march 2009

Explosion Impending

Delta Spirit Feels Your Pain, Even If You Don't

By David McGee

Delta Spirit's Matt Vasquez appealing to the sellout house at New York City's Bowery Ballroom to "be quiet and be real, for once," while the band played a new song. From the back of the room a party girl shouted, 'Fuck you!' (Photo by Noahm,

A sellout house at New York's Bowery Ballroom was primed for headliners Delta Spirit. An almost totally unknown band from Los Angeles, Dawes, had opened with an astonishing "I saw the future of rock and roll"-type set of penetrating, lacerating original songs by lead singer/songwriter/guitarist Taylor Goldsmith, whose supporting musicians—drums, bass, organ—played with a tight, focused determination, filling the room with a sound melded together from a variety of sources ranging from southern soul to The Band's richly hued Americana to the Springsteen of Darkness On the Edge of Town to the Paul Simon of "Duncan," and made a lasting impression, to say the least (see related story in this issue). From that high it was a long way down to the buzzkill of Other Lives and its mopey, hippy-dippy, artsy-fartsy, narcosis-inducing, folk-classical meanderings (during which a patron was heard to invoke the "Kansas" [the band] rule: "Just because a song has 20 tempo changes doesn't make it a good song." Later in the set, the same patron expressed the hope that the Other Lives cellist, a young lady inexplicably adorning her head with antlers, might take a cue from the classic Bugs Bunny cartoon "What's Opera, Doc?" and liven up the joint by breaking into a rendition of Elmer Fudd's "Kill the Wabbit.") So when Delta Spirit charged onto the stage following some five minutes of PA assault of thundering jungle drums, the audience was practically begging for an adrenalin rush. The band didn't disappoint, tearing into the songs from its startling debut album on Rounder, Ode To Sunshine, with sustained fury, the sturdy figure of matinee idol lead singer Matt Vasquez at the forefront, in non-sagging blue jeans and a plain white t-shirt, dancing around behind the mic, leaning into it to deliver a howling, anguished vocal, stepping back to allow the band's glorious wash of rock 'n' roll level the crowd. Delta Spirit attacks every song with an unfettered urgency that infuses even the rare quiet moments with the ominous specter of an impending explosion.

During one such moment, the band got back maybe more than it had anticipated. In introducing a brand-new song, "Blood From a Stone," Vasquez, arms folded across the top of his Gibson Byrdland guitar (so named after two of the greatest country guitar players in history, Billy Byrd and Hank Garland, although that has nothing to do with Vasquez's affection for the instrument. "I wish I could tell you I played it because the Nuge—Ted Nugent—plays it," he says, "but it's really because I need something a little more mid- to low-endy, like a full kind of mellower tone for Shawn, and Kelly when he plays guitar, to cut through over me"), unflinchingly beseeched the audience to "be quiet now and be real, for once, and listen to this new song we've written. We're really proud of the lyrics." From the back of the room came the shouted response courtesy a party girl in no mood or shape to listen to lyrics: "FUCK YOU!" The disheveled vixen at her side muttered, sotto voce, the same sentiment. This bunch, including the party boys circling around it, eyes ablaze with unrequited lust, beers aloft, was all too willing to let Delta Spirit feel the pain the revelers chose to defer. Welcome back to New York, Matt.

"I really wanted them to quiet down," Vasquez stated emphatically a couple of days later in a phone interview from Charlottesville, Virginia, where the band had alighted for a show on its winding journey back to the west coast. "I was just saying how it was. Couldn't be more proud of that song, and if they want to get drunk and talk through the whole thing-people got valid reasons to go to shows. One of 'em is that. If they don't want to listen to me, they still paid their money."

Delta Spirit (from left, Jonathan Jameson, Kelly Winrich, Sean Walker, Matt Vasquez, Brandon Young): Attacking every song with an unfettered urgency that infuses even the rare quiet moments with the ominous specter of an impending explosion.

