Delta Spirit in Motion
You may consider a recording a hermetically-sealed moment in time but you can’t do the same thing to the musicians who created it. Take Delta Spirit’s 2007 debut Ode to Sunshine. The band’s Americana mixed with indie and country rock attracted loads of praise and gained a devoted following. But the thought of remaining in that musical world is anathema to the quintet’s creative mindset.
On the follow up, History from Below, the members tweaked that sound. Then, on last March’s self-titled release they offered a nod to Sunshine but, overall, they moved further away from it. Delta Spirit has more in common with latter day My Morning Jacket and Wilco than the roots-soaked notes of Uncle Tupelo, Calexico, Jayhawks and Cracker.
I caught frontman Matt Vasquez prior to a show at Turner Hall in Milwaukee. A history buff, he described his locale. “It’s this old building from the 1880s. The stage leans forward at a really crazy angle, not a 45 degree angle but if you had an amp with wheels on it, it’s going to roll off the stage. And it’s also where a bunch of German Communists used to gather and had their rallies here. ”
A few days later Vasquez asks the crowd at Cleveland’s Beachland Ballroom about that venue. It was a Croatian social center and dance hall.
Presenting another example of how Delta Spirit is open to change things up, the members invited students from School of Rock Cleveland to join them onstage to perform “White Table” after seeing a YouTube video of the aspiring musicians perform the number.
JPG: I really got turned on to Delta Spirit when I saw the band play Bonnaroo back in 2009.
MV: I think to date that’s the most surprising and thrilling – we’ve had some pretty thrilling shows since then – but that one is certainly never going to leave my mind for how insane it got. When you’re playing and then your show gets cancelled and you have all these people working really hard to make it happen…our flight got cancelled on the way in. (All but one of the band members – bassist Jon Jameson – got the last seats on a later flight. Taking a different plane, his route landed far from Manchester, Tennessee.)
We had never played in front of that many people before, and our bass player drove 100 miles-per-hour in the rain just to make it. And he got there right when we were getting onstage.
It was like one of those things where destiny was kicking you in the balls for two days straight without sleep and then it turned around and became one of the best things ever. Life has a funny way of doing that to you sometimes.
*JPG: Yeah, turned out to be a great experience because I didn’t know too much about you at the time. It reminds me of what people say about SXSW. You accidentally show up some place and happily discover an artist that was completely unknown beforehand. *
MV: Yeah, we did so much work this year [at SXSW]. It was crazy. It was 16 shows that we did. We were so exhausted but it was really fun. Sunday, I really wanted to see my buddy, John McCauley’s new group, Diamond Rugs. I walked out of the hotel and I was completely exhausted. It was really weird. Never had that happen before.
JPG: Did you end up making it to the show or did you just turn around and head back to bed?
MV: Oh, I made it to the show. There was no stopping me from making it to the show but it was pretty rough. I was just all shaky and weird. It was really tough but it was good to see Steve [Berlin] and John and all those guys. They’re all such cool dudes.
Some of those SXSW shows were like that. The IFC one that we played was very much in the hell day where we did four shows, and then the fourth show was the IFC one. You know how when you’re at the end and it’s either going to go really good or really bad? It went really good. Nice to have one of those.
*JPG: Moving on to the new album, why does this feel to you more like what Delta Spirit is than previous releases? How do you feel about your previous two albums? *
MV: It’s more of what Delta Spirit is now than what it is in the past. Delta Spirit is every bit as much Delta Spirit was who made Ode to Sunshine or what that Delta Spirit was. It’s just like people grow up. People learn new things.
What made this record self-titled was the fact that we were finally a quintet again. There’s a musical voice that’s missing on that second record. And there was always a musical voice missing, somebody that was really able in terms of ability and eloquence to make what they are trying to see out of a song come across. And Will McLaren, our new guitar player is my favorite guitar player. It’s so great.
JPG: Did the band get tired of being viewed in a certain way based on Ode to Sunshine ?
MV: It’s not fun to feel pigeonholed ever. That’s like, ‘Hey! There goes Jimmy, the nice guy.’ And even Jimmy the Nice Guy wants to be the Bad Guy sometimes or has to be the Bad Guy sometimes. It sucks when people are like, ‘There goes Steve, the asshole’ and no one appreciates being pigeonholed. Same way with music.
We are always playing music that we are always heavily influenced by and inspired by. That’s more the word, ‘inspired’. We’ve always taken a bunch of different influences and thrown them in the songs. And that’s what the aesthetic of Delta Spirit has always been. If you listen to “History from Below,” there are Waits-esque songs and Dylan-esque songs but there’s also Peter Gabriel essence in that record and Nick Cave essences in that record and Replacements essences…And this is more Kanye and Nick Cave, Grinderman, a little more Paul Simon than last time, just more focused.
And it just came from clear streams of creativity where I was writing and recording songs like “Tear It Up” and “Tellin’ the Mind” were two songs that I didn’t have any direction or any purpose other than to write music that I could just write and then I could come back to writing in the direction of what I thought we wanted to go with Delta Spirit. When they heard “Tellin’ the Mind” and “Tear It Up” they were like, ‘No, we really like these.’ And that was one of the clues from a year ago that the record was gonna go in this direction.