Things used to be wild, but it’s been an understandably quiet year and a half for the Providence-founded band Deer Tick. Members, including singer-songwriter John J. McCauley, guitarist Ian O’Neil, bassist Christopher Ryan and drummer Dennis Ryan have used the lockdown period to practice their skills as musicians, work on new music and find comfort from the chaos by performing just for themselves. The group is preparing to go on tour this fall with Delta Spirit, and they are giving locals a few opportunities to see them live with sold-out shows at the Ocean Mist on July 16 and 17 and a performance at the Newport Folk Festival on July 28. If you missed the chance to nab tickets, you can still snag a copy of their latest, limited edition live album, Live From Fort Adams, which is a recording from last year’s performance at the virtual Newport Folk Festival, or listen to their newly released song, “If She Could Only See Me Now.” Here’s an interview covering everything they have happening right now and into the fall.
Jamie: Now that we’re seeing the light at the end of the tunnel with the pandemic, how does it feel to prepare to go on tour again?
John: I have really grown used to staying home. I’ve really missed playing shows, but I don’t miss traveling the other twenty-two hours a day.
J: So you really felt at home on lockdown?
John: Yea. I really appreciated the isolation in a way. I feel like my relationships with my family have gotten stronger, as well as with some of the friends I was able to make in a really weird year. I ended up living in upstate New York throughout most of the pandemic so my [six-year-old] daughter could go to school in person up there at this big rural school where they have 100 acres for the kids to do most of their learning outdoors.
J: What was the connection to upstate New York? Family?
John: My wife went to that school when she was a kid. She grew up in the area. We left Nashville, and moved back to Rhode Island now.
J: Are all of you in Rhode Island now?
J: During lockdown, did you use that period as a source of inspiration for music or was the world just too overwhelming at the time?
John: I found it completely uninspiring to be honest. But I practiced a lot. I feel like I am a much better musician now because of it.
J: So you used that time to focus on your basis and get better?
John: I would say I was able to be very productive without producing anything if that makes sense.
Chris: For me, it wasn’t like I have all this time so I can finally practice. It was more like what can I do to survive the day. Oh, I can practice.
Ian: I actually wrote a lot of music, but I didn’t practice a lot, so I have to start doing that very soon. I will agree with Chris in that it was so overwhelming, and being around your two children every single day makes it hard to find the time to set aside for something when there are such heavier subjects at hand, not just the pandemic, but the entire year itself and the election. There was a lot going on. I found some small corners of time to try to be creative but I definitely was more creative before the pandemic.
J: But Ian, you used some of the time to be creative and focus on art, right? Did some of you also use it as an outlet to take on other interests too?
Dennis: Kind of. I had been working on recording at my house, but I had never had any time to sit and figure out what worked in my basement, so I did a lot of practicing drums, but also recording and setting up mics, and I feel like I learned a lot about that this year that I wouldn’t have been able to explore otherwise.
J: Well it seems like it was an escape for all of you, whether it was to focus on your songwriting, or to work on your talents even more to become better musicians and have that sense of comfort.
I know Rhode Island is very excited that you have this show at the Ocean Mist coming up that sold out in what two minutes? And the Folk Fest, too. Are there any surprises in store for those performances, or can you reveal anything that people in Rhode Island would be interested to know?
John: Honestly we’re still coming up with ideas. It’s been a really long time since we’ve been together in a room playing music.
Chris: We still have two weeks to figure it out.
J: Well that’s how you keep it a secret. You do it at the last minute!
Dennis: You keep it a secret from yourself too.
John: We’ll get together for our first rehearsal or jam session next week. We did an outdoor show in December, and before that, an outdoor show last August, and those were the last two shows we played together.
J: So that show in August was the Folk Fest, right?
Ian: It will be hard to tell what we are most excited to do until we’re all in the same room, in terms of songs. We do have a lot of new songs, so we’ll probably dip into some of those.
