Deer Tick Survives, Somehow
After a hiatus nearly broke up the band, Deer Tick’s sixth and seventh albums 'Deer Tick Vol. 1' and 'Vol. 2' find the Rhode Island roots rockers back and better than ever.
Photo by Sully Sullivan
John McCauley is nursing a glass of bourbon while sitting on the front porch of his East Nashville home, a rehabbed mid-20th century bungalow he shares with his wife, singer-songwriter Vanessa Carlton. He's wearing a Longmont Potion Castle T-shirt—which McCauley, a longtime fan of the absurdist prank call series, specifically tells me to mention. He smiles and his platinum tooth (he got it after chipping his tooth on a beer bottle) accentuates his sly smirk. "I started without you," he says, motioning to a modest spread of four Modelos, bourbon, and rum he's laid out on the porch's makeshift bar for our interview. "Hope that's cool."
Carlton's currently on tour opening for Stevie Nicks—who, fun fact, officiated the couple's 2013 wedding—so this week the 31-year-old Deer Tick frontman is a stay-at-home dad, taking care of their two-and-a-half year old daughter, Sidney. Since it's 8:30 at night, he's put her to bed, but throughout our chat he periodically checks a baby monitor to make sure she's still sleeping.
"I'm just glad I haven't been doing all that much lately because I get to spend a really crazy amount of time with my daughter," McCauley says. "I think we have a kind of bond most dads don't get with their kids. Your average dad works and doesn't change as many diapers as mom."
Lately, McCauley's life has been the most stable it's ever been. In 2014, he and his wife bought a house and moved to Nashville from Carlton's SoHo apartment in New York City. It's a better place to raise a kid and McCauley feels more at home here than he ever did in New York. He's remarkably relaxed in person, a far-cry from the hard-partying frontman lighting guitars on fire and dousing crowds in beer that defined Deer Tick's rowdy early reputation. He's as blunt as his pull-no-punches songwriting suggests, coupling every matter-of-fact quote about maybe wanting to quit the band or dry jokes about going on a bender with a thoughtfulness that makes him extremely easy to be around.
Deer Tick's enduring appeal has always been their explosive live act, which has been thrilling ever since their world-weary 2007 debut War Elephant that came out when McCauley was just 21. Their boozy antics always made the band seem on the verge of falling apart on stage but they never did, thanks to McCauley's commanding presence as a frontman and the band's liquor-defying chemistry. However, the public debauchery also hinted at demons that faced McCauley's personal life.
"Any hotel room that I'd be in on tour was going to be better than what I was coming home to for a while and I think that's why I kept the party going longer than I should've," he tells me about his pre-Carlton headspace. "I was no question about it physically addicted to alcohol to the point where I thought that I would have to be sober for the rest of my life."
It's been four years, by far their longest break between releases, since Deer Tick released Negativity, their fifth and latest in a catalogue that has consistently blended lovelorn, country-inflected folk with rowdy barroom punk. It was arguably the band's "grown up" album: it added tighter songwriting and 70s-inspired arrangements and the press cycle mainly dealt with McCauley overcoming his issues with drinking and drugs. But with Deer Tick's sixth and seventh albums, the acoustic Deer Tick Vol. 1 and the electric Deer Tick Vol. 2, it's the first time in the band's history each member is settled down, married, and not getting fucked up every night. Because of that, it's also the Deer Tick's most optimistic effort yet, a masterclass in newfound maturity not losing what made the band so likeable in the first place.
"I was no question about it physically addicted to alcohol to the point where I thought that I would have to be sober for the rest of my life."
It's a jarring shift because the heroes of Deer Tick songs have always been the down-on-their-luck. McCauley's at his best when he's writing about facing your mistakes after a night of having one too many, like on Divine Providence single "Main Street" where he yells about missing "one night from the stomped on bag of blow," or how he mournfully yelps "maybe I'm about as good as gone" on "Houston, TX" off their 2009 sophomore album Born on Flag Day. There's a whole dive bar's worth of heartbreak and hangovers throughout Deer Tick's discography.
"I've never been that much of a happy-go-lucky writer," says McCauley. "It's either about shit being fucked up or deliverin' something in a sarcastic tone."
Now the band sounds more comfortable and happier than they've ever been. Following the band's ten-year anniversary shows at the end of 2014, McCauley took time off for the first time since starting the band. His daughter was born around that time as well, and he channeled his energy into fatherhood and living a more balance life. He wrote songs when he could and learned new instruments like the bouzouki and the accordion after Sidney went to bed. The ease you hear in the band's music now can be credited to this time when McCauley paused to become a parent and husband.
