Back in the summer of 2004, John J. McCauley III was out for a hike with some friends in the woods of his native Rhode Island. Upon returning, he discovered a small eight-legged bloodsucker — to be more specific, a deer tick — had burrowed its way into his scalp. “I somehow had never gotten one before in my life,” he tells me over the phone. “Since then, I’ve gotten a few, but I managed to go 19 years, living in Rhode Island, never getting a tick. I was a little concerned, and I was kind of drunk, and I think I made kind of a scene. I pulled it out and had blood on my fingers. I felt really violated.”
COUNTRY RHODE: Eschewing the art-damaged post-punk that most folks associate with Providence, Deer Tick trade in whiskey-fueled rock-tinged country.
Yet that incident also provided a spark of inspiration. “I thought, ‘Deer tick — that sounds awesome, and disgusting, and bad-ass.’ And it stuck.” Thus, a moniker was born for the then-solo artist.
We know what you’re thinking: “Please. No more ‘Deer’ bands.” Okay, we are up to our eyeteeth in bands with zoological names. But “Deer Tick” turns out to be fitting for what’s now a quartet, with Andrew Grant Tobiassen (vocals/guitar), Christopher Dale Ryan (bass), and Dennis Michael Ryan (vocals, drums, percussion). Eschewing the art-damaged post-punk that most people associate with Providence’s music scene, Deer Tick trade in some of the finest whiskey-fueled, rock-tinged, tall-grass country New England has heard. Their songs deal in loss, regret, and better days gone by, all of it held together by McCauley’s gravelly tenor — a voice older than his 23 years. This is music that, not unlike its namesake, can dig in, find a nerve, and leave its mark long after it’s gone. It was this combination that made 2007’s War Elephant (Feow) so instantly appealing to so many, and that makes their forthcoming Born on Flag Day (Partisan) such an anticipated release.
“Anybody who liked War Elephant is going to like this [new] one a lot,” McCauley says. “I think a lot of the people who didn’t like War Elephant are going to like this one too. It sounds different, but in a very good way. It sounds alive.”
He attributes the new-found energy on Born on Flag Day to recording with a full band, the same one he’s been touring with for the past several months. With the exception of some helping hands (including bassist extraordinaire Nat Baldwin) on a few songs, War Elephant was a solo endeavor, with McCauley singing and playing all the instruments. “War Elephant just doesn’t have a sound to me. It sounds kind of boring. So I’m excited for Born on Flag Day, because you can hear the band. You can hear that there’s four people contributing.” He does insist, however, that the expanding line-up has not compromised his creativity. “I still write the same way.”
Some time before McCauley’s arachnid encounter, he’d been living on his own in his first apartment. He didn’t have heat, and he kept warm in the winter by drinking brandy. On one of these rough days, he happened to hear Hank Williams on the radio. “It took me someplace else. So I bought some Hank records and sat in my freezing room and drank. Completely changed my thoughts on what a song was.”