If Vasquez reveals some moral relativism in his attitude towards audience behavior, the same is not evident in the music he and his Delta Spirit mates craft collectively. Something is at stake in almost every one of their songs: "People, C'mon" rails against an apathetic populace; "Bleeding Bells," stark and restrained, acoustically driven with elegiac "Ring of Fire" mariachi horns humming a sad refrain, chronicles the spiritual weariness inherent in the pamphleteer's calling. The solemn, intermittently surging blues-based ballad "House Built for Two" is Vasquez's admitted chronicle of family devastation in the wake of his mother and father splitting up, with the sub-plot of his own prodigal return to the fold following his "lost" mid-teen years "when I was really young and doing a lot of drugs and stuff and being real stupid." Though it starts with a desolate Neil Young-like harmonica and acoustic guitar strum, "People Turn Around" rises and subsides on Vasquez's vocal dynamics, morphing from a dry, reportorial litany of horrors afflicting the land (murder, rape, robbery, drug addiction) to an anthemic cry for vigilance and activism directed at the dark angels of our nature: "It's time all you people turn around!" Vasquez wails over Kelly Winrich's jittery, ostinato piano riff as the other band members raise their voices with his, "for the life we've been livin' and messin' around/the blood we've been spillin' will bleed us dry/the life we've been killin' is your life, like mine"—all leading to a final, subdued benediction, sung not with '60s idealism but rather from a perspective informed by the world's current calamitous condition: "Hoping for love to find a new voice/the song that needs singin' has already been sung before."

"It's going on everywhere," Vasquez explains of the issues animating "People Turn Around." Even at 10:30 in the morning (an ungodly hour for rock 'n' roll musicians), he speaks with the same strength he projects as a vocalist, and with the swagger of a lead singer, but without attitude; with confidence, not arrogance. "Doesn't matter whether you're in Afghanistan fighting, or Iraq, or Baltimore, D.C. or Los Angeles." And of its bittersweet conclusion (including the lyric, "the years are not coming the way I thought they would"), he admits to embracing an immutable truth: "All the idealism doesn't really pan out the way you think it will when you're a kid. You think you're going to be a spaceman, and you'll get a Michael J. Fox hoverboard by the year 2000 and the year 2000 comes and you don't get your Michael J. Fox Back To The Future hoverboard. It's one of those things like, why can't we be nicer to each other? Why can't we carry each other's burdens? Everybody loves the idea of carrying each other's burdens, but once they have to, they kind of opt out."

On first listen, the "Be My Baby" intro to "Streetwalker," leading to its jittery, anxious rush once underway, betrays nothing of the song railing in specific about the sexual exploitation of minors and in general about sexual trafficking. As the first verse unfolds, we learn that the streetwalker in question has a history: stolen from her home, she winds up "homeless, beat to death or put out/homeless, greedy and cruel/oh why"—and here, behind Vasquez's heavy, twanging guitar riff, the music begins to fight against its restraints, until Vasquez moans, "oooh whoaaa..." and guitarist Sean Walker comes slicing into the soundscape with a searing, plaintive Tele solo. The second verse recounts a rape, and introduces a six-year-old boy, "wearing a dress/look at his face, you won't see no innocence/he's got so much experience," leading Vasquez to cry out, "Oh, why, can't I feel? Why-I-I-I"—as if he's struggling for words—"what can I do? Oh, whoaaa, set me free! Set me free! C'mon and set me free!", the music soaring behind him, drums booming, voices aloft, Walker winding the tension tighter with his solo before Vasquez jumps in with a twangy, low-end retort on the Byrdland. Here enters a signature marking of Delta Spirit's songs, namely parallel construction in the choruses that makes everyone complicit in the horror, not only a tune's subjects, but the singer and, by implication, the listener as well: Vasquez's cry of "Set me free," articulated three times, gives way to "Set them free/set them free/yeah, it could've been me." The third verse brings a "German Casanova" to the underground, where "the law will never find him" and he can indulge his sexual peccadilloes unfettered, a scene that prompts from Vasquez a blistering wail: "It's a sin to sit and just do nothin'/yeah, there's a special place in Hell for me/oh, God, I just gotta do something/I swear to God this is happenin', oh-whooaaa....set me free/set me free/c'mon and set me free/oh, whooaaa, set them free/set them free/yeah, it could've been me."

