When it came time to record Delta Spirit's third album, the band members knew one thing: It was time to shake off the stylistic labels that have shadowed them since they formed in San Diego, CA, in 2005. Though lyricists Matt Vasquez and Kelly Winrich were grateful for the warm reviews that their previous albums Ode To Sunshine (2008) and History From Below (2010) received, they were perplexed at being called "rootsy Americana" or "twangy folk." In their eyes, Delta Spirit has always been a thoroughly modern rock band, and, with their self-titled new album, they set out to prove it.
We found the sound that we've been looking for, that we've been growing into, and as soon as we hit on it, we ran with it," Vasquez says. "That's why it's a self-titled record, so we could connect our identity with the album, because this album is what we think Delta Spirit is. People make records for their time and we wanted to make one for our time. Just like novelists want to write the Great American Novel, we wanted to make a Great American Record. Not one about yesterday, but one about right now."
To help them realize their vision, Delta Spirit recruited producer Chris Coady, not only for his indie-rock credentials (he's worked with Yeah Yeah Yeahs, TV on the Radio, Beach House, and Smith Westerns, among others), but also because, with five strongly opinionated band members, Delta Spirit needed a producer who wouldn't be pushed around easily. "We also wanted a great engineer and someone who knew how to make sounds that didn't sound stock and average," Vasquez says of Coady, who brought in a home-built synthesizer, which was used on the song "Home."
The band also experimented sonically, creating layers of texture by using previously verboten instruments like MPC samples and drum machines. They also empowered their new guitarist, Will McLaren, to create stand-alone parts, and to go to town on electric instruments. The experimentation can be heard throughout the album, which opens with the rollicking
opening number "Empty House," and serves as a transition between Delta Spirit's previous sound and its new one. "The intention was to introduce the album with something that hints at what we used to sound like," Winrich says. "We wanted to ease people into it." The band, who recorded the album at Dreamland — a converted church built in 1896 in Woodstock, New York — also upended traditional song structures, playing around with writing songs with no choruses ("California") and generally throwing off simple verse-chorus-bridge conventions, making sure each verse felt different from the one that preceded it.
When it came to lyrical content, Vasquez and Winrich stuck to what they knew. "We're not hearkening back to anything in the lyrics," Vasquez says. "We're writing about situations that are mostly personal. I think the topic of love has affected us the most." The most direct approach comes from Winrich. "My songs all seem to pertain to one situation, a failed relationship," he says. "'Anyone who's been in a long-distance situation will be able to relate to 'California.' 'Otherside' is about being delusional and holding onto something that may or may not be real, and 'Time Bomb' is about being blind to what the future holds and how happiness and sadness are kind of intertwined."
Several (though not all) of Vasquez's songs tend to make their points through the perspective of others, a style favored by some of his favorite songwriters, including Tom Waits and Nick Cave. On "Empty House," he takes on the persona of a construction worker who is seeing the Dharma in his work. "This guy is mixing concrete and suddenly notices the tiny glinting specks in it," Vasquez explains. "He begins to wonder 'What got me here? Where am I headed' and relating that little speck to his life." "Tellin' The Mind" is about Colton Harris Moore, the teenager known as the Barefoot Bandit who became an internet sensation after committing several burglaries, and stealing and crashing a plane. "I loved him," Vasquez says. "I thought he deserved an anthem." "Tear It Up" was originally inspired by the events in Egypt during the Arab spring, but morphed into a more universal song about what can happen with people get together with a common goal. Vasquez's most personal song is "Yamaha," which he wrote for his wife when she grew upset about his being away on tour for long stretches of time. "I felt like shit but I couldn't do anything. A guy's first instinct is to fix it, but you can't when you're three time zones away, so I wrote this song for her."
The album's raucous energy and no-holds barred performances will appeal to Delta Spirit's fanbase, which has grown consistently thanks to their explosive live shows. The band, who have completed headlining tours of the U.S. and Europe and appeared at SXSW, Bonnaroo, Lollapalooza, and Coachella, are looking forward to hitting the road and playing the new songs. "There's no other experience on earth like playing music with people and feeling that kinetic energy," Vasquez says. "I want to do it even when I'm old and it's ridiculous to see me on stage. If I can hold on to even a tenth of the feeling we have when we're playing, I'll be happy."
Matt Vasquez (lead vocals, guitar), Kelly Winrich (keyboards, vocals, drums), Jonathan Jameson (bass), Brandon Young (drums/percussion), Will McLaren (guitar, vocals)
Cults (DJ Set)
It's often said that the most subversive pop music – from the Shangri Las to Rihanna – is that which wraps sinister tales within a sugar-coated shell. If so, then it's hard to imagine a band pushing that manifesto further than Cults. On the surface they could be sickly sweet – a smitten duo called Brian Oblivion and Madeline Follin who spin gorgeous melodies across their girl group-inspired bedroom pop. But dig deeper and a whole new world opens up, one that contains songs about apprehension, substance abuse and the pain of moving from adolescence into adulthood. Oh, and those inspirational, moving speeches that appear, ghost-like, behind the music? They're from a selection of notorious cult leaders. …
"I think what makes something beautiful is when it's pretty but there's something wrong with it too," muses Brian. "So where our music is upbeat and uplifting, behind that there are heartbreaking lyrics and quotes from Charles Manson, Patty Hearst, Jim Jones … I wanted quotes of ugly people saying beautiful things. That's the pinnacle of beauty to me, when someone who is so obviously disagreeable in every way can say something perfect."
