Singer/songwriter John McCauley may not want to be seen as only a folk musician but he certainly sets his life up in a way not reflective of that. He has shaggy blonde hair, writes songs about unrequited love on his acoustic guitar and has resided in Nashville, Tenn. the past two years. His music and demeanor seem to sit most comfily in either a rural campfire or a Jack Daniels-sponsored BBQ eating contest.
Last week I walked down to Brooklyn’s artsy, industrial East Williamsburg neighborhood to catch up with McCauley. He and the rest of Diamond Rugs spent the day’s earlier hours practicing at The Sweatshop, a block of practice spaces that feel more like a grimy, DIY punk venue. We meet only a short while before he joins Justin Townes Earle, The Low Anthem and Joe Pug for a Woody Guthrie tribute show. The following night McCauley presents a crew of his friends at Carnegie Hall’s Zankel Hall.
Paste: So, you play Carnegie Hall tomorrow. Obviously. How does that feel?
John McCauley: Uh… It’s quite an honor, but it also feels kinda strange.
McCauley: I don’t know. I’ve never done something like that. I’ve never played in such a legendary concert hall.
Paste: How’s it gonna be different from other shows?
McCauley: It’s gonna be revue style—90 minutes with no break and a ton of people shuffling across the stage.
Paste: Who runs the Twitter for Deer Tick?
McCauley: We all have to have it on our phones.
Paste: Y’all have to?
McCauley: No, we choose to. Yeah, I think it’s pretty funny.
Paste: I saw a lot of mention of Anthony Bourdain on there.
McCauley: Yeah, I’m gonna keep tweeting him until he hangs out with me. … I’m just a really big fan of him, his personality. I’m a huge foodie. So every time I see him eating something weird—a seal eyeball or something—I get kinda jealous ‘cuz I just wanna hang with him.
Paste: Would you want to eat seal eyeballs with him?
McCauley: Oh yeah.
Paste: You said you wanted to a make spicy something or other for him…?—it’s not very soundproof in here.
McCauley: I’m gonna… close that door.
Loud ska music deadens, but only slightly.
McCauley: Yeah, pork is a favorite of mine, actually—meat, I guess. There’s a really good restaurant called Legend in Manhattan. [They] have a Szechuan spicy pork kidney. I think it’s called Numbing Spice Pork Kidney…
Paste: Numbing Spice?
Paste: Like… spicy?
McCauley: Yeah, it’s… really good.
Paste: Are you into cooking yourself?
McCauley: I love cooking myself, yeah.
Paste: Do you get to cook at all when you’re on the road?
McCauley: No, not often. No. Not… at all.
Pastee: You or someone mentioned something about Earl Grey and Grey Goose. Is that something like a hangover cure?
McCauley: Whenever my voice feels rough, I drink tea. Hot tea and vodka. Always a great hangover cure—but I don’t always drink Earl Grey.
Paste: Is there any method to the pairing?
McCauley: I do half hot water, half vodka, a tablespoon of honey and tea. It’s really good.
Paste: What do you think is a good hangover cure? Because I know mine, like yours, are getting worse with the passing years.
McCauley: Aw man. Anything vodka-based.
Paste: No sort of special dish you make?
McCauley: I mean… I think vodka tonics are really easy to drink, especially when you’re hungover. Make sure you have two or three of those [and you’ll start to] feel pretty normal. Also—I get a lot of shit for this—but I really like that twisted tea stuff. And that, I definitely don’t mind drinking that if I’m hungover because that doesn’t taste like… it tastes like Arizona iced tea.
Paste: So tell me about your rings.
McCauley: They’re both my grandmothers. She had a compulsive spending habit and she bought, like… she didn’t just have one of anything, she had multiple of everything. My mom was going through her stuff, I found thing [holds out pinkie ring] and liked it, so I started wearing it. My mom found the other one…
Paste: They go together?
McCauley: Guess my grandma bought them in two different sizes.