A similar ethos informs the relentless juggernaut that is "Children." With drummer Brandon Young setting the pace with a rush of eighth notes played in 4/4 time and Walker letting loose with a sustained banshee wail on the Tele, the song starts and develops feverishly, suggesting a frantic urge to get the word out. In this case it's about religious extremism and its effect on personal liberty, sung specifically to the younger generation, Vasquez very deliberately holding back in the verses, singing with what is, for him, moderation—"They rob you from the truth/and they steal from our house/the blind leading the blind/don't hang around with their kind..." until he hits the chorus and cuts loose with a fiery burst of angry declaiming that brings everyone to account: "'cause I love the life I lead/and I know my enemy/well, God is on our side/that's all you really need/that's all we really need/that's all I really need." Frailing furiously, Walker's guitar rises out of the mix and surges, surges and launches out of the soundscape as a harmonica, piercing and urgent, supplants it ahead of Vasquez's re-entry with a pungent, "You make your own stand/and you take your own stand/and I like my own stand! And I take my own stand!"

"It's a song about coming up, being told to think one way, told to think a lot of different ways," says Vasquez. "First verse is kind of about being raised as an atheist, then telling your son or your daughter never to be around anyone who has any kind of religion because they're all crazy whack nut jobs. Then the second verse is the exact opposite, then the third verse is kind of the summing up saying 'You know what? It doesn't matter where you come from, and a good person is a good person.'"

Matt Vasquez: 'Why can't we carry each other's burdens? Everybody loves the idea of carrying each other's burdens, but once they have to, they kind of opt out.' (Photo by Noahm,

The music, especially on "Streetwalker," is impeccably crafted and impressively structured, with resonant melodies and evocative, sometimes anthemic choruses redolent of a British influence (blatantly obvious on the tender acoustic love ballad opening the album, "Tomorrow Goes Away," with its gentle, lilting rhythm, overtly Beatles-esque melody—so overt it cribs a fleeting passage from "Michelle"—silky, close-knit harmony and cautiously sunny assessment of a troubled relationship, to wit: "Perhaps things are getting better/but how can one be so sure/so I will take it slowly/so that I can rest assured/in the evening when I wake up I would love to hear you say/ooohhh-oooohhh/wait until tomorrow goes away"); the dynamics—the contrast in texture between the red-hot verses and the white-hot choruses, the overlapping entrances and exits of guitars and voices, and the savvy use of tension and release as cathartic devices—are the stuff of classic American rock 'n' roll, embracing all of its history but leaning on early Beatles and Stones, Creedence, Neil Young. Not least of all is the writing itself, confronting real issues afflicting the world (the music may sound specifically American, but the song's narratives reflect global concerns). Writers have been falling all over themselves to describe the myriad influences in the songs, with the consensus being that Delta Spirit is channeling 30 years of punk rock history. Fine, but that statement is wrong by about half, because the band's roots run considerably deeper and richer than what punk can provide.

"I think what comes through is just bands" is Vasquez's take on Delta Spirit's inspiration. "It's not even a specific genre. It's people that do what they want to do, whether it's Nirvana or guys like Willie Nelson and Neil Young, or CCR, the Beatles, the Kinks, the Boss. Or Dylan. Or Nick Cave. Or Tom Waits. Tons of people who do exactly what they wanna do. Coming from that it's really like you can listen to anything and be influenced by it and somehow put it together."

