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Spotlight: Delicate Steve

Matt Inman | January 26, 2017

Steve Marion didn’t exactly hit the perfect note the first time he pressed a slide to his guitar strings. “I picked up a slide and put it down for like two years,” Marion says, before quickly jumping into his love for the Allman Brothers, a band whose sound is equally synonymous with the steel instrument. “My favorite slide player is Duane Allman. He has so much control. I was like, ‘There’s no way I’m ever going to match that. Why even try?’ But from there, one day, I just started playing it. It took a long time to pick it up seriously because it’s so hard. Now, it just feels normal.”

These days, the slide guitar is the not-so-secret ingredient in the music Marion makes as Delicate Steve, and it has been a focal point of nearly all of his compositions, including the 10 tracks that comprise his newest effort, This Is Steve. It’s Marion’s third studio album under the Delicate Steve moniker and first since 2012’s sprawling and vivid Positive Force. Marion was far from idle in those four years, with extensive touring and numerous collaborations to his name, but when it came time to make another Delicate Steve album, there was a bit of a false start.

“I wanted to have singers on it, and I wanted to make it a huge-sounding thing,” Marion says, explaining that he first took to the studio with dreams of making a record with multiple guest vocalists, such as Arcade Fire’s Win Butler and David Byrne. (Marion’s first two albums were released on Byrne’s label.) “But it just got too far away from itself.”

While he did end up recording music with Dr. Dog’s Scott McMicken and Built to Spill’s Doug Martsch, Marion ultimately scrapped the project and returned to a friend’s studio for a completely fresh start—an approach he likens to how he recorded his bedroom-produced debut, Wondervisions.

“I made the Wondervisions record in about two weeks, and that was life-changing at the time because I had never finished anything before,” Marion says. “So I was like, ‘I’m going to go in and I’m going to make a new record. I have 11 days in this studio, and I’m going to write all of the music and compose it, and not bring in any of the new ideas I’ve had over the past three years.’”

The resulting album, Delicate Steve’s debut for the ANTI- label, seems to race by in flashes of color and bursts of sound that leave the listener with more than a few earworm melodies buzzing around the brain. In contrast to much of Delicate Steve’s music, which comes from Marion’s love of production and studio work, the guitarist says that this record was inspired by his touring band, with whom he had spent months at a time on the road with since 2012.

“This was the first record where I was really psyched on the live band going into making a record,” Marion recalls. “We were such a unit that I had envisioned playing all of these songs with the band. It’s the first record where there’s an actual acoustic drum kit, and the guitar sounds are more like a guitar. I was keeping the instrumentation as minimal as possible for the arrangements. That’s where a lot of the sonic palette came from. Ironically enough, I have a whole new band now. I also didn’t think that Donald Trump would be our president, so there’s been a lot of surprises.”

Although Delicate Steve’s music rarely contains lyrics, Marion’s guitar lines and melodies are as lyrical as they come. Sometimes, he says, that’s intentional, as is the case with album track “Winners,” whose melody begins with a guitar lick that Marion admits was directly inspired by Elton John’s opening lyric in “Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy.”

Marion doesn’t shy away from his inspirations, and he even recently had the opportunity to collaborate with one. Paul Simon—whose son Adrian is a friend—invited Marion to play slide guitar on his most recent album, Stranger to Stranger. The take they used on the album was actually the first one that Marion did in the studio, and he says the experience was like none other.

“As much as I grew up on Paul Simon, it was only after that I felt any sort of starstruck quality,” Marion says. “It was, like, my friend’s dad, and he was really nice—and I was really there to work. One thing I would say about it is the level we would get into the song. I haven’t experienced that with many other musicians—if any.”

Marion says that one of his biggest core influence, though, is The Band, whom he honored at Port Chester, N.Y.’s The Capitol Theatre during “The Complete Last Waltz” tributes in 2014 and 2016. Both times he shared the stage with fellow Jersey native and current Brooklynite Joe Russo. The two connected thanks to to a chance encounter at another suburban haunt and have even discussed starting a new project.

“I used to go to the YMCA near my house in New Jersey when I was still living there, and I was probably the only guy that goes there with long hair,” he says. “One time, I was in the locker room, and I got singled out by this old geezer who was trying to start small talk with me, like, ‘Nice day out today. What do you do?’ Mind you, we’re changing our clothes and everything. I say, ‘Oh, I play music.’ And he’s like, ‘Oh, cool. My son plays music.’ And I say, ‘Oh, yeah?’ And he was like, ‘Yeah, he plays with Phil Lesh.’ I was like, ‘Come on, what’s your son’s name?’ And he says, ‘Joe Russo.’ So, basically, I met Joe Russo’s dad half-naked in the locker room before I met Joe Russo.”