What makes a Deer Tick? John McCauley talks new instruments, parenthood and his band’s upcoming acoustic tour

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Mission Creek Presents: Deer Tick w/ Ryley Walker and Nadalands

The Mill — Wed., Apr. 6 at 8 p.m.

Deer Tick
Illustration by Lev Cantoral

Deer Tick has evolved and adapted over the years where similar indie-rock bands have faltered and burned out. While not without their share of a hard-partying and rock and roll lifestyle, their sincerity keeps their craft authentic and their fanbase steadily growing. I’ve seen Deer Tick songs performed live a dozen times, but each time is fresh and compelling; Deer Tick is a band with a pure love for creating music, and it shows. John McCauley, the band’s singer and guitarist, has an endearing, candid way of writing and performing that’s also present in his conversational style. I spoke with him about Deer Tick’s upcoming spring tour — their first acoustic one — which will stop at Mission Creek Festival.

Little Village: What will be different about an acoustic tour versus what you’ve traditionally done with electric?

Well, I think a lot of people have come to see us over the years. They’ve never seen an acoustic guitar on stage with us before. They’ve heard them on the records. I don’t know, I thought it would be a good idea for us to go just do things differently for once and maybe we won’t get so sick of our own songs. Trying to reimagine them in a new way.

When was the last time you toured?

Uh, I have no idea [laughs].

A while ago?

Yeah, we took most of last year off. We probably would have taken a break anyway but it happened to be a good time for me just having a kid and everything.

Now that you have your daughter, how are you spending your off-year?

I’ve just been hanging with her. It’s been a lot of fun. A lot of parents don’t get spend this much time with their children, especially when they’re first born. I was really happy to have that opportunity. It’s been different. I haven’t really had a lot of time to write. You’d think in a year I would have accomplished more than I did, but I’m happy nonetheless, just to spend time with her.

Do you play music to her? Like lullabies?

Oh, she doesn’t like lullabies. She likes real music, it’s pretty great [laughs].

She sounds like a good kid. Doing anything else? New hobbies?

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I’ve picked up a couple new instruments that I’ve been learning how to play. Mandolin and Bouzouki.

What’s the bouzouki?

It’s a Greek instrument that kind of made its way into Irish folk music. So I’ve been learning the Irish variation of the bouzouki. It’s got eight strings and a cool quality to it.

Is it something you want to use professionally or are you just kind of figuring it out?

I think I’ll end up using it on some things. I’m gonna bring it along on tour and play it on a few things. I’m not the best at it though, I’m only gonna test it out [laughs].

Are you teaching yourself? You self-taught guitar and piano.

I taught myself everything except bass. I took bass lessons.

So I hear Deer Tick might have a new album coming out?

I would just kind of say I have no idea. I’d like to get it out by the end of the year but, I don’t know, we kind of came up with some big ideas for it. If we just made another record, it wouldn’t be good enough for us, we’d feel like we failed. We’re really clinging onto this idea that we can make two records at once. A folk record and a rock record. But they wouldn’t be like the same songs recorded a different way, it would be two totally different records.

That’s exciting!

Yeah, we’re just writing and demoing stuff. We’ve gone to the studio to work on a few songs. But then they’ve kind of all just turned [into] the same-sounding thing. We didn’t do a very good job of distinguishing between the folk songs and the rock songs. We need to, like, start over again, or be really strict about how we record each song.

Is there a band member who’s really good at taking charge of that?

I think I’d be good at that. I don’t know, I guess when we went into the studio we didn’t know what we were doing. I don’t think we tried hard enough. And then we came back with a bunch of stuff that was like, “Well, this doesn’t work.” But we’re not abandoning the songs, we just have to redo them. The last thing I want to do is put out a bunch of over-produced junk.

Would it sound similar to any of your previous albums? I know rock is your core but some of your albums have different sounds to them. Born on Flag Day is your most country, Divine Providence is your most punk.

I don’t think we’d be worried too much about trying to recreate anything. I think some of the folkier stuff will be kind of reminiscent of War Elephant, but the rock stuff—what I hear in my head—is something we haven’t touched on yet musically.

You do a lot of collaborations in your music. Is there anybody that you’d want to work with that you haven’t yet? Either with Deer Tick or as a side project?

Yeah, there’s the guy who got away [laughs]. I was supposed to get together and write a song with Al Anderson from NRBQ a couple years ago. But somebody made a mistake. Both parties agreed to the 27th, but my managers thought we were talking about February, his managers thought we were talking about March, or something. So we agreed to do it before, we could try to make it happen again. That always bugged me, it was so close to happening and didn’t happen. And I just saw a couple friends of mine played with Bonnie Raitt. I don’t think I’ve ever been more jealous. I’d like to jam with Bonnie someday.

Do you have a favorite musician that you’ve worked with?

I would love to record with Marshall Crenshaw. He played with us at our 10-year anniversary shows. He was really fantastic and is such a great guitar player, and it was fun having him up on stage with us. I would love to just do something, you know, get something on tape.

One of the shows you played in Iowa City, with Diamond Rugs, you talked about how one of your songs (“Couldn’t Help It”) was inspired by him.

Oh yeah, I ripped him off as best I could with that one [laughs.].

Has your approach to music changed now that you have a family?

I haven’t written enough stuff since she’s been born to give you an answer to that. I guess when you have a family, there’s a question that starts bugging you in the back of your head, like, “Am I doing the right thing with my life?” or, “Is this what I’m really meant to do?” It’s put me in a funny spot because my band really hasn’t been working that much … I’ve had some pretty close to severe mental breakdowns trying to figure out what the hell I want to do. I think the best thing for me is to just finish this record with Deer Tick and take it on the road and just see what happens. If we didn’t do this acoustic tour, I might lose interest in the whole thing, so I’m really happy that this came together, to get something going again.

Chelsea Pfeiffer lives and works in Iowa City but travels frequently for Deer Tick shows. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 195.

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