It is a bit of a challenge to categorize Delta Spirit, even though the band’s name may conjure visions of the mighty Mississippi and country blues. Lead singer and guitarist Matt Vasquez, who bounced between California and Austin, Texas as a child, has extremely eclectic taste in music and has championed those diverse interests since a very young age.
“On Mondays, I’d wear a White Zombie shirt to high school and then [on] Tuesdays, I’d wear a Grateful Dead hockey jersey,” explains Vasquez, who founded the group with bassist Jon Jameson and drummer Brandon Young nearly a decade ago in San Diego. When asked to name his primary artistic influences, Vasquez quickly cites undeniable forces in 20th century culture—writers Ernest Hemingway and Jack Kerouac and songwriters/entertainers Tom Waits, Bob Dylan and Kurt Cobain. Of these touchstones, only Cobain is reflected directly in the sound of Delta Spirit. However, there are few factors that tie them all together: an overarching sense of despair and the hope to find harmony through the world’s turmoil.
Early on Delta Spirit gained a reputation among the indie-rock crowd by playing high-energy shows during which Vasquez assumed the role of a punk-rock preacher. In the vein of Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder, Vasquez would attempt jaw-dropping acrobatic feats to highlight the formidable nature of his words and music. He was known for climbing the rafters of stages, often leading audiences to think that the show they were witnessing could very well be Vasquez’s last.
“I grew up with smashing guitars and not giving a shit about my body, so climbing stages only felt natural. But I can’t do it anymore because I’m not allowed to,” offers Vasquez, as he readies for a one- off gig in a Brooklyn factory-turned-venue called The Wick. In 2012, Vasquez had a near-death experience at the Austin City Limits Music Festival. “You know how tall the headlining stages are—they’re like 70-feet tall. So I climbed to the very top of this stage and I’m sitting there thinking, ‘What’s the next logical and horrible thing I can do?’ I decided to hold on to the rafters with my arms and swing my legs out. And when I was halfway up, I was scared! And then, there’s a sea of people thinking, ‘Is he going to die?’ I realized this was dumb.”
Vasquez made it down safely only to be confronted by his wife and his bandmates, Jameson, Young, Kelly Winrich (multi-instrumentalist) and Will McLaren (guitar). The shtick eventually came to an end. “If I were to slip, I would be putting my marriage at risk, as well as the livelihoods of the four other members of the band, who matter more to me than anything. I think the antics had their time and were in the right spirit, but the music is the whole fucking point,” he says.
Though the stunts are now officially retired, Delta Spirit haven’t abandoned their trademark blistering and assertive sound, which is on full display on Into The Wide, their fourth LP, available on September 9 via Dualtone Records. The album, produced by Ben Allen (Animal Collective, Gnarls Barkley), is reminiscent of recent studio efforts by The War On Drugs, Kurt Vile and Kings of Leon—contemporary bands that have appropriated ‘80s sonics with a fundamental appreciation of folk music, arena rock and punk. While their peers’ material tends to focus on the personal—love, sobriety, mortality—Vasquez ambitiously tackles some of the larger themes of our times: gentrification, urban decay versus nature, gun control and originality in the digital age.
“I think the whole record has a lot to do with the claustrophobia of city life,” states Vasquez. Along with his bandmates, the frontman has reluctantly lived in Brooklyn for the past three years and is using The Wick show as something of an unofficial moving-out party. “I’ve always been really connected to nature. I grew up surfing, going to swimming holes, being in the national parks. My honeymoon was in Sequoia and Yosemite. The record has this feeling in it, where we’re all stuck in the city and dreaming about getting out.”
The record was conceived primarily in the band’s home studio, affectionately dubbed “The Rat Cave.” It’s a glorified rehearsal space/recording studio in the warehouse district of Greenpoint, a northern neighborhood of Brooklyn that’s known for its large Polish population. As of late, Greenpoint has been overrun by artists, musicians and studios, due to its semi-affordable rents and proximity to the “culture haven” of Williamsburg.
“I’m fascinated by gentrification,” discloses Vasquez, who admits that he is, in fact, a gentrifier. “There’s a neighbor of mine who sits on his stoop and always tells me stories from his past—of the Nazis and Russians invading Poland. These people escaped fascism and they all stuck together. They’re still here and you don’t want that to go away. I feel very blessed to see that and be a part of it.”
In spite of its urban inception, Into The Wide represents Delta Spirit’s love of nature. Songs like “Patriarch” name-drop John Muir, the father of the National Park Service, and the title track proclaims, “Every new year, a new bell to toll/ Before it’s too late, I’m gonna save my soul/ Back to the wide open arms of the Earth.” Coincidentally, Mother Nature’s force was ever-present throughout the process of demoing and recording Into The Wide. The Rat Cave flooded during Superstorm Sandy near Newtown Creek, a neighboring estuary that divides Brooklyn and Queens and is known for its polluted waters.
“Natural disasters were a major part of the record,” Vasquez acknowledges. “Sandy literally ate our studio! The canal flooded everything with five-and-a-half feet of water, and we’re talking Exxon Valdez bad water! The enzyme of Sandy is still on most of our gear.”
