When I reached John McCauley at home during a recent late-summer afternoon, he was enjoying the rarest of refuges in the life of a parent: A quiet house. The Deer Tick frontman is known for being one of the wildest, drunkest men in contemporary rock. But in the past few years, he’s cleaned up and settled into family life in Nashville with wife Vanessa Carlton. On this day, however, McCauley’s 2-year-old daughter had shipped off for her first day of pre-school, leaving dad with an afternoon to kill.
Was he feeling any stress about his baby girl being away from home? “Are you kidding? I love it,” McCauley replied in his cracked, wise-acre whine. “Actually have time to get stuff done around here.”
After an extended hiatus from the road and the studio, Deer Tick is ready to get back to work. On Friday, the perpetually disheveled four-piece will release two albums, Vol. 1 and Vol. 2, the band’s first output in four years. Similar to McCauley’s hero Paul Westerberg’s underrated 2002 tandem, Stereo/Mono, Vol. 1 and Vol. 2 parcels the two sides of Deer Tick’s musical personality into the thoughtful, acoustic singer-songwriter pop of Vol. 1 and the rambunctious, endearingly sloppy rock and roll of Vol. 2.
Since forming in Providence, Rhode Island in 2004, Deer Tick has been more associated with the latter than the former. But while McCauley’s antics are well-documented — he’s been known to shotgun beers with journalists ahead of interviews — his proficiency as a songwriter remains under appreciated. In that sense, Vol. 1 and Vol. 2 feels like a coming-out party.
On Vol. 1Deer Tick not only leans on the heartfelt, Ronnie Lane-style tearjerkers of past Deer Tick LPs, but also veers credibly into jazzy folk dalliances like “Limp Right Back” and sensitive story songs like the moving broken-home ballad, “Doomed From The Start.” On Vol. 2, Deer Tick is back in more conventional territory, tearing through a set of witty trash-rockers like the hilarious “SMF” (short for “shitty music festival”) and the delectably sleazy “Look How Clean I Am.” Taken together, Vol. 1 and Vol. 2 resemble a more sprawling version of the Replacements’ Pleased To Meet Me, one of many classic albums recorded at Ardent Studios in Memphis, which also berthed both new Deer Tick records.
Along with the albums comes a return to the road, and after a period of calm McCauley seems eager to get back to it. For a while, however, he wasn’t sure if Deer Tick had a future. Long before spearheading the most ambitious records of the band’s career, McCauley actually considered breaking up Deer Tick.
How close did you guys come to actually calling it a day?
I was prepared for a short period of time to just give everybody a call and be like, ‘Hey, I quit.’ But I don’t know. I think I was just getting anxious about what the future may have had in store for us. I thought, maybe, I don’t know, we were going to make a new record eventually and nobody would care, or we’d have to get real jobs or something. I think I was making stuff up in my head. After taking some time off, I don’t think I can live without Deer Tick.
You got married and had a child. Were you still writing songs throughout that whole time?
I’m always taking a break from writing songs. I don’t really put a whole lot of time into it. I just kind of wait until an idea seems so necessary that I can’t help but write it down or document it in some way. I just heard a funny interview with Randy Newman that’s talking about the same things. He’s like, ‘I don’t like writing songs.’ I kind of feel the same way.
How did becoming a husband and a father influence your work?
Well, it’s just really slowed down my career in alcohol. So I have a lot more clarity and focus nowadays than I’ve probably had since I was a teenage boy. I just feel like I care more about what I do instead of just taking a real haphazard approach to it.
Was there ever any anxiety about not being intoxicated when you were writing or performing? Did you ever feel like being sober might negatively impact the creative process?
I never had to be fucked up to write. I would write fucked up, you know, but it wasn’t a requirement. I haven’t done too many shows completely sober. I really don’t enjoy it that much, so I still have a few beers before I go on stage. That’s just who I am. But I’m not drinking an entire case of beer and a bottle of liquor every night. I’m okay with that. I can get up in the morning and be a functioning member of society.
Do you have stage fright when you’re sober?
No, I’m just kind of less inclined to move around or be fun and animated, I guess. I love what a couple beers does to me. It just kind of loosens me up and makes me have a good time.
Earlier you mentioned that you had doubts about the future of the band and whether you really wanted to do it anymore. Were you burned out?
I mean, we kind of hit this point where something happened that had never happened before, which was we played a gig and afterwards we realized we had nothing else booked. There was nothing — no plans, nothing in the future was set for us. And I just got comfortable not doing it for a while. That last show we did was just a couple weeks before my daughter was born and I was happy to have the time off. I got used to it and I started feeling pretty uncertain about the future of Deer Tick and thought maybe I don’t want to go anywhere anymore. Maybe I just want to make music at home or, you know, I had a million ideas. Maybe I’ll start getting into writing music for TV and movies or something, just anything but go back on the road. But then it happened and I realized I didn’t hate it.
You realized you didn’t hate touring?
Well, yeah. I didn’t really hate anything about my situation with Deer Tick. I just got comfortable without it for a little while and thought, hey, maybe I could really get used to this and just do this for the rest of my life.
When did you start writing songs again with Deer Tick in mind?
We started in 2015 the records that became Vol. 1 and Vol. 2. We ended up abandoning everything, [though] some of that stuff actually dated back a few years, I had just never done anything with it, or I never finished it. So a lot of the stuff we did right away for the new albums was started while Deer Tick was very much a functioning-and-hard-working-and-200-shows-a-year-kind-of-band.
I assume that you’re not necessarily looking to go back to playing 200 nights on the road every year.
Well, judging by everything we have tentatively planned for the future, we might be doing that again pretty soon. I’m excited for it. I just feel like it’s been too long. I’ve really missed it. It’s been over a year since the acoustic tour. That was the last tour I played. It would be fun to get back on the road.
Do you have a new appreciation for the band now that you’ve been away for a while?
I guess I’ve just been really actively trying to become a better musician. You know, my playing and stuff. I have never really been that good other than like finger picking, you know?
I mean, with the band, our interests roughly have remained the same. We get together and the four of us are all definitely having a good time. It’s kind of amazing the friendships that we have with each other. We’ve known each other for so long. Dennis and Chris and I all met when we were kids. When you’re on tour with other bands and you see how they work, a lot of bands can be really fragmented and just weird. I don’t understand how they get up in the morning and all get on the bus together and then go play a show. They just don’t seem like they like each other. Other bands have said this about us. They’re like, ‘Wow, you guys all seem like you’re friends.’ It’s like, ‘Well, we are. You’re not in a band with your friends?’ That’s weird. We’re like a little gang.
Vol. 1 and Vol. 2 are out now. Get them here.