John McCauley on Deer Tick, Vanessa Carlton, Stevie Nicks, Hold Steady
When we reach Deer Tick singer John McCauley by phone he says that his band is the last thing that’s on his mind. He and his wife, Vanessa Carlton have one foot out the door for a vacation in Puerto Rico. Since his band will be playing a handful of dates with the Hold Steady though, we figured we should get him to talk about Deer Tick, as well as a surprisingly varied host of other topics.
METRO: So if Deer Tick is the furthest thing from your mind, what have you been up to?
McCauley: You know, just hanging around the house a lot, cooking, working out. I quit smoking. I’ve been brushing up on my Japanese.
For real? What have you learned recently?
I used to speak it a little when I was a kid. And I mean I have basically forgotten all of it, so I got some books and whatever. I’m just trying to learn it again. I’m just relearning some of my calligraphy.
That seems like a really unlikely cultural interest for you. I obviously need to know more about this.
When I was a kid I had this dream that I would learn Japanese, and as soon as I was old enough, I would flee the country and go to Japan and write music for video games.
So you’re one step closer now. Has this interest every played out in any of the art you have done?
No, virtually none of it. I’m just hoping that if we get a chance to play in Japan, I’ll be able to get by on my own and stay for a couple weeks after.
Would you be able to fluently deliver between-song-banter in Japanese?
Probably not. It would take a long time. But you know, if you just kind of drop me in the middle of Tokyo, I could probably get by if I had one of my books with me.
I know Deer Tick is the furthest thing from your mind but that’s what I’m supposed to write about, with it being so far away, what is your relationship with the songs on “Negativity,” having had some distance from recording and the release of the album last fall?
I find them all fun to play. It’s a collection of songs that I am kind of glad I got out of my system and out of the way. It was kind of a cathartic album for me. There’s that kind of relationship that I have with it.
Do you find that after having dealt with a somewhat difficult subject matter that you are in a better place with that?
Overall I guess I have done a lot of work to create a better life for myself. Writing about everything was kind of like step one. Then realizing that there is more to life than just sitting around moping about it.
What did that work entail? Are we talking about psychotherapy? AA? Reaching out to family members?
I started to see a behavioral therapist and all this stuff, you know? I stopped taking drugs and that was a big step, I guess. I cut back on my drinking, a whole lot. I still drink, but now that I have gone through detox, I get pretty drunk after only a couple of drinks, so it’s much easier to keep myself in check.
How has the different approach with the other guys in the band? Are they behind you? Are they still partying after the shows?
Everyone does their own thing. I didn’t change anything about myself expecting that they would do the same thing I would do. We all still get along great. There is no weird dynamic or anything. I’m not too bothered by what goes on around me. I’m not saying that the other guys in Deer Tick are raging alcoholics or druggies, I think it’s just that it won’t bother me.
When you read about what people say about your music, and they throw words around like “mature” to describe “Negativity,” do you see that as a positive adjective?
I mean in one way it’s kind of mature. We’ve refined our sound for “Negativity” a bit, but that doesn’t mean that everything we do from now on is going to sound grown up or whatever. We’re still young and we still want to have fun.
I couldn’t help but think a ballad like “Just Friends” could have NEVER been on your first album…
Sure, yeah, the funny thing though is that if you take away all the production on it, there is one chord in it that sounds very 70s or James Taylor-ey. There’s that one chord that was an afterthought. If you do it with the original chord, it’s just a B7 instead of this fancy B. Here, I’m sitting at the piano right now, I’ll play it for you. [plays the two chords side-by-side]
Just doing that kind of took the song to a whole new realm. The demo version does sound like it could go on our first record, that’s the funny thing. There are some people who absolutely hate that song. If we had just recorded it a different way, they wouldn’t know any better and would probably like it. It’s funny how that works, production makes a whole lot of difference.
This album is the first time you’ve collaborated with Vanessa, right? Or had you guys done any music together before?
No, well, a little bit.
While I have you sitting at the piano, I have to ask, can you do that intro to her “A Thousand Miles” song? Do you know how to play any of each other’s songs?
I know how to play a bunch of her stuff. I have tried to learn ["A Thousand Miles"] but it’s too tricky for me.
