SAL PARADISE NEVER had to worry about falling into dog excrement when he burned across the American highway. Unfortunately, when I stepped out of the car Thursday night, 11 hours, two pit stops, and a time zone from Washington D.C.— Chicago’s black ice curb re-gifted my road weary rear with a less than inspiring present. I didn’t drive 700 miles to freeze on the manure marked sidewalks of Chicago and after one hour, two room changes and a kaleidoscope of characters later, I was lying inside the Arlington International Hostel trying to remember exactly why I was skipping school and sleep for a one night conversation with a no-name band.
While So-Cal folk-rockers Delta Spirit may hardly register with the self-worshiping tastemakers of the new music world, Jonathan Jameson, Matthew Vasquez, Sean Walker, Brandon Young and Kelly Winrich comprise the best undiscovered band in America and are easily worth a 1400 mile road trip. With a clear cutting sound born out of everything right in Americana folk lore, Delta Spirit wields words with a prophetic precision that evokes comparisons to Cash, Springsteen and the omnipresent Dylan. Releasing their debut LP, Ode to Sunshine in 2007, the band spent the last year frenetically opening for independent buzz children Dr. Dog, Cold War Kids and Clap Your Hands Say Yeah
Friday night marked the final date of a tour with Matt Costa, an ambling former skateboarder turned easy listening beach crooner under the tutelage of Jack Johnson, and the show at Chicago’s Double Door was sold out. When I had set up the interview and travel details with Delta Spirit earlier in the week, Jonathan had told me to give him a call Friday morning and we would find a time to meet. 10 a.m. came on Friday and Jonathan sleepily told me that he, “had a crazy night and decided to just sleep in and I’ll call you later.”
Seven hours later I had a rapidly sinking stomach and no phone call.
Fast forward one hour though, and I’m sitting across from Jameson and the lead singer Matt Vasquez downstairs at the Double Door as Costa runs through sound check overhead. The band had been off for two days due to a wreck suffered by the headliner Costa that turned near fatal when their van flipped on icy Iowa roads, and Delta Spirit spent the off time exploring Chicago.
“Last night was crazy,” said Jameson. “We ended up going to this weird show with that band One Republic who has that huge single. The drummer used to play with Matt!I guess some people call that a gig. We ended up in some dirty trashy bar with gross girls and club guys.”
“They were playing music videos on the television and One Republic’s single, Apologize came on like eight times,” said Vasquez, idly tearing the paper off his Stella. “We were trying to think how many songs you could sing to it. There’s at least six songs, a million Blink-182, or what is it, Fall Out Boy? Anything that’s pop-punk usually uses the same progression.”
While the music produced by One Republic might not have illuminated Jameson or Vasquez’s evening, the flavor of the moment pop-stars did provide a much-needed hotel room for the band.
“We had no where else to sleep,” said Vasquez. “We don’t have many funds, no tour support, and no record label. When we went through Canada we didn’t know a single person, so every night we had to find a place to stay. It was crazy.”
Despite operating without a label or tour support, Delta Spirit has managed to maintain a fast-paced schedule that’s taken them from club to club across the continent.
“It’s worked out good,” said Jameson. “The only thing that sucks is that we don’t have the extra hands. We have to figure out mail order and how to play the show at the same time.”
“And having no hype is a double edged sword, no write-ups,” said Vasquez.
“I want to get cut down,” said Jameson. “I want people to tell us that we’re super overrated.”
The official interview ended right there when Delta Spirit had to run through sound check, but the conversation would haunt the rest of the night.
Jameson and Vasquez joked about their “do-it-yourself” mentality, but when they took the stage at the Double Door, the lack of administrative support was obvious. The band was supposed to play at 8:15, before Matt Costa and Jonathan Rice, (last seen muttering, “I need to go get creatively drunk” )— unfortunately, the doors had only opened at 8:00 p.m. and the room was not even half-way full.
“I stand as a man who has seen many things,” sang Vasquez, opening with Bleeding Bells. “My youth has made me strong.”
Youth may have provided strength for the confessional opener, but the clarity of vision and purpose that defines Delta Spirit is hardly an early blooming character trait. Delta Spirit creates music that speaks with an unmistakable authenticity and joy firmly rooted in the oldest traditions of the American heartland.
