Deer Tick has settled down, and that’s good
Until a few years ago, John McCauley was the sort of musician people worried about. The Deer Tick singer had long subsisted on a frightening diet of drugs, alcohol and raucous, volatile live performances that bordered on the scary and insane.
“I get nervous just replaying scenarios in my head of stuff I did when I was younger,” McCauley says calling from the Nashville home he now shares with his wife, musician Vanessa Carlton, and their 2-year-old daughter Sidney. On his worst days, the singer-songwriter might still have vivid flashbacks of some of his more manic moments; like that time he smashed guitars onstage with bottles of wine after doing a large amount of cocaine. “I’ll be reliving the story in my head and I’m like ‘Oh god, is John gonna survive this? What happens next?’ “ The soft-spoken singer lets out a nervous, awkward laugh. “I’ll have a long list of things to tell my children not to do.”
Thankfully for the singer and his Rhode Island band’s many passionate fans things have settled down. Having a family forced the 31-year-old McCauley to re-examine his own behavior as well as the relationships with his three bandmates. Simply being sober around his longtime band, he says, “with a much more clear head has really made me appreciate the musicality of (Deer Tick). It’s allowed me to just take risks and try stuff that I probably would have been too drunk or too lazy to do a few years ago.”
The most visible is Deer Tick’s excellent new pair of albums, “Deer Tick Vol. 1” and “Deer Tick Vol. 2.” Released in September, the Providence foursome’s first new project in four years is an acoustic and an electric duo of LPs, respectively, that showcases their myriad influences from folk (“Hope is Big”) to punk (“It’s a Whale”) and even rockabilly (“Mr. Nothing Gets Worse”). Unpredictability, diversity, and non-adherence to a specific genre has long been the band’s calling card, but Deer Tick’s latest project is the most full-bore display of its wide-ranging talents yet. McCauley’s friend Stevie Nicks has called him “a little bit Tom Petty, a little bit Johnny Cash and a little bit spectacular,” and not surprisingly then his flexibility as a musician also extends to his lyrics. The best Deer Tick songs, like “Baltimore Blues No 1,” are often thematically equal parts gorgeous and dark. And plus, McCauley says, “It’s fun to try new things and expand your range musically. I get bored doing the same thing over and over again.”
In the years between 2013’s “Negativity” and the band’s new album, however, McCauley admits he was unsure whether Deer Tick had run its course. For one, he enjoyed his new more mellow family life with Carlton. He also points to a series of recording sessions with the band in 2015 that ended up being scrapped and left him feeling deeply unsatisfied. He already had the two-album idea at the time but “they just weren’t really productive sessions,” he recalls. “I was trying to have real strict rules about how we recorded each song but we really just messed it all up.” What ultimately saved the band, both he and guitarist Ian O’Neil agree, was Deer Tick’s 2016 performance at their annual Newport Folk Festival after party. “We realized we like each other,” the singer says with a laugh. “And we like playing with each other. And we missed each other.”
“We were all growing up and we were starting to see that playing together was what we wanted to do,” says O’Neil, who notes that with the band members now all married their offstage life is “tame … but a good tame.” “We realized music was an imperative in our lives,” he continues. “Even with those new priorities in place in our lives our purpose is to play music. That never goes away. You can ignore it for as long as you want but it just swung back around and kept nagging at us.”
Revamping the live show for their current tour has also breathed new life into the band. A direct reflection of their new project, every night on tour sees Deer Tick, which includes bassist Chris Ryan and drummer Dennis Ryan, playing an entire first set acoustically before reconfiguring its stage setup and returning for an entirely electric set. This type of show often requires Deer Tick to spend “four hours soundchecking for essentially two different bands,” O’Neil explains, but the guitarist says “I think it’s perfect timing. We’re all super-interested in just playing music together and spending time together because we’ve been away from it for long enough.”
McCauley, for his part, says he now feels completely reinvigorated about the future of his band. “I think we’ve got our ambition back,” he says, noting how Deer Tick has even begun discussing its next album. “We’ve got a lot of ideas for the future already,” McCauley says. “We haven’t really thought this way for a long time.”
If you go
Deer Tick's upcoming concerts include:
Nov. 24 at Columbus Theatre, Providence, R.I.
Nov. 25 and 26 at The Met Cafe, Pawtucket, R.I.
Nov. 29 at Toad's Place, New Haven
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