into [The Isley Brothers’] ‘ Shout,’” he said. “And when we went ‘a little bit softer now,’ the Cambridge audience didn’t want to get down. So I jumped out in the audience, sweating, almost passing out, and everybody got down. And when we got up, it was absolutely insane. Complete carnage.”
Vasquez’s background in busking helped prepare him to connect with audiences in this way. “You kind of figure out what works when you busk, and it’s a lot like playing in front of people in a band. It’s different, but you’re just trying to get people’s attention. [With busking] you’re just trying to get people to put money in a hat or just enjoy it. Playing with a band, the attention that we’re trying to give and to get is to get everyone to pay attention to each other, like in the whole room. And once you get to that point, everybody’s having fun. There are those people with their arms crossed, or on their cellphone the whole time, or having conversations. If you can do your best to get everyone to recognize that they’re all in the same room with everybody else, from there you can really, really have a lot of fun.”
It was while busking late one night several years ago that Vasquez met drummer Brandon Young. He had taken to busking because he shared a two-bedroom apartment with his parents and two siblings, and there was nowhere inside to play music. Young — along with Delta Spirit bassist Jon Jameson — was a member of San Diego emo band Noise Ratchet. Vasquez said it’s difficult to trace the origin of Delta Spirit, because all the members have been friends for so long, but the short version of the story is that they all decided they weren’t happy with the music they were making and wanted to do something together. The Noise Ratchet members even walked away from a record deal with Rick Rubin’s American Recordings label to make this happen.
Once the band was formed, they played San Diego, Los Angeles, and Orange County several times a week — all while holding day jobs. Vasquez remembers how he had been working in special education at the time and would essentially live out of his van on some nights after a show — getting up at 6 a.m., getting dressed, and clocking in. This hard work paid off in 2006, when the group went on a successful tour with the Cold War Kids and released their first extended-play record, I Think I’ve Found It. The musicians were able to quit their jobs and devote themselves to Delta Spirit full time, which resulted in the well-received 2008 album Ode to Sunshine.
Their most recent record, History From Below, kicks off with Vasquez practically shouting on “911”: “Say good morning to my friends/Oh MY LORD! It’s six a.m./The day ain’t nothing but a sentence paid/You work so hard and nothing change.” The song begins like Vasquez’s recollection of waking up in his van to hit the 9-to-5 but then skips over to a Woody Guthrie-esque summary of the plight of the American worker. The band scorches along with elastic guitar riffs, Beatlesesque harmonies, and a freight-train rhythm. From this track, History From Below covers ballads and barnburners, love songs, and political material in a rootsy tone similar to the Jayhawks’ best work.
Delta Spirit is something of a democratic band. Nearly all the members have experience as drummers in other bands (“We could form a drum line if we wanted,” Vasquez jokes). Several of them have songwriting chops. Vasquez and multi-instrumentalist Kelly Winrich don’t even bring finished songs to the group, because much of the writing process comes from jamming. With so many drummers in the group, the writing often happens, as you might imagine, from the groove on up. They also spend many evenings playing on porches with musicians from bands based nearby, poring through songbooks of the likes of Tom Waits or Neil Young.
It’s the communal spirit and sense of exploration that make touring so enjoyable for them. Vasquez has this advice about breaking up the doldrums of life on the road for months at a time: “When you get sick of a hotel room, don’t be afraid to go on an adventure. I have a lot of friends in a lot of cities, so I never usually stay in a hotel room. In New York and down in the South it’s really fun. I try to go out, not all the time, but I try to make moments with my friends, especially on tour with the guys that you’re touring with in other bands. Jump in someone else’s van and ride seven hours with them, talk, get to know them. You can go on a two-month tour and not get to know people if you just stay in your van the whole time.”
When pressed on whether touring is really that much fun, Vasquez brings up that hour of the morning once more. Apparently there are some byproducts of hard work that you can’t avoid, no matter how exciting everything else is. “It gets tough when you play six days a week and you get one night off. Then you drive seven hours a day, and you wake up at 6 a.m. every day to do radio. That’s tough. But you can have the funnest night playing music and hanging out with your friends, and you have an opportunity to do that every night.That’s awesome.”