Delta Spirit: Marking a Time

Music Features Delta Spirit
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In his memoir You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train, Howard Zinn wrote about humans’ capacity for change: “Human beings, whatever their backgrounds, are more open than we think, that their behavior cannot be confidently predicted from their past, that we are all creatures vulnerable to new thoughts, new attitudes.”

Delta Spirit frontman Matt Vasquez has never been shy about the influence Zinn has had on his band; 2010’s History from Below drew heavily from the progressive historian’s People’s History of the United States—and just in case you couldn’t make the connection, “ZINN” is scrawled across his white Stratocaster in letters large enough to be read from the backs of dark, cramped clubs. So it’s probably a safe assumption that Vasquez would agree that all of us—himself included—are “vulnerable to new thoughts, new attitudes,” and nowhere is this more apparent than on his band’s latest record.

The group’s third LP, a self-titled effort out March 13 via Rounder Records, marks a clear of a departure for the band sonically, one brought on perhaps by line-up changes and new locales. Since History from Below, guitarist Sean Walker has left the band and been replaced by Will McLaren, and the group recently moved from Long Beach, Calif. to Brooklyn. It may not sound entirely like the Delta Spirit you’re used to, but Vasquez maintains it’s the true Delta Spirit—hence the decision to make this a self-titled album.

“I think our second record, we were headed towards this sound,” he says, “but we were missing a member, and we had to kind of grow into finding that one person, and that’s Will our new guitar player. And he brought another voice to Kelly [Winrich] and I’s songwriting—and all of us together, our arranging—that we never had before and we always wanted and kind of were envisioning, and it feels right. And this is what the five of us sound like.”

What the five of them sound like—what Delta Spirit sounds like—is louder, sleeker and more eclectic. If they sound like a band trying to shy away from previous labels like “rootsy Americana” or “retro folk,” that’s because, well, they are.

“When we wrote our second record, a lot of response to that was like, ‘Aww, this folk music’ and of course, I think Prince is folk music because it’s culturally relevant, you know?” Vasquez says. “But when you kind of get tagged as certain things when you never wrote a song for that purpose, I think it drove us and challenged us to make something that sounded ‘today.’ Because these songs are about today; they’re not about the 1960s.

“The whole 21st century is here, and dreaming about the 20th century or idolizing it has its place, but it’s certainly not the end-all be-all.”

But don’t expect an album full of explicit Occupy anthems. While the material is modern, some of its themes are timeless; love, in particular, found its way into the tunes as Vasquez and Winrich both experienced shifts in their relationship statuses. The two were able to use their different perspectives to bring out new or unexpected aspects of each other’s work.

“I fell in love and Kelly fell out of love, which was kind of in reverse of the other album, so the songwriting kind of brought that in,” Vasquez explains. “Sometimes I’ve just finished a song and he kind of adjusts it for me or says, ‘You know, this is wrong’ or ‘You should be doing this’ and I get pissed off, and then I go back and do it that way and it’s better because of it. Or Kelly will come up with something and I’ll just tweak it a bit or sing it my way. Like with ‘California,’ it was kind of a song that Kelly wrote, and it was this really heartbreaking, sad folk song at first. It had harmonica and acoustic guitar and it was very much like a ‘You don’t love me and I love you still but I just wish you the best, this just isn’t working out.’ And as a band, when somebody goes through something like that, we definitely feel that pain all together, and I suggested that we play that song a lot more ramped up and louder because it brought more to the song. You know, those lyrics have a lot more power when you’re screaming them.”

If you’ve ever been to a Delta Spirit show, you’ll know that Vasquez screaming lyrics isn’t a rare occurrence; in fact, the group’s raucous live act is one thing that won’t be changing. Fans who revel in Vasquez’s gritty howl or trashcan lids being transformed into auxiliary percussion won’t be disappointed, and—as they’ve done in the past—the band is getting crafty and building their own lighting rig to turn their show into a multi-sensory experience.

“We took a big trip to Home Depot, and we built a lot of our own lights again like we normally do, and we’re putting it back into the show,” Vasquez says. “So for the venues that can fit the lighting rig we built, it’ll be something to behold. If I wanted to just hear the record, I would stay at home and put it on my iPod or put it on my record player, you know? And you can be very energetic when you have regular lights, but when you have the space to do that, it really seems pretty empty when a band’s just saving money by playing the show using what the house has to offer. I mean, there are so many shows where that goes on, and we really want to give something special to people who buy our tickets and see our show.”

Delta Spirit will be busy touring into the summer (including a stop at Bonnaroo in June), but Vasquez is already working on writing new material.

“I haven’t stopped writing since the record was finished,” he says. “I think we’re always just prone to that, and we have seasons of creativity and a person will have to pursue that or it won’t stay there.”

So far he’s got some love songs to his wife and a song inspired by the death of Steve Jobs (“He’s an icon,” he says. “He’s probably one of the last, great American entrepreneurs”). It’s fitting that Vasquez would pay tribute to the late, innovative Apple CEO; with Delta Spirit, his band’s leapt head-first into modernity, and while not even the most contemporary of us can know what the future holds, he doesn’t see them turning back any time soon.

“We want to write about anything under the sun, but just being able to use any genre we feel like to cater to that song and use any influence, even if it is modern,” he says. “And we want our music to sound more modern and big because we can, we have the ability to. And it’s a lot harder to make a record like that…Every record should always feel very fresh, but I think this one has marked a time for us.”

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