Credit: Jess Lehrman
Beer. Drugs. Deer Tick. If you’re any sort of follower of indie rock, there’s a good chance you’ve used a sentence in the past five years that involves those three nouns. Others: rowdy, loud, boisterous.
The Providence-based alt-country band has built their reputation on a foundation of consistently being raucous during their live performances, and their (now lengthy) discography of music reflects that. Stories have been told about how lead singer John McCauley jumps from table to table during concerts at dive bars, smashes guitars on stage with giant bottles of wine, and lives the exact life you imagine when you think of rock ‘n’ roll. Even for this publication, last year McCauley participated in a shotgunning contest with fellow Noisey editor Drew Millard, in which they both ended up vomiting, though McCauley vastly more so. The musician also spent the previous night doing a bunch of blow.
But the party can’t last forever, and the sun eventually has to come up. And with their new record Negativity out today on Partisan Records, their fifth in a collection of sprawling LPs and EPs, the band—and in particular, McCauley—has, for the lack of a better term, grown up. Or, at least they’ve tried. Last year, after a performance at Carnegie Hall, McCauley took some time off. He went to Africa for three weeks, and did his best to slow down the partying. He spent the time focusing on bringing together his sprawling creativity, and carefully put together half-written songs under the stars in the desert. Those songs eventually became Negativity, a record that recalls songwriting of the ‘70s, feeling more like a Harvest Moon than a Let It Be.
Now, McCauley is drinking less, dating Vanessa Carlton (yes, that Vanessa Carlton), and living in New York. Earlier this past summer, I went to visit McCauley at Carlton’s beautiful brick Soho apartment, a few days after he moved in. We, along with his bandmate Ian O’Neill and as McCauley drank a non-alcoholic beer (which he pointed out to me), spoke at length about Africa, the new record, not being liked by Important Music Blogs, and what substance abuse does to you.
So, tell me about Africa.
JM: Man, uh, I got a mask over there.
Where did you get that mask?
JM: I got that mask at a market in the street in Swakopmund, Namibia. That was a really kind of crazy town. I went sky diving in Swakopmund. Africa, that was a fun trip—it was exactly what it is. I had all this shit—kind of undocumented and not put together so after my days were done over there, sightseeing, touristy shit, I’d hunker down the campsite or hotel or wherever I was, and I would get out my little travel guitar and tape recorder and try to make sense of all the stuff I was writing. There’s not much to distract you in the middle of the night in the middle of the desert. I liked that.
What kind of shit were you dealing with?
JM: I had all of my notebooks and everything and was just trying to sort stuff, because I knew we were going to the studio soon and I wasn’t sure how much I had there. I was putting scraps of paper together. I didn’t really do any writing there, but I was able to create songs and compile all my writing and turn them into songs.
How long were you in Africa?
JM: Three weeks. It was fun. Me and my friend Tim rented a 4x4 and made our own trip out of it. We drove ourselves everywhere. Driving on the left side of the road, shifting with your left hand… Tim was way better at it then I was. But, it was great. And then we missed our flight back, we got to hang around Johannesburg for a few days.
What did you do in Africa outside of organizing thoughts and skydiving?
JM: I was just trying to see some wildlife. We had geologists take us around and show us the land. We went into all these little towns and see how they lived. We roughed it some nights and other nights we would stay at resorts or whatever. Honestly, I can’t think of the fucking thing now.
Did you camp?
JM: Yeah, I did a little camping but staying at resorts and stuff ended up being like dirt cheap so those were really nice every now and then. Getting a massage on a deck of a hut in the middle of the Kalahari Desert—that’s some pretty badass shit. Their food is amazing. Springbok is like the best meat in the world.
What is Springbok? Should I know what that is?
JM: Little antelopes. They’re in the antelope family; they’re tiny.
Why did you go to Africa?
JM: I thought it would be an exciting way to travel because usually when I travel I have to be somewhere, for lack of a better word, for work.
Tour is probably a grind.
JM: It’s glamorous once in a while.
Ian O’Neill: It’s really fun. Sometimes too fun.