Paste: I like them. And they are a little different from each other. This one has ocean colors. Though some of the gems have fallen out. Have you seen them fall out? Have they fallen out since you had it?
McCauley: Yeah, I used to do stupid shit with my hands during shows. I’d punch notes into cymbals, punch my guitar until my knuckles bled. So I kinda ruined that.
Paste: Can we expect any blood at Carnegie tomorrow?
McCauley: I doubt it.
Paste: So is it true you’re going to Africa next month?
Paste: Where are you going?
McCauley: I’m going to Namibia.
Paste: How did you decide on that?
McCauley: Well, [it] seemed like kind of the most adventurous and affordable and safe place that I could go and fuck off for two weeks. You know? I was originally gonna go to Cape Verde and then I thought maybe Madagascar instead. Then I thought, maybe an adventure would be more fun than a vacation. So basically I’m just going there, renting a Jeep, and driving through the desert for two weeks.
Paste: Are you just gonna be exploring? Or doing any recording at all?
McCauley: I’m just exploring. I mean, I’m not bringing a guitar or anything. I hope maybe I’ll get some inspiration. Yeah, I don’t really have a plan.
Paste: Are you going by yourself?
McCauley: I’m going with a friend of mine, Tim, who owns the record label I’m on—Partisan Records.
Paste: I also saw something about Deer Tick show at Cellar Door—you said someone threw wine glasses at you?
McCauley: Yeah, there was a couple people in the crowd I think were on meth or something. Or just, really strange cats. They kept requesting the same songs over and over again or something we had already played. That was it. I was getting kind of frustrated with them, so I pulled my balls out of my fly. I just rubbed my balls on my guitar and they were tweaked out. I assumed [they] were probably homophobe—they didn’t like seeing my balls, so they threw wine glasses.
Paste: Geez Louise. What do you think is the craziest thing you’ve seen during a live show? Like, crowd response?
McCauley: Man, I don’t know. I guess Dennis [Ryan, Deer Tick’s drummer,] got his hand bashed open with a glass bottle once. Someone threw a bottle on stage, hit Dennis and [it] kind of split along his hairline. I thought I did it because I’d jumped in the drum kit, dropped my guitar and thought it hit him in the head or something. He stormed off stage, knocking his drums over and leaving this trail of blood. He was out in the parking lot screaming, “FUCK!” I was like, “I’m so sorry!” He [said], “For what?!!” I was like, “I thought I hit you in the head.” [He responded,] “No, someone threw a bottle at me!” I should mention here that [Dennis] rubbed cocaine in [the cut].
Paste: And that… worked?
McCauley: Well, yeah, but also because he’d already cleaned it out with vodka. Of course. So he, uh, couldn’t feel it.
Paste: I have to ask about the tattoo, too. The California Raisins.
McCauley: Yeah, I’ve got some silly ones.
Paste: What’s the chronological order of those?
McCauley: Geez. I think this was my third tattoo. This is my newest one—another California Raisins one, Lick Broccoli. First tattoo I ever got, I got a chainsaw tattooed on my ass.
Paste: Go on.
McCauley: I had just turned 18.
Paste: Of course. That’s how you celebrate adulthood.
McCauley: Yeah. My friends agreed to buy me a tattoo as long as I got something on my ass.
Paste: That kind of tattoo is the best. I keep trying to get someone to do bro tats with me on the butt. I just haven’t done it yet.
McCauley: I’ll do it with you.
Paste: Yeah, maybe we’ll do it after Carnegie. So what’s the worst question a journalist has ever asked you? Or the most annoying or stupid? Because I imagine you guys don’t like doing this press stuff that much. And that’s OK! I don’t take it personally.
McCauley: I get some weird… I guess, just, it’s kind of funny that a lot of people that interview us don’t really do much research into our band besides reading the Wikipedia page—which is inaccurate. Wildly inaccurate. So… one thing I get all the time is, “So you recorded Born On Flag Day in one recording session.” [I respond,] “Nope! You just read the Wikipedia page.”
