Delicate Steve: Concert-side Chat

Music that speaks to you in the absence of words. Delicate Steve, led by Jersey-native Steve Marion, makes self-proclaimed pop music; bumping drum beats and “sung” guitar melodies infuse a hopeful air that is widely accessible, universally palpable. Delicate Steve’s new album, This is Steve (due out in January 2017) is chock-full of crisp rock beats and new instrumentation, weaving itself together into an energy-rich, high-spirited collection of new tunes. I chatted with Steve before his day-making Cafe 939 performance and got some background on cherished favorites, as well as a window into some sweet upcoming releases.

How did Delicate Steve come to be?

Well this band started in the context of my friends’ collective in New Jersey, and each one of them made their own music; I was the producer, the guitar player and the studio engineer, and the lead figure of the music collective. Everyone would cut their records with whatever friends were around; we’d all just back each other up to make different albums. Eventually I wanted to make my album. When it came time to play a Delicate Steve show in New Jersey, I’d play with the same four guys from the music collective. We kept getting more shows, and then that sort of became the band. So it came out of this collective of people who are all used to playing each other’s music, switching roles...and from there it morphed into its own standalone band.

[On inspiration for song titles]

These songs were just folders on my recording computer. Most of them start out untitled; there’s only a few I can remember when I’ve had the name of the song first. On my new album, that’s coming out in January, there’s a song called "Cartoon Rock." I had this idea of cartoon rock before I made the song, and kind of built the song from that foundation.

There’s a song called She’s Got me Under Pressure by ZZ Top. It has a similar tempo. I started with the tempo and the drum feel of that song, and recorded myself playing the drums for 2 minutes (the song is two minutes long). Because it’s so fast, I thought I’d done three minutes of it. When i thought I’d finished the song I kept time on the high-hat and glanced back my laptop and realized I still had another minute, counted eight bars and started up again. Whatever I did on that take was the template for the rest of the song. Then I came up with a guitar riff that I liked, kept going from there and layering things, adding sections to the songs. But on most of the Delicate Steve songs, everything is moreso pieced on as opposed to copied, looped, or changed. Whatever happened, I added on until I felt like the song was done.

What instrument do you usually start tracking with?

I either start with percussion or with chords. Chords are the song, really. Take Butterfly. If you heard that riff in the absence of the chords for a bunch of times you’d get sick of it! The most inspiring thing for me is coming up with a chord progression that I like.

What made you decide to use a slide in Butterfly?

The whole song started with this little Casio drum machine that I bought in a thrift store for a couple bucks. It came with a speaker and would play this drum beat [see above clip: 0-4 seconds]. I recorded that, and recorded an entirely different song over that drum beat, then scrapped goal for Delicate Steve was to make music that I thought was pop music; for it to be immediate, for it to be catchy, and this song didn’t end up coming out that way. So I scrapped everything but the drum machine, and then I started with the acoustic guitar. I remember just sitting down with my guitar and kind of hacking away over the acoustic guitar...once I got the whole melody of Butterfly, the slide part, I figured out what chords to put underneath it. So when you listen to the studio track, it’s pretty representative of the recording process. It starts with the drum machine, follows with an acoustic guitar; then the slide lead comes in, and later the chords come in underneath it.

What about the part when the drums are almost inaudible?

There were a couple recurring themes in that album...the guitar part that I play over it is the same lead guitar part in The Ballad of Speck and Pebble.

I’m really curious about your new album. Winners has more of a four-on-the-floor feel to it than your previous work. Is this foreshadowing a new direction?

Definitely. I’m very concerned with how this band gets labeled. Anything I did to inspire the sound of the band on the first album was just happenstance...I didn’t have a snare drum, so there’s no snare drum on Wondervisions. I took a guitar pedal off of the shelf that I thought was stupid so that I’d have to fight it to get something good out of it. That’s why the guitar is very high-pitched on the first album...this thing I didn’t really like, I wanted to try and make good music with it. So I didn’t want to continue that [process], and become a caricature of that sound. As it stands right now, most of the music doesn’t have vocals. So I want to open up different sonic pallets. And on this album, my palette of instruments is just much different than on the first two records.

The bass on Winners is super different as well!

Yeah, I want to make a whole different set of music now. I really love a four-on-the-floor beat, the rock beat, there’s so much you can do with the syncopating of that and what you put over it…almost more than with a complex drum beat. Just distilling things down to as simple as they need to be is really inspiring to me right now. So this new record has a lot of drum beats that are just like [see above clip: 6-8 seconds]. It’s also a reaction, maybe even subconsciously now that I think of it, to the fact that many Delicate Steve songs aren’t the easiest to [in a] live [setting]...You have to create that formula that gets people’s bodies to after four years of touring and two albums of existing music, that’s where I was when I started recording this album.

It sounds like you have more of an audience-geared goal with your new album...

I always want to make the most accessible music possible, so every time I do something musically, it’s an attempt at that. I’m never trying to subvert the listener...I just happen to make a strain of pretty weird, exotic, uncharacteristic pop music.

Happenstance, eh?

Yeah, I guess it’s a combination of [the fact that] I can’t sing; and that I’m a guitar player, but I don’t consider myself a guitarist so much as I do a songwriter, so I don’t use the guitar as a guitarist would to show off my guitar skills, but moreso to make someone feel’s all those ingredients, those circumstances coming together to make this music. My intentions are always like, “I want to share this music with everyone, I want everybody to be into it,” so this album is my current means of trying to relate with everyone...updated for 2017.

Your music really speaks to its listeners on a spiritual level. Did you intend for this to happen, did it factor into your process as a composer in any way(s)?

Before Delicate Steve, the music I was making was intended to make you weep at the sheer beauty of the song, and it never worked! I had a couple of breakthroughs around that time, and was toying with the concept of what it is to make a spiritual work: does it have to be something that is highly regarded and inaccessible to people because it’s so [sophisticated], or can it be this cartoon show...leaving it up to your own interpretation rather than forcing you to believe that it’s a highly spiritual thing...kind of winking and saying, “Is this a complete joke, or is this the most enlightened thing?” And trying to walk the line of that.

Wondervisions was inspired by this idea of spirituality...If I’d called the album “Inner Joy” and it was me on the cover in a church, people would be seeing my version of that...but if I kind of disguise it, then maybe somebody can digest it and not even know what they’re being hit with.

I joke around that George Harrison is my least favorite Beatle because it’s like, “George, we get it, you’ve been to India, you have all these sitar players...he’s the spiritual one, but Paul’s the silly one.” George is very if a joyful, enlightened McCartney song isn’t as deeply spiritual as “within you, without you!” I can’t sit through George forcing his concept down your throat about “Free Your Mind,” etc...that makes me want to do the opposite.

That mentality ties in really nicely with your music having no vocals, gives it room for having a broader interpretation.

Mhm! I guess that works out kinda well that I can’t sing! If I could sing then you would be having to hear my interpretation.

Wondervisions and this new album are very specific to me because they were both done in a flash. Wondervisions was done in about 2 weeks, and this new album was done within 11 days. Positive Force was done within about 2 years, going through different I can’t really relate

Have you been working on any collaborations?

Yeah! In the past 2-3 years I’ve been living in NYC, and have been fully immersed in the music scene, I’ve been working with a lot of different people… [I don’t know how much I can go into detail about these collaborations]...It’s what’s maybe made me feel like I didn’t need to say anything with Delicate Steve for the past couple’s been keeping me stimulated...Until I got to the point where I was ready to make another album. I’ve been engaged in music with a lot of different collaborators. It’s been great!