found its footing several detours later. It's rich in myth-making tidbits like this: "After hearing a Hank Williams song on the radio, [frontman John] McCauley purchased as much Hank Sr. as he could at a record store, got his underage hands on a big bottle of brandy, and locked himself up in his cold and drafty bedroom listening to ol' Hank until the bottle was dry."

The biography is credited to someone named Cecil Thyme, writing from New York earlier this year, but it's too intimate and winking to come from an outsider.

"I wrote all that stuff," McCauley admits recently over drinks and the blare of blues and country music at E&O Tap, a dive bar he likes in his hometown. "After reading so many things that weren't exactly true about Deer Tick, I decided I should just tell my own story."

McCauley, whose two-packs-a-day rasp and world-weary perspective belie his 23 years, has a history of making sure he's understood. He remembers joining the yearbook committee in middle school just so he could be in charge of writing people's superlatives. His was always the same: Rock Star.

That prediction - more of a destiny, McCauley would probably say - is coming to fruition. Formed as a guitar-and-drum duo at the tail end of 2004, Deer Tick is now a quartet and finally poised to break through on a national level. This year will bring two new albums, a solo tour (including a stop at Harpers Ferry on Thursday), and opening stints with Jenny Lewis in June. A documentary about the band's rise, "Deer Tick: To the City of Sin!," is in the works. And Rolling Stone magazine just picked Deer Tick as the No. 1 band to watch from the recent South by Southwest Music Festival.

Around here, the band's reputation is established, especially among musicians who were initially incredulous that McCauley emerged so fully formed and compelling at age 18.

Yet he's had a rather lengthy and convoluted introductory period. High school bands (Kadaver, El Toro, Metro Savages) came and went, but with Deer Tick McCauley finally had a vision for the aesthetic he wanted.

It's the sound of a young man who rocked out to Nirvana at 13 but then was floored by Hank Williams and Townes Van Zandt a few years later. For easy comparison's sake, Deer Tick gets lumped into the alt-country category, falling haphazardly somewhere between the twilight glow of John Prine's folk and the Band's jangly roots rock.

"War Elephant," Deer Tick's 2007 debut, found an enthusiastic audience with bloggers but disappeared shortly after the original indie label wasn't able to keep it in print. (It was rereleased last year by Partisan Records.) The songs, which put a poetic shine on McCauley's problems with women and booze, made it hard to believe he had written most of the album when he was 17, let alone that he could relate to those subjects. "I'm just going through the motions/ I need an old-fashioned potion/ There's gotta be some old recipe/ 'Cause I gotta get drunk/ I gotta forget about some things," he sings on "Art Isn't Real (City of Sin)."

"Songwriting, at least back then, was an experimentation in creative writing for myself, paired with being an incredibly depressed teenager," McCauley says. "Through my knack for writing, I was able to turn simple things and simple breakups into these elaborate stories."

As independent and self-sufficient as he is - he started the band long before the current lineup was in place and played most of the instruments on "War Elephant" - McCauley knew from the start that he didn't want to go it alone.

"That's how I always heard my songs, with a full backing band," he says. "I tried to do it all myself, but hindsight being 20/20, I kind of realized that I wasn't the badass drummer and bassist that I thought I was. I like the dynamics of having a band."

Deer Tick is closely identified with Providence, partly because it's an anomaly in the city's mostly experimental and noise scenes, but also because most of its members - including bassist Christopher Dale Ryan and drummer Dennis Michael Ryan - are native Rhode Islanders. Guitarist Andrew Grant Tobiassen is from Florida.

Though he moved to Brooklyn last year, McCauley says this is a thoroughly Rhode Island band: "This is where I call home. Real people live here. We're a tiny place, but we kick [expletive]." McCauley says he has too good of a setup in Brooklyn right now (cheap rent, solid group of friends, 24-ounce Budweisers with his roommates), but he's eager to move back to Providence.

For now, he splits his time between the two cities while his career takes off. In June, fans will hear an even broader range of Deer Tick songs when Partisan releases "Born on Flag Day," which sheds some of the lonesome country noir of "War Elephant" for a more upbeat and cohesive sound. A third album, still untitled though McCauley may call it "From the Bottom of a Heart," features some of his earliest songs and should arrive in the winter.

His confessional songwriting bent is surprising considering that most everyone who knows him says McCauley is rather shy and introspective. His gaze is usually fixed more on the floor than your eyes when you meet him and he tends to mumble, but it's like a switch is flicked when he's on stage.

"I deal with bands that when they have really big sold-out rooms, they get super nervous," says Ian Wheeler, Deer Tick's manager and co-owner of its label, Partisan. "With John it's completely the opposite. He's so much more comfortable when there's a big huge crowd that's completely pumped to see him."

With his mustache, tattoos, and penchant for Western wear, McCauley plays the raucous but tenderhearted troubadour especially well. At a South by Southwest performance last month, McCauley dedicated a song to his father, who had flown in from Rhode Island: "Like Stevie Nicks said about 'Landslide,' this one's for you, Daddy." (The women in the crowd went "aww"; never mind that his father actually missed that show.)

Cory W. Lovell, a 24-year-old film student at Burlington College, was so inspired by Deer Tick that he made the band the focus of his first documentary. Last week Lovell finished a rough cut of "Deer Tick: To the City of Sin!" - the trailer is posted at www.vimeo.com/3068379 - after spending three months on the road with the guys. Lovell says his connection to the band's music was immediate.

"It was completely sincere and genuine," Lovell says. "So much of independent music these days has this real ironic detachment and lack of sentimentality or connection to the roots of our country and its music. It blew me away that this music was blues, folk, punk, grunge. It was everything - like 70 years of music that went into making something totally contemporary."

James Reed can be reached at jreed@globe.com.

Related

DEER TICK

At Harpers Ferry (158 Brighton Ave., Allston) on Thursday at 8 p.m. with Faces on Film and Hooray for Earth. Tickets are $12, $10 advance, at www.harpersferryboston.com.