John: The period leading right into lockdown was an incredibly productive, creative period for us. We were down in Nashville in the studio we had there, and we were working on some demos and writing a lot. I was writing more than I had in years. I was feeling really good, and then, oh shit, there’s this crazy virus going around and all of our concerts are being canceled, and I think you guys gotta leave and go back to Rhode Island. That was that. And then we were like maybe we’ll get together next month or something. This will be over soon.
J: That’s what we all thought. And then a year and a half later, we are finally coming to some normalcy. I saw all the excitement on social media about you performing again. I know you released a couple of new things. A new song, “If She Could Only See Me Now.” I was trying to analyze that, and does it relate to who you were back in the band’s beginnings versus who you are now? Is there any insight you can share on that song?
John: Yea it is about stuff like that. I think it’s about completely losing touch with your first true love or something like that for whatever reason, and it’s about self-improvement in a way, but it’s also about how flimsy relationships can be and how they are always changing for better or worse.
J: But you always take a part of that with you as you grow too. I could see that. You are a completely different man than you were ten years ago, right?
John: I feel like an improved version of myself from when we started at least.
J: From those crazy misfit days, have you come a long way?
John: We’re still a couple of oddballs.
John: Two oddballs. Two goofballs.
J: Are you going to be climbing out of hotel room windows on this tour or what? Or are you taming it down a bit?
John: All of that off-stage, behind-the-scenes chaos, I think we kind of let that go years ago.
Dennis: It’s coming back around.
Chris: Hotel room windows don’t really open anymore…
Ian: It’s the Roaring Twenties, isn’t it?
J: What’s going to make this tour different from past tours? Do you bring your family with you and kids?
John: Sometimes for a visit. But to actually bring any of your family with you on the bus or whatever, I don’t think that would be a good idea for anybody.
J: So you’ll all be on the bus together traveling that way, staying in occasional hotel rooms, or?
Ian: In a hotel parking lot, sometimes. And then sleep on the bus.
John: We rent a room for the driver, which is standard. And then we’ll rent one for ourselves, so everyone in the band and on the crew can use the shower and stuff. But our beds are on the bus.
Ian: As far as bringing family on tour, we have some friends who do that. But it would be a matter of tiptoeing around where you are supposed to be living and feeling very comfortable. We started touring on a bus because we wanted to maintain a comfort level that wouldn’t make us do crazy shit on tour. It would give us a sense of stability, having kids and marriages and stuff like that. Maybe unconsciously at one point in time, we decided to keep our touring life and home life separate. I definitely want to get my kids on the bus so they can run around while it is parked somewhere though.
John: Oh yea. The kids love running around on the bus.
J: It must be a cool experience and it creates memories for them too. I wanted to get into the album release of the Live from Fort Adams Newport Folk Festival performance. You just announced you were releasing that as a special album. What significance does this hold for you?
Dennis; Well as you said, it was a crazy year, so it was a nice document to keep the recollection up front in our memories. A permanent documentation of a very strange point in time, just to keep it fresh forever.
Chris: It was a really fun opportunity because I can’t think of another circumstance where we would get to do something like that, just play in the parade grounds in a fort and record it with no audience. Like why would we ever do that? But it was really cool to do.
John: It takes a large part of a typical live album out of it, which is the audience.
J: But you had a small audience right, like family and friends?
Chris: Mostly just the crew.
Dennis: My mom was there. She gave me a ride.
J: That’s awesome. Your mom gave you a ride. Hah!
Ian: Even if people were there they had to be escorted way far away because of the drone shots for the video. It probably sounded horrible to them.
John: We were happy with the recording of it. It had to be as professionally recorded as possible for the live-stream. So we figured we would do something with it, instead of throwing it in the vault.
J: It will go down in history. And it comes in different vinyl designs. Those are really cool, there’s a coke bottle finish and a gold and clear swirl? And there’s only a limited amount available, so it could be sold out by the time this comes out, right?
John: Yea, but it will be available digitally, which is good. It’s also a good vehicle to get one new song out there. We’ll be going back into the studio sometime this winter, and we have plans to release a new album sometime next year. This is just a little, tiny something to indicate what the future might hold for us.
J: That’s exciting. You do still have a studio in Nashville right?
John: We did. We moved out and now we’re temporarily in a factory in Providence, and we start building our studio in September in Warwick.
