Hail, Deer Tick!

By DAVID SCHARFENBERG  |  June 17, 2009

But the bachelor-pad arrangements speak, more broadly, to the band's youth. McCauley and housemate Christopher Dale Ryan, who plays bass, are both 23. Guitarist Andrew Grant Tobiassen and drummer Dennis Michael Ryan, Chris's half-brother, are 20. And they act like it.

They drink. Fret over girlfriends' pregnancy scares. And they're more than a little goofy: it's hard to shake the feeling, at a Deer Tick show, that you're watching a giddy high school act playing its biggest venue to date.

And that's what makes the band's music so startling.

Deer Tick's work, if occasionally derivative and oft-marked by youthful obsessions with drink and romantic misery, is remarkable for its fullness and swagger: McCauley's voice is strong and immediate, his lyrics clever and even poetic.

The songs on debut album War Elephant and Flag Day have the scratchy depth of an artist who has lived longer and harder than anyone in Deer Tick.

And the mustachioed, tattooed McCauley pulls it off — most of the time, anyway — with a heavy dose of charisma, a touch of mystery, and a disarming penchant for confident self-mockery.

Standing before a crowd of some 2000 at Boston's House of Blues last week, as the band opened for Jenny Lewis of Rilo Kiley, McCauley declared that Flag Day is "one of the best records ever made.

"Right up there," he said, "with Shaq Diesel by Shaquille O'Neal."


BEGINNINGS

McCauley grew up on Smith Hill, a bit of an outsider.

"I didn't really have a great time in high school," he said. "I was doing a lot more drugs than work. Some 14-year-olds do that."

His father John J. McCauley, Jr., a state representative, remembers an intense kid, always interested in performance, who had his struggles.

But through it all, he said, there was a certain clarity. "I think he has a keen eye for what's real in the world," McCauley, Jr. said. "He's able to put it in words that few people can."

If the band's emotional roots go back to that Smith Hill childhood, McCauley traces Deer Tick's musical origins to a revelatory encounter with Hank Williams Sr.'s "Hey Good Lookin.'"

"I, of course, knew the song," he said, in a recent interview at Julian's Providence restaurant on Broadway, "but never really paid attention to it — how simple and catchy and good it was."

So McCauley, then 18 and living with friends, bought Williams's double-disc Gold, corralled a bottle of Felipe II brandy and, in the words of the band's unofficial biography, "locked himself up in his cold and drafty bedroom listening to ol' Hank until the bottle was dry."

Soon, he was recording what would become the foundation for War Elephant on a boombox. And a few months later, he set off on a rickety tour with a friend, Brendan Massei, playing small clubs across the country as he sold homemade CDs on the Internet and on consignment at record stores.

In the summer of 2005, McCauley and Massei were hiking through a state park in Bloomington, Indiana, a touch inebriated, when McCauley found a deer tick on his skull — and a name for the band he was determined to form.

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