Paste: What else is inaccurate on it?
McCauley: I haven’t read it in a while… Rob got a really funny question the other day. A guy asked him, “So, do you guys, on the road, have… experiences?”
Paste: And how did he answer that?
McCauley: He was like, “Uh… yeah.” Doing these interviews can be pretty funny sometimes.
Paste: So what are you up to lately musically? Is Middle Brother still doing stuff?
McCauley: Middle Brother is kind of, I guess… on hiatus for now. Right now, it varies. Diamond Rugs is rehearsing for our tour.
Paste: That’s going to be after your African safari, of course, right?
Paste: You’re squeezing a tour in before that?
McCauley: Hah, yeah.
Paste: How are you gonna do that, man?
McCauley: Um, I have about a week off before I go to Africa, so. It’s not a very long tour. It’s only a week long.
Paste: Where are you going?
McCauley: We start at Carnegie tomorrow. Then it’s North Carolina, Tennessee, Alabama, Louisiana, Texas.
Paste: That’s neat. And tonight you’re doing the Woody 100 thing, right? That’s what you’re rehearsing now? Is this going to give you more of a folksy, Southern reputation—and touring all those Southern states?
McCauley: I mean… We’ll see what happens. I haven’t really figured out what I’m going to do for this Woody show. We were told not to—or they didn’t want any Guthrie covers.
Paste: So you’re still sort of feeling that out?
McCauley: I mean I’m just gonna—I don’t think I’m gonna write a set list. I think I’m gonna play whatever comes to mind.
Paste: Is it just you doing that?
McCauley: Yeah, it’s just me.
Paste: Do you do that a lot? Just sort of wing it, not map it out?
McCauley: If I ever play solo, yeah. I used to do that with Deer Tick but we ended up wasting way too much time in between songs, arguing about what to play next.
Paste: What kind of music did you make before you started Deer Tick? You were 19 [when the band became a thing], right?
McCauley: Yeah, or 18.
Paste: I saw that on AllMusic, if that helps. Not Wikipedia.
McCauley: I was in a few different punk bands. Bands that nobody had ever heard of. I played drums in a couple bands—played drums in a metal band, then drums in a grunge band. And I was Jason Anderson’s drummer for a little while. And then Deer Tick just started taking off and I made that my focus.
Paste: Cool. Yeah and I saw a YouTube video of you covering a Nirvana song, so that covers the grunge aspect. Can we expect any metal coming out?
McCauley: We recorded a little bit of metal music but we haven’t put it out yet.
Paste: Deer Tick did?
McCauley: Yeah (laughs).
Paste: How do you think that’s gonna go over?
McCauley: I’m sure some people (laughs)… I think what we wanna do is find a good metal band that’ll take us seriously and put out a split with us.
Paste: That would be cool. Like a 7-inch? Be really hardcore about it.
McCauley: Yeah. I think it’d be fun.
Paste: What’s your favorite cliche you’ve seen pop up about your music or you as a person?
McCauley: Um… I don’t know. I guess I always appreciate it when people understand that I’m not just a specific type of musician. When people get that, that makes me feel good.
Paste: When are you going to start letting people listen to the metal stuff?
McCauley: As soon as possible! I think our label’s a little hesitant to put it out, so, we might have to shop other labels.
Paste: Who do you think would be down with it? Or do you think you’d ever do self-release?
McCauley: Yeah! I don’t know. I have two friends of mine with labels, I’m sure they’d love to put out our stuff (laughs). So, we’ll see.
Paste: How are you gonna prep for going to Africa?
McCauley: I’m getting my shots and stuff. I don’t know… chill out in Austin for a week. Drink a lot of margaritas, eat a lot of barbecue. Then fly home real quick, pack my bags and go on a fuckin’ safari.
