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Deer Tick’s John McCauley Discusses ‘Negativity,’ Nirvana + New Girlfriend Vanessa Carlton

John McCauley by Frazer Harrison, Getty Images
Frazer Harrison, Getty Images

The last time Diffuser.fm interviewed Deer Tick, they’d just performed a stellar set at the soggy 2013 Mountain Jam festival back in June. They were in good — if not slightly zonked — spirits.

With a beer in hand, lead singer and primary songwriter John McCauley sounded positively stoked about the band’s forthcoming record, ‘Negativity,’ which was produced by Los Lobos’ saxman Steve Berlin. The knob-twirler’s influence can be heard all over the new album, which features a much fuller sound than any of Deer Tick’s previous records.

A few months later, over a 48-hour time period, we spent a good chunk of time on the phone with the humble, enigmatic McCauley, known to many as one of the hardest-living rockers of the modern era. He surprised us with his candor about the not-so-happy roots of his band’s latest album, and about his new girlfriend, Vanessa Carlton (she of ‘A Thousand Miles’ fame).

Your publicist said you were recently on vacation. We picture a guy like you going to some Mexican coastal town where the only two buildings are a whore house and a dive bar. Are we close?

[laughs] I actually went to Tucson, Arizona, to a guest ranch called Tanque Verde.

What does one do on a guest ranch in Tucson, Arizona?

You get up early in the morning, you go horseback riding and then it starts getting way too hot in the early afternoon. Then you sit around the pool and eat a big dinner. And then you go to bed and do it all over again.

Arizona’s one of those weapons-crazy states. Did you shoot any guns while you were out there?

No. The only gun range I’ve been to is in Manhattan. It’s where they filmed that scene in ‘Taxi Driver.’ The idea of firing off guns in the basement of an office building is pretty funny. Pretty hilarious.

We’re just going to throw this out of there up front, but this entire interview is going to be about negativity — the noun and name of your band’s new album. Do you have negativity problems?

Ahh … perhaps I did. [laughs]

You’re using the past tense. Do you care to go into what any of those were?

I think maybe cynicism was one of my problems. [laughs] The whole record tackles a lot of negative stuff, but I just found [the name ‘Negativity’] was a really funny statement to make about the record on a whole. So it’s a tongue-in-cheek title. I just thought, “Man this sounds so ’90s!” I don’t know if you’ve seen the artwork, but it’s pretty happy looking. For the cover, we did a photo shoot with an airplane that’s flying through a bright blue sky, towing a banner that says “NEGATIVITY” in bright, red letters.

Hopefully, no one was injured in the filming of that cover.

No, it went off without a hitch. The pilot was a really funny guy. He liked to tow banners that said weird s—. He was telling me some of the banners he’d flown for people in the past, and one of them that I remember was, “Once a cheater, always a cheater.” [laughs]

When I last talked to you at Mountain Jam back in June, you seemed pretty out of it. What is the one drug that never fails to mess you up?

Alcohol. Basically any distilled spirit.

A lot of your songs mention drinking. There’s that line in the Eagles’ ‘Hotel California’ that goes: “Some drink to remember / some drink to forget.” What type of drinker are you?

Ah, well, nowadays I drink like an addict. [laughs uncomfortably] I stopped, I guess, right after Mountain Jam … I had some time, and I dried out, and um, I’m kind of a teetotaler now.

We’ve seen people whose alcoholism controls them.

You know, in my line of work, it’s f—ing everywhere. It was easy to get out of control, and it was kind of like I checked out; I wasn’t in charge anymore. And that went on for years. It cost me a few things that I wished it hadn’t; but you know, I feel like with this record, I had a chance of starting over in a way. Especially with my career … it seems like a fresh start. I’m pretty happy about it.

The press release that came with your new record may have been the most depressing one we’ve ever read. It talks about your dad going to jail. Then it says your engagement got broken off. Did you want it to get that personal?

[My publicists] asked me about it, because they knew what was going on in my life, and they knew where these songs were coming from, and they asked me, ‘How public do you want to make this? Do you want to talk about this in the press?’ And I figured that a lot of my songs have always been open to interpretation as far as what our fans get out of them, and with this I felt very comfortable with being open about it. Like “You’ve got four albums that you can interpret anyway you want, but this one, I want to tell you what it’s about up front,” as to minimize any sort of confusion about it, or people’s wacky theories on what the songs were about.