Where did this sound come from, you sound like you belong in the Deep South where I grew up, not from southern California?
Vasquez: “Wasn’t The Band from Canada, Neil Young’s Canadian, CCR is from San Francisco, Janis Joplin’s from Austin, I like her. I grew up there!It’s not about where you are, it’s about what music gravitates to you, what music people showed you, what music grabbed you, it could be anything. We could be five people doing hip-hop and mean it just as much. That’s what matters. It doesn’t matter what you sound like as long as what you’re doing is exactly what you want to do.”
Jameson: I think (it’s about) how we culturally got there. We weren’t surfers, and so I don’t know what type of music comes out of Southern California, Sublime? We don’t relate to that music, so we tried to dig deeper. We dug into the great music that’s come out of America in the last 200 years.
Do you write the songs Matt?
Vasquez: No, we all write them together.
Delta Spirit has this consistent lyrical voice, and this is a collective thing?
Vasquez: Literally if I start a song, it’s going to be one fifth done, and every word I write will be trying to find where everyone else is at, their opinions. If I’m writing a lyric, it’s for everybody not myself.
Jameson: Matt faces scrutiny for that because we all have our own opinions on what’s said.
Vasquez: Everything that’s said has been burned down in some fire until it becomes what it is. That really doesn’t let us be sarcastic in songs. I think we go through times of being really thankful and times of being sincerely disturbed about what we think about what the world is and what it should be.
As Delta Spirit kicked into the tambourine driven piano jig “Trashcan,” it was obvious that they weren’t going to get a lot of love from the collared shirt yuppie crowd who were very much ready to get their meandering sunshine beach dance on with Costa. In response, the band created their own self-contained musical world on-stage with two extra drums, pianos, trash can lids and fast shaking maracas. Cradling his guitar like Cash and sneering like Dylan, Vasquez ignored the audience as he sank into each song with an almost biblical fury and passion.
“I finally found the cure for my own cancer,” Vasquez, Winrich and Jameson yelped in unison. “My love is coming, I can barely hardly wait/ my heart is thumping I can feel it on every beat.”
They sang like they had just come down from the mountaintop and looked they still belonged in the hills. It was like a back porch whiskey fueled sing-along and the drummer Brandon Young’s clean cut sweater vest combination stuck out in the midst of Delta Spirit’s countrified flannel shirts, beards and knit caps.
“There will be peace in my soul someday,” sang Vasquez. “Reconciled I’ll be on my way/I’ll be wandering on for all my years/ what I become no one could say/If you’re feeling what I’m feeling come on/ all you soul searching people come on.”
“People, Cmon” is an infectious kicking scream-along with a wandering melody carefully guided by Walker’s twangy guitar riff. It’s a rallying cry for the frustrated, the broken and the dreamers discontented with the fallen frustrated nature of their world. Just like the first time you heard Arcade Fire’s “Rebellion,” or U2’s “Sunday, Bloody Sunday,” you feel a strange need to put your hands in the air, scream loud and hit repeat.
You write these revival-type songs. What are you calling people to, what should people walk out of the show with?
Vasquez: I think a lot of bands get behind a single cause and make a big deal about that, but then the next band has another single cause and then everyone gets confused because they like both of those bands and they’re not sure which cause they want to adopt. For us it’s more about what things could possibly be, as a whole, and all those causes come into play. Many of them we support, many of them we don’t even know.
How does it work with you trying to comprehend things like those causes and problems, and then you’re walking out each night and you’re singing these songs about the way you feel about the world? How does that affect your perspective?
Jameson: It’s confusing because we sing these songs every night and I think that some of the time they mean a lot to us, but some of the time, I’ll admit, it doesn’t have the depth of meaning it could have had. In that way I can relate to the people who wish they were doing a better job but aren’t. It’s hard to fight for justice and peace and truth all the time and so I understand that people can’t do that 100%. At the same time, we have to push for that and also, I think the big key America is starting to understand, that evil isn’t over there and that we are good, but that evil is here and good is over there. We have to understand that maybe the best way to fight terrorism isn’t to attack it with bombs and guns but to serve people and to show them love and compassion and aid, and maybe that will change people’s minds about attacking the U.S.
