Alt-Nation: Diamond Rugs’ Cosmetics

It was March 2012 when the much hyped “indie super group” known as Diamond Rugs — composed of members of Deer Tick, Black Lips, Dead Confederate, Los Lobos and Six Finger Satellite — rolled into the music industry’s premier annual showcase: the South By Southwest Festival (SXSW). The band had only played a couple of shows in Atlanta the year before. Their self-titled debut would be released the following month and SXSW was to be Diamond Rugs’ grand unveiling to the industry movers and shakers. The rollicking train that is Diamonds Rugs didn’t so much arrive at SXSW as it crashed through the gates.

The first night in town, drummer Bryan Dufresne and vocalist/guitarist John McCauley went to see The Cult play a show in a tiny bar. However, the real party began after they arrived back at the hotel. Dufresne recounts: “We got back and were out of beer. It was past last call.  John walks into the hotel lobby with a case of wine. He said he went to the first gay bar that he could find, flirted with the bartender and put down 40 bucks in exchange for the wine. So we’re drinking and a bottle shatters on the floor while we’re waiting in line at this deli in the hotel lobby. People are getting upset. John is sipping wine through a straw off the floor, I’m wasted, and in walks Ian Astbury and Billy Duffy of The Cult who are heroes of mine. I yell, ‘Hey great show guys. Want to party with us?’ They looked horrified at the spectacle, said no and left. Eventually I made my way to our hotel room and opened the door only to have a newspaper that was on fire sail over my head out the door as someone yells to get in. John is lying on a bed with a girl and I opened the door to the bathroom only to find the entire floor and walls on fire. I yell, ‘Why is the bathroom on fire?’ John shows me an empty bottle of nail polish that had been spilled on the floor, like that makes any sense. I start looking for my sandwich, for which we went through the fiasco in the lobby to get, and someone yells, ‘It’s right there!’ pointing to ceiling where what remained was smeared. We’re halfway across the country with our hotel room on fire and that was just the beginning.” 

Diamond Rugs would go on to play a half dozen shows at SXSW that year and get touted as one of the highlights of the festival. 

The idea of the Diamond Rugs was hatched between Dufresne and McCauley. Dufresne describes it as months of asking, “When are we going to play?” when he finally got a call from McCauley to come by because Ian St. Pe (formerly of Black Lips) was in town to jam. The chemistry between the three was evident immediately with St. Pe agreeing to join the yet-to-be-named group. McCauley added, “The initial idea was to make a punk record about weed and call it Stoner Drama and write all these songs about what stoner roommates argue about. Then I met Steve Berlin (of Los Lobos) and he was a big fan of the way the Middle Brother record sounded. I told him that I was going to go back to the same studio and invited him to join because he was a big fan of Deer Tick and Black Lips. His signing up surprised us, so we kind of decided to take it a bit more seriously. Then Hardy (T. Hardy Morris of Dead Confederate) and Robbie (Robbie Crowell of Deer Tick) also joined and we had a band.” 

When Diamond Rugs went to Nashville in 2011 to record their debut with producers Justin Collins and Adam Landry, things moved at a breakneck pace with everything written and recorded within a week and a half.  Dufresne described the first session starting with McCauley, Crowell, and him in the studio not sure what they were doing. “John said, ‘Follow me,’ and within 5 minutes we’re locked and the riff became the song ‘Tell Me Why’ off our first record. 

“Ian Saint Pe came up for a few days and then we talked Hardy into calling out of work for a week and coming up.  Nobody really expected Steve Berlin to show up, being that he is a much more accomplished musician and producer, but when he did show up, he loved it so much that he ended up calling his wife to say he was going to stay an extra few days.” 

Dufresne remembers the session as “Madness. [We were] doing two songs a day with everyone switching off instruments. John would play percussion with me and on another song I’d do backing vocals. We made a record with horns on it that doesn’t sound stupid, which is really hard to do. Our producers, Justin and Adam, were great at keeping us in the moment and not over-thinking things. We all weren’t actually in a room together at the same time till our first show months later in Atlanta.”

When asked about the differences between playing in Deer Tick and Diamond Rugs, McCauley described Diamond Rugs as “just having a good time.” 

“It’s not the most brilliant music in the world, but then again neither is Deer Tick,” continued McCauley. “There is no big concept behind it since we ditched stoner drama. I’m glad we ditched stoner drama because it turned into something much better. There wasn’t really time to over-think anything, but I’m not a fan of over-thought music.” 

Robbie Crowell, when asked about the difference between being in Deer Tick and Diamond Rugs, cited his shift from keyboards to bass. Crowell says his major influence on bass is James Jamerson. “He pretty much revolutionized the instrument, and everyone else I love has idolized him. Carol Kaye’s a monster too — so many hits, so many hooks.”

Diamond Rugs released their second album, Cosmetics, last month, which I premiered at my monthly DJ night that happens on the third Thursday of the month at E&O Tap. On Cosmetics, Diamond Rugs nail it as far as creating sweaty barroom rock ‘n’ roll.  The looseness of the sessions comes out in tunes like “Voodoo Doll” where Saint Pe wrote the verse and told McCauley that he had a song about a stalker and wanted McCauley to come up with a chorus to sing on it. Both Morris’ “Thunk” and McCauley’s “Couldn’t Help It” have an early Tom Petty pumped up on horns vibe. Known for his rough vocals in the past, McCauley’s voice has never sounded smoother on tracks like “Ain’t Religion.” “So What” starts with a Ramones-like jabbing guitar riff and evolves into a pop-punk nugget. The biggest rocker off the new record, Cosmetics, “Motel Room” has a pleading chorus of “open your heart, open your heart, like surgery in a motel room.” McCauley recalls seeing a video of a guy castrating himself in a hotel room. “It’s an image I’ve never been able to forget so I guess that is where the song came from although it’s not about castration.” 

Cosmetics may not be something completely new, but what is … and still enjoyable? Cosmetics is more like the soundtrack of barbecue or the jukebox blaring on a Saturday evening at the neighborhood dive bar.   

As for what’s next for Deer Tick, McCauley said the band is working on a new record, which is a slow and long process. “The plan is to take more time working on it than almost all the other combined (laughs).” He said there was some talk about doing another Dude Smash (Deer Tick’s all-day show with local RI bands), but it is up in the air right now. Deer Tick don’t have anything booked for the summer, but will return to the Newport Blues Café for their annual post-Folk Fest after parties. A new album isn’t likely till 2016. There is a Deer Tick documentary by William Miller in the works; McCauley was uncertain of its production stage, but there are plans to shoot additional footage when he is in town at the end of the month. In the meantime, McCauley is living in Nashville with his wife, singer Vanessa Carlton, and their beautiful 9-week-old daughter, Sidney.

When asked the biggest highlight of his professional career to-date, McCauley cited the year 2014, which included being tapped to play with Nirvana at their post-Rock and Roll Hall of Fame party, opening for the Replacements, and closing out 10 years of Deer Tick by backing Stevie Nicks on New Year’s Eve. McCauley said of Deer Tick’s future, “I’m curious to see where we go. We’re a cult band now. Our fans have a very particular taste, which makes it all the more exciting.”  

Unless you’re lucky enough to obtain tickets to Deer Tick’s Blues Café shows this summer, it’s likely the only chance to see McCauley this year will be when Diamond Rugs rock The Met Café!

Diamond Rugs, New Madrid, and Justin Collins will rock The Met Café on March 28.

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