We take it from how you just phrased that, that this was sort of cathartic. Is that correct?

Yeah, it could be. I still want people to hear my music — hear it however they want, and make up their own definition for it. I’d also like everybody to have the option of listening to it as if they’re reading my f—ing diary. [laughs]

Love is a bitch. So are relationships. They’re a lot of work that, sometimes, you just don’t have time to deal with. Do you think true love exists? If so, what is the definition of the perfect girl for John McCauley?

I’m staring right at her right now.

Oh yeah? Who is it?

Vanessa.

We realize we’re putting you on the spot here.

Definitely somebody who pushes you to do more; to better yourself. It just makes difficult things a whole lot easier to do.

Has the presence of someone like Vanessa in your life helped you deal with some of these inner-demons?

Absolutely. When I first met her, she seemed like the first person that actually helped me. I felt different around her. I felt very comfortable, very safe.

[We pick up the conversation again the following afternoon]

We feel like there’s this sort of USO-show quality to a lot of these songs — lots of horns and a fuller sound than on any previous Deer Tick record. Is that producer Steve Berlin’s influence, or did you hear a lot of horns in your mind when you wrote these songs?

There was stuff that we really wanted to do on previous records that we tried before but with very little success. Steve made everything a lot more possible, a lot easier to get done; he was able to call on some pretty big players. We had Grupo Fantasma do all the horns. They’ve won Grammys. They’re pretty legit.

We noticed that you don’t sing lead on the tune “Thyme.”

I only sing a little on that song. It’s [drummer] Dennis [Ryan’s] song.

Are your bandmates also the type of guys who get really, really dark, too; or are they a source of positivity in your life?

I would say we’re all pretty twisted in one way or another. [laughs] I mean, whatever we might express in our music — we’re generally pretty normal guys when you hang out with us. A lot of bands really don’t like each other, and I’m just starting to learn that what Deer Tick has is pretty unique. Like, we all actually want to hang out. We like each other. I guess that’s rare. [laughs]

We’ve been trying to figure out why this tune ‘In Our Time’ is on this album. It’s feels out of place — like it’s the one beam of sunlight that splits through the clouds on a rainy day.

Well, I mean, I wrote that song from my parents’ perspective about my father’s incarceration. In my demo version, I had Vanessa [Carlton] sing some backup harmonies; and I thought it sounded pretty cool, so I gave her a verse, and we kind of assumed the roles of my parents.

Speaking of Vanessa, do you guys dig the same type of music?

Yeah, I mean, we just put our record collections together, and you can’t pick out any record and go, “Oh, well that must be John’s” or “That must be Vanessa’s.”

That’s a pretty big step in a relationship.

Neither of our [record collections] were in any sort of order anyway.

What are a couple records you both keep coming back to?

Well, there’s stack near our record player … the most-played in our house. There’s Neil Young’s ‘Harvest.’ Crosby, Stills, & Nash … the Replacements ‘Tim.’

Great record. Have you seen the reunited Replacements?

I’m not going to have a chance unless they do more shows.

They probably will. We bet the money will probably get them to stick around.

[laughs] I’d like to see [Paul] Westerberg and [Tommy] Stinson on stage with each other.

Yeah, they’re great. One of our favorite songs of all time is ‘Alex Chilton.’

I have to learn it and play it at my friend’s wedding in February. He requested it.

We hear Deer Tick is covering Nirvana’s ‘In Utero’ in full. That may be one of my top 10 favorite albums of all time. We dig ‘Francis Farmer.’ What’s your jam on that album?

That’s actually mine, too.

How did the idea for the show come about? Did your label ask you do it?

We started doing the Deervana thing as a joke. Well, we have the utmost respect for Nirvana as a band. It was just kind of … we did it for a friend’s birthday party, and then we played a couple shows. It will only be our, like, fifth Deervana show.

That’s a pretty lofty goal playing that album as your fifth covers show, because it’s a tough album to play. Like, how are you guys going to pull off ‘Tourette’s’?

That’s the one I’m least worried about.

OK, last part of the interview. We’re going to say a series of names, and you can answer either ‘F— You’ or ‘F— Yes.’

Derek Jeter.

F— you.

Gram Parsons.

F— yes.

Jesus Christ.

F— you.

Planet of the Apes.

I’ve never seen ‘Planet of the Apes.’ I’ve never seen ‘Star Wars’ either. I’ve never been into sci-fi.

John McCauley.

Oh, f— you.

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