J: So you are going to stay in Providence, John? That’s good so you will all be in close quarters, so this is going to be a good time for creativity for all the fans out there to have you all in one place.
Ian: We can have somewhat of a day job.
John: We might have some more stuff coming out this year. I already kind of spilled the beans on a podcast I did. We went back to all the old master tapes from Divine Providence and found everything we could in there that was unreleased or sonically obscured and did a full top-to-bottom remix, and found some unreleased material. Hopefully we can get out a deluxe package of that released sometime later this year.
Chris: Ten-year anniversary, director’s cut.
J: How was preparing for this tour different from tours in the past?
J: I just think we have to stay a little disciplined and not burn ourselves out in the first week. I am really chomping at the bit to play. I am not excited about the traveling as I said, but just to be there on stage for a couple of hours every night, that’s something I love that’s irreplaceable. I don’t want to burn out too quickly. We have to practice our stamina for such things.
Ian: Yea we have a tendency to hang out after we are in the studio rehearsing, so we need to realize we’re going to be hanging out a lot more than we have in the past year, so we can take it a bit easier and just get as much sleep as possible so we can have a big year.
John: Sounds boring right?
J: You’re going to be gone for a long time. September, October, November.
John: September we’re out every weekend. Our first show with Delta Spirit is Halloween. That’s always a big night. Yea, we got to be good for that one. Halloween is always an important show for Deer Tick. And traditionally, the first show of the tour is always the most hungover because we all get to the first city the night before, and we’re all excited to see each other. Let’s go out and get some drinks and then, you know.
J: For better or worse. Maybe you’ll ride it out and be more creative on stage. Who knows.
Dennis: The show always happens.
Ian: I was talking to a friend about this the other day. You might feel bad during the day, but no matter what, if you’re playing a show later, you will feel much better afterwards. It’s always a huge endorphin rush and it solves a lot of problems.
J: It sounds like you are going to be excited for the first one and try to keep that stamina going for the rest of the ride.
John: I am glad we are starting slowly with scattered shows here and there before it really picks up. I think we need to ease back into it.
J: And enjoy the cities while you are there, too, now that we can be out and about exploring more. Hopefully you get to see a lot.
Ian: Probably still stick to a lot of outdoor spaces.
J: I think it’s still daunting for a lot of people to be enclosed, so that’s good.
John: I am just hoping this Delta variant doesn’t fuck things up too badly. I have been so ready to go back into a restaurant, back into a barroom, back into a grocery store. I have no fear about it. I got my vaccine.
J: Life restarted like an inferno. It went from nothing to all of sudden every day there is something. It’s fun, but I can see how you would feel about being cautious because we never know what’s around the corner.
Ian: I just got home from seeing a friend in Texas, and now I just want to stay in my house for a week.
J: It’s like a withdrawal period. You go hard, and then you just need to go back to that comfort of lockdown. We’re always distracted by so many things in life that it was nice to be home.
John: I have learned to enjoy my house a lot more, or wherever I am living. It was an added bonus from staying home so long.
J: It was a good thing for many people, just to reconnect with family and friends, and the people who are important to you. Being able to focus on what you truly love was nice. For you, it was music, family and friends, and probably some art in there. What else are you guys into other than just music?
Dennis: Not a lot [laughs]. Pretty much just music.
Ian: Chris and John study different languages.
Chris: John is. I don’t know if Duolingo counts for me.
J: What languages?
John: Chris and I are both on Duolingo. Chris is working on his Espanol. I have been studying Japanese since I was a teenager. I started learning a little bit of Czech and I just started trying to learn a little bit of Chinese and that is a little over my head right now. I like learning languages and I like cooking, so those are my other things.
J: And did you want to learn those languages because you want to travel to Asia or just to know it?
John: I started learning Czech after we went to Prague for the first time on tour, and I just fell in love with the city. And Japanese, I started studying as a teeneger, because at the time, my dream was to move to Tokyo and get a job writing music for video games. That was my dream. So if anyone reading this interview makes video games and needs some music, come find me.
