After he graduated high school, John McCauley convinced his parents to let him tour the country playing his guitar rather than going to college. Somehow, they listened, and he birthed Deer Tick, an alt-country band that’s since released four records and a handful of EPs. McCauley is now in his mid-twenties, but his band is still known for their ruckus live show performance–or as McCauley puts it, being “drunk buffoons”–but despite their dedicated following of fans, they have always met harsh critical reception. Music writers across the Internet have dismissed them as party animals whose drunk actions are annoying and self-serving, accusing them of overt masculinity that sometimes, arguably, translates into misogyny.
What’s a bit funny about that perception is that, at least according to McCauley, the band isn’t trying to do any of that. He grew up in the Providence, R.I., music scene where it was not uncommon to “get loaded and play a show,” and he seemingly has taken that approach throughout his career. But, we all get older, even musicians, and McCauley isn’t shy in saying that it’s gotten a bit harder to wake up in the morning. The past year, the band has cleaned up their act a bit, slowed down the partying, and refocused. On Saturday, McCauley takes the stage at Carnegie Hall as part of the Live at Zankel Hall series from WFUV. While he was touring in Canada, the singer-songwriter took a moment to chat with Sound of the City on the phone about the perceptions of his band, clearing his head, and taking one of the most storied stages in the world.
Let’s talk about the Carnegie Hall thing. Why are you playing Carnegie Hall? That’s the first question.
[Laughs] I’ve been asking myself that every day since we booked it. It’s for WFUV, the radio station, and I don’t know. They pick a songwriter or personality or something to do this every year, and they’ve been good to Deer Tick and my other projects. If they think it can work, we’re preparing ourselves for it the best we can. I think it will be a fun show, and we’ve got some good friends of ours to agree to come and play some tunes with us.
Have you been to Carnegie Hall?
I’ve been once. I saw John Prine maybe four or five years ago.
Is any part of you nervous about entering a venue like Carnegie Hall? Most of your fans are used to, when going to a Deer Tick show, just getting hammered at a dive bar.
[Laughs] I was a little nervous about how it would translate. That’s not what we’re going for with this. We’re not going to get loaded before the show, and we won’t be throwing beers around out of respect of the place. I think it will be a good chance to showcase our talents that maybe get lost on a crowd at a dive bar, you know?
What type of things are lost?
Maybe some of the nuance and songwriting. We turn our amps up so loud so it probably just sounds like noise sometimes, but Ian [O’Neil] and I are actually pretty good guitar players. Not everyone in the crowd is going to be slamming shots of whiskey and chugging beers. They’re going to be forced to pay attention. [Laughs.]
Do you feel playing Carnegie Hall signifies anything?
I just hope that… maybe… how do I want to say this. I don’t think we want to be known as drunk buffoons our whole life and we are getting older. It’s been a long time since our live show took a turn for the rowdier. It’ll be fun to get up on a stage that big and not rest on our laurels so much.
How do you feel about that public perception of drunk buffoonery?
I don’t mind what people think of me as long as it’s in an entertaining regard. And also, that whole getting loading and playing a show thing is kind of what the Providence music scene was for me growing up. Even when I might have been playing a solo gig, like when War Elephant came out, I was still getting loaded before the shows. But it wasn’t easy for me to run around, smash my guitar, and spray beer everywhere because I was stuck on one microphone, playing all the music by myself on my guitar. The expansion of the band made it easier for parts of our show to be performance art, and I don’t mean to say it’s good performance art, but it is to some extent.
How much of your drinking and partying on stage is performance art and playing along to this perception that Deer Tick is a party band, or is it you guys actually just getting hammered?
Some of it’s very sincere. [Laughs.] Sometimes we will plot things out, like it would be funny if we smashed our guitars with bowling balls, like when we played at Brooklyn Bowl. That was planned. That was pre-meditated. But it’s half and half. Some of the more questionable things we’ve done on stage, we’ve done completely sober.
What’s an example?
Maybe exposing ourselves. Sometimes we play a totally straight show and then at the end, I just want to jump into the drum kit because I like jumping into the drum kit. It’s not fun to do when you’re sober because it hurts a lot more, but sometimes it’s just a decision you make in the moment because you think it will look funny or cool or whatever. I don’t know. We definitely played hundreds of shows almost to the point of blacking out on stage. But we’re not nearly that drunk all the time, especially in the past year I feel like. With a few exceptions, we’ve played mostly sober.
What prompted that change?
For me, people expecting me to be drunk or always want to do a show with them–it was starting to hurt more in the morning, you know? I can certainly drink. It was compromising my performance personally. I think the other guys in the band maybe got sick of it. And we can be pretty disagreeable with each other when we’re all wasted. So in an effort to save our band and maybe add a few years to our lives, it was something we had to do before we just became nothing but a joke of a party band.
There seems to be a lot of preconceived notions about the band–like Deer Tick is a frat band. What do you think about that?
I think it’s all kind of silly. I don’t understand the frat lifestyle. I’ve been in a fraternity house maybe two times in my life, and I did not like what I saw. I don’t mind anybody coming to our shows, but I don’t want it to be all dudes in khakis and polos who were “pregamming,” you know? [Laughs.] I don’t want to make anybody else besides frat guys uncomfortable to come to our show.
Along the same lines, a lot of music critics have issues with you, and you’ve actively fought back–like when you reviewed the Pitchfork review of your album. Why do you think that is, and why fight back so actively? That seems like it’d be asking for it.
It was definitely juvenile. But the thing with Pitchfork specifically is that they seem to have something against me personally. Whenever they write about us, it’s never about the music. It’s about me and who they think I am. I was really upset when they wrote in the Diamond Rugs review something like, “Deer Tick is abusers of alcohol and women.” And I was like, what the fuck? Where did you get that? Alcohol, sure. You can call us alcohol abusers all you want. But saying that we abuse women, that’s so far from the truth. Where is the evidence of that? And who the fuck do you think you are? I wouldn’t say that about anybody, unless I knew it was true. It’s painting a really bad picture of us to all the people who read that website and haven’t heard us before. That’s not a good way to be introduced to anybody. “This is a guy that abuses women,” you know? [Laughs.]
How do you deal with those harsh, arguably unfair critiques?
I’ve never really been bothered by anything, except that. We can take a bad review. We can take somebody who reviewed our show being angry and upset with us because we got drunk on stage. We can deal with a pissed off fan that tried to catch a piece of guitar that got tossed into the crowd and cut their hand open and they had to get stitches. Not everyone’s going to like what we do, and you just can’t let it bother you. But that thing that Pitchfork said is one of the few things that somebody said about us that actually personally bothered me.
Has there been any connection between you wanting to clean up your act and not party as much on stage with the growing public party perception of your band?
I would say it’s separate. Every decision I make to better myself is for me and me only. And I think that’s how the other guys feel about their more mature decision making nowadays.