How Delta Spirit put it together is a happy confluence of design and accident. Bassist Jonathan Jameson and drummer Brandon Young were together in one of the early 2000s' most promising young bands, Noise Ratchet, from San Diego, CA. reports that "Noise Ratchet died on December 12, 2004," and adds that three members, including Jameson, were forming a band called The Life, which proved to be a stillborn project. A year later Young, Jameson and their friend Sean Walker teamed up to start a new band. The missing link turned out to be Matt Vasquez, whom they happened upon by chance playing music on the streets of San Diego. Vasquez lived in Dana Point, CA, "a rich area," he says, but his own family "was skimming by, five people in a small apartment, my parents sleeping in the kitchen, my brother and I sharing a room, my sister had her own room."

Though born in California, Vasquez had been raised in Austin, TX, "through all my troubles. I came up running around, smoking pot and doing all sorts of really stupid shit." His father had been a military man, serving two and a half tours in Vietnam, Airborne, and had been planning a career in same when Matt's mother became pregnant and the senior Vasquez "decided he wasn't going to do it anymore. So he went in to aerospace, started selling like Star Wars stuff that Reagan wanted to use, ended up working for Lockheed and helping out with skunk works and a bunch of really fun things. When I was a kid I used to watch VHS tapes of satellite guided missiles and bombs blow up tanks. Futuristic stuff for that era, a lot of stuff we use now. He definitely was involved in it. Pretty cool. I don't know a lot, he won't tell me everything. He's that kind of guy. I'm proud he's that kind of guy."

Delta Spirit, "People Turn Around"

As a kid he also benefited from his grandmother having been the sixth employee hired at the Leo Fender company. From her every male member of the family, including grandsons, received a guitar, as a present. To the eight-year-old Matt she gave a three-quarter size GnL Stratocaster prototype. The first song he learned was "Come As You Are," by Nirvana. "It was everybody's first song. If you're 25 years old, your first song was 'Come As You Are.' Second one was 'All Apologies.' I love Nirvana."

The Vasquez parents' splitting up was a signal moment in the family's history and dynamic, partly documented in unsparing detail on "House Built For Two." Matt, so emphatic in stressing that Delta Spirit's music is written and shaped by all five musicians, won't lay this one on anyone else, owing to its deeply personal nature. The song tells the twin tales of his parents' split and his own drug-fueled rebellion. "You left me at home/to carve my own stone," he sings in the voice of his shattered father early on; later: "Our son is losing his mind/his drugs that he hides/you could see in his veins/the steps he's needin' to take/his back it might break/we both need you here"—one parent appealing to, pleading with his absent partner to come to her son's aid.

Matt: "The song is basically about how my mom left my dad. But it kind of quotes from the time when I was really young and doing a lot of drugs and stuff and being real stupid at the wee age of 15, 14. I was living in Dripping Springs, Texas, because we moved from Austin and both my parents moved in with their parents at the ages of like 45 and 40, so it got really weird and I started living with my grandma in California, but my mom didn't come out. And I didn't really like California, so I ended up flying back to Texas, and instead of living in Austin I lived in Dripping Springs, which is out towards where Willie Nelson lives, like west, southwest Austin. So I was out there and I did a bunch of LSD one day in high school, woke up in the hospital and two days later I got flown back to California. My mom thought she was going to lose a little boy, so she flew out and, you know, stayed, sucked it up for the rest of the years of my high school career, and lived in the kitchen. She's not a bad woman; it just wasn't going to work out. The song was for my dad, because of what he went through. Now he's great, but he was a real hard man before my mom left him. When she took off he became this big old softie, just a sweetheart. He's so funny and he's a complete bachelor now. He called me today, 'Matt! I just bought a Nissan 350Z!' I said, 'No way!' He goes out and dances and stuff, hangs out at Cougar Bars and stuff. He's not a dirty man; he just likes to come out. He loves dancing, loves people, he's super-extroverted. Plays tons of tennis; he'll give anybody a tennis lesson, doesn't matter who or how old you are. My mom and I reconciled probably four years ago. I still wrote that song for my dad. I was going to write a song for my mom, from her perspective, but the music didn't go along with the words well enough to do it. So it's on the backburner."

