John McCauley is holed up in his Nashville home with his one-year-old daughter, Sidney, and he’s starting to go a little stir crazy. He bangs around on his mandolin and strums his bouzouki, careful not to wake her up.
“Most of my time the past year has been sitting around the house, watching my daughter and trying to figure out how to play these new instruments. I maybe get an hour a week where I can play through one of my amps,” the Deer Tick guitarist and singer sighs, while Sidney squirms and whines in his arms. “I’m happy to have been able to spend so much time with her during her first year of life, but I’m ready to get back out on the road.”
Until a year ago, McCauley’s prolific schedule kept him moving. In-between albums with his ragged indie-rock band, Deer Tick, he’d schedule a tour or record with side projects like Middle Brother (a trio with Taylor Goldsmith of Dawes and Matt Vasquez of Delta Spirit) and Diamond Rugs, a collaboration with members of the Black Lips, Los Lobos, and Dead Confederate. That’s not to mention the Nirvana cover shows (as “Deervana”) and the infamous heavy drinking and drug use that McCauley openly partook in during both shows and interviews.
He turned the corner in late 2013 when he married singer-songwriter (and former pop star) Vanessa Carlton. She gave birth to Sidney in January 2015 and then released an album last October, leaving McCauley home to feed and rock the baby.
“I kind of crashed into a wall going about 100 miles per hour, but I’m ready to get back on my bicycle and do something,” says McCauley. “I’ve been getting restless lately. You end up doing a lot of mental gymnastics when you’re just home all the time watching a one-year-old and not really doing your life’s work, you know?”
That bicycle is finally tuned up and ready as Deer Tick hits the road after a year that saw the band perform only a few “special occasion” shows. But with 2013’s album Negativity now in the rearview mirror and a new album still in the earliest stages of planning, the band opted to get creative for their spring run by returning to the stripped-down sound that marked their earliest albums, War Elephant and Born on Flag Day.
“I guess we’ve been a band long enough where we can call it a career-spanning set,” says McCauley of the approach they’ll take at the Pour House next Tuesday, adding that they’re viewing the shows as a “play or something.” Rather than relying on improvisation, all the song changes and orchestration “mechanics” have been carefully worked out. “We’re trying to make it something special instead of just playing acoustic guitars.”
The calming of McCauley has affected more than just his music — he’s been (mostly) sober during his year off.
“I only drink occasionally now — nothing like I used to,” he claims. “Even if I tried, I don’t think I could ever build my tolerance up to what it used to be. I think I would just die.”
Getting sober wasn’t easy. “After trying to make sense of who I was, I kind of realized that my biggest problem was really all the cocaine,” he admits. “With alcohol, I was physically addicted to it, but I didn’t feel that weird pull kind of addiction, so after being sober for a few months, I decided to start drinking again, and just trying to manage it instead of letting it control me, and it’s worked out.”
He concedes that his approach doesn’t work for everyone. “I think it’s usually all or nothing, but there are a few unicorns out there and I guess I’m one of them.”
Fortunately, sobriety hasn’t killed his sense of humor. After a friend made him a suit out of a tacky pink-and-purple couch fabric with roses on it, he asked her to make a dress for his daughter so they could go take glamour shots at JCPenney with matching outfits.
“That’s when it dawned on me that it would be funny for the band to dress like little boys with suspenders and shit like that and go take some goofy-ass pictures,” McCauley laughs. “I’m like 100-percent positive that there are millions of bands out there with JCPenney press shots, but I’ve never seen it.”
That press shot (pictured here) may be one of the band’s few mementos from the past year, but with a rested, healthy frontman itching to get back onstage, Deer Tick’s 2016 is bound to be a lot louder, even if their instruments are acoustic.