J: Wow. Video games. Back to the Ocean Mist concerts in July. So was that a secret surprise for local fans? What made you want to do the shows for Rhode Island before going on tour? It’s two shows right?
John: That’s been a summer tradition that we tacked on to the Newport Folk thing that we would do every year.
Chris: We started doing it a few years ago because we thought we needed to play there before it fell into the ocean. But it hasn’t fallen into the ocean yet, so we keep playing there.
J: Not yet. It’s 2021. It could get wild. We don’t know.
Ian: Those shows when we get off stage we are always soaking wet and the audience is always fantastic. It’s one of the only places in Rhode Island besides the Blues Cafe where we can play a dive bar, and it’s a fun thing we don’t get to do that often for hometown crowds anymore. I think we just like being down there too. It’s like a day vacation for us.
J: I know a tradition after the Folk Fest was always your after parties at the Blues Cafe, but you said you were discontinuing that. Is that still the case?
John: Our plan was to do the final ones last summer, but of course, the Fest didn’t happen, and this summer, everything came together in the last minute for Folk Fest. We weren’t really sure it was happening, or if we’d be playing. We were getting so many mixed signals that we decided to hold off on doing the after parties this year, and wait until next year when everything is 100 percent back to normal so we can really go out with a bang. Unfortunately, things on our end came together too late to do the after parties this year.
J: Unless you can pull off a surprise, we’ll see. Not so much? I know it’s enclosed in there and it gets really crowded, so that’s a tough thing.
Ian: You want to feel really comfortable, especially if it’s going to be a finale.
John: I don’t want anyone in there nervous for any reason.
J: That’s awesome that you’re saying it’s not the end of it, but there is something to look forward to once we turn the corner and feel much more safe. That’s really considerate too.
When you’re in Providence, pre- and post-pandemic, where are your favorite hangs? I know Nolan’s is a good spot you love, but what other local businesses are you excited to get back to?
John: The Old Canteen. I got a date night with my wife coming up, so I am very excited. I love that place.
J: Joe Marzilli’s. That’s an iconic Rhode Island institution.
Ian: I am hoping someone brings back the E and O at some point because it’s sad right now. But me and my wife are excited to go to so many different restaurants. We’ll probably get to Nicks as soon as possible. We ate their takeout a lot during the pandemic.
Chris: I like Chilangos a lot, which is right around the corner from me. I ate there a lot before the pandemic so it will be fun to go in there again if this ever ends.
J: You know my primary role at Rhode Island Monthly is a food writer and editor, too. I cover all topics, but that’s my forte.
Chris: So we should be asking you where to go.
J: You gotta go to Bayberry Garden. It’s fantastic and a whole different world in there. They planted trees and vines in there that will climb up the inside of the building.
Ian: Excuse me. I need to turn my baby monitor off.
Chris: That’s one way to silence a baby [laughs].
J: No worries. I can’t hear it. I asked about you planning new music. Will that be after you get back from the tour or are you starting now to plan a new album?
Ian: We are starting some conversations with people. We have ten or eleven of what we think are really good songs that need fleshing out, or second considerations on them, but we’ll probably write a bunch more as we spend more time together. Nowadays, we write in the same room together, which is really fun, so we are looking forward to doing that. We started conversations with some producers, but I don’t want to name anybody because we don’t have any final plans yet. We’ll probably pull the trigger on getting into a real studio after the Delta Spirit tour.
J: Do you write while you’re on tour, too, or is it too chaotic?
Chris: There’s not much time. The show is the important thing.
John: Once in awhile a new song will pop up on the road and we’ll try to play it at soundcheck. We’re at our most productive when the four of us are in a room. I used to be able to write a lot easier just by myself, but now I feel like that creativity comes to me a lot easier when I am with my guys.
Ian: Thanks John.
John: Between the four of us, we have a few hundred half-baked ideas for songs and at least enough complete ones to make an album. We want to get a few more done so we have a bigger pool of candidates for the next album.
J: It’s going to be a good time to get back out there, if all goes well. The fans are eager to see you guys and to celebrate again. I hope to see you perform at some point too.