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Spotlight: Delta Spirit

by Michael Verity on July 23, 2012

When Delta Spirit started playing together, one of the first things they did – after eating sandwiches and watching episodes of Roswell on DVD – was carve out their own sort of mission statement.

“We called it The Five Pillars of Delta Spirit,” bassist Jon Jameson says while chilling-out on the back porch of Portland, Ore.‘s Wonder Ballroom. "I can’t remember them all but one of them was ‘know what you don’t want to be and everything else is up for grabs.’"

Two EPs, three full albums and thousands of tour miles later, their philosophy of enlightened experimentation still informs the lives and music of these longtime friends who first crossed paths playing clubs in San Diego, Calif.

“The music scene in Southern California is like three small scenes that add up into one big scene,” says singer/guitarist Matt Vasquez. "I knew our keyboard player Kelly (Winrich) from high school. I had seen Jon and our drummer, Brandon Young, playing in another band. “The band was OK, but I thought Jon and Brandon were great. They were two guys I definitely respected and wanted to play with. Then, one night, through a chance meeting, we ended up in the same room together. It was all very serendipitous.”

The title of the Delta Spirit’s first EP – a raw, punky adventure called I Think I’ve Found It – signified the sense of community that the band found after being disappointed by the empty promises of major labels.

“We sat down, we played together and we knew it was meant to be,” says Vasquez. “Not only was it right musically, it was right personally. Jon and Brandon taught me a lot about living on no money,” he adds with a laugh. “The ‘It’ in I Think I’ve Found It is the relationship we found with each other.”

In 2008, with guitarist Seth Walker in tow, the band decamped to a cabin in the San Diego hills to record their debut long player, Ode To Sunshine. Along with winning them both critical acclaim and national TV time, Ode To Sunshine documents Delta Spirit’s commitment to channeling their influences through a crucible of ambitious experimentation.

The title cut finds the band investing Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young harmonies into a mournful, Tom Waits-style shuffle. On “Children,” Vasquez melds the howl of Violent Femmes with the sonic palette of U2 while the longtime fan fave, “Trashcan,” can only be described as what Led Zeppelin’s “Boogie with Stu” would sound like if played by Animal and the Sesame Street band.

After recording their second album, History From Below, as a foursome and self-releasing a homey, gather-around-one-mike vinyl EP called The Waits Session in 2010, Delta Spirit found themselves at a crossroads.

“We always knew we should be a quintet,” says Jameson of the band’s search for a new guitarist. “Finding Will (McLaren) was like Eagles meeting Joe Walsh,” adds Vasquez. “Having someone with that singing voice and that guitar melody – that touch – is something that we needed. To finally be in a band with someone who’s a way better guitar player than you, or at least way different, is so nice. Now, we’re talking; now, we’re having a discussion.”

The discussion between Vasquez and McLaren is the centerpiece of the band’s third and most mature album, Delta Spirit. McLaren underscores Vasquez’s Elvis roots and punk rock energy with his own brand of musical artistry, wrought from an education in jazz and prog.

Borrowing sonic tricks from the likes of Brian Eno, Flood and Phil Spector, Delta Spirit sounds like a gospel tent revival mixed with a punk rock street party, pumped through an arena rock sound system (a description that evokes smiles from both Jameson and Vasquez).

“We’re trying our best to be a band without ‘shtick,’” says Vasquez. “We don’t want anybody liking our band because it’s an idea – like a folk thing or an Americana thing. We don’t want to be held down by an idea.” “Good music is just people locking in,” he adds. “We want to make music that challenges us and challenges the people who listen to it. And if you don’t feel challenged by it,” he laughs, “that’s OK. We’re working on it.”

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