But it would be a couple of years before he pulled together the current-day lineup: McCauley recorded War Elephant largely on his own, at Yellow House Studios in Baltimore, with a metronome clicking in his headphones to set the rhythm.
Short-lived Houston label FEOW! Records was scheduled to release the album in time for a North American tour in the summer of 2007. But the label was a bit of a mess. There were delays. And the tour, with a cobbled-together band, was something of a wreck.
"We had a hard time finding places to sleep. We weren't making a lot of money. I basically had to use my credit card to pay for everything," McCauley said. "We came back defeated."
There were some memorable moments, though. Particularly an encounter with a man known as "Big Rob" in Houston. "I don't know if you've ever seen a seven-inch blade stab a kilo of coke," McCauley said. "It's pretty cool."
And there was reason for optimism. McCauley had found a permanent drummer in Dennis Ryan before the tour. And after returning home, the pair added Chris Ryan, a recent Providence College graduate just returned from a semi-failed trip to South America.
"I tried to drive to Costa Rica," Ryan said. "I only made it to Guatemala."
In September, FEOW! finally released War Elephant, a rough, often-clever, and sometimes overwrought look at booze and faith and heartbreak.
The record begins with the strong and plaintive "Ashamed" ("I am the boy your mother wanted you to meet/But I am broken and torn with halos at my feet") and settles on its best line with the next track, "Art Isn't Real (City of Sin)."
"There's gotta be some old recipe/'Cause I gotta get drunk I gotta forget about some things," McCauley sings.
The record fades a bit toward the end. And the reviews were not all kind. Hipster Web site Pitchfork bemoaned McCauley's occasional descent into "an unpleasant kid brotherness." And his religious critique, "Christ Jesus," drew some online eye-rolling.
But there was a legitimate buzz around the record. Even the critics saw something strong and promising in War Elephant. And the record sold out in four months, leaving the band to tour again without a product to shill.
The album would re-surface in November 2008, when Brooklyn-based Partisan Records re-released it after a fight with FEOW! "We realized the old label had been pretty negligent and had made some missteps – hadn't been paying [McCauley]," said Ian Wheeler, co-owner of Partisan. "He really wanted War Elephant back . . . It was like it was taken from him."
By the time the record was in stores again — with a tongue-in-cheek, borderline bizarre cover photo of the band with a pair of bikini-clad, gun-wielding babes — the band had added Tobiassen and hustled into the studio to record its second record.
The process was a bit unnerving for the newest member of Deer Tick. "I had no idea what we were playing," said Tobiassen. "I'd learn a song and then we'd record it."
But after a week of futility, the band pulled it together and recorded Born On Flag Day, an homage to McCauley's birthday, June 14, and a less-than-subtle reference to Bruce Springsteen's Born In the USA.