You talk in the “Street walker” , “If you don’t do anything, that’s just as much a sin’. Are you trying to get that truth into people’s heads?
Jameson: That’s a big truth that even the people who aren’t over there bombing, we’re still responsible because we aren’t actively dissuading it. This is our country and there are problems here. In San Diego, immigration is a big deal and I’m sure there are negative issues and it’s confusing and I’m not going to try and solve it. I could get angry at the system for not having a good immigration policy, but I’m not personally doing anything to make it better. We’re trying to learn how to take personal responsibility. I think that was the problem with the 60’s, it was a lot of great ideas and big talk and it didn’t get followed up with personal responsibility. That was a great mistake of that era and hopefully we won’t repeat that…. I was listening to this guy speak and he was saying that the job of the artist was to present the world as it is, and then also the possibility of what it could be, and that’s I guess what we’re trying to do.
So you’re not trying to tell people what to do, how to think?
Jameson: Yeah, we want them to get beyond that. We’re telling it to ourselves to, we definitely can’t act like we have it figured out and tell people how to act. We are the people who are soaking in the mysteries and weirdness of the world and trying to share it with people. A lot of the time it comes out and it’s probably not that profound and other times there just might be a glorious moment of truth that comes out of what’s being written and performed.
When Delta Spirit finally closed with “People, Turn Around,” it was one of those “glorious moments of truth” that even the most intoxicated inane person couldn’t help but see. The song starts slowly, with Vasquez singing a slow work-man like ballad of lost love and life that seems to be heading towards a nihilistic conclusion. But then the chorus hits, and despite everything wrong with reality, you’re given one more chance to get your life back together.
“It’s time all you people to turn around, for the life we’ve been living, messing around. The blood we’ve been spilling will bleed us dry, for the life we’ve been killing is your life like mine.”
It’s a winding song, that touches nearly all aspects of life and the stage, as Delta Spirit moves around, trading instruments and drinks and the emotion never stops. By the time you hit chorus and the ultimate climax, the entire band has found a microphone in this song, screaming the chorus out in a desperate attempt to get through to whoever might be listening.
One sentence: what is music to you?
Jameson: To me it is a joy and a mystery, on one hand I wish I understood my instrument better and music better and I could put these songs better but I think it’s great to participate in something I can’t put my finger on and I couldn’t have come up with a complete song without the rest of us. I don’t know if any of us could have, there’s always this room to be surprised. I also love the fact that it is this living thing. It’s not just something that you write down and it’s gone and we play it each night on tour and people participate in it. It’s crazy.
Vasquez: When it’s real good you don’t even have to look at the people.
His name was Jerry, and he had been listening and singing loudly, throughout Delta Spirit’s set. He had seen U2 28 times, met Bono on four occasions and had one tattoo, the Joshua Tree, stretching across his back. He credited indie-rock pioneers Pavement with saving the 90’s and a Radiohead concert for the conception of one of his children. He wore a baseball cap, owned a large car dealership, and spoke of his unmeasured love for Chicago as he paid for my drink with a $100 bill.
“You’ve got to make a living,” said Jerry. “I saw these guys in Boston when they opened for Cold War Kids. My three year old can’t stay in her seat when I turn the album on in the car. She knows every word to Trashcan.”
Jameson grabbed my arm on his way backstage.
“Hey, I’m heading to a little bookstore. Which Flannery O’Connor should I be looking for, or do you just want to come?”
While Jonathan Rice led the audience through his slurring set-closing nihilistic sing-along, We’re all stuck out in the desert (and we’re going to die), I threw down the rest of my glass and followed Jameson past the bored bouncer into icy night. We walked next door to a small warm bookstore, I checked my backpack at the door, and Jameson led me straight to O’Connor. We spent the rest of Jonathan Rice’s set and most of Costa’s talking about literature, philosophy and theology, most of the discussion stemming out of the interview earlier in the night.
So who are some of your favorite authors?