JM: I’ve never really gone on a vacation like that. And I couldn’t find any drugs worth doing there, so that was good. You know, I came back and I was drinking on that trip, for sure, but I definitely cleaned up my act since, not chugging on all that beer.
Are you drinking at all?
JM: A little bit. So much of what I accomplished was such a blur that I decided when I was over there that I wanted to change my attitude personally and with the band and assume the role of leader again, and take it more seriously. Make it something that will last longer. I think we all pulled it off with the new record and tightened everything up, but not come across ultra serious like, “We’re different now, this is the new Deer Tick.” We’re just making music with a little more thought.
Are you saying you didn’t make the last record without as much?
IO: No, we don’t want to put down the last record to promote the new one with some angle, but at the same time…
JM: It wasn’t very focused.
IO: It wasn’t very focused, but that’s almost what we wanted. It’s a really good snapshot of where we were at, especially because we were a hardcore touring band—not that we still aren’t, but the way it was recorded and they we played, its pretty visceral.
It’s very aggressive. I mean, there’s a song called “The Bump” on it.
JM: [Laughs.] Yeah, it tells you what its about. I mean as much as we can be that way, we can also be soft people. We’re not buffoons all the time. We’re not buffoons and we’re not assholes. We like to have fun and we like music, and with this new one, we wanted to be more focused.
Indie rock is super stale right now, in my opinion. How do you feel about that? How do you not be stale?
IO: I feel like we don’t have much of a problem with that because we do that naturally. John’s voice being a big part of that, but also, we’ve always had a natural inclination to hate on the indie rock scene even though there’s plenty of bands that I like, and plenty of friends in it, but I feel like we’ve always kind of operated on an outsider type of band in the scene, just based on whichever publications don’t like us. I feel like when we show up to a festival or something, we have a pretty solid crowd of people who are there who already know us. And I think not knowing what’s going on in those other scenes helps us avoid falling into any traps like that.
Yeah. It’s pretty obvious that like, Ian Cohen and Pitchfork don’t really like you.
JM: It’s cool, man. There are some small bloggers that don’t like us, but Pitchfork is really the only big one that doesn’t like us. I wouldn’t expect them to, honestly. I wouldn’t expect to share a beer with Ian Cohen. We’re just not the same kind of person I think.
Is your trip to Africa reflected in this record?
JM: It doesn’t really matter where in the world I went for those past couple of weeks as long as I could have my alone time to work. So is the continent of Africa important at all? Is it reflected on the record? I wouldn’t say so exactly, but my attitude about things changed on that trip. Maybe if I hadn’t had a trip like that I probably wouldn’t have been so put together for the recording process and maybe things would have turned out differently. I don’t feel like I’ve grown up. I just I feel like I’m better at placing my energy in the same sound.
So you haven’t grown up?
I can’t say, exactly. It’s just good to reign it in a little bit—the type of wild guy I’m capable of being. Otherwise, I was just partying my ass off. I still party at every show, but I would be dealing with my voice bugging out on me or not having the energy to put on a great performance. I realized that if I’ve created a character or something it’s a lot easier to do that thing, rather than hungover or on speed or whatever. I guess I just want to be around for awhile.
Was there a breaking point like a night or a moment?
I just needed the balls to do it in the first place, and then in June  was when I got fed up with everything. I burnt out my voice. We had a week of shows, and I had already burnt out of my voice, and after day one, I had a sinus infection, which probably from cocaine. I just felt like, “Man, now’s the time. I’ve got a couple of days so I’m gonna try these shows sober,” and it was miserable at first—
Performing or just living?
Well, luckily I didn’t have shows those few days, but living—I was just sweating and feeling nauseous and shaking and not sleeping, which sucked, but when I was out of that we had shows to play. We had four and I thought two of them were terrible and I thought two of them were great. I talked to Steve [Berlin, producer of Negativity], and he was like, “Do you like playing sober?” and I was like, “Well, I hated about half the shows that I did sober.” And he said, “Yeah I did sobriety for awhile in the nineties and I hated every show.”