At the Dana Point home, Matt found he had no place to play music. So as a newly licensed 18-year-old driver (he's 25 now), he did the normal thing: "I got in the car and drove two hours away to go downtown by myself." He was busking on the streets of San Diego when he met Brandon Young, who was heading to a store with a friend in tow. They complimented Matt on his music, he thanked them in return and everyone went their own way. While Matt was hanging out at his friend Jon Jameson's house, Brandon came by, and the die was cast, so to speak. Brandon spent a week hanging out with Matt and "that's kind of how the band got started. Kelly (Winrich, keyboards) and I went to rival high schools and ended up being friends through music."

The band took its name from Jameson's great uncle, Red, who operated the Delta Spirit Taxidermy Station of North Central Alabama. In 2006, recording for Monarch Music, Delta Spirit debuted on disc with a six-song EP, I Think I've Found It, which includes an early version of "Streetwalker." The Delta Spirit on EP contrasts sharply with the group that emerged on Ode to Sunshine. It's a good band, a solid contemporary rock band, distinct from its contemporaries in its pronounced electrified bluesiness and unamabiguous nods to specific influences: the aformentioned "Streetwalker" is not the soaring, anthemic cri de coeur heard on the Rounder album, but rather a dark, snarling, early '70s Stones strut through a malevolent underworld, whereas the driving, swaggering "Gimme Some Motivation" and the lowdown, swinging blues and stinging guitar riffing on "When In Roam" channel the Kinks and the Stones all at once; only the acoustic-based original version of "People, Turn Around" hints at (in spite of its low-fi audio quality) the grander ambitions and sense of mission fueling the band's attack on its debut album. "We wrote all the songs on the EP," Vasquez says, "and decided might as well track 'em and put our foot down where we are. That's where we were as a band, really."

Nevertheless, the EP brought labels a-calling, even as Delta Spirit was getting material together for what it thought would be another EP, which they decided to record at a cabin in the San Diego Mountains rented from a fellow named Derek Shaw, whom Vasquez describes as "this cool guy, one of those guys from San Diego who dresses like Neil Young, or at least a wizard. He was writing a book when he decided to get this cabin. He was sitting out there by himself, and we ended up calling because we were looking for a cabin to record in. So he let us come down and record for free. It was awesome.

"At the time we were shopping for record labels, talking to people and we'd met a bunch of people that were just like 'blah-blah-blah, we think you're great,' 'blah-blah-blah, that's cool that you want to produce yourself,' 'blah-blah-blah, if you could have any producer in the world, who would it be?' They'll tell you anything to get you to sign on the dotted line. So we're like, 'Great, if we sign with one of these record labels, one, we're gonna get lowballed; two, we're gonna get stuck with Mutt Lange and end up with like a Metallica record or a Shania Twain record,' so we ended up recording it ourselves. Originally it was going to be an EP, then we decided to keep going with it. San Diego Mountains, they're great. Real pretty apple pie country, weekend warrior, motorcycle club joint, real old town, the cabin was great. They had horseshoes and a black Lab named Spot. It was awesome. We cooked for each other and recorded. Most of the recordings were done with a P.A. Especially in 'Strange Vine' you can hear the overdubbed vocal. That's actually the drum mic that's picking up the PA vocal, and then I sing over it."

During this process the collaborative songwriting effort was refined. To some press claims that he is the principal lyricist, Vasquez offers an instant and emphatic, "That is a falsehood.

"Lyrically it's either Kelly or I and we can share that any way that it come to us. Like we'll write the bones of a song, where it's like, here's the verses, here's the chorus, here's the middle eight or here's all the verses, or, here's the ditty I came up with on the guitar but I can't figure out the words, and Kelly will finish it for me. Or he'll present that and I'll finish it for him. It's a Lennon-McCartney situation where any one of us can help finish a song with the other and do all that stuff, but we never ever complete it so that Sean, John and Brandon can come in and help rearrange everything and change it."