How much feedback do you give each other?
I was actually pretty involved with a few songs on her new record, which doesn’t have a release date right now. I was part of the band or whatever so I felt like I could chime in with my ideas. With my stuff I don’t really share my stuff with anybody, really. When I first bring a song to the band it’s usually at soundcheck and they’re like “what is this?” and then that’s how ideas get formulated. I share a lot of my writing, my non-musical writing with her.
I don’t think I know the story of how you two met.
It’s pretty funny. It’s very 21st century. One afternoon I’m listening to the radio and one of Vanessa’s songs came on and I just learned how to use Twitter, so I go on my Twitter — I didn’t know the difference between a verified account and an unverified account — so it was just by luck that I tweeted at the correct Vanessa Carlton and said, “Hey Vanessa Carlton, let’s get a beer.” A day later I got a call from Patrick Hallahan from My Morning Jacket, and he said, “Did somebody from your band post something on Vanessa Carlton on Twitter?” and I was like, “yeah that was me.” And he said, “She’s a good friend of mine, should I give her your number?” I was like, “uh, sure” and then we met. We kind of figure that we would have probably met anyway at some point but it was kind of Twitter that got it going.
How on earth did Stevie Nicks factor in to the whole thing? When those pictures came out a lot of people were like, “wait, what?” Not just what are these three totally different musicians doing together, but why are two of them getting married to each other and the other one is officiating said wedding!
Vanessa has been friends with Stevie for while now, she just kind of asked Stevie if she would do the thing or whatever. And she said yeah.
Are you friendly with Stevie now? Can you call her?
I’ve never tried to call her and just shoot the shit, but I would say yes, now I can definitely do that. She’s taking Vanessa and I to the Rock and Roll Half of Fame induction ceremony next week.
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Are you living in Tennessee still? I think that’s where you were the last time we spoke.
Yeah, I moved away from Nashville for a little bit, and I’m in New York right now, but I just bought a house in Nashville.
Do you ever get back to Providence?
I just spent a few days there, I’m going back for a few days before our Boston show. We rehearse in Providence whenever we have shows around there, just at Dennis’ house. [He's talking about Deer Tick drummer Dennis Michael Ryan].
You’re doing these dates with the Hold Steady. They’ve been together 10 years. And you guys have been together for the same amount of time, right? Have you ever played together before?
In December it will be 10 years for us. We’ve only played with them at one show before. This tour with us and them it’s just kind of a no-brainer, I’m surprised it hasn’t happened before.
Are you guys flipping a coin for who plays first, you or the Hold Steady?
I think we’re playing first the whole time, which I don’t mind, really. It’s kind of fun. We only have to play an hour. That’s nothing!
Do you have anything up your sleeves, like covering a Hold Steady song out of the blue or anything?
I think as long as we get it to plant in time, we should have split 7-inches with them. It should be ready for the Boston show, but it’s just us covering each other’s songs.
Oh. Is that the Record Store Day thing?
No, that’s something different. That’s just B-sides from the “Negativity” session.
I was just looking at the press release for that Record Store Day release and it had a lot of personal information in there about your dad going to jail, and what a tough year you’d had. [McCauley's father pleaded guilty to federal charges of conspiracy and tax fraud, ultimately leading to a prison sentence.] Is that hard for you to have that out there?
It’s not that weird. It was either put it out there first or I guess set the record straight before anybody could speculate on what was really going on.
Is he still in there?
Do you still talk?
Yeah, when I can. He has email in there. And he’s in Massachusetts, at Fort Devins.
OK, it looks like we’re almost out of time. Let’s end on a brighter note. What do you have planned for your trip to Puerto Rico?
Vanessa and I are going. I have a friend that lives in Dorado, right outside San Juan, I have been trying to go once a year and I couldn’t go last year, so I am excited to go back. I like it down there.
What’s your recreation of choice down there?
You can gamble, go swimming, get food, then while you do it you just drink the beer that they make there. Medalla Light. They only make a light version of it. So it’s like 3 percent alcohol, so you don’t really get drunk on it. You can drink it all day and have a little buzz going all day.
Enjoy the trip.