But I took the stage every day at Newport this past weekend sober. I might have had a beer or two onstage, but I didn’t get drunk all weekend and every show was awesome. It’s definitely a different vibe for me playing sober, but it’s just learning how to do it, because at first I felt pressured to drink or take any number of substances. “This is who I am this is what I do.”
IO: It’s habit forming.
JM: It’s just breaking out of some of those old patterns. The music is definitely not suffering.
IO: No, we sound a lot better. We even woke up and went to rehearsal for several days.
JM: Yeah, we never rehearsed.
Do you feel pressure to get drunk and abuse substances on stage since you have that reputation?
JM: I’m sure many fans who wanna buy me a shot will be disappointed. I’ve realized that I’m really good at just pretending I don’t see anybody. So, if I see a shot coming to the stage—I act like didn’t see it. I mean, I think we still put on the same show. We’re just not making nearly as many mistakes musically. You get the visuals and you get a pretty decent soundtrack.
In the track-by-track breakdown of the album, you mentioned you were doing crack.
JM: Oh yeah, every once in a while.
That was unexpected.
JM: I didn’t have a crack habit. Every time I’ve done crack it’s been free, but I was really into smoking coke, which was kind of weird. I didn’t feel dirty or weird about it, you know, but every time I had people up in my house, when I was living in Nashville and I had this glass straw that I would use to do coke. With all the residue at the end of the bag, I would load it up and freebase it, and people would always look at me like I had six heads. But they were guests in my house so I could do whatever the fuck I want. That didn’t help me with keeping my voice intact or anything. That was a really good habit to break.
I’m glad you’re not smoking cocaine anymore.
JM: Yeah, it’s pretty gnarly.
I didn’t know that smoking cocaine is a thing. Is it a thing?
JM: Yeah, when you’re doing so much up your nose and you’ve gotta do lines six inches or a foot long.
What is the longest line of cocaine you’ve ever done?
JM: Probably like two feet. I used to have a friend in Atlanta, and I’d give him money and he’d take the bus and then he’d come back with all this coke for me and I would party by myself with it. It was really stupid. I just thought smoking it was smart and I didn’t have to do it as much and it would instantly get me high. And then it wouldn’t last as long but I would feel it and my heart would be racing. It was very dumb.
How do you feel now? I’ve had former alcoholics talk about feeling like they’ve been removed from a haze.
JM: Totally. It just clears up. I mean honestly, I haven’t even really tried to write at all. I’ve been way more interested in playing guitar and playing piano and just improving on my skills. I’m not comfortable with just resting on what I know and only that, you know? I’m trying to learn more about music. Our keyboard player, Rob, is a great guy to have in the band for that because he knows everything about classical and jazz and he could show me things that I would never think to do. It’s fun, I put a lot of energy, I fixed up my old pedal steel, and I’m trying to get back into that. But I don’t know about writing I haven’t tried it yet.
When is the last time that you did a line of coke, or drugs in general?
JM: [Pause.] A few weeks ago. It did everything I knew it was gonna do, including the bad parts. I was really frustrated the next day. It’s just something I don’t need anymore.
When did you meet Vanessa?
JM: We met before I went to Africa, literally the night before I flew to Namibia.
How did you guys meet?
JM: We met through Patrick from My Morning Jacket. I came over here [to her apartment] and went to some bar down there and had a glass of wine or whatever and talked about writing together.
You guys do have a track together on Negativity. Did you write that together?
JM: No, I wrote that separate and I didn’t even write it as a duet. She came up to visit me while we were recording and I thought it would be a good song. I didn’t even have to change the words or anything. I gave her that verse and it works perfect as a duet.
How’s the relationship?
JM: It’s great man. She definitely keeps me in line. She doesn’t have to do much. It’s mostly myself keeping myself in line because I don’t wanna upset anybody. But she helps me out a lot. She gives me so much support and so much advice for kind of getting over my dependency on alcohol and my urge to do drugs all day long. She’s been a wonderful welcoming influence on my life.
Eric Sundermann is an editor for Noisey. He's on Twitter — @ericsundy
Jess Lehrman is a freelance photographer. She's on Twitter — @Jessierocks