“There were nice chill vibes,” says Deer Tick frontman John McCauley of the group’s recent appearance at Newport’s Folk On festival. The Providence rock-and-roll heroes have been performing there since their inception, and have always found their way back to give their home state a reminder of the raw, unabashed sound its rocky beaches helped shape. 

The band has accomplished a lot over the last decade and as such, a lot has changed for them. These men known for whiskey-soaked ballads and howling arrangements have experienced success, they’ve started families and, like the rest of us, they went through a pandemic. 

Just days after they closed Folk On, Newport Folk Festival’s twice as long and half-capacity affair at Fort Adams, and shortly after the release of their newest album Live From Fort Adams, which was recorded on the very same field where the festival would have taken place in 2020, the band members (singer-songwriter John McCauley, guitarist Ian O’Neil, bassist Chris Ryan and drummer Dennis Ryan) called in for a phone interview all from different locations across New England.

You guys were the final act of this year’s Folk On festival. How did you enjoy it this year?

John McCauley: It was a little different. I think you could feel some people’s anxiety a little bit. I think it was a lot chiller because there were almost half the amount of people there at any given time. So there were nice chill vibes. 

It didn’t feel bad and it didn’t feel empty. It was still a good amount of people but it seemed more intimate.

Did you guys have any reunions at Newport or anywhere else along the lines of people you haven’t seen in a while that you’ve been missing over this last year?

Chris Ryan: Oh, yeah. Every single person. Every person except these three other guys.

JM: Yeah, it was nice to get to play with Middle Brother. It’s been five years since we played together last.

Did you meet them or start playing together as Middle Brother at Folk Fest back in the day? What’s the story behind that?

JM: Back when Dawes had just put out their first record, they came on tour with us; we had the same booking agency. And Taylor [Goldsmith] and I, we just decided to try to make a record together. Then as that progressed, it was Taylor’s idea to call Matt Vasquez and see if he wanted in on it.

Amazing how things come together like that. I was reading in that back in the day in 2012, you guys performed War Elephant in its entirety for Newport. So almost 10 years later, to what extent did your performances feel both similar and different?

CR: I don’t recall doing that. [Laughs] I think we did that at an after party. I think those two things get conflated sometimes. But even so, every time that we’re lucky enough to play the Folk Fest proper, our sets are pretty drastically different. And they have their own thing to them. One year, we did the main stage and wore a bunch of white tuxedos. It was kind of surrounding our album Negativity and kind of had a focus on that.

I don’t know about you guys but this time there was just like a pure feeling of joy and elation. And we kind of wanted to give a nice smorgasbord of our whole career and did a really good job with that.

JM: Yeah, it just kind of tags all the bases. I wanted our set to be lean and mean for Newport this year, and I think we achieved that. We had a few guests come up and sing towards the end, but I felt like after being away for so long, I just kind of wanted to be Deer Tick as Deer Tick.

I think fans felt that. You brought up a couple people for Too Sensitive For This Worldat the end: Courtney Marie Andrews, S.G. Goodman, Katie Pruitt, Langhorne Slim. What’s the process for putting on a set like that?

JM: Well, we put Courtney in charge of that because when we started playing that song live, she was out on tour with us. She would come up with some of her bandmates and play that or sing it with us. So I was surprised as anybody else to see who else she had roped into it.

One of my favorite things about Folk Fest is the elements of surprise. So it’s cool to hear even the artists get a taste of that.

JM: Yeah, she’s someone you can really trust with that.

Folk On 2021: photo by Dean Budnick

For years you’ve closed out the festival weekend at Blues Cafe for years but  announced that you weren’t doing that again in 2021. Do you think you’ll do it again?

JM: Well, global pandemics usually fuck up your plans. Last year would have been the 10th year of us doing our after-parties, and we thought, ten is a nice round number. We’d like to do it one last time and then kind of pass the torch. Let somebody else have a chance at curating these parties. 

CR: Somebody younger and cooler than us. 

I know the Blues Cafe does a lot of good work with the Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation.

CR: Yeah, that’s going to be something that we would insist on continuing.

Do you have a band or artist in mind that you could see sort of taking up the helm in that tradition? 

JM: I have no idea. I mean, I don’t know if there’s anybody out there that would really want to commit to that. Or if it’s just something that maybe the Folk Fest wants to oversee.

CR: Yeah, for us as four individuals, I think one of the reasons why we kind of decided to pass the torch is that it’s a really demanding thing to do. The whole weekend of learning all these songs for people to come up because we want to do a really good job. We put a lot of work and a lot of rehearsal into it. So it’s not an easy ask of any other single artists to organize that and take that stress upon their shoulders. 

But hey, its for a very good cause and you guys have left a sizable and impactful legacy. So hopefully, someone does actually come up and do that.

