John McCauley comes off as a scruffy ne'er-do-well charmer. It's a mantle worn at various times by country outlaws, crusty longhairs, and '80s alt-rockers, all of whom he's channeled while leading Deer Tick over the last seven years and five albums. Deer Tick's sound suggests the Replacements' chunky garage throttle melded to dusty Texas country-blues while offering a mix of barbed-wire sentiments and debauchery.
But the beautiful loser only has one trajectory — down — and at the age of 28, McCauley's trying to turn that around. We actually spoke four years ago just before his hard-living lifestyle put an end to his impending Summer 2010 nuptials to Those Darlins' Nikki Kvarnes. Recently, McCauley got a handle on his drinking, married singer Vanessa Carlton, and released an album chronicling the dark events that preceded his rehabilitation in the appropriately titled Negativity.
"That [breakup] was probably all my fault. But I wasn't existing in the real world at that point," McCauley says before a gig in Austin. "A big thing for me was the drugs. I just haven't wanted it in a while. And that's good. I had to dry out from liquor, too. I was drinking at least a liter a day of vodka. So I had to do that. I still like to drink beer and I do, but I keep my liquor consumption very limited."
His mind-set at the time of his breakup with Kvarnes was captured on 2011's drunken party of an album, Divine Providence. On it, he complains about his girl's ardor, noting that love is a "Funny Word." He delivers a Ramones-style paean "Let's All Go to the Bar" and promises "Something to Brag About" in a loose, fuzz-laden rockabilly rave-up. The party's definitely at his place.
But after a show at Carnegie Hall in October 2012, McCauley went to Africa to get his head straight and put together the songs for Negativity. Earlier that year his father, a local Providence, R.I. politician, pleaded guilty to federal charges of conspiracy and tax fraud. It was a tough year. But just before he left, he Twitter hit-on Carlton, saying in his feed that he'd love to have a beer with her.
"I don't think I was really flirting at first," he protests. "She just seems like an interesting person to get a beer with."
Apparently it worked. In a December ceremony officiated by Stevie Nicks, McCauley married Carlton. They even perform a duet on the country-flavored Negativity track "In Our Time."
"Our courtship was untraditional. I was over an hour late for our first couple dates," he laughs. "But she still liked me for some reason."
While his romantic life moved forward, his musical one looked to the past. The songs on Negativity are personal, addressing his broken engagement and general dissolution, as well as his father's conviction. Nothing is quite as emblematic as "The Dream's in the Ditch," which opens with an anthemic piano line good enough for the Boss. "So they paid you to scream, but it buried your dreams," he sings on a track written by Deer Tick guitarist Ian O'Neill.
"Big House" considers a friend's cyclical battle with heroin, and McCauley's own fractured thoughts while experimenting with crack are exposed during the hard-blooze stagger of "Pot of Gold."
Producer and Los Lobos member Steve Berlin — who also plays in McCauley's side project Diamond Rugs — was very important to the album's sound. Berlin also made a crucial suggestion for McCauley's song about his dad, "Mr. Sticks," which opens with the invitation, "Come and see the ugly things life can bring."
"He insisted that I write a bridge for it," McCauley says. The advice helped make the track one of McCauley's favorites.
For McCauley, the whole legal situation with his father was made more difficult by the demands of his job in a band. After all, it's hard to be there for your mom when they expect you in Omaha on Thursday and Butte the next day.
"It's kind of weird trying to navigate family issues when you're not home, when you travel for a living," he says. "It gave me inspiration to write."
But whereas Negativity was written under the pall of a horrible 2012, the music he's created since then seems to be the polar opposite. Which begs the question: what kind of art comes out of newfound marital bliss? "It's interesting. It's very melodic," McCauley says. "I love it. It's like I'm putting together another team. I have my music team and now my family team. It's fun. It's like I actually do stuff, like go kayaking. I'm actually doing things, and it feels like a better way to live."
Meanwhile, McCauley's mother-in-law is pushing for him to do a whole album of duets with her daughter, which intrigues McCauley. It also tickles his love of covers. In fact, he reckons they could knock out an entire album in a couple days if they enlist a batch of Nashville pros.
As the interview draws to a close, McCauley wants to ensure his fans that Deer Tick's legendary raucous and chaotic live shows haven't lost any of their sizzle or insanity.
"People think, 'Oh, Deer Tick, they're mature now. But we're still a bunch of kids on stage," he says. "Just the other night in Indianapolis I thought it would be fun to pull my pants down and light my pubic hair on fire. So we're still having fun."