"The accordion is such a stupid fucking thing to learn in your 30s," McCauley laughs, explaining he's currently going through children's instructional books to learn the basic. He realized that the reason he's been having such trouble mastering the buttons was because he accidentally bought an accordion made for women and children. "All the buttons are squished together and it's made for people with small hands. I don't have small hands unlike some people," he jokes, not-so-subtly ribbing President Donald Trump before he adds, dryly: "Sorry for getting political."
Deer Tick was largely inactive throughout 2015, except for their yearly appearances Newport Folk Festival. "I did a few solo gigs just to make enough money and keep myself occupied. Those solo gigs didn't help my mindset with the band during that time period: When you play solo you get to keep all the money," he laughs as he finishes his bourbon and cracks open his first beer.
McCauley's Rhode Island-based bandmates Ian O'Neil and drummer Dennis Ryan spent much of the hiatus at Ryan's newly-built studio, each of them making solo material and songs for their side-project Happiness, which also features Deer Tick bassist and Ryan's half-brother Chris Ryan. "For a while Ian was coming over pretty much every day," Ryan says over the phone. "We'd just hang out and write and record and get ready for whatever was next with Deer Tick." There was a sense that the time off might spell the end of Deer Tick and that McCauley wouldn't want to leave the rock solid stability of family life.
"For the rest of 2015, I had a lot of moments back-and-forth with myself about whether or not Deer Tick was worth continuing. Like, what more could I do with this band?" says McCauley, looking at the ceiling. "We never talked about it until I had mentally and totally recommitted myself to being in the band and then I said to them, 'You know I was thinking about maybe quitting?' And they told me, 'You think we couldn't tell?'"
"John is a pretty sensitive person in a great way, which makes him a really great friend and makes him really good at his job too. But I think we knew that if we pushed him to keep working that it would just maybe fall apart in a permanent way," explains O'Neil on a later phone call. "We're all really good friends and we put each other's health before anything else—mental and physical. We knew he should enjoy his transformation into adulthood and our band would not exist now without giving him that space."
Things began to click for McCauley as he kept writing, realizing that Deer Tick's entire discography operated between the polar opposites of quiet and loud, inviting and raging. It's been the ethos of the band as far back as War Elephant, where the ramshackle debut had folky tracks as vulnerable and subdued as the relationship autopsy "Diamond Rings 2007" and piercing screamers like the snarling "Not So Dense."
"After I had written a couple songs, I just thought, 'These two are exact opposites and so are these two so maybe I'm going somewhere with this,'" he says. "Maybe I felt like we would have something to prove coming back, I don't know. But I knew it was important to showcase our dual personalities. There are some fans that really don't care for the louder stuff and there are fans who only know 'Let's All Go To The Bar,'" referring to the early Replacements-channeling cut off Deer Tick's loudest album 2011's Divine Providence.
McCauley told the band about his vision for two distinct full-lengths and everyone quickly rallied around the idea. Before they scheduled time at Memphis's famed Ardent Studios, the band booked a two-month acoustic tour in spring 2016 to test out new material and re-familiarize themselves with each other. "I think we were probably all curious as to whether or not we would just be playing an MTV Unplugged set or if we would be successful at being more nuanced with our playing," says O'Neil. The more the band played, the more they realized how much they enjoyed playing together in a quieter setting. "Before, Deer Tick shows got increasingly more raucous and aggressive but to me this acoustic tour kind of brought us back to our roots of dynamic, multifaceted shows," explains Ryan.
At this point, McCauley and I have been talking on his porch for almost an hour, but it doesn't feel like it. "Hold that thought," he interrupts as I'm about to ask about recording at Ardent Studios, where the Replacements hashed out Pleased To Meet Me and Big Star made #1 Record and Third. He returns with two more Modelos. "The first two songs we cut to tape at Ardent made me 100 percent happy with my decision to continue doing Deer Tick—before it was probably like 80 or 90 percent."
The recording environment worked so well for the band partly because they recorded both albums simultaneously: If an acoustic track on Vol. 1 was giving them trouble they could take a break and bang out a louder cut on Vol. 2. "We would listen to those songs after every night outside smoking or drinking and it was probably the closest we've ever been in a long period of time too," remembers O'Neil.
One of the first songs recorded was Vol. 2 highlight "It's A Whale," by far the loudest song of Deer Tick's catalogue. McCauley wrote it from the perspective of a men's rights activist. "I'm trying to deliver it with a wink and a nod," he says. "Like, all these angry dudes, don't they sound so pathetic? How can they complain that they're the ones being oppressed?" It's is a booming, searing track anchored by a frantic, nervy riff and McCauley menacingly yelling with paranoia and anger oozing from his delivery: "Heading nowhere / With the last of my kind / I'm a martyr / And I live on borrowed time."
