Interview by Danielle Boise
Delta Moon has been steadily releasing albums since the early 2000s; with their seventh and most recent release, Black Cat Oil, Delta Moon proves that experimenting with musical curiosity leads to great success. Right before kicking off the European leg of their tour, Tom Gray spoke to Target Audience Magazine on working at Bakos Amp Works recording studio in Atlanta, the process behind making Black Cat Oil and touring.
Delta Moon has been putting out records since your self-titled release in 2002; how do you feel your sound has evolved in the last 10 years from the first release to the May 2012 release of Black Cat Oil and where do you see the band’s sound moving to in the future?
That first album still sounds pretty good to me. Since that time Mark and I have continued to experiment and refine the double-slide guitar sound. It’s unique to our band. In the early years I split vocal duties with first one and then another female singer, but the band is more focused today as a four-piece. During the last few years I went through a bout with cancer. I’m fine now, but that experience contributed a couple quieter, more reflective songs to Black Cat Oil. People like those songs, and I’m glad we did them. But I see the next album, the one we’re writing now, as more of a rocker.
How was it working at Bakos Amp Works recording studio in Atlanta to record Black Cat Oil? When you went into the studio to lay down the tracks for Black Cat Oil, you decided to pretty much record the album live with a few over dubs in order to create this vintage feeling with a nice smooth retro-vibe, while adding in a layer of Appalachian twang thrown in for good measure; was this the first time that you decided to go the route of using a minimalist approach to recording a record that has such a rich and vivacious sound to it or is this your preferred method of creating your albums?
Jeff Bakos is a pleasure to work with. As recording engineer he’s been a great asset to our band. I’ve always been something of a minimalist, in songwriting and playing as well as production. That approach seems to work well for our band, and I want to take it farther. The more you put on a track, the smaller the sounds get — not just instruments but notes as well. Louis Armstrong once said, “Some guys have to play a hundred notes because they can’t find the one right one.” The interesting thing is that my one right note might not be yours. It’s all about finding your own voice. I’m still learning every day.
What did you learn from the experience of stripping everything down and allowing the sound to come through in a much more organic way verses and overly produced production and would you do it again?
I think when you are trying to make something sound better by adding more parts — which is an easy road to find yourself on — it’s time to back up and take a hard look at what you’re doing. Very often you can improve it by pulling something out instead. I like interesting sounds and flavors, but to sound big, a voice or instrument needs some space around it. Led Zeppelin is a great example of that. Over and over they will break down to just one instrument or voice, and the song sounds huge.
When creating the track list for Black Cat Oil, how did you decide which 11 tracks fit together the best verses the ones that didn’t quite make the cut and are you happy with the selections or is hindsight always 20/20?
We keep working on it and working on it and then set a deadline to walk away and say it’s done, or else we might never finish it. Some songs have had several different sets of lyrics before the final version. Sometimes I’m rewriting right down to the time I have to sing in the studio. And then sometimes the rejected ideas will work better later, even years later, with different music.
“Blues in a Bottle” is such a lush song and one of my favorite tracks on the album, which track is your favorite and would you mind sharing the back story to how the song came to life?
I can’t say I have a favorite track, and really I should be the last to judge my own writing. I like the groove of “Black Coffee,” which was a song the whole band put together in the studio. I like “Walk Out in the River” because it makes me think of certain people I love who were on my mind when I wrote it. I think “Black Cat Oil” came out well. I was playing against myself with the lap steel and Hammond organ, and that was fun. One night I dreamed a guitarist was showing me how to play a song called “Blues in a Bottle.” I woke up and thought, “That’s a cool title. I wish I’d come up with it.” Then I realized I had.
You’re about to kick off your tour with a couple of European dates thrown in before heading to Ontario and then returning to the states to perform back in your home town of Atlanta on two dates in August and September; how is it different performing state side verses in other countries and does the music universally translate with the rustic bluesy feel to it or are there barriers that you have to overcome?
The music seems to translate well everywhere. Sometimes I talk off the cuff between songs, and when the audience doesn’t get my jokes it’s comforting to realize they don’t understand my language. On the other hand, the other guys in the band often don’t get my jokes. That’s a little more troubling.
With music and art so closely intertwined that they feed off one another in a synergetic way; what entertainment acts are providing inspiration for you right now and who would you not only love to work with (producers, writers, musicians), but who would be your ideal tour mates if you could pick and choose anyone living (or dead)?
I often think if I were granted one interview with someone in the Land of the Dead it would be Duke Ellington. He kept a band going for over 50 years, through good times and bad, always incredible. It would be privilege to sit at his feet. Currently I like the Black Keys, T-Bone Burnett and Tom Waits. There are many others. I love the guys I’m touring with now.
With the wisdom that you’ve attained over the last decade of putting out albums every few years, what do you contribute to the band’s success and do you have any wisdom to pass on to future generations of musicians that look up to you and your sound as inspirational guidance?
I don’t know about wisdom, but I would say do what you love and love what you do. We all have to slog through some crap sometimes — that’s part of life — but if that’s all you’re doing, stop and think about why. And don’t worry about what everybody else is doing. There’s a story only you can tell, a voice only you can make. Find that and run with it.