“You caught me at a good time,” John McCauley tells me towards the end of a conversation a few weeks ago. Intentionally or not, this is funny.
It’s funny because I’m fairly confident that for most of the fifteen minutes that we’ve been on the phone together, he’s also been preparing some kind of microwavable dinner, and in the competition for his attention, the microwavable dinner is winning.
Not helping matters is that McCauley has recently awoken from a nap and is sounding a little groggy. He is not in an introspective mood. Interviewing him, I feel like an overbearing parent, the tone of his answers distinctly being: “God, Ma, what’s with all the questions?”
McCauley talks about his music with such nonchalance that it’s to forget how good he is at making it, and, for that matter, the diligence with which he’s done so. In five years, McCauley has fronted four Deer Tick LPs, in addition to joining forces with Dawes’ Taylor Goldsmith and Delta Spirit’s Matt Vasquez for a Middle Brother full-length, and, more recently, releasing the self-titled Diamond Rugs with members of the Black Lips, Los Lobos, Dead Confederate, and Six Finger Satellite. Across these projects, he’s displayed a remarkable fluency in all things Americana – rock, country, folk, whatever – even when it’s delivered with casualness of someone who just happened to drop by the studio with a few songs in his back pocket. Whatever the window dressing, McCauley’s gravelly rasp is up front and center, a God-given gift that’s as instantly recognizable as it is expressive. No amount of gargling Wild Turkey gives you a voice like it. You are born this way.
Contrary to his mellow demeanor in conversation, his live performances are raucous affairs. Rest assured, as long as McCauley’s in the venue, at least one person is having a good time. In fact, every time I’ve seen him – whether midday at an outdoor festival or the Backstage at Black Cat or headlining the 9:30 Club with Middle Brother, shirtless in a tasseled leather jacket – he’s been blitzed or well on his way to getting there. Soliciting the audience for drugs has not been out of the question. And, uniformly, these shows have been great.
On Saturday night, however, McCauley takes his act to the classy confines of Carnegie Hall, where he will present an evening of “John McCauley and Friends”. As he explains below, you can expect him to be well behaved.
Is playing Carnegie Hall a big deal for you?
Yeah, it’s pretty cool. I’ve been there once before, and that was when I attended a John Prine concert, so it’s pretty neat that only my second time there I get to play on that stage. It’s a nice feeling.
Did you assure them that you’d be on your best behavior?
I’ll probably be pretty good. [Laughs] That’s a gig you don’t want to screw up, you know?
Aside from Diamond Rugs, what other friends are going to be joining you?
This isn’t your first foray into curation. Deer Tick organized a festival this summer.
How’d it go?
It was really fun. For the first year, I don’t think it was bad at all. There’s room for improvement, of course. Its something that we want to keep doing. Next year, we just got to do it bigger and better, I guess.
But the DudsSmash brand is here to stay?
Yes. [Laughs] How’d we come up with that? I think we were sitting traffic and Ian was like, “This is traffic for the DudeSmash Festival.” I said, “What the hell is the DudeSmash Festival?” He was like, “Oh, Staind and Limp Bizkit are playing.” He just made some shit up. We were like, “DudeSmash! That’s a pretty dumb idea for a festival name. We should use that.” [Laughs]
Deer Tick spent a good chunk of August in Europe. How was that?
We played some fun festivals. We got to play Portugal and Denmark for the first time. I really liked Portugal. Unfortunately, we were only there for two days.
You’ve been busy with three projects – Deer Tick, Middle Brother, and Diamond Rugs – that have their own personalities.
[Blows nose] I don’t necessarily thinks it’s me responsible for that. I think it’s the people that I’m playing with. Deer Tick is totally its own thing, the way those guys play their instruments and stuff.
How do you hear the three bands differently?
Oh man, I don’t know. [Laughs] They all kind of have their own thing going on. If you like one, you’ll probably like the other two. [Laughs]
When you’re writing, do you make any kind of differentiation between songs for each of those bands?
It’s kinda whatever I have at the moment will go with whatever band I’m recording with.
Given the rate with which you’ve released music and toured, do you ever feel creatively exhausted?
I try not to think about it. If I don’t write for a while, I don’t let it worry me. And, eventually, it happens again. I’ll just write a shitload of songs in a really short amount of time. That’s usually how I’ve done it.
Yeah, that was material for a new album, but we’re not really sure if we’re gonna use it or not. We might redo it. We just weren’t able to get as much done as we would have liked. I think we all kind of feel like it would be worth redoing, along with everything else, for the new album.
Would you all be seeking to mix things up or returning to work with the same team?
We want to work with the same producer, Steve Berlin. Hopefully our schedules can line up. It’s kind of crazy trying to get him in the studio for three weeks straight.
Are Ian [O’Neil] and Dennis [Ryan] contributing songs to this album as well?
As far as I know, the door is open. We just go with what fits. Ian and Denis are doing kind of there own thing right now. I think they’re going to start recording in November. This might be an all McCauley record. I have no idea.
Did you have any sort of inner debate about opening up the songwriting in Deer Tick in the first place? Did you ever view Deer Tick as just your vehicle?
I kinda did when Deer Tick first started, but I always wanted it to be a band, like the fucking Beatles. I don’t know if [opening it up] was something I always wanted to do, but I wasn’t afraid to go there. I guess maybe some people didn’t dig the decision, but I don’t give a fuck.
I saw you and some fans get into on Deer Tick’s Facebook page about that decision. Do you like that sort of direct feedback, even when it’s a little harsh?
I guess. I just kinda got used to it because I always ran our websites and shit. I don’t have anything to hide, you know? I don’t mind getting into it with our fans.
They seemed to come down pretty hard on your drinking. Do you party as hard as you did when you first starting touring?
No. Not at all. Hangovers get worse. I mean, I can knock ’em back. I still probably drink way more than the average person, but I drink about half as much as I used to. [Laughs]
Aside from the Deer Tick record, is there anything else in development?
No, man, I’m looking forward to a little time off after this. Fucking, I’m going to Africa. I’m going for two weeks in November.
I’m going to Namibia. Just gonna rent a Jeep and drive off into the dessert. [Laughs]
I’ll look forward to you coming back with some new African music influences.
Yeah, I’m gonna make my Graceland.