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John Joseph McCauley III has always had his heart set on musical world domination. It's just taken him a few years to get there—and he apologizes for leaving you waiting.
The 23-year-old leader of rustic, ambling folk rock act Deer Tick had to escape from high school, record a critically acclaimed debut dedicated to the misery of his teenage years, and round up a proper posse of co-conspirators to fully clothe his warbling, knobby-kneed sunken-chest paeans to pain and perseverance.
Music's long been McCauley's salvation. He reports knowing how to operate a turntable before he could speak, taking an early shine to the La Bamba soundtrack, Roy Orbison and The Traveling Wilburys. As he negotiated a difficult childhood in Providence, Rhode Island, McCauley turned away from the Catholic Church and toward drugs and punk rock until Hank Williams intervened.
"I got along fine outside of school. I had my punk rocker friends. But I went to schools where I couldn't fit in or make friends. I got picked on, was goofy-looking, and the girls didn't like me. A pretty typical miserable high school experience," McCauley offers on his band's way to a show in Portland. "Punk rock was my sanctuary for a bit, then I stumbled on country music. Everybody was just as pissed off and miserable as I was."
He began writing songs drawing on the country and roots traditions. He found a drummer and began playing around, but by the time Viking Moses singer-songwriter Brendan Massei invited him along on tour, McCauley was alone again. Deer Tick suffered through several incarnations, but McCauley had trouble finding permanent members. In early 2007, he recorded War Elephant by himself. It was released on a small label that failed to re-press it when it sold out, leaving McCauley to hawk CD-Rs when he had time before shows. Re-released by Partisan Records last year, the positive response grew into a loud buzz.
By then, a lineup had formed around some of McCauley's Providence friends, drummer Dennis Ryan and his bassist half-brother Chris, and Chris' guitarist roommate Andrew Tobiassen. Andrew was so new he hadn't learned any of the songs when Deer Tick went into the studio to record the follow-up, Born on Flag Day. It's a warmer-sounding album fleshed-out with a fuller palette of tones and the kind of vibrancy that only comes from having a live band in the studio.
"We're kind of getting some mixed reactions to it," McCauley admits. "But, personally, I think it sounds a lot better. I think some of the songwriting is way better, and the interaction of the band is better—it has a real pulse to it."
McCauley, who is indeed born on Flag Day (June 14), turns the lyrical focus from himself outward this time, fashioning characters whose pain is not so personal and, consequently, less maudlin. There's a confidence that emanates from the bouncing rockabilly "Straight Into a Storm" to the swelling, violin-abetted ode to true love, "Smith Hill," with its lament, "I was once beside it/I've fallen far behind it/It's a long way through."
"A lot of the stuff on this record is more creative writing, or songs about other people," McCauley says. "I'm not the same miserable kid I was five years ago, when I was writing most of the stuff for War Elephant. But the third album is going to be dark."
Indeed: McCauley's already recorded it and plans to release his second album of 2009 around the end of the year. The as-yet-untitled album concerns his one-time muse, who broke his heart when he was still wet behind the ears. The songs were written before those from War Elephant, soaked in the angst of his turbulent youth. "It was like reliving my teenage years," McCauley says, "which brought up some pretty bad memories in the studio."
But if there's a single thread that runs through his songs, like those of his heroes Hank Williams and Townes Van Zandt, it's that the ache must be endured. Like an old spiritual, it's the very rationale, the sense that by singing we might exorcise those demons.
"If I have faith in one thing more than anything, it's in music," he says. "And I believe in the idea of fighting the good fight."
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