The Cults story is really one of chance meetings, chances so fortuitous you may wonder if something stronger – something more like fate – was at work. How else to explain the fact that Madeline happened to be in San Diego, Brian's hometown, and the two happened to be in attendance at the same concert with a mutual friend. How else to explain the fact that, for some unknown reason, Madeline had left half her belongings in San Francisco, prompting Brian to offer to drive the round trip to collect them, during which the pair would cement their relationship by bonding over each other's iPod collection (from Lesley Gore and Jay-Z to Justin Timberlake). And how else to explain the fact that Madeline and Brian both happened to be embarking on a imminent move to New York to study film, ensuring that they spend endless hours of time together and Brian got the chance to hear Madeline singing over the first songs he'd ever written.
Thrilled but shy about their new recordings, the pair tentatively put them up on a Bandcamp page in February 2010 and gave the tracks to a few friends under the stipulation that they don't share them. Fortunately their friends didn't always obey orders and "Go Outside" found it's way to music blog Gorilla Vs Bear who posted the unknown demo to a roaring reception. More fate, you might say. And here's some more – Gorilla Vs Bear just so happened to be starting up a label, Forest Family Records, and were looking for an undiscovered new band to launch it with.
In April of 2010 Cults released a "Go Outside" 7″ single with Forest Family that sold out before the copies even went to print. Over the next several months the band would release a few more tracks from these early recordings, record a track called "Oh My God" for Adult Swims single series, build on the true nature of their musical desires and evangelize new listeners nationwide.
After a few standout performances last fall at the 2010 CMJ Festival in which music's elite praised the duos' simplistic pop charm, Cults decided their next move would be to put a full album out with a bigger label and signed to the newly-created Sony imprint ITNO. The band's self-titled release is – like the original demos – self-produced, although engineer Shane Stoneback (Sleigh Bells, Vampire Weekend) was brought on board to tighten things up. A love of hip hop is also evident in their use of repetition: "We wanted the melody to be the thing that breaks the music out of its monotony," says Brian. "In that sense some of our songs aren't far off from early Wu Tang stuff where they'd sample soul records."
That all this happened for Cults in the space of a year says a lot about the band's sense of spontaneity. And the fact that most people didn't know the first thing about them when they heard their music? That just worked to their advantage – especially as a sense of mystery and intrigue has been absent from rock 'n 'roll for too long.
"Bands have become way too handy at promoting themselves," says Brian. "There's nothing left to ponder if there is too much information – you can just consume it and throw it away."
And as for why the band chose the name Cults: "A lot of our songs are about what we're going through right now – the fear of growing up and facing adult responsibility," says Brian. "And in a way that fear is what makes people join cults in the first place – wanting to escape competition and success and be a part of something bigger, communal. We also want to live our own lives with our own schedules and expectations, so in a way this band has become our own cult."
"We wanted to make something that sounded and felt like home," says Sacco's John Fredericks. He and childhood friend Andy Breihan grew up in southern California, where they played in various bands together for nearly a decade before moving to the East Coast. As they adapted to life in New York City, the duo found welcome relief from occasional bouts of homesickness in songwriting. "Parts of this record are trying to capture romantic memories of home, the things you love about it. The beach, the sun, those are things we tried to bring to the music."
Indeed, the first things you'll notice about Sacco's debut self-titled album are the shimmering, breezy melodies and relaxed grooves that feel worlds away from the streets of New York. Thick, slinky bass lines snake underneath driving, infectious beats, as Breihan and Fredericks' washed-out vocals sweep across the spare arrangements.
"We realized that the bass was really exciting and it was kind of a secret weapon for us,” says Breihan. “We tried to shape the rest of the songs with that in mind, and the big drumbeats were a part of that."
It's a sound that's garnered them early love from key tastemakers like Daytrotter and Stereogum, who premiered their double-music-video for "Carnival Ghost" and "Driving," and a respected place amongst fellow NYC-via-California rockers like Delta Spirit, Guards, and Cults, who invited the band to play support on their last national tour.
The band’s self-titled album came together in a truly collaborative fashion, with Breihan and Fredericks splitting the songwriting, singing, and recording duties 50/50. Much of the album was recorded DIY in an apartment studio, but it took a trip to the beach to truly get them in the right mindset.
"That was important," says Breihan of the Long Island beach house where they recorded portions of the album. It was a reminder of where they'd come from, what they were chasing with their songs. "We wanted to be in a place where you could just jump in the ocean."
The result is an utterly captivating collection of neo-psych indie rock, with stories of alcoholic preachers and homeless teens floating out above pulsating bass lines and fuzzed-out guitars. "They pin their words and moods on thoughts of liquor long since drunk, about bodies of water that hold so many scattered ashes and all sorts of secrets, churning there beneath the ice," writes Daytrotter. "The scene is so attractive and utterly heartbreaking."
Therein lies the beauty of Sacco's music, a potent blend of the welcoming and worrisome, of the serene and melancholy. It's the sound of home.