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Deer Tick's calming clarity

Frontman John McCauley looks ahead, leaves drugs behind

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John McCauley needed a break. He needed time off -- from music for his sanity, and from drugs for his own well-being. It had all gotten to be too much of a routine. It was a few years ago that McCauley met his future wife, fellow musician Vanessa Carlton, and his record label owner suggested taking a vacation of sorts.

"He told me I needed to go somewhere that I couldn't get cocaine. Believe me, I tried," McCauley says. "I did bring a sheet of acid with me though, which was pretty fun out in the middle of the desert. I actually found some people in Swakopmund who had never even heard of acid before and they were asking me if it was like marijuana. It's not. We ended up staying up all night and having a great time. It was a fun trip — no pun intended."

His first trip to Africa offered McCauley a sense of clarity. He hasn't become a teetotaler since then, but he has cut drugs out of his life. He's also become a husband to Carlton and a father — their daughter is 14-months old — and he's antsy to get back on the road as a performing musician. Deer Tick's spring acoustic tour will stop by the Neighborhood Theatre on March 9. It's a good way for the band to get back on the road with new energy.

"We haven't really been on tour in two years," McCauley says. "We don't have a new record, so we thought it's a good way to go out and play and change things up from what people are used to, and from what we'd gotten used to ourselves. We did a run of a couple acoustic shows maybe two years ago and they went off pretty well. This seems like a good time to go say hello."

And, let's be honest, when you're used to hitting the road and abusing substances along the way, it's probably not a great idea to jump back in with both feet. Instead, the band is doing an acoustic run to try things out, bring the band closer together and focus solely on the music they've created.

McCauley says Deer Tick — known for making set lists on the fly — will perform these shows more like a play, where it's the same setlist each night. "It's very unlike us, which is just one more reason for us to try it, in our mind," McCauley says.

The alt-rock quintet plans on playing songs from their entire catalog and some new material — music that hasn't gotten a whole lot of exposure, he says. The band, which formed in Rhode Island, has released five studio albums for Partisan Records with music that fuses rock with country, folk and blues.

The acoustic format should be a good fit for the band's alt-country roots. McCauley writes songs on both acoustic and electric — "whatever's within arm's reach" — so the format isn't altogether foreign.

Deer Tick is usually looking for ways to keep things exciting. They've played a handful of Nirvana cover shows as Deervana, they've curated after-parties at the Newport Folk Festival. McCauley, who also has side projects called Middle Brother and Diamond Rugs, says all of the different outlets are a way for him to not get bored.

"That's the worst feeling in the world — you're on stage and playing and you're bored," he says. "It makes you want to quit. I don't want to quit. This is what I've always wanted to do. I can't even go back to my old job because projectionists don't exist anymore."

When working on his other projects, McCauley says the songwriting is usually spontaneous. He doesn't write a song and worry which band it might fit best with. He's also started to do some collaboration with his wife — she appeared on the Deer Tick song "In Our Time" on the band's 2013 album, Negativity.

"I'm sure we'll be doing some more stuff together," he says. "It's bound to happen. I was playing with her a bit on her recent tour."

It's been a slow re-entry for McCauley, who took time off to not get burned out but has also been able to spend the last year with his daughter. There's no doubt she's also inspired him to stay clear of drugs and continue toward a deeper clarity in his life.

"Whether I had a child or not, we probably would have taken a break," McCauley says, noting that the drugs were starting to affect his voice, as well. "We had so much momentum but we were just getting bored. We needed to take a step back and [I had to say], 'I'll call you guys when I'm ready.' It worked out really well. This is the best time of my life and I'm so glad I've gotten to [spend time with my daughter.] Everyone is excited to get back on the road, and that's getting us excited to talk about making a new record."

The acoustic tour will give Deer Tick a chance to show a more vulnerable side and hit the stage with the bare minimum of equipment. It won't be the crazy rock show they were used to putting on. When Deer Tick opened for Neko Case at the Knight Theater in 2009, they thought it was awkward that everyone was seated. This time around, they'll be expecting people to be paying more attention.

McCauley will also be consuming far less alcohol and drugs on tour. While he still likes to get drunk, he says it got to the point where he was drinking a case instead of a 12-pack to get drunk; and that turned into a liter of vodka a day. "I was totally functioning," McCauley says. "Like it was weirdly normal [to drink that much]. For me to get back to that place would require so much work. I wouldn't even have the patience for it."

It wasn't the booze that was making the band cancel shows though, it was the drugs. He knows his wife is big part of the reason he was able to change the path he was on. "I think I was lucky that I met Vanessa when I did, I probably would have..." McCauley's voice trails off. "I don't know. I think something could have happened that would have had fatal consequences for me."

So, how has the semi-sobriety affected everything, including his approach to music?

"It's funny, when you stop with all the bullshit in your life, you turn into the person you used to be before you started drinking and doing drugs," McCauley says. "Now, I notice my symptoms of depression and it's not always the most comfortable way to be, but I'm definitely more in tune with who I am. I'm not trying to parade around as a drunken character anymore. I'm not concerned with my image or really anything besides my songs."

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