By Brent Hill
February 24, 2016
John McCauley sounds tired. Not hungover, strung-out tired, though. He sounds new-parent tired. The kind of exhaustion that seeps into your bones and settles into the marrow. The kind of tired that only a first-time parent can understand. He sounds tired, yes. Unhappy, no.
Right now he’s sitting in his 1930’s bungalow in his newly adopted home of Nashville playing Super Mario Maker (he’s a self-proclaimed gamer) after having just put his one-year-old daughter, Sid, down for a nap. His wife, singer-songwriter Vanessa Carlton, is on tour and he’s holding down the fort until he leaves for the Deer Tick “Acoustic” tour in a few weeks (more on that later).
McCauley’s ragged voice is still laced in razor-wired reverb but there’s a softness at the end of his sentences now, a contentedness that punctuates the story of man who may have finally settled down. He’s okay with that. In fact, he’s more than okay with it. He’s proud. “Our nanny has confided in my wife that she thinks I’m a really good dad,” McCauley says. “That made me feel good.”
Since getting married in late 2013 (Stevie Nicks officiated the wedding) and having his daughter the following year, John has “gone dark.” He’s doing just enough to keep himself afloat musically, trading in his raucous stage antics for creative baby-proofing. “It takes a lot of problem solving skills to run a house with a baby in it,” he says. “I can baby proof anything. I can baby proof a space heater, a pair of scissors … anything.”
If you go online and read too many articles about McCauley you might get the wrong impression of him. His reputation as the band’s riotous ringleader has reached mythic levels since he started Deer Tick in Providence, Rhode Island over a decade ago. Deer Tick concerts are spectacularly booze-soaked free-for-alls that have no clear beginning, middle, or end. A setlist is conspicuously absent as the crowd hurls a barrage of song requests. And McCauley and the boys are happy to oblige. Their fans love the explosive spontaneity. A Deer Tick show is a shock to the system.
McCauley’s lyrics have always had a heart-on-the-sleeve, blood-on-the-knuckles dichotomy to them– painting Deer Tick as a badass bar band that bruises easily. Over the course of seven studio albums, however, McCauley and his merry men have stretched their sound beyond its alt-country roots to include a colorful bloom of genres: punk, funk, grunge, blues, and folk.
This “acoustic” tour (note the quotation marks) will be an opportunity for Deer Tick to reimagine their vast canon of work in a way that will please old fans and, hopefully, make some new ones. “The show will be about 75% acoustic,” McCauley says. “Ironically though we’re bringing more equipment with us than we do our electric show. We’ve got a real piano, and I’ll have three different acoustic guitars, a bouzouki, and a mandolin. Chris is gonna be playing an upright bass, and Ian will switch between acoustic and electric guitar. Oh, and Rob will be playing an organ.”
Instrument inventory aside, this tour will be something different for McCauley and Deer Tick from a performance standpoint. Is it a softer, gentler Deer Tick? Not really, a more focused Deer Tick is probably a better descriptor. “We’re approaching each show like a performance or a play,” McCauley says. “It won’t be your typical Deer Tick show, where we get up there and wing it. We’re going to politely request that no one makes any requests. We want to stick to the setlist every night and hope the audience trusts us, so we can make this limited engagement really good … and not sloppy.”
He’s a dad and husband now, remember– and his wife and daughter may be joining him at a few of the shows. But he concedes that traveling with a baby is “cruel to everyone involved” and that it “fucks up her sleep.” Let’s be clear: McCauley has not gone straight-edge, he just won’t be doing any coke or shotgunning PBRs backstage. Those days are behind him, sort of.
“I was on my way to mellowing out right before I met Vanessa,” he confides. “I got to a point where I could finally admit that, no– I didn’t have a cold again. Yes, I smoked a bunch of cocaine and that’s why I lost my voice.” So he took some time off to figure shit out and realized he had a problem. “And once I detoxed I understood drinking didn’t have the pull of addiction for me. It was all centered around cocaine.”
A 2012 article in the online magazine Vice entitled “We Threw Up with John McCauley of Deer Tick” tries to tell a different story about McCauley and his love affair with alcohol. The interviewer convinces McCauley to shotgun several beers at 11:00 in the morning. He does it and, as the article’s title states, throws up– a lot. But that’s not exactly how McCauley remembers it. And yes, he does remember it.
“No one told me that I was expected to shotgun beers that morning,” he says. “But, like most people, if you challenge me enough, I’ll do it. As much as I used to like to drink, I never liked chugging beers or taking shots. I don’t really have anything to be ashamed of though. I’ve calmed down quite a bit since then.”
McCauley admits that he was physically addicted to alcohol, but once he got it out of his system he felt confident that he could go back and have a drink and manage it. His confessions are even more sobering in light of his new gig as a father. But calming down doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Slowing down doesn’t mean the end, it just means there’s more at stake than the next line. The next beer. The next show. The next nap.