JM: That’s what we’re hoping and we have one more year to think about it. Since it will be our 10th year—our after-parties got messed up last year, and then this year—I would like to arrange a time and do one big final blowout. If you do something proper for so long you’ve got to do a blowout and send it out. So that’s what we want for next year. This will be our tenth and final—though we missed two years there—but we’ve gotta go out with a bang.

Your new album Live from Fort Adams, was recorded on August 1, 2020.

I feel like it really captured the weird time that was happening while it was recorded. Was that your intention going into it? 

JM: Well, the intention of recording it and all that was just because, for the [Folk Fest 2020] livestream, we had to get the best audio possible on short notice and kind of do it ourselves. So it seemed like something that should come out in one way or another. I didn’t think it was just something we should put away in the vault for good.

It does capture the weirdness of that time. I mean, there’s a part, I forget which song it’s in between, but I comment that you can hear a pin drop, which for a live record is very strange. You can hear bird noises in the background. That’s weird—it takes like the most, or maybe one of the most important elements of the live record and it’s just ripped out of there completely, which is the audience.

Without having the crowd, it gives you a feeling like it’s a live show that’s just for one person.

CR: That’s a cool way to look at it.

On one hand you have these songs that people have had connections to for years, and on the other hand, you’re listening to a recording of them during a completely unprecedented time.

JM: Yeah, I think you kind of feel the tension in it a little bit. And us, too. I mean, that was kind of like, big pandemic shit. We weren’t even sure how close we should get to each other. We were outside and stuff but we hadn’t played a single note of music together in months and months at that point. So it’s a completely unrehearsed concert, to nobody, in the middle of a global crisis, and you can kind of feel that tension on there.

Not only could you feel that tension, but also given the style of music that you play, as you were playing it, relieved that tension. At least, that’s the way that I heard it.

JM: Yeah, definitely eases up a little bit more towards the end. By the end I’m like, “Now I feel a bit better.”

While I was listening to “The Rock” on the live album, it gave me this feeling about the development of the band. The way you played it really held true to that core rock-and-roll sound that shined on its original release, but also has that soulful flow that so many of your other songs do. As the years have gone by have you felt that balance change at all?

JM: I mean, for me, personally, I feel like I’m just an eternal student of rock-and-roll, especially with this kind of music in general. I mean, I grew up listening to ‘50s and ‘60s rock-and-roll for the most part. And no one’s really doing that anymore. It’s not like that’s what we do, but it’s a very strong influence on me. And, of course, folk music and stuff as I’m getting older and experiencing more of the world, and taking in folk music from different cultures. It all affects our music one way or another.

But my songwriting process, if you want to call it that, really hasn’t changed much over the years. I just kind of sit around and wait for an idea to pop into my head. I don’t go out and wait to write something drastically different or write a song that sounds like this or whatever. They just come and go, and hopefully, I’m there to write them down.

CR: I’ve noticed by virtue of having to do so many radio performances with John over the years, all of our songs can be performed quietly or loudly. We’ve definitely performed some of our most folky songs extremely loudly, and some of our loudest songs in very intimate settings. So, to me, they all kind of come from the same source, which is generally John and sometimes me and Dennis, and they all ended up sounding the way they do because of the four of us together. So they’re adaptable.

You’re going on tour in the fall. Are you looking forward to any dates in particular?

JM: We’re just so excited to have the chance to go back out and tour. We’re already kind of thinking about that.

Ian O’Neil: And trying to come up with Halloween costumes.

JM: We’ll be out with Delta Spirit, good friends of ours, and we’re already talking with them about how we can collaborate. Normally, I don’t think we would give it much thought until maybe a couple of weeks beforehand, but I think we haven’t done it in so long, it has certainly been occupying a lot of space in my brain. I’ve was thinking about it right now. I hope everything’s nice and peachy, and we’re ready to go out but I’m trying not to get my hopes up, I’m definitely looking forward to this opportunity if it’s still available in November.

You guys are going through some recordings on Divine Providence for a project. What’s it like revisiting recordings from 10 years ago, and reworking them?

JM: I want to hear from Dennis, because Dennis is the most accomplished audio engineer in the group.

Dennis Ryan I thought it was fantastic. It was sort of the darling of the memories from 10 years ago. You kind of get this picture in your head of what things were and how they were performed and whatnot. And then when we really opened them back up without the extra layer of mixing that we had applied to them and just kind of heard the raw tracks, it was very nice to hear certain things. We can often be hard on ourselves about certain things, like, “That wasn’t good enough, this wasn’t good enough.”

But hearing it with 10 years of space in between was like, “Man, that was awesome.” We can hear some youthful exuberance. It was refreshing. And it gave me a whole new perspective on this set of songs. I don’t necessarily sit around and listen to our records very often. But I had a feeling in my head of what that record was, and it was actually a lot different than I remember it. It was very nice. It was reassuring.