Steve Marion's home studio has been the incubator for Delicate Steve.
Dave Alvin sat in an ant bed while talking to me on the phone. Victor Wooten hit a deer during our interview, and recently the string of calamity continued. "One of the guys in the van just opened a carbonated beverage all over himself," said Steve Marion during our interview. Marion is the principal voice behind Delicate Steve, and he was in a van on a tour that brings him to The Circle Bar tonight (presented by My Spilt Milk). So far, it has been a one-man project, but taking it on tour with a band may be changing that.
The Delicate Steve story starts with Marion's high school band, which played a lot before it broke up, and he ended up with the gear. He set up a bedroom studio in his house in New Jersey and started producing recordings for friends. He thought that was going to be his musical lot in life until he heard a handful of bands - Dirty Projectors, Ponytail and Deerhoof particularly. They inspired him to make music again, and he started work on the album that would become Wondervisions (2010). At the time, he also had in mind the music of Stevie Wonder and Alice Coltrane, and they inspired him to make music that reached for the universal.
Marion didn't have have a band, a band name or a plan. He played with sounds and ideas, and when he found something he liked, he cut it. In his efforts to find a punchier guitar sound, he mic'ed the strings of his electric guitar, and that became a sonic breakthrough. "It's the first time I had tried it, so I was excited and inspired by that sound because I'd never heard it or done it myself at the time," he says. That sort of musical and sonic experimentation shaped the recording as he searched for parts to accompany the parts already laid down until a composition emerged. "I don't really know where the end is until I'm done tracking stuff," he says. "At some point, I say it feels like it's done, but it's hard to cut yourself off because you're working with an infinite time on your hands."
The album found a home on David Byrne's Luaka Bop label, generally a home for psychedelic world music. It's psychedelic, and you can hear worldly elements in Delicate Steve's music, particularly in guitar parts and sounds that could have African and Asian origins, but they're not there by design. "There was no conscious decision to make Wondervision sound more worldly," Marion says. "All of those bands [that influenced the project] were trying to make their own brand of pop music. That was the inspiration behind Wondervision and it came out with this worldly feeling to it."
Shortly after the release of Wondervision, he started recording for its follow-up. His method hadn't changed, and the closest thing he had to a plan was that he wanted something more hard-hitting on the album that would become Positive Force (2012). He had learned a few things making Wondervision, most notably restraint. There were occasions when he found himself drowning in tracks. With nobody there to stop him, he could follow every idea, even when it was a step too far. Now, he says, "I'm always afraid to add another track because that's where I can get in my own never-ending loop. I try to make sure that everything there is audible and makes a lot of sense." There are rarely more than two guitars on a track, and some of the lead melody tracks are doubled, but if parts are layered, they're largely the keyboards.
It's not as easy for Marion to point to the influences on Positive Force because its recording took longer - almost two years, versus three or four months for Wondervision. In that time, he listened to a lot of music, but there are some he can name and hear. "I got deeply back into Miles Davis, and that influenced the last track of the record ["Luna"]," he says. "I was trying to make the guitar feel like Miles playing a horn solo over something. Yeasayer influenced the bridge in 'Wally Wilder' and the 'Afria Talks to You' song." He also remembers things as diverse as Smashing Pumpkins, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, and Smile affecting his musical decisions.
Perhaps because the parts in Delicate Steve songs came through discovery, Marion isn't precious about them live. Some of the parts have changed to better suit the players in the live band, and some have evolved over time. "We're subconsciously changing the arrangements just by playing stuff over and over, but a lot of the time we're forcing ourselves to come up with new parts to keep ourselves excited each night," he says. As much as he likes what they're doing, he hesitates to identify any songs that may have improved in the hands of the band. "The first two albums were about trying to capture the moment of creation and the spontaneous, excited, playful feeling," he says. "You get one kind of energy from that; you get a whole different energy from really being able to get to know the songs and play them for years. It's the yin and yang of the song. They're two different documents of the state of the song."
Considering the improvised character of the whole project down to its instrumental nature ("It was never a conscious decision to not have vocals; I just never got into singing"), it's no surprise that Marion is open to whatever happens next. The next album may be just him in his studio, or it may be cut with the band. The personal, improvised nature of what he has recorded so far makes the albums not just musical products but diaries of sorts that remind him of who he was and what he was listening to during those times. "It feels really special to have one thing I can listen to and be put back into October and November for four or three years ago," he says.
My Spilt Milk presents Delicate Steve, Rareluth and Aerial Attack tonight at The Circle Bar. Show starts at 10 p.m.