Music has always reflected the mechanical sounds of the era it's made in. Roger McGuinn noted as much in the liner notes to the Byrds' debut, using a lot of made up words like "rrrrrrrrooooaaaaahhhhh" and "krrrrrrriiiiiisssssshhhhhh" to illustrate his point. As annoying as that sounds, he was right. Early bluesmen tried to approximate the tenor of a locomotive with harmonica and slide. Big bands used horns to emulate the roar of '40s air travel just as rock guitarists used feedback to simulate the jet age of the 1960s. And when we put a man on the moon, moog synthesizer albums started selling in appreciable numbers.
So where does that leave us in the 21st century? With a lot of people making music that sounds like fax machines and modems, that's where. And folks with computers and sequencers trying to sound like Booker T. and the MGs. All healthy signs that music is moving forward and keeping its sense of history. But where are the people making modem sounds with real guitars and Hammond organics?
Look no further than Delta 72's latest album, 000. Cue up the opener, "Are You Ready," and you'll hear what sounds like a modem linking up to an oncoming train. These blips and throttles build up a powerful head of steam that's finally released when rooster-haired singer Gregg Foreman lets out a mighty "woooooooh" -- the kind you don't hear on records anymore. It's heartfelt, it's live and it distorts like a speaker in need of repair every time. The kind of "woooooooh" Rod the Mod used to pitch all the time before he surrounded himself with Face-less sidemen.
Speaking of which, Ian McLagan, keyboardist for the Faces, met the similarly rooster-maned Foreman at a record show following this year's South by Southwest conference, and the two exchanged coiffuring tips. "I was just kidding around with him," laughs Foreman. "Y'know, 'How's my hair looking?' 'A lot better than mine, mate.' He'd read a review of our South by Southwest show in the paper the next day and said, 'Sorry man, they gave you a real good review but they compared you to the "r" word,' he said. He's really not into Rod Stewart. He wouldn't even say his name."
If there's an "r" word Foreman finds more distressing to read in a review than "Rod," it's "retro." The minute you apply that term to a band, people stop looking for new things the group might be bringing to the table and instead decide to play connect-the-dots with old influences.
It's really a pointless exercise because all music is derivative, born from the same buncha notes. Even "rootless" music is a reaction to something that came before. So let's stop the nonsense, turn back the calendar to year 000 and recognize Delta 72 as one of the finest of the "post-retro" bands around.
Why "post retro"? Because Delta 72 is one of the few groups that's genuinely honest about its influences. Yet other artists who set out to re-create Gang of Four and Public Image seem to escape the retro tag, since they're only pilfering a sound 20 years old instead of 40.
Delta 72 began in 1994, opening its first album The R&B of Membership with a sound bite off of James Brown's 1962 Live at the Apollo album. Though born too late to catch the great black Old Soul revues, the band nonetheless became enamored of the trappings of the era and began dressing in suits. As Foreman told Raygun in 1997, "It's exciting to come and see a band come out and play in suits. Jazz musicians used to wear suits out of respect for the audience."
It was also an easy gauge to see how hard a band was working to win over an audience. When the O'Jays took off their jackets, you knew they were just starting to get serious.
"Right," agrees Foreman. "They start off more suave, and as they get into it, they start removing their cummerbunds. We used to all wear the same kind of matching suits, but we abandoned that so we can be taken more seriously, less shtick rock. It seemed to be tired. A lot of bands like Rocket From the Crypt, Boss Hog, the Makeup, were all wearing suits. It's cool where it's coming from, but for us, we just wanted it to be about the music, not uniformity.
"We're trying to play music for the younger sisters and brothers, people who are just coming up and have no reference points. I think people want to identify with you, and it's kind of hard to identify with cats in suits. People really know when you're working or not, and hopefully we'll start getting more recognition for that." As for stage gear, the band has opted for something a little less formal this go-round. "We all have something we wear every night just to keep our day clothes from being completely smelly."
Having spent two albums sweating out an edgy punk-informed style of R&B that most critics likened to Jon Spencer's blues retooling, Delta 72 has now embraced the instrumentation of rock and soul circa 1972 (Stones, Faces, Humble Pie, Ike and Tina Turner, J. Geils Band). Where once there were Farfisas, now there are monstrous Hammond organ, clavinet and electric piano sounds calling the shots. The addition of Mark Boyce (also a member of Boss Hog) has changed the role of keyboards from mere coloring to a distinctive voice. And the band's new album -- which also throws female gospel singers into the mix -- was recorded on the same board as Exile on Main Street and Purple Rain.
Gospel singers, praising the Stones, distorted Hammond organs -- all that stuff was verboten interview subject matter when Delta 72 started up. Back in the early '90s, there wasn't an "r" word more disreputable than "rock." Bands struggling for indie cred avoided the term like the plague for fear of being regarded as old hat by the underground press. When asked about his influences back then, Foreman could just barely invoke the MC5 without getting egged (oddly enough, White Panther Party founder and former MC5 manager John Sinclair penned the liners for the group's second album, The Soul of a New Machine). The Clash and Gang of Four were acceptable answers, but the Faces and Humble Pie, forget it.
Now, indie bands blatantly tell you that they're about "rocking out," wearing out the term like a pair of two-tone shoes that have been sitting at the back of the closet too long. If South by Southwest proved anything, it's that the underground is really a sea of bands playing dirty arena rock downsized for dingy rock clubs. Foreman agrees.
"At SXSW, I saw a handful of bands that really had it, had some sort of spark, but I saw a whole bunch of poseur bands that had nothing. They had the haircuts, the snarling swagger. They had nothing else. No songs, no vibe; it was just like a cartoon. That's when you can say it's really "retro.' There's not even a new attitude to the music. There's so many bands that are trying to be The Stooges 1970 or being the New York Dolls 1973. It's just aping. That's where it gets bummed out for me. That's not my thing."
Delta 72's thing, whatever it is, needs to be experienced live. What other band could've played two blistering SXSW sets, one at the ungodly noon hour, and still manage to pump up jaded industry blowhards on the prowl for free food and libations? If it's "retro" to actually play instruments, combine rock and funk as if your life depended on it and work a crowd with musical questions like "Are you ready?" and "Do you feel it?" then these guys are music's answer to the Antiques Road Show.
And this time around, they've crafted an album to match both the sound and fury of their rock 'n' roll ancestors.
"It's an old-world recording," says Foreman unapologetically. "I don't know where it's coming from. I just know it's what we do. I think a lot of people aren't sure where we're coming from sometimes. We're definitely first and foremost fans of the soul/funk genre. But no one ever references the soul stuff or says "the Faces.' They go straight for the Stones. And yeah, there is a lot of that in there, but there's just as much Ike and Tina Turner. I mean, we don't have any "Emotional Rescue' jams hidden away," he laughs.
And nowadays, it seems, everything "old world" is new again. When was the last time you purchased an album with four instrumentals, three rave-ups and "a spacey Brazilian dub sort of thing -- our ode to Tropicalia," says Foreman.
"It gets to be hard finding a balance when you're influenced by so many things. We're just as influenced by Kraftwerk as we are by the Flying Burrito Brothers. But we're not gonna all of a sudden put out a Kraftwerk record."
Currently, Foreman is listening to French ambient-pop duo Air and "a lot of hip-hop stuff that draws from funk and soul when the lyrics are intelligent, like International Noise Conspiracy. They're paying attention to social and person politics, as opposed to just getting up there and rocking out," he says. "A lot of the funk records I have were put out at the time of the Black Panthers, and it's really cool to read about what was going on and affecting the music at the time and what's going on now and what's affecting music now."
It's only when you start to ask about the current state of music that Foreman seems to get into another sort of funk.
"I was up a little bit last night trying to think about what the future holds for a band like us that tries to play modern music with old-world influence. I wonder if we have any chance of being more than an underground band, if it's gonna be anything more than just that.
"You look at what's selling, and there's no soul or rock anywhere. Whose cup of tea is this? Yours? Not mine. Who's buying records anymore and why aren't they buying the right records now?"
People with limited frame of reference might hear the strut in a song like "Just Another Let Down," see Foreman's hair and think of the last band to draw heavy influence from the Faces camp -- The Black Crowes. Once a pre-grunge MTV darling, the Crowes are now a commercially spent cause touring with the patron saint of spent causes -- The Firm, Coverdale/Page, Plant & Page -- Jimmy Page.
"The Black Crowes did pretty well. They had their thing, but now they're doing that sort of Vegas circuit with Jimmy Page. I still like them, I dunno. It's gotten to the point of . . .," he pauses, ". . . no new tricks."
That kind of creative stagnation is something Foreman says Delta 72 has worked hard to avoid. "We're not just one type of musical hack. You have to do a little bit of work, and that's also the type of people that like us," he laughs.
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Judging by the first couple of shows of this current tour, Foreman thinks the group's fan base has definitely turned over from those who liked them during their early days with the Dischord label. "It was that whole post-indie thing, all-black dyed hair, mod white belts.
"Look," he says, "I love those people, too, but I just want to make music. I'm not trying to start an army."
Delta 72 is scheduled to perform on Friday, June 30, at Nita's Hideaway, with the Sadies and Les Payne Product. Showtime is 9 p.m.