A Q&A With Delta Spirit
by Emily Cassel, published May 9th 2012
San Diego’s Delta Spirit have been winning fans over with their unique instrumentation ever since they started banging on trash can lids for their 2008 full-length Ode to Sunshine. And on their newest, self-titled effort, the five-piece is still trying new things, like recording in a converted church and working with renowned producer Chris Coady (Grizzly Bear, Yeah Yeah Yeahs).
Tastemakers got a chance to catch up with the band before their March 17 show at the Paradise. In between discussions of craft beers and exchanging hugs with old friends, bassist Jon Jameson talked about Delta Spirit’s new album, the benefits of recording in unique spaces and the reasons you should keep your eyes out for cool bathroom artwork.
TMM: You guys said that you set out wanting to make this a “Great American Record,” which is pretty ambitious. What sorts of components go into making an album like that?
JJ: I think part of it comes just from finding your place in the world, finding something you have to contribute that’s hopefully unique. I mean, we aren’t very interested in just reliving the past or just copying something that’s popular. I think America is about bringing something to the table that the world needs, and so I think that’s what we were trying to do with our music.
TMM: When I saw there were two songs on the album named after states, I thought maybe you were going to interpret the American theme very literally.
JJ: [Laughs] The weird thing is that I didn’t even realize that until, like, last week actually. I knew “California” because that’s the single, and I kept thinking about it. But I kept forgetting we had a song named “Idaho,” too. It’s weird, and definitely not as intentional as one might think. It was almost subconscious even.
TMM: It’s also interesting that before this album, you only had one really overtly California-y song: “Golden State.” But on this record you have “California,” which has a really beachy, West Coast feel.
JJ: Yeah, we’re into a lot of different stuff. We like airy, atmospheric, bright sounds, and then at the same time I think that there was maybe even something subconscious about that. A friend of ours mentioned, “Oh, it’s cool that you threw that Beach Boys beat in for ‘California,’” and that was another subconscious thing. None of us were like, “Let’s throw a Beach Boys, ‘50s beat in ‘cause it’ll remind people of California.” It was just something that we tried, and it sounded good.
TMM: Could you actually talk a little bit about the album art? I thought that was really eye catching.
JJ: Thank you! It’s funny because weirdly enough, the cover was a collage that the owner of the studio that we recorded in had made in the bathroom. All of us saw it, day after day, while we were using the bathroom there. I remember seeing it and saying to myself, “Wow, that looks so cool and weird and unique.” But I never thought to, like, take a photo of it or do anything with it. Then our friend Matt Wignall, who did the photography and art direction, it was just a random photo he took. He sent us a list of several different photos and ideas for covers and that was one of them. Immediately it stuck out to me because it was already in my mind – subconsciously again! – as something that really stood out and at the same time was a part of every day of us making the record. It was something we interacted with, albeit via the bathroom. But it was cool, and I’m really happy with the cover.
TMM: Producer Chris Coady worked with you on this record, and he’s someone who’s worked with a lot of – I guess you could say indie rock heavyweights: Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Grizzy Bear, Beach House. Did his presence have an impact on the album?
JJ: We had the album pretty well pieced together as far as the songs, but with the production, he definitely did things that we normally wouldn’t have done. We usually air on the side of big, reverb-y, roomy drums and as many harmonies as possible, and he kind of honed that in. For example, “California” has really tight, mic’d drums, that people keep hearing and asking, “Why is there a drum machine on there?” It’s actually not a drum machine. It’s Brandon playing drums, but really tightly mic’d. It’s a sound that we haven’t used much in the past, partially just because we’ve been figuring it out ourselves, and he has a different perspective which I think really brought the album to where it needed to be. I love all the songs, but I think what he did really brought everything full circle.
TMM: As far as location goes, you recorded your first full length at a cabin in the mountains and your latest effort at a converted church in New York…
JJ: Yeah, and the last one was in a refurbished chicken coop in upstate California.
TMM: Right! So how do you guys come across these spaces?
JJ: We definitely seek them out. We always look for places that will bring us out of our every day life and the distractions of hanging with friends or loved ones. Even though that’s hard at times, it really helps you to focus. We kind of like the idea of completely putting ourselves into the album, so we’ve looked for places like that. We’ve looked at spaces in Greece and Malibu and all these weird places that are isolated. We had wanted to record at this place, Dreamland, in the past, and Chris Coady had made two records there. He did the Beach House record there and he also did Gang Gang Dance there, so he was comfortable with it, knew it, and was into the idea. So it just made sense. He was already ready for it and we were interested in it.
TMM: I’ve read that you guys don’t particularly like being dubbed an Americana or folk band, so how would you describe yourselves, stylistically? I realize there might not be one word, but…
JJ: It’s definitely hard. I think when it really comes down to it we just consider ourselves… well, we want to be the best rock band possible. But there’s a lot that goes into rock music and it’s so vague these days. I think, not to be even more vague, but I think we like the idea of making old things new and doing new things in a fresh way. Like I said before, we don’t just want to be copying something that’s been done. We respect tradition, but we don’t want to regurgitate it. At the same time, we’ve been doing this long enough and are disinterested enough in the zeitgeist, the spirit of the age, that we don’t want to instantly go along with whatever seems to be happening. Because by the time we get into it, it probably won’t be cool anymore. We constantly want to be re-envisioning. It’s a natural thing for us. We’re five people that are very different, with very different opinions, different perspectives, and different musical tastes. Whenever we find something where all five of us agree, that’s the band that we are. It’s weird for us because we’ve liked folk music and American music. But I mean, I love Pulp, you know? I love a lot of other things. I think, in a lot of ways, we sound more like Pulp than Woody Guthrie. So it just seems unfitting and a little bit like bad research to call us an Americana band.
TMM: So the five of you all have different musical tastes, how difficult is that?
JJ: It’s maddening. It’s crazy. It shouldn’t work, but that’s the great thing about it. A lot of bands have a – warlord is the wrong word – but someone that’s the taskmaster that makes the decisions and tells people what to do. And Kelly and Matt write most of the basic ideas of the songs, but everyone has free reign of what we do with it, and we can bring up new ideas. It’s really hard to get everyone on the same page, and it takes a while. We spent three or four months hashing out what we wanted this new album to sound like and finding where we all fit together. It’s something that so far has worked out, and it’s happened every time. We finally hit the point where we’re like, “Yes, we all love all of these songs.” And if it doesn’t happen, I don’t know! Maybe that’s it, you know? But I think we give and take and respect each other, even though we’re different. That’s what a good relationship is, and that’s what a good band is.
Check out Delta Spirit’s self-titled effort, out now on Rounder Records!