When the Providence, Rhode Island, band Deer Tick released Born on Flag Day last year, they proved they were not only one of the best new country-rock bands, but also one of the best new rock bands, crafting the sort of vivid tunes of blue-collar American life that both Springsteen-loving parents and finicky hipsters could get behind. In June, Deer Tick return with The Black Dirt Sessions, and on hair-raising tracks like “Goodbye, Dear Friend” and “Christ Jesus” front man John McCauley uses his hoarse, nicotine-stained howl to turn out his most emotionally raw songs ever. After the jump, listen to “Choir of Angels,” a track from the new album, right after our interview with McCauley in which we caught him hanging out in a bar in his Providence hometown.
Most of the tunes on Black Dirt Sessions are ballad-oriented, though your last record had more up-tempo rock songs. Why the stylistic shift?
I don’t really know if it was intentional, but that’s just the way it happened. The record was written at really different times, and there are songs that are held over from Born on Flag Day. It’s a cleaning out of the closet, I guess, but I think it’s the best record yet.
Most of the songs are super sad, but since the album is actually a collection of older material, it’s not like you’re sitting around with a heroin needle sticking out of your arm.
[Laughs.] That definitely wasn’t the case. I’m just comfortable with the world hearing these songs now.
Is “Goodbye, Dear Friend” a tribute to anyone in particular?
This kid Andy that I knew passed away in a house fire, which really hit close to home. I was in a house fire when I was a kid, and to see someone go like that was pretty disheartening. I wrote that song after the funeral to celebrate his life. It was a really moving experience. The last time I saw him was when he passed out from drinking too much and I carried him to bed. And I never saw him again.
You were in a house fire when you were little?
Yeah. I was 10 years old. It was a house I lived in with my parents. My little sister almost came close to dying from smoke inhalation. I had post-traumatic stress from that, but I was able to work through it in my teenage years.
Your father is a local politician in Providence. What does he think of you being in a band?
He’s a very proud father. He’s a neighborhood guy anyway. All the people love him and love his family. Growing up, I’d bother my parents practicing music in the house, so now that I’m out of town I bet they’re much happier. Hold on, let me get another drink.
What are you drinking?
A Hairy Palmer. It’s like an Arnold Palmer but it has sweet tea in it.
Your singing voice is very raspy. Do you smoke?
I smoke. Winston Reds.
Have you thought about quitting?
It always crosses my mind. I’ll say to myself, “I’m on tour, I’m not going to try quitting while I’m on tour.” And then I get home and it’s like, “I just got home, I can have a cigarette.” I’ve never quit for more than a few days. When I was 15, I quit for two weeks. That was the longest.
Do you find smoking is important to keeping the quality of your singing voice?
I can control my voice a lot better now. I’ve been training myself to sing higher and clearer.
Brian Williams featured you as one of his favorite bands on his “BriTunes” website. Any other unexpected celebrity fans?
Just rumors. I’ve heard Bob Dylan is a fan, but that seems like a tall tale. The Farrelly Brothers just ordered some Deer Tick T-shirts for Owen Wilson to wear in their new movie. But they’re from Rhode Island, like us, so maybe that’s not so weird.
You’re married to Nikki Darlin of the whiskey-swilling bluegrass band Those Darlins. When you guys are on the road, do you get crazy like Sid and Nancy?
She keeps me more in check than anyone else. When we’re around each other, we don’t wanna be total jackasses. Any chaos is more controlled.
Hear “Choir of Angels”: