Tuyet Nguyen on Her New Book and Riding in a Van With Deer Tick
The author and members of Deer Tick.
When Tuyet Nguyen left a full-time editing job a few years ago, she jumped in the back of a van as a roadie for Deer Tick, a Rhode Island rock group. While her job was to sell merchandise at each stop on the tour, Nguyen also found herself documenting the experience through detailed notes, photographs and essays. This collected information became a book titled Nothing Without Providence: A Road Story Mostly About Deer Tick.
Though Deer Tick isn’t from Colorado, Nguyen is — and she wanted to celebrate the release of her first book with the tight-knit local music community she's been a part of for so long. Her old friends at the hi-dive will host a concert this Friday, May 22 — aptly titled A Show Mostly About Deer Tick — which has a lineup that was assembled by Nguyen and includes Nathaniel Rateliff, Southern rocker Robert Ellis and Happiness (a side project featuring three-fourths of Deer Tick). There might be a special guest band making a surprise appearance (hint: The group is the topic of the book being released), but Nguyen is making no guarantees.) In advance of the book release and show, Nguyen, a former Westword contributor, talked with us about how the book came to be and what it's like to spend long days in a van with a bunch of dudes.
Westword: How did your experience as Deer Tick's merch person and then tour manager become a full-fledged book?
Tuyet Nguyen: When I started working for Deer Tick, it was not long after I quit the Onion. I had left the AV Club and spent a summer kind of just floating around. But I was still in this writing mode; as a journalist, you're always kind of taking notes and making observations, even when you're just hanging out with friends or seeing a show or having dinner with your family [laughs]. As a writer, you kind of never stop. So even though I was working with a band, I still kept a journal and notes and was taking a lot of photos. I think it was kind of weird for them at first, but then they all kind of got used to it.
As I was folded into Deer Tick's world, it sort of just became a natural thing — this thing of me just taking notes and hanging out. This past December, the band celebrated their ten-year anniversary at the Brooklyn Bowl in Brooklyn. I thought it would be a nice thing to do to collect the stories and photos I had gathered over the last two years and put them in a book for them. It began as a scrapbook and a gift for the band, but after putting it together, it grew from there. After showing it to the band at the anniversary show, they really liked it, and so did their management, and we had a discussion about what to with it. Deer Tick felt their fans would be interested in this behind-the-scenes, road-stories peek into the world of touring — which is both exciting and boring. If you're a fan of the band and you want to see actual photos of us at gas stations or the various stops that we make, it's great.
That's how the book came about. After we talked about it becoming a book, it all moved very quickly. The band wanted to sell it as a merch item, which I thought was great — but I wanted to do a party for it in Denver. I wanted to have some ownership of it and create a show around it in my home town.
So the book release and show being put on here in Denver is your doing?
Yeah. The show was something that actually came together really easily; the lineup is musicians who are mentioned in the book. Happiness is Deer Tick's side project, Nathaniel Rateliff is playing, and he's mentioned very briefly in the book, as is Robert Ellis — who I refer to as Deer Tick's best friend. We did a month-long tour with him, and I came to know him very well during that time, and the band had known him before that. He's an integral part of the story, so I wanted to bring him out for the show. Then there's a secret special guest, but it's not a very well-kept secret — everyone from Deer Tick will be at the show, so.
Deer Tick has been incredibly supportive of the project, which has been really great. I started as an employee of the band, and we joke about it all the time that they are my bosses. But over the last few years, spending a lot of time with a bunch of dudes in a van, you come to know them very well. I consider them friends, and we talk off the road — I'm on this terrible group-text message with all of them, and I get really annoying picture messages constantly. But we're genuine friends; we check in with each other, which I think is rare. I've worked with a lot of other bands, but I don't necessarily have the same rapport with other bands that I have with Deer Tick. It's an interesting group of personalities that all happen to get along really well.
How did you come to work with Deer Tick in the first place?
A friend of mine was Deer Tick's tour manager for a while, and he had posted something on Facebook about needing someone to sell merch for the band on tour. I had all this free time and was like, I don't know what I'm doing with my life — but I had worked with bands before and worked within the music world for a while. It had always been this hobby — like when I used to put on punk-rock shows when I was younger and when I would go on tour with friend's bands. But this was a real job.
I contacted my friend and told him I was interested, and he saw something in me and said that I should come on the road. It was my first legit touring job where I was actually getting paid. They liked me enough to invite me back. After a few tours, my friend left the position as tour manager for Deer Tick to work with other, bigger bands, and there was a string of shitty tour managers that came on after that. At some point, I was like, can I do this? Deer Tick thought it was a great idea, so I was promoted to tour manager. It's my current position, and I've been doing it for the last year for them, which has worked out great, because I've learned that I really love tour managing. It's not as creative as other work that I do, but there is something exciting about being on the road and taking charge and working on production and logistics. It sort of taps into this other side and skill set of mine.
Was there a moment in this journey of working with Deer Tick and cataloguing the band's life that made it clear to you that this was a friendship more than just a working situation?
There's five guys in the band, and we all interact very differently with each other, and I'm always trying to figure out how our personalities fit together. Save for one member, we were all raised Catholic, and I feel like that's part of it [laughs]. But we also all have the same sense of humor. Some of us grew up going to, playing and putting on house shows and come from that DIY background. All of those things are helpful on the road. I don't know if there was a particular moment, but I know that early on in the first tour, we just immediately found a common ground and were able to communicate and talk and hang out.
The book came about after you put it together for the band as a gift. Was there any hesitation from Deer Tick about what is covered in it? It seems like it could be pretty personal, considering its original intent.
Surprisingly, no. I was very careful not to talk about everything that happens on tour. But Deer Tick as a band has been pretty open over the years — especially if you read interviews with (lead singer and guitarist) John McCauley. John is very candid when talking about himself and his life — drugs that he's done, things that he's broken at parties and every heartbreak in his life. He's probably too candid sometimes [laughs]. Sometimes we read his interviews and are like, John, you should not have told people that. Deer Tick already has this reputation for being this crazy, naked band — I mean, that was in their younger days; I got to them in their calmer days, where they now have wives, girlfriends and babies.
The candidness they've always had made it easy for them to approve what was in the book. I think that they also trusted me to tell a fair and appropriate story and not exploit the times we shared together. The title — Nothing Without Providence: A Road Story Mostly About Deer Tick — is also because I talk about myself a lot in context, especially in the narrative essays. I think I was reading a lot of David Sedaris at the time and reading a lot of Mike Birbiglia, so I took a personal viewpoint on the things that were happening and the stories that I was a part of. I think the book has a unique perspective in that way. But overall, the guys trusted me to tell the story and to tell a good story. John told me that I made them sound more interesting than they were — which is probably true. The day-to-day minutiae of hanging out with five dudes is not that exciting. But those observational skills that I have work really well for tour managing: Part of the job is babysitting and taking care of everyone and learning everyone's needs and wants.
Be my voyeur (or better yet, let me stalk you) on Twitter: @cocodavies
Get the Arts & Culture Newsletter
Find out about upcoming performances, exhibitions, openings and special events happening in the Denver art and theater scene.