So, given the Lennon-McCartney reference, which one is the acerbic Lennon, which the more sweet-natured McCartney?

"I don't know," Vasquez says with a slight laugh. "I think we're both a bunch of jerks, and if one is being too jerky the other person turns around and will be the nice guy. Good cop, bad cop."

Apart from musical influences, the literary bent of Delta Spirit's lyrics suggests the influence of authors and composers, sometimes more so than other songwriters. The strong spiritual undercurrent in some of the musings about the breakdown of civility and public apathy, the suggestions of discontent with popular culture and so-called civic leaders, begins to make more sense when Vasquez reveals he's come under the sway of Russian authors—not through their works, mind you, but through the lives they lived as detailed in biographies.

"I'm really into Russian writers at the moment. Guys like Tolstoy, who started crazy ideas like Christian anarchism and communal living, and influenced guys like Ghandi towards passive resistance. That's awesome, those ideas and the way he went about it. Dostoevsky was so awesome. His final days are pretty radical. I'm more interested in how they lived than in what they wrote about or how great their writing is. I just got a bio on Gogol. I hear he's buried alive. That's crazy!"

Rounder made the best impression with everyone ("every time they were a round we always said, 'That label rules!'"), and it didn't hurt that A&R rep was Dave Godowsky, who plays the part of Izzy Stradlin in a Guns N' Roses tribute band called Mr. Brownstone (they've been on Letterman). "He's a funny guy. Great musician and one of the very few people in the music industry that will let you do whatever you want to do. Within reason. If I wanted to do a hip-hop record he'd probably let me do it."

Vasquez pauses. "But I would never make a hip-hop record."

'Family's important, people are important,' Vasquez offers. 'And not taking for granted the opportunity we have. As tired as we get, if we can sincerely appreciate everything that comes our way, that's good. And take for what it's worth any kind of criticism or hardship that comes upon us, we'll be alright.' (photo by Noahm,

Ode To Sunshine, featuring a 1978 self-shot photo of Winrich's uncle, Dr. Thomas L. Payne, on the cover, laughing and holding up a glass of red wine, and on the back a pic of Dr. Payne and his wife playing Chinese checkers in the bathtub, was initially a self release that the band sold while on the road, to the tune of 10,000 copies by the time it signed with Rounder. Constant touring got the buzz going underground and it went mainstream big time last year when the band toured nationally as a Rounder act, late in the year opening for Nada Surf, and now, for the first time, as a headliner. With the pace quickening and acclaim mounting, all the band members are trying to stay focused on what got them to this point, and on what endures in their lives that was true before the spotlight shone so bright on them.

"Family's important, people are important," Matt offers. "And not taking for granted the opportunity we have. As tired as we get, if we can sincerely appreciate everything that comes our way, that's good. And take for what it's worth any kind of criticism or hardship that comes upon us, we'll be alright. That's some big words. But true."

Living in the moment, he says he "couldn't be more pleased" with how far and how fast the band has come since those carefree days at the cabin. There Delta Spirit crafted one of the best debut albums in rock 'n' roll history, emerging as a band capable of greatness, if not Beatles-like dominance, as if any band ever will do that again. But a band that could make a difference in people's lives, could distill the issues of its time down to The Word? As far away as they may be from such an exalted plateau, Delta Spirit is closer to scaling it, and abiding there, than anyone can imagine.

"You know, I think that whole thing, like a spokesman for anything, we are what we are and some folks get behind it and we all get together and I think there's a lot of commonality," Matt observes. "It's really cool to see like frat guys and hipsters and bluegrass guys, folkies, rockers and metalheads. Any one of those groups like our band. And when they come to a show it's always a very motley group and I'm probably the most proud about that. It makes it more about everyone. It's the kind of music, if you believe in it, then it works. If you don't, then maybe you kind of like it, maybe you think it's kind of fun.

"You know what I mean?"

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Delta Spirit, "House Built for Two"
An intense live performance from Feb. 20, 2009

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