Tradition dictates that gifts for a 10th anniversary be either tin or aluminum. But on the occasion of Deer Tick’s own decennial as a band, they’re the ones doing the giving: They’re presenting fans in the New York area with…(insert rimshot here) rock. And a lot of it: For five nights in a row at the Brooklyn Bowl, the lineup will cover an entire album — by Devo, the Beatles, NRBQ, Elvis Costello, and Lou Reed (plus a second set of their own material) — and on the sixth eve they’ll do their own songs in a fan-chosen set. That’s a lot of rehearsal. And in the ballpark of 40 cover songs to learn, all from albums released before anybody in Deer Tick was even born. But as singer/songwriter John McCauley understates, “We just thought it would be fun to do. I guess we figured we’re going to be taking some time off next year — still recording stuff, but we’ve been playing so much, and I’m about to have a daughter, so, you know, this will be the last time we play in New York for kind of a while.”
At times soft-spoken almost to the point of mumblecore, McCauley has led the Providence, Rhode Island-bred band on an incredibly creative journey that’s encompassed five records, four EPs, fawning critical accolades, cover bands (Deervana, wherein they covered Nirvana’s In Utero), substance abuse and disuse, and, oh, a wedding ceremony performed by Stevie Nicks, uniting McCauley and Grammy-winning singer/songwriter Vanessa Carlton in 2013. And he’s only 27.
Now residing in Nashville, the singer explains the logistics of how Deer Tick — guitarist Ian O’Neil, bassist Chris Ryan, drummer Dennis Ryan, and keyboard player Rob Crowell — put together their aural anniversary celebration. Rehearsals — shuttling between Providence and Nashville — “have been a lot less painless than I thought they’d be,” he observes. “We don’t all live in the same city, so we set aside some time to rehearse and let everybody do their homework. We got together a few times; it takes about a day for us to all learn a record. Then we do a second day of playing it over and over again.” So essentially, they played Meet the Beatles five times in a row, front to back? “Pretty much,” he confirms, laughing. “We definitely could have done a more obscure record, but, you know, we thought it would be fun and we’re not too cool to admit that we’re Beatles fans.”
The frontman admits he insisted on a few specific records: Devo’s Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!, NRBQ’s Tiddlywinks, and Elvis Costello’s My Aim Is True. “I thought Elvis and Devo would just be a real fun time, and I’m really familiar with those albums; I listened to them a lot growing up. And Ian really wanted to do Transformer, but I can’t do a good Lou Reed impression, so I said, ‘We’ll do it if you sing it.’ So Ian’s going to be Lou Reed that night, which is great. There’s really not a whole lot of lead guitar on that record, so it’s the easiest night for me.”
A few also-rans were John Mellencamp’s Uh-Huh and Pleased to Meet Me by the Replacements. “Hmm, what else?” McCauley muses. “Our drummer wanted to do an ELO record, and we’re like, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me.’ We’re not that talented. We would have had to take a year to do an ELO record.”
While they put in a lot of hours learning the classic albums verbatim, McCauley notes, “There are a few songs we’ve changed around, because of our instrumentation versus how they were originally recorded, most notably Devo.” But why stop there? Well, Deer Tick probably won’t. “We have some gray suits that kinda look like the Beatles’, so maybe we’ll wear them. We’re talking about it. It seems like it would be fun. I think we’ll wear some jumpsuits or whatever for the Devo night.” He pauses, thinking. “I don’t know how we’d dress for NRBQ. Somebody will have to wear a kimono or something.”
But wait, there’s more. Special guests, of course. Reach-outs to Costello and Devo’s Mark Mothersbaugh have been attempted, but so far remain unfruitful. However, confirmations do include Taylor Goldsmith from Dawes and Tommy Stinson from the Replacements, plus fingers crossed for everyone from Marshall Crenshaw to, well, you could call her Bella Donna. Which also begs the question: Why no female artists being represented? “You know what? I guess I didn’t really think about it,” McCauley confesses. “I just kinda went with what seems comfortable to us, but that said, I’d love to tackle a Bonnie Raitt album sometime.”
That sometime just might come. The 2015 touring break is not a hiatus, just a time for writing, recording, and space for McCauley to be a “stay-at-home dad” to the soon-to-arrive Sidney Aoibheann Carlton-McCauley. While he may soon be singing lullabies to an audience of one in his personal life, for Deer Tick’s next outing, McCauley and his prolific band even considered “making two drastically different records and putting them out at the same time,” he says. “But I just saw My Morning Jacket is releasing two records at the same time. We’re not in a rush. We’ll kinda just see what happens.” With hues of Hank Williams, Nirvana, the Replacements, and Townes Van Zandt, Deer Tick are oddball iconoclasts with reverence, their shambolic beauty on 2007’s War Elephant moving toward a more polished but no less impassioned and timeless mien on 2013’s Negativity, rife with horns, lyrics about “wasteful savants” and the chiming rough-pop charm of stellar songs like “The Dream’s in the Ditch.”
While it’s “anyone’s guess what ends up spewing forth next time,” semi-soon plans include cutting demos with Adam Landry (who produced 2011’s Divine Providence), with the band self-producing. McCauley surmises: “I think that we’ll get in, record a couple songs, and we’ll have a better idea of where it’s going, who else we might want to bring in.”
In any case, they’ve certainly come a long way since McCauley’s very first show in New York City, in the bar portion of the now-defunct LES venue Sin-é. “I did eventually end up playing in the actual venue,” he affirms, “which I guess is kinda cool, I guess Jeff Buckley did a live record there.” But on the occasion of their 10th anniversary, McCauley is looking back- and forward in equal measure, acknowledging the success milestone in his humbly mumbly way. “I mean, I think it’ s a good time to disappear and go work on some music and come back whenever we’re ready again. But if it keeps continuing like this, I could see us doing it another 10, 20, 30 years. It’s working. Why mess up a good thing?”
Deer Tick’s six-night residency starts 12/26 and runs until 12/31. Doors: 6 pm/show: 8:30 pm. $25. 21 and over.