Deer Tick’s John McCauley Starts A New Band With Members Of The Black Lips, Dead Confederate And Los Lobos
By Sean L. Maloney (originally appeared on MAGNET MAGAZINE)
“What up, stud? Wanna hear a rad new record?”
Yes. The answer is always yes, but I was about 10 hours late in noticing the text. John McCauley from Deer Tick and I had been playing text-tag for a week or two. He had just moved to Nashville and was cutting a record over on the west side of town with his new band Diamond Rugs, featuring members of the Black Lips, Dead Confederate and Los Lobos. I’d spent my summer whoring myself out to the top-40 for 15-cents-a-word and was burnt out on my regular beat and spending five nights a week working in clubs to make ends meet. Music was becoming boring, more of a chore than the catharsis it should be. Did I want to hear a rad new record? Yeah. Did I need to hear a rad new record? Double yeah.
Almost 24 hours from the original text, we would make it happen, and by the end of the night, there would be pubes on fire, space-time loops through Electric Avenue—a real street!—and copious amounts of beer consumed. While I can’t promise that all listeners will have the same experience, there is plenty of potential: Diamond Rugs make the sort of loose and limber rock ‘n’ roll that inspires liquor-induced hijinks. It’s rowdy and ribald without ever entering asshole-at-the-bar territory; good-natured shenanigans from genial punk-rock goons making rock music for your local jukebox. It also makes a great soundtrack for driving down back roads drinking a sixer of Bud.
It’s a really frickin’ rock ‘n’ roll record, and yet essentially Nashville. Recorded in 10 days with no real prep, the Diamond Rugs album is a group of pros going off-the-cuff and coming up with greatness. It’s an album rooted in the classics—there’s plenty of country and blues influence tempering their ramshackle Replacements vibe—but it never comes across as calculated. The songs have a natural ebb and flow, a balance between bashful and brazen that was lacking in my summer of pop whoredom. They had a recklessness and joy that was lacking in the bands I heard on the stages of Music City. Or at least that’s what I was hearing while trying figure out why exactly my drive through East Nashville with John kept putting us on Electric Avenue.
We had met up at the Exit/In—the very first Nashville rock club was celebrating its 40th anniversary—before heading over to his new apartment to pick up the album on our way across the river to East Nashville’s bohemian-friendly drinking establishments. His pad is about halfway between country-music mega-star Dierks Bentley’s house and the home of trash-cinema provocateur Harmony Korine, and I’m not going to be able to shake that association for the rest of the night—the intersection of “What Was I Thinking” and Trash Humpers is a wild place. We grabbed some road sodas, the freshly mixed, yet-to-be mastered Diamond Rugs album in hand.
As we cruised to the highway for a cop-free route across the city—Nashville might be the spiritual home of the drinking song, but damn does it love D.U.I. enforcement—it was pretty easy to see that Diamond Rugs aren’t making music for Music Row. You can hear tape hiss! Which shouldn’t be such a big deal, but after a summer of carefully quantized and digitally sterilized pop, a moment of hiss meant a lot. It meant there were actual musicians in an actual room, actual sound actually being recorded, rather than 0s and 1s being reshuffled and reconstituted. It only took a few moments to realize that Diamond Rugs, despite their supergroup status, were making a record for the sake of making a record, rather than fulfilling demands from the marketing department.
John explained to me that they didn’t have any songs when they went into the studio, and you could hear it—there’s an intuition to the dynamics at play on the Diamond Rugs that can’t be found in carefully arranged, carefully constructed songs. Any sort of practice or pre-planning would have sucked out the soul, squandered the very essence—if they every try to re-record these tracks, I’ll be the first one screaming, “No!” More often than not, when a band enters the studio, the studio becomes the focus of the music. The overdubs, the editing—all take precedence over the actual songs. With Diamond Rugs, the studio is more of conduit to the world that couldn’t fit in the room, a fly on the wall relating back why and how these guys were having so much fun, a peeping tom taking pictures of a wild party.
It only took about half a song before our conversation—about how much interviews blow and music journalists suck, a topic near and dear to our hearts—before we were both quiet. We were weaving in and out of traffic when I noticed that I was paying more attention to the record than I was to the road, rocking out harder than a dude piloting two tons of steel at 65 miles per hour should be. I couldn’t help it: The Diamond Rugs record is more fun than driving. The lyrics are wry and humorous, often so catchy that you’re singing along by the end of the song. (This is a bit awkward when the actual singer is sitting next to you.) The band is rollicking, piano and saxophone sneaking into the soundscape at all the appropriate moments; of course, any moment that reminds me of Morphine throwing down with Randy Newman is appropriate in my book.
We landed on the Eastside alive and intact, but the record wasn’t over. We decided to grab some more road sodas and keep driving—if this was my one chance to hear this record until spring, I wasn’t about to squander it. We went deep into the neighborhoods of East Nashville, blasting the record as we crept down the side streets and back alleys, cut through the parks and just wandered through neighborhoods that neither of us knew. I was lost in the sound and in the streets, the only indicator that we were doubling back being an overweight labrador who insisted on laying in the middle of the road at the intersection of 15th and Electric Avenue—canine-constant in our J.J. Abrams-style flash-sideways.
There’s a Christmas song in the middle of the album, full of misanthropic truisms and debauched dysfunction and, dear lord, I hope it makes it out into the world by holiday time. There’s something about a Christmas song, especially one that harps on the less-happy end of the proceedings, that works regardless of the time of year. Okay, I’m a bit obsessed with Christmas music to begin with—it’s some weird outcropping of an otherwise aesthetic existence—but it sounded especially poignant with the windows rolled down and the first autumnal breezes of the year blowing through our hair. It was a warning shot across the bow, a harsh reminder that summer was over and the dark months are on the horizon; but if a Christmas song can be stirring in the early days of September, it’s bound to be a classic once we’re in the throes of winter.
The album finished up as we made our 20th loop around Electric Avenue—obviously Eddy Grant had tired of using his psychic powers to guide our trip—and we made our way back to civilization, zigzagging through a golf course, the projects and a rather creepy industrial area to get there. We listened to outtakes and alternate mixes, all of which would make for an album most bands would kill for, before landing at the Lipstick Lounge for karaoke and more booze. The Lipstick is one of the most forgiving karaoke spots in town, one of the few joints where the mic isn’t dominated by pros and where the audience is more than happy to watch you crash and burn as long as you’re having a good time.
After a couple of beers and some sort of yellow, sugary shot, John took the stage and started belting out “Authority Song” by John Encampment. By the time the bridge rolled around, John had lifted up his shirt, pushed down his belt and started lighting his pubic hair on fire. It’s the sort of punk-rock shenanigans that even a wild crowd at the lesbian bar looks at with a weary eye, a strange variety of self-immolation that doesn’t usually end up between enthusiastic renditions of R. Kelly and half-mumbled versions of “Baby Got Back.” It’s also the perfect cap to a night of mobile drinking and rock ‘n’ roll rebirth, an evening that brought me back to my roots and the reason I wake up in the morning: listening to rad new records.
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