Matt Vasquez climbs up onto the dilapidated wood bench that borders the smoking porch at The Casbah . He swings his legs, unable to get comfortable, so he jumps down to the ground and paces the concrete. The frontman for Delta Spirit is excited, wringing his hands: 24 hours from now he'll be speeding up I-5 to start a nationwide tour with the Cold War Kids.
"It's like jumping from Little League to the World Series," he says. "We [either] hit home runs or it's back to the farm leagues for us, baby. My expectation is that surely our van will break down before we even get to the first show, but that's just me being a pessimist."
Vasquez is a kind, if moody, soul. One minute he's bouncing jokes off of friends and the next he's sulking in the corner because a bandmate yelled in his ear too loud. He's not a jerk, just complicated. But at the moment, as conversation weaves from the finer points of the band Dr. Dog to what he believes is a child sex trade in Vista, Vasquez is getting ready to hit the stage and officially start the tour. The venue is sold out, mostly with Cold War Kids fans and scenesters who've heard Next Big Thing murmurs about Delta Spirit. "We don't really like playing San Diego," Vasquez frowns before he gets on stage. "There's just a vibe."
But by the time the band is midway through the second song, they're tearing at the mics, banging on converted trashcan lids, lunging back and forth across the stage, wringing out every last bit of lyrical breath-"You fought the law, but you couldn't fight, gawwwd!"-and converting a mass of head-bobbing people to the gospel according to Delta Spirit. A huge smile is splashed across Vasquez's face.
Two members of Delta Spirit are familiar with this stage of the game. Drummer Brandon Young and bassist Jon Jameson were teenagers when they joined Noise Ratchet. (Young helped start the band in 1999 and Jameson came on as their bassist in 2001.) After heavy touring and a slew of astounding live gigs, they got a visit from legendary producer Rick Rubin and signed a deal with his label, American Records.
"He drove down to San Diego to see one of our shows, which was nice, but we weren't tight with him," says Jameson. "We got a record together for American, but it never came out. It was a good experience, but it ended quickly."
After Noise Ratchet split in 2004, Jameson and Young worked at a few other projects. Nothing really stuck.Young took a full-time graphic-design job at a firm downtown, trying to cope with desk-life between bands. During one particularly late night at the office, he walked down the street at 2 a.m. to get some cigarettes. What he found instead was a belligerently loud busker named Matt Vasquez. Vasquez was 19 at the time, a budding performer. There wasn't enough room (or sound proofing) for him to play at his parents' house in Orange County, so he would go to the beach near his house to avoid waking the neighbors.
"I got sick of it at the beach, so I decided to drive down to San Diego on a whim, and I ended up at the light-rail station downtown on a bench," Vasquez says. "Looking back on it, I don't think I would ever do it again because it was really dorky, and I must have looked like a hobo asking for change. I was just being silly."
Young and Jameson had already been playing music with friend Sean Walker, a quiet wit who was just getting started learning the guitar, but they needed a vocalist. Young remembers being drawn to Vasquez's total lack of inhibition."He was just possessed on this bench, playing and singing," says Young. "I told him he sounded great. It ended up being a really weird coincidence because Matt had met Jon through totally separate circumstances, so we were already connected indirectly and didn't know it."
Vasquez and Young exchanged numbers and promised to jam together. It didn't take long for a bond, and a band, to form."I don't think we ever knew what we were doing," says Jameson. "Sean had never played guitar seriously before this, and we were making him into our guitarist. But we made it happen. It all turned out better than any of us expected."Walker was undaunted.
"I learned in a few months," he says. "I had nothing better to do. The most successful thing I'd done before that was maintenance work for Jon's dad."After a few years of playing around, the guys hooked up with Kelly Winrich, a mutual friend and multi-talented musician. The 22-year-old had built a recording studio in the basement of his parents' luxurious, beachside San Clemente house and had recorded with members of Delta Spirit in the past. They all hit it off immediately and asked Winrich to join the band. He brought multi-instrumentalist experience to the band and a nocturnal work ethic that earned him the nickname The Bat.
They started by playing a party at a friend's house, but before long they were scoring gigs at SOMA and The Casbah, recording two EPs and watching record labels circle."From the very beginning, people have just really dug our music," Young says. "We can't tell if people are just that drunk or really like us that much. We must be hitting the right buttons."