On the day of the show, there’s an issue with my ticket and it doesn’t look like I’m gonna make it in because I have $13 in my busted wallet, but I head to the box office in a last-ditch effort for admission. A bubbly blonde approaches me as I reach for the door. “Do you need a ticket?” she asks, bouncing. She explains to me her inability to get a buddy to travel from Albany, N.Y. to the show with her, offering the ticket for free. “I just don’t want it to go to waste,” she says, looking like she definitely means it. And that’s just how McCauley’s devotees roll, it seems—a hunch validated once I duck into the ornate theater.
The seating isn’t packed as I make my way next to the young woman from before. The stage, however, is stuffed with members from Deer Tick, Diamond Rugs, King Khan, Adam Clayton-Holland, Jason Isbell, Langhorne Slim. They recite some version of the Pledge of Allegiance, an eerie recitation in hindsight considering the imminent wrath New York City felt in Sandy’s wake.
McCauley plays a Middle Brother track, “Daydreaming,” by his lonesome to start the night, prefacing with, “I really hoped I could get Middle Brother here.” The audience sways stoned under the stark, simple Americana honey.
If there was question before that the revue would be a deeply personal one for McCauley, Langhorne Slim slumping to the stage abolishes it. Apparently Slim opened for some of Deer Tick’s infant performances. So it wasn’t just a marketing ploy to call the evening “John McCauley & Friends At Carnegie Hall”—this bundle of kindred kindling erupts from embers to full flame. I hear someone behind me (perhaps stoned not just from the first song) heave, “This is fucking awesome.” I look around and it’s clear that’s the consensus in Zankel.
The evening stretches on and my questionably-attained ticket forces me to mingle among the seats. McCauley plays a lot of crowd-pleasers, including a mesmerizing “Baltimore Blues No. 1,” which damn near hoists the sawdusty audience by the seat of their blue jeans, right into the city grime of Brooklyn. A dude one row back from me, drunk off $30 Coors Lights or whatever, goes ballistic from repeatedly screaming, “Cake And Eggs!” Eventually McCauley caves, going into a rather appropriate John Prine cover—you see, the only time before our bearded hero had spent in Carnegie was at a show of Prine’s. The irony intoxicates and makes McCauley almost little kid-style giddy. “I just said ‘fuck’ on stage at Carnegie Hall!” he shouts, grinning. It wasn’t the first or last time of the evening, as spirits rose and splashed all over the Green Room floor.
Each artist had a good albeit quick run playing with always-revolving set-ups, visiting members from other bands, McCauley himself. The posh evening feels like a rapidly unbuttoning, fraying flannel shirt. It’s the last night of summer camp and everyone’s growing sentimental among the pine cones.
Call time for the event is 11:30 and at 11:25 Deer Tick floods the platform to lead the audience stomp-along, “Main Street.” My flip-seat neighbor dries her eye.
Before the epic set completely wraps, all the artists join McCauley again for another cover, this time it’s the blues classic Lead Belly standardized, “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” The original coughs chicken bones into an emptied moonshine jar. Just the rattling air muddies your boots. Here, this night, horns and hollers and 121 years of badass musical legacy stuff souls. The song reaches orgasm and surely McCauley’s important face veins bulge. The pine forest standard steps up the acidity, taking on more likening to Nirvana’s 1994 MTV’s Unplugged performance. One by one, the musicians empty to the wings, leaving McCauley out on his own. He shakes from all the energy he had just poured from his body and from my seat, I see his eyes turn stormy.
McCauley might have built a good case to assume he does only folk music because maybe that’s what he’s shown us he does best. And he does live in Nashville. And he does have countless videos online of him strumming around in the woods. But even the mouth-foaming grunge madman Kurt Cobain never performed such an acerbic, contorted take on the Delta blues. McCauley ravages his knuckles raw on guitar strings for the hell of it. He inks himself with nonsensical cartoon characters for life. He sucks down vodka for the “health” and vocal benefits. He goes to Africa for variety. John McCauley is punk rock in his lifestyle, philosophy and approach to the arts, he just happens to look rather swoony behind his beard while he tackles it all.