Jameson: We’ve been listening to these short stories by Tolstoy after he converted from agnostic to Christianity. He wrote all these books on extreme pacifism, but at some point he switched over. He wrote War & Peace and Anna Karenina when he was really young and then when he converted he decided those were bad art and horrible books and denounced them. Then he started writing these short stories and books for the common people. It’s some pretty powerful stuff with a whole lot of truths.
Jameson: She’s sweet, I’ve only read one but I’ve been looking for some more. I’m intrigued by her but I haven’t read very much.
The God of Flannery reminds me of the way God appears in your songs. One way or another though, he’s in there a lot. Is he just a literary device or is it something more? I know that’s a loaded question.
Jameson: I wouldn’t say that he’s different to all of us, that’s a little too relativist, but considering God is great mystery that’s beyond our comprehension and we’re all at different places in understanding him, we haven’t made a basic structure for what we all believe as a band. We are haunted by him though, and he appears in places we don’t expect him to be.
No credo for DS?
Jameson: All at different places on that.
Vasquez: If I was at church and had a religion it would be this band. The people who are in this band and their views, whoever He is, our ability to let go and say, there’s no way for me to completely understand you, but I can try to chase and find as many truths as I can and try to enjoy life. Even if there isn’t a God, life is still insanely beautiful and it’s this huge artwork of all these human beings getting somewhere. It’s genius.
Jameson: Even that, we all feel like that at times and others we feel right. The thing that always surprises us is Christ. Finding him popping up in these weird mysterious places, like he’ll pop up in a conversation with a bum, not like we’ll start talking about God, but you’ll never know, yeah!. He haunts you and you can’t get away from him.
AS WE WERE walking back to the club, so that Jameson could catch his time onstage with Costa at the end of the set, I asked him if rock music could change the world.
“No,” he said, with a sheepish grin. “But maybe folk-rock can.”
Grace and I had to drive back to D.C., and Delta Spirit had to make back to southern California for a sold out show at the Troubadour with the Walkmen. Even so, the night didn’t end till the bars finally kicked everyone out at 2:00. Everyone was warm, happy and talking far too much. Matt Costa rolled cigarettes for Grace, Vasquez stole drinks from her and Winrich got a sideways half-kiss. Jameson had given up drinking for Lent, Costa thought that Fairport Convention was the greatest band never to be truly discovered, Jonathan Rice was no where to be seen and all I had to document the night was the sharpie scrawled notes on my arms and stereotypical candid camera shots.
This wasn’t supposed to degenerate into love poem prose, but it’s hard not to love a band like Delta Spirit. They make good-sounding music that they seem to genuinely care about, and they actually have something worth saying about the world. Even so, they just may not change the world, or even music.
Bands only lasts as long as the people, and Vasquez is just about as troubled of a front-man as you’ll meet, drinking heavy all night and spicing his conversation with rambling stories lifted straight from the pages of the New York Times. The stories are always long, they are always dark, and Vasquez always looks like he’s not sure if he should laugh or cry. Jameson is the exploring philosopher/theologian of the group with a head full of ideas surrounding God, love, and the responsibility of the artist in the world. Walker disappeared after their set for a long phone conversation with “Noelle,” while Winrich and Young enjoyed their time hopping from bar to bar far too much. Despite their differing personalities, all the members seem to operate with a burden hanging over their heads, a weight of responsibility that sobers all action. It’s the type of pressure that comes when you’re not just making music for fun, you’re not just throwing words together haphazardly, and you don’t believe that the world’s beyond saving. While that type of understanding may lead to powerful art, it also makes maintaining the band’s delicate balance and harmony that much harder.
It’s not a perfect album and it’s hard to say whether Ode to Sunshine will maintain its relevance and poignancy; but it’s definitely a good start. The thing is, even if we’re not listening Delta Spirit in ten years, even if they don’t exist, it doesn’t change the fact that right now in the musical spectrum, there are few voices that provide as much hope for originality and truth, and the possibility of creating something great. If we’re going to elect a president based off of less, couldn’t we listen to a band that promises just a little bit more?
It’s at least worth a drive.
Delta Spirit plays DC9 on March 27th.
Nathan Martin is Patrol’s Washington, D.C. music editor.
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