When Vasquez moved with his family from Mission Viejo to Austin when he was a kid, he discovered music with the help of his grandmother, who worked at Fender.
"She got me a guitar when I was 8," he says. "I learned Nirvana's "Come As You Are' and couldn't put that thing down. I was always the annoying kid that brought his guitar everywhere. I suppose things haven't changed that much."Vasquez, who returned to Southern California with his family when he was a teen, is more guarded than his bandmates, interrupting any long periods of introspection with a joke. When performing, he plays with a mad British swagger and the soul of a Mississippi bluesman-alternately displaying traits similar to The Strokes' Julian Casablancas, The Black Keys' Dan Auerbach, Turin Brakes' Olly Knights and even Oasis' Gallagher brothers. When he's offstage, though, he's a goofy, antagonist to his bandmates (usually Walker). Before one show at Chain Reaction, an Orange County club, Vasquez took off by himself to Disneyland and arrived late for the band's first song.
"Matt is constantly in transition," Jameson says, "but he is so very passionate about things. He wants to believe wholly in everything he does, but he's also learning to let go of a lot of control to be in this band.""I don't think we have an "outside the band,'" Walker laughs, munching on fries and sipping on his drink at Cap'n Kenos, a North County trailer-park dive. "We hang out with each other, and that's pretty much it."Walker's not stretching it. The band is like five brothers, bickering until they can't stand to speak to each other, taking a few minutes off to roll their own cigarettes, and then getting right back at it.
Kenos is a favorite hangout. They seem to like the mythology of it-a trailer-park haunt full of old stories and rich characters who appreciate where the band and its music are coming from. They like to tell the story the bartender told them when they first started coming here: "John Wayne once stopped a bar fight out in the parking lot," Vasquez says. "Does a cooler place exist?"True, for San Diego, Kenos is a fantastic slice of antiquated life. But Delta Spirit will probably find many more authentic haunts on their current cross-country tour with Cold War Kids. Jameson and Young knew the guys from Cold War Kids through mutual friends and church buddies before Cold War Kids formed. The connection has given Delta Spirit the same management team, lawyers, agents, publicity, gigs and buzz that the Kids have put together. They even borrowed Cold War Kids' van for this tour, which, legend has it, used to be a taxi for a mental institution.
"We're in a very weird place where we don't take ourselves seriously and yet there are serious issues that we want to write about, and we have the chance to really get our music out there right now," Jameson says. "We just don't want to get on stage and think we're this big deal. Bands that go on stage and think they're geniuses? It's repulsive."
A lot of that perspective, Jameson says, comes from faith. Some members of the band attend North Coast Calvary Chapel, where musicians from San Diego bands like Switchfoot and This Holiday Life attend services. And while they don't talk much about religion, they do talk about the kind of spirit that sparked the band's name.
"Faith is a big part of all our lives," Jameson explains. "We have our beliefs, but a lot of religious bands act like they have it all figured out. We're not like that. We're still trying to figure it out. In the Gospel, there's a sense of setting things right and changing things in the world, and a lot of our songs come from that."
Jameson is a reluctant leader in Delta Spirit, if only because no one else in the band seems organized enough to pull it off. He's one of the two in the band who hold down regular jobs-his is at the Four Seasons Resort in La Costa-and he has a level of maturity that belies his age. It's not surprising, considering that he left high school at 16 to tour the country with Noise Ratchet, getting real-life experience and eventually earning his diploma through independent study.
"We don't talk about the old band much," he says. "It's kinda like how you don't like to talk about your old girlfriend. It was a means to something else for me-it was a starter band."Back at The Casbah, Jameson rounds up his bandmates and steps onto the stage, launching straight into "Children Stay Away." Their brand of Americana-tinged gospel rock is well-received by the sold-out crowd that came to see Cold War Kids. Heads are bobbing and an excited hum is rising up from a difficult-to-excite Converse crowd."Who is this?" one 20-something yells into his buddy's ear as Vasquez bangs away on a giant bass drum. "I don't know," his buddy yells, "but it's good."
Delta Spirit is currently on tour with the Cold War Kids. www.myspace.com/deltaspirit.