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Deer Tick

Deer Tick: Roadhouse Warrior

story by tim mcmahan


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Lazy-i: June 10, 2009

Deer Tick
w/Jenny Lewis
Wednesday, June 17, 9 p.m.
The Slowdown
729 14th St.

At the age of 23, Deer Tick singer/songwriter John McCauley already sounds like a grizzled rock veteran.

A son of Providence, Rhode Island, McCauley started his career like so many other hopeful musicians -- booking his own solo tours and selling CDRs out of his trunk, performing at house shows, coffee shops, art galleries, anywhere anyone would let him play his unique brand of twangy, low-fi alt-country rock.

It wasn't until this year that Deer Tick emerged as one of the hottest new bands in the crowded indie scene, picked by Rolling Stone Magazine as the top attraction at this year's South by Southwest Festival. Even NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams is a devoted "Tick Head," bragging up the band's first album, War Elephant, backstage at a taping of the Rachel Ray Show.

Williams' endorsement came as a surprise to McCauley. "One day I got an email from someone who said, 'I heard Brian Williams talk about you on Rachel Ray and I like what I'm hearing.' I thought, 'What are you talking about?'" he said from his Brooklyn home a few days before the tour that brings his band to Omaha. He found a video of the segment on YouTube and put it on his MySpace page. "Everyone we worked with just thought it was funny, and it spread like crazy."

Then last month, McCauley got a phone call from his manager saying he had to be in New York on Monday because Williams wanted to interview the band at 30 Rock. "That made no sense to me, but I was very excited," McCauley said. "So we did it and it was fun. It got us a lot of attention, and it came at a perfect time with our new record coming out. Bless that man Brian Williams."



It all sounds very story book, but there were plenty of ups and downs on the way to SXSW and the Williams incident. It was only a few years ago that McCauley was on that seemingly endless solo tour, getting by holding countless menial jobs, including as a movie projectionist and a waiter at a Chinese restaurant.

"I didn't give up," he said. "I kept on going on tour and making home recordings until someone finally decided to put out a record. I just kept writing songs and people seemed to like them. I definitely had frustrations in the beginning, but I always thought I'd end up doing something with music. I was never concerned about being part of any scene or anything. There's just something that makes me do this."

Among those early gigs was a night at Ted & Wally's played to a nearly empty room. "We were supposed to get there early and open the show," McCauley said, "but because we were so late, we had to end the show. No one knew who we were and just about everyone had left."

After three years of performing, he said he "got over that hump" when War Elephant was released in September 2007 and he found a booking agent to line up shows with guaranteed money. But just as things were looking up, War Elephant went out of print... for almost a year. "That was a bad year, because we had another album recorded and no home for it, and we had nothing to sell at our shows," McCauley said.

Things would take another turn after a gig at The Knitting Factory. "We played a show there and I ended up staying really late playing piano," McCauley said. Working at the club that night was Tim Putnam of Partisan Records, who would show up weeks later at a Deer Tick show in Providence offering the band a record deal. "I was definitely skeptical," McCauley said. "I didn't want to work with a label again. We're still trying to get a check from our first label."

But Partisan turned out to be a godsend, reissuing War Elephant and now releasing the band's second album, Born on Flag Day, slated to drop June 23. The new record is rife with bouncing backbeat roadhouse ditties where McCauley sings about love, loneliness and booze in his trademark ragged, raspy voice.

McCauley's story could inspire any weary singer-songwriter just trying to get a break. His advice to them: "If you really want to do it and do it for the rest of your life, there's a point where you have to really get serious about it," he said. "Be wary about who you're working with, but don't be afraid to work with professionals. Work on your songwriting. You're not going to go anywhere if you have bad songs, unless you're Nickelback. It takes as much luck as skill, hard work and dedication, so I guess instead of words of advice, I wish you good luck."

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Published in The Omaha Reader June 10, 2009. Copyright © 2009 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved.
















Deer Tick

"I definitely had frustrations in the beginning, but I always thought I'd end up doing something with music."