For the first thirty seconds of John McCauley's kitchen concert (look for it here early next week), I worried that his guitar amp would drown out his voice. Then the Deer Tick frontman hit the chorus, jumping up an octave, and suddenly I could hear his razor-sharp rasp ricocheting off the walls. Throughout the set -- two songs from the band's forthcoming album, Negativity, including a duet with pop-phenom Vanessa Carlton -- McCauley sang with the command of a guy who's helmed five albums, logged countless tour miles, and battled some serious demons since Deer Tick's inception in the mid-aughts.
Afterward, a jarringly mild-mannered McCauley talked about his previous life as one of indie rock's most committed hell-raisers and his recent move to Manhattan. Carlton was also on hand to discuss working with McCauley and reveal some fascinating factoids about the "Beef. It's What's for Dinner" campaign.
A lot has changed since you guys got started on Negativity. Are the shows feeling different this time around?
JM: It's pretty exciting to have an album where we actually want to play every song off of it. And we have our entire catalog rehearsed now, every single song that we've ever released. So it'll be fun to make the setlist every night.
Deer Tick has a reputation as a band that's always on the road. What daily routines keep you going?
JM: I'd say it was a pretty unhealthy one for a long time. But we're trying to take a new approach to touring. We try to play less and make more money. We want to be home more often. And I think we all are really enjoying the creative process and recording a lot, so I'd like to do more of that. But a good couple months out of the year, I always want to be out there on the road. As far as a routine goes, I like to stay at hotels that have a fitness center and swimming pool, just in case I wake up early enough to use them.
Have the changes in your life affected the whole band and their habits?
JM: Yeah, 'cause I was a pretty shitty leader for a while. When you got a leader like how I used to be, morale sinks. But I figured a few things out and I kind of got interested in leading the band again, and everything's been pretty good since I pulled my head out of my drunk ass. When I'm excited to be a part of doing everything, everybody else seems to get more excited. Everything feels balanced again.
Vanessa, have you been traveling with these guys?
Vanessa Carlton: A little bit. Newport Folk Festival was awesome. These guys did a tour in March after they recorded the record, and I went out with my dog for a couple days. Victor cheers up the guys. They love the hairy wiener.
JM: We love Victor. We love Vanessa too, but...Victor's pretty special.
VC: He's a special dude. You need stuff like that on the road.
So you two wrote together during the making of Negativity?
JM: Oh, we tried. It'll happen. Who knows when.
VC: It happens in an organic way. Sometimes John sits and plays some cool thing on the piano and I'll start humming over it. I feel like that'll probably be how we end up writing something.
John, how're you adjusting to New York life?
JM: I was in Nashville for about three years and I just moved up in July. I haven't been here much, really. I lived in Brooklyn for a year once -- about four, five years ago -- and I just said, I'll never come back unless I move to Manhattan. So that's what happened. Now I'm in Soho, and I think I'll be here for a bit. Eventually I'd like to buy a house in Nashville, but that's something I'll think about next year.
Why Manhattan over Brooklyn?
JM: I feel more at ease knowing that I'm closer to the action, I guess. When I was in Brooklyn, I was way out in Bed-Stuy. I was like a hermit. So it's pretty cool to take the elevator downstairs and, bam, I'm in the middle of everything.
What's a day in the life when you're home?
JM: Well, depending on if I got anything to do, I'll do sit-ups in the steam shower for a while, and then I sit around naked till I stop sweating, and then I take a cold shower, and then it's time to make breakfast -- this is around 3:00 in the afternoon. Sometimes I take a walk, sometimes I watch TV and read, and then it's time to get dinner and maybe go catch a show or a movie or just go back and watch some more TV. I'm in bed pretty early, honestly. Last night I was in bed at midnight. I felt like such an old man.
OK, last question: what's the first album each of you fell in love with?
JM: Mystery Girl by Roy Orbison. It came out in '87 I think, so I would've been one or two. What a voice. Operatic.
VC: For me it was this cassette tape of Aaron Copland's take on his Americana writing. It's all classical, though, very over-the-top, huge dramatic dips and things like that. I guess my mom was really into it 'cause she would play it on repeat whenever I'd go back and forth to dance class. Then he got known in pop culture for the beef ad. You know, it's like, [sings intricate classical melody]. You know?
JM: Like "Beef. It's What's for Dinner"?
VC: Yeah! They used one of the little snippets of the music from that album. So you do know it. And part of why that campaign works so well is because of how dramatic that riff is. It's totally over the top. I liked it before the beef.
Negativity comes out September 24 on Partisan Records. Deer Tick play Brooklyn Bowl tonight as "Deervana." (Yes, they're doing In Utero front to back.)