But where Deer Tick is at their most biting is the lounge act schmooze "Cocktail." There, over a jazzy piano lead courtesy of former member Robbie Crowell (who officially left the band late last year to pursue other projects), McCauley sings, "I started missing the days / Where as soon as I'd wake / I'd make a cocktail / I'd spend the time that you took / Giving me dirty looks / With my cocktail."
"Drinking was a big part of my life and a big part of my public persona. I mean, I got stories about taking my shirt off on an airplane or just any sort of bad situation I've probably woken up in," he says bluntly. "When I finally dried out, I didn't really like it. I realized I enjoy life with a drink but I needed to hit the reset button. I had to do it a couple times really to get to a place where I'm not that maniac anymore. My biggest problem was that my drunken behavior went with finding drugs." There's no hint that McCauley is uncomfortable talking about his past struggles substance abuse. He talks about it with a candidness that can only come from the distance of overcoming it.
There's no hint that McCauley is uncomfortable talking about his past struggles substance abuse. He talks about it with a candidness that can only come from the distance of overcoming it.
Now McCauley says he's found the right balance. "It was difficult at first when I would try to drink again and I would find myself in situations where I could have easily gotten cocaine," he says with a slight chuckle, taking a moment to find the right words. "It took a whole lot of practice to disconnect that pathway." He doesn't drink every day and if he does, he allows himself to have a hangover. "I'm having some drinks now because it makes me more talkative. I know that about myself."
McCauley isn't the only Deer Tick songwriter to tackle how drinking played such an outsized role in the band's public perception and their career so far. "Look How Clean I Am," one of O'Neil's two songs on Vol. 2, finds the guitarist smirking: "Accomplished all my dreams / Man, look what I done?! / They're lookin back at me sayin' / Time to have some fun.'" He explains the song deals with "how the music industry kind of take advantage of musicians vulnerabilities and market them. It happened with us too." Ryan agrees: "There's been that weird thing that we've kind of like projected this hard-partying aura for so long that now that our focus is a little different; it takes longer for the people to notice outside."
Qualifying these songs as Deer Tick's most optimistic offerings yet isn't exactly an earth-shattering observation—I mean, the band's sonically sunniest album is called Negativity. Even a song as seemingly lighthearted as O'Neil's Vol. 1 cut "Hope Is Big," a track that's been kicking around Deer Tick's live set since 2010, is a gut-punch: "Hope is big but we're always gonna lose." These are Deer Tick albums, after all.
But there are major hints of hope both Vol. 1 and Vol. 2. Dennis Ryan's songs for instance, the breezy "Me and My Man" on Vol. 1 and 90s-rock-pop channeling "Wants / Needs" practically glimmer in their happy-seeming arrangements. Ryan admits that it's purposeful, especially considering his most well-known Deer Tick song is written from the perspective of John Wayne Gacy ("Clownin' Around"). He laughs, "I wanted my two songs specifically to be a little bit lighter because I guess in the past my songs would make people tell me, 'you're weird, man.'"
Perhaps the brightest spot is Vol. 2 highlight "Jumpstarting." Over clanging guitars, McCauley tries his hand at being reassuring: "If the world doesn't leave you enchanted / I'll be there for you." It's a stark departure from the tenor of a typical Deer Tick track but it's also both one of the catchiest and hardest rocking songs of their whole discography. "At least on Vol. 2, 'Jumpstarting' is my absolute favorite," McCauley says. "It's like everything about you to crystallized in its three-and-a-half minutes. I just think I got really lucky with that one with the melody, the riff, and the lyrics." There's a kindness and a peace radiating from every note.
McCauley points to the last Modelo on the porch bar and offers it to me, joking that because he's been a stay-at-home dad that we should keep talking. He mentions he has a couple more weeks left of home life before Deer Tick ventures out on their Twice Is Nice Tour, where they'll play two sets, one acoustic and one electric, reimagining songs from their discography. They're also bringing out comedians Jena Friedman and Chris Crofton to open up the shows. After 13 years of touring, anything to break up the monotony is something to be excited about. And with 20 new songs made during the brightest period of their lives so far, McCauley is finally ready to jump back in.
"There is kind of a vibe that goes through both records where I'm finally comfortable with myself and what I do. A lot of that was probably influenced by the upswing that my personal life is on right now," says McCauley, ashing out his cigarette. "I used to wake up in every bad situation but now I get to wake up into some pretty good ones."
Josh Terry is a writer based in Chicago. Follow him on Twitter.