When John McCauley first sat down to watch his life depicted on screen, he didn’t particularly enjoy it. “Deeply uncomfortable” is how the singer-songwriter describes the experience of watching Straight Into a Storm, a new documentary about Deer Tick, the band he has fronted since 2004. “I don’t go online and watch Deer Tick YouTube videos,” he says, “and now I guess I believe it whenever an actor will say that they don’t watch their own movies.”
Directed by William Miller, the nearly two-hour Straight Into a Storm, which opened in New York on June 15th and has screenings scheduled in various U.S. cities, offers a loosely chronological account of the rootsy Providence rockers’ first decade. The film tackles Deer Tick’s various personnel changes and long history of substance abuse, weaving together archival footage and band interviews with concert footage from their series of celebratory 10th-anniversary shows at New York’s Brooklyn Bowl in 2014.
Miller’s initial idea was simply to shoot those gigs for a straightforward concert film. The band’s response was positive. “We were like, ‘Cool, that sounds famous,'” McCauley says. But after spending time with the musicians and their longtime fans and friends, the documentarian soon realized he needed to tell a larger story. At that point, Deer Tick gave Miller license to tell the band’s complete saga.
“I was like, ‘Oh, boy, here we go …,'” McCauley says of his reaction when he realized the type of film Miller aimed to make. “It was a long process, but he pulled it together.”
“I eventually had the idea that these anniversary shows could just be an anchor, where I let the songs tell the story of 10 years of a band,” says Miller. “The film ended up becoming much more linear than I originally thought it would. The story kind of just happened.”
Miller tracked down hours of old fan-shot footage, including film that had been shot for a previously attempted Deer Tick doc. His original cut of the movie ran to three-and-a-half hours.
For Deer Tick fans, Straight Into a Storm is full of musical revelations, including the surprising inspiration behind beloved songs like “Twenty Miles” and “Smith Hill.” McCauley wrote the former, it turns out, after a very brief interaction with a girl on an early tour. (“Dude, we hung out with this girl for fucking four minutes – Jesus fucking Christ, give us a break!” says early bandmate Diego Perez in the film, recalling the band’s reaction to McCauley writing the song.) McCauley based “Smith Hill,” meanwhile, on an old-age apartment complex in in Providence.
Straight Into a Storm depicts a group guided by McCauley’s endless musical ambition, and one that has dramatically matured both musically and personally during their first decade. Miller’s film strips away the romanticism from the fun-loving, hard-partying image Deer Tick acquired early in its career, shining a light on McCauley’s struggles with cocaine.
“We do all this shit without being rock stars,” McCauley says of his group’s partying midway through the film. “So if there ever comes a day when we are rock stars, I can’t even imagine the fucked up shit we’re gonna do.”
“It was just drugs, drugs, drugs, and I wasn’t writing a lot,” McCauley says at another point in the doc of the substance-addled sessions for 2013’s Negativity. But the film eventually concludes during a very different period in his life, on the eve of the him becoming a first-time father with his wife, singer Vanessa Carlton, circa 2014.
“I wanted to show the world that they’re not just this party-anthem band,” says Miller.
Watching the first 10 years of his band captured on film caused McCauley to reflect on the future prospects of his group, which will be touring through the rest of 2018.
“It flew by, and it’s kind of scary thinking about our career in 10-year increments, because that’s probably like 25 percent of the lifespan of a band,” says the singer. “I want the rest of my life to be really fun and interested and I want to learn new things and I don’t really want to waste any more time doing anything that isn’t working for me. Deer Tick feels that way too. We’ve become more selective with the shows that we play and for how long that we’ll tour for.”
But McCauley says the band is as active as ever, with several new possible projects in the works. The group is currently putting the finishing touches on an upcoming compilation album of outtakes and covers, and they are currently in talks to possibly score a feature film project.
Apart from the documentary, which McCauley and the band did not have any role in producing, the 32-year-old singer emphasizes that he’s nowhere near being ready to enter the retrospective phase of his band – or his life.
“I don’t feel like I’m at a place in my life where I’m ready to tell my own life story,” says McCauley. “I’m going to wait until I’m old and have a lot of spare time.”