After spending a year rebuilding The Rat Cave, the band finally left Brooklyn to bring their new material to life, spending time in the Catskill Mountains while finishing songs like “Language of the Dead,” “Live On” and “Into The Wide.” In total, they wrote 45 new songs and selected 12 for the record. When it was time to track the album, they headed down South to Allen’s hometown of Atlanta, where they experienced “Snowmageddon,” a snowstorm that crippled the city for several days. In the face of yet another natural disaster, the recording of Into The Wide was easygoing nonetheless.
“Everything clicked in Atlanta,” Vasquez recalls. “The Rat Cave has no windows, so you’re in a concrete coffin writing songs, and you’re scared to drink the water. Then, we go to Atlanta and we have a naturally lit studio and a producer who is assertive and reassuring. Ben really built up our confidence.”
While nature and climate change played a central role in the making of Into The Wide, another hot-button topic crept its way into the patchwork of the record: gun violence, which they addressed on several of the album’s tracks. In fact, Vasquez’s father is a former employee of Lockheed Martin, one of the largest defense contractors in the world.
“When I was small, he used to bring home VHS tapes of tank- killer bombs and other explosive things,” he says. “He knew all about stealth technology before any of us knew what a drone was. He didn’t share classified information with us but I grew up seeing that stuff, so that was a part of the culture of my family.”
Vasquez’s father eventually left Lockheed Martin to become a teacher because “he’d rather teach kids than sell bombs,” and despite occasionally hunting and making trips to a shooting range himself (“there’s nothing more thrilling than shooting a thirty- ought-six”), Vasquez despises the military industrial complex, handguns and the NRA. He says, “The lobbyists are the problem with almost every issue we have in government.”
In “War Machine,” he confronts the very system that once employed his father, proclaiming, “War machine, you can’t break me/ You can’t have the world I love.” “Hold My End Up,” one of Into The Wide’s stronger cuts, is a melancholic dream-pop number that delivers a first-person account of a school shooting, with Vasquez playing the role of an angel on a shoulder, trying to talk some sense into a young shooter. (“It’s not too late to turn your back on them/ What kind of friend would lead you to your death?/ Don’t be foolish in your innocence.”)
With a songwriter who addresses subjects that most dare not touch in this day and age, it’s no wonder that the Americana world has accepted Delta Spirit. Yet, on a purely sonic basis, the group doesn’t sound anything like your typical Americana act.
“Our tastes aren’t the folk thing, even though we’ve sort of been pegged that way,” declares Vasquez. “I’m trying to be [as] genuine and honest as possible in music and story songwriting is what I’m drawn to. Trying to have that element and be in modern culture and not sound like you’re regurgitating the same vernacular. It’s like chewing on plastic corn forks! It’s like, ‘God, it tastes like chicken!’ That’s why our band is called Delta Spirit—to not be that!”
The folk association may also have to do with Vasquez’s involvement in Middle Brother, an “Americana supergroup” that also features Dawes’ Taylor Goldsmith and John McCauley of Deer Tick. Although reluctant to be pigeonholed into any genre—“we write songs for songs’ sake, not for a genre to fit in”—and even confronting his contemporaries in tunes like “Language of the Dead” (“Plagiarize the ‘20s you never lived... Throw your idols to the sea/ Dreamers, get your own dream”), Delta Spirit have earned the respect of the “folk cognoscenti.”
“Matt’s voice and words have that Nashville outcast vibe to it,” says Jay Sweet, producer of the Newport Folk Festival and a longtime champion of the band. “He’s not California, he’s not Texas, he’s not Brooklyn—even though he’s lived in all of those places. He’s a transplant and a vagabond, which is why Delta Spirit embodies folk music. Lyrically, they are far more in-depth than most bands you’d see at Newport because they know life isn’t all wine and roses. Life is hard. That is refreshing for an Americana band.”
Regardless of his opinion on being labeled “folk,” Vasquez was ready to return to his roots, and moved back to his beloved Hill Country outside Austin, Texas this summer. Both Jameson and Young have already relocated back to California—Young has settled into a backwoods life in the San Bernardino National Forest—while McLaren and Winrich are staying put in the Big Apple. They will pass The Rat Cave on to friends, but Delta Spirit’s essence, along with the blackwater “enzyme” of the Newtown Creek, will remain.
“I love this space for creating, but I need the catharsis of nature,” says Vasquez. “I need quiet and crickets and sunsets. New York City has been nothing but inspiring, being surrounded by like- minded people and musicians. The whole culture of going out and seeing shows every night is really wonderful, but I think our art needs the outdoors. My season of urban life has drawn to a close.”
Although they are now geographically scattered throughout the country, Delta Spirit reconvened in August, and they will remain on the road for much of the fall. “We’ve been off-cycle so long that we’re itching to get out,” Vasquez confirms. “I just hope that the songs, the imagery and the record hit people, because it will make for a really great show. We went through a lot over the past few years and I hope people will be able to relate to that and the different subjects on the album because, in the end, that is why we do this.”