During this year’s SXSW festival, Providence-based country-rock band Deer Tick turned heads when they performed an entire set of Nirvana cover songs, having deemed themselves Deervana for the occasion. Videos from the show popped up online the next day, and it was, perhaps surprisingly, extremely impressive. Their versions were refreshingly, heartwarmingly loyal to the originals, and far harder-hitting than you may have guessed. Just last week, they announced a show on June 19th at Brooklyn Bowl, where they’ll be doing it all again—and fortunately, it just happens to be part of this year’s Northside Festival. Tickets to the show are on sale here, and 4-day Northside Festival badges are available here. We caught up with Deer Tick/Deervana frontman John McCauley to ask him a few questions about the project and about his relationship with the music of Nirvana.
The L: Could you talk a little bit about where the idea for Deervana came from? Was SXSW the first time you’d done it?
John McCauley: Our friend Mike Delahanty, a promoter in Providence, threw himself a birthday party at one of his clubs and wanted his friends bands to play cover sets. He caught us doing “Serve the Servants” and a version of “Molly’s Lips” in the style of Nirvana. He came up with the idea, our label dudes came to the show and liked it a lot, so we decided to do it again at SXSW. I understand it kind of defeats the purpose of playing an official showcase at SXSW but sometimes Deer Tick’s main purpose is to defeat the purpose. Whatever that is.
The L: Watching videos from the performance, it seems like you guys were all pretty big fans, and I’d even make the leap to say that, as teenagers, you spent as much time as I did watching and listening to whatever live footage you could find. Accurate?
JM: I tried to get a Nirvana tribute band together when I was like 12 or 13. I remembered most of the songs from learning them during that period. The guitar smashing is an obvious Nirvana move, learned that from multiple Nirvana videos I’ve seen since I was a kid. I did it once before when I was 14, but when I was 14 I couldn’t afford another guitar so that stopped until we did this Deervana thing. But yeah, I’ve been a Nirvana fan since I was like 7 or something. My mom or my aunt had In Utero and Unplugged.
The L: Were you big fans of any of the other bands from that era? Pearl Jam, Mudhoney, Soundargen, et al?
JM: I used to like Pearl Jam. After seeing them at ACL a year or two ago I would have to say that I’m a fan again. I’ve always loved Mudhoney and Soundgarden. Other bands I really like are Tad and The Melvins, stuff like that. And I really dig Alice in Chains.
The L: Did you ever get to see Nirvana perform live?
JM: Unfortunately, no.
The L: Favorite Nirvana song?
JM: “Curmudgeon” and “Frances Farmer.”
The L: Least favorite?
JM: “You Know You’re Right” – doesn’t seem right, or natural whatsoever.
The L: Which one has been the hardest to cover?
JM: I think we picked really easy ones honestly. We’ll see how we do with “Milk It”, I can see that one being hard to cover. The solos in “In Bloom” and “Serve the Servants” teeter on musical and dissonant playing. It can be hard to balance sometimes.
The L: What kind of records do you think they’d be making now if Kurt was still alive? It seems almost impossible to fathom any situation in which Dave Grohl could still be in the band.
JM: Beats me. I would have liked to hear Kurt and Michael Stipe collaborate though. Apparently that was going to happen.
The L: About the instrument smashing—admirable commitment to detail, but sort of expensive, no? Did you have stand-in cheapo stuff you were using there at the end?
JM: Yeah for the last song we smashed some cheap guitars. I think we all like our instruments too much to destroy them like that. And we play some pretty rare and/or expensive guitars. Whatever vintage gear survived through the 90’s deserves to be preserved in my opinion.
The L: Are you trying to perfect any new Nirvana songs for the Brooklyn show? Any other surprises in store?
JM: I really want to do “Curmudgeon”. Why would I divulge any information on so-called surprises? That is one purpose we cannot defeat.