Judging from the tidal wave of buzz that surrounded War Elephant, John McCauley's first record as Deer Tick, what's left of the American underground is just as eager to rediscover vintage country as McCauley was when he stumbled across the work of Hank Williams at the tender age of 18. Blending trace elements of the modern freak-folk scene with heavy homages to the staples of old-fashioned country—namely women, booze, and regret—Deer Tick struck a resonant chord within the indie community. Several tours, a SXSW appearance, and one Brian Williams endorsement later, Deer Tick is back; now a solid five-piece act, it's currently touring behind Born On Flag Day (named after McCauley's actual date of birth), another indie-tinged reimagining of patriotic glory and country music's golden years. Prior to Deer Tick's performance tonight at The Black Cat, The A.V. Club spoke with McCauley about "angry" music, jazz appreciation, and celebrating his 21st birthday at Applebee's.
The A.V. Club: Rhode Island isn't known for having much of a country-music scene. What are your thoughts on being from the North and playing music generally associated with the South?
John McCauley: That's not all we do. I don't know why it's such a big deal to people—it's fucking music. Rhode Island is just as American as country music, so anyone who wants to give us a problem about it can stick it up their ass. It's just music we like.
AVC: Do you feel like you have gotten a lot of criticism for that?
JM: No, not really. It's almost like it confuses people or something.
AVC: According to legend, you discovered Hank Williams at 18, holed up in your room with the record and a bottle of booze. Is that true? Had you been exposed to much old-school country before then?
JM: I hadn't really listened to much old country at that point. The story is true in a sense. I did come out to go to the bathroom. It's not like I was in there nonstop. But yeah, it happened.
AVC: What were you listening to before you discovered country?
JM: A lot of angry music—Nirvana, Dead Kennedys, stuff like that. When I started listening to country music, I started listening to a lot of different types of music. Once I realized I liked country, I pretty much realized I could like just about anything else. Hell, I even listen to jazz and I used to fucking hate jazz.
AVC: Providence is known for its own "angry" music, particularly bands like Lightning Bolt and the stuff that LOAD Records puts out. How does Deer Tick fit in with that scene?
JM: I love it. I grew up around that scene and, at times, was involved in it. I think it's great—a lot of good showmanship. The live shows you see around Providence with all the noise bands and shit is, for the most part, really intense.
AVC: Has that scene been open to you guys doing something different?
JM: We do really well in Providence. It's not like noise is the only thing or that people who go to noise shows only go to noise shows.
AVC: Just as the band started gaining some popularity, War Elephant went out of print. How did that affect things?
JM: It was kinda weird. I don't think it really hurt us too bad. We successfully toured the same record for two years. It was annoying and could be embarrassing at times. I'd have people coming up to me at shows saying that they'd ordered it from the label's website two months ago and it never showed up, and then they want me to give them money, and I'm like, "It's not my fault." It sucked. If I had time before a gig, I'd burn as many CDs as I could and sell it like that.
AVC: You've gotten a lot of buzz for some of the covers you've released online, like your version of Sean Kingston's "Beautiful Girls." How do you pick those songs?
JM: With "Beautiful Girls," we got asked by a website. At the end of the year, they pick their favorite artists of the year to cover their favorite pop songs of the year. At the time, we were joking around about covering it because it's such a catchy, annoying pop song. So that worked out great. If we do a full set, we always do a pretty cover-heavy set. When I choose to cover a song, aside from the case of "Beautiful Girls," it's usually because I've been listening to it nonstop and can't get it out of my head.
AVC: You celebrated your 21st birthday in Austin during SXSW. How was that?
JM: We made a mess of the house we stayed in. I woke up at about 4 p.m., which made us late to our next show. I just woke up with all my clothes on a hardwood floor, surrounded by beer cans. It looked like a million fucking Hefty garbage bags just filled with cans and bottles, and my friend was taking them outside. We played a show in the garage of that house. My friend's band dressed up like Buddy Holly And The Crickets and played all Buddy Holly songs. When we got there earlier in the afternoon, the closest bar was Applebee's, so for my first legal drink at a bar I went to Applebee's and got a Lone Star and a shot of Jack Daniel's. The guy didn't card me, so I told him it was my birthday, and then he told me it wasn't. I told him I wanted him to bring me the cupcake with the candles in it, and he wouldn't do it. Then he started getting angry at me. Oh well.