MORGAN DELT: CREATING THIS ALTERNATE HISTORY
photography by a. blank
Morgan Delt lives in Topanga—‘pretty far out of town,’ he says. Which is just as well, since the 39-year-old singer-songwriter doesn’t go out much. Instead, he spends most of his time in his home studio. That’s where he—and he alone—recorded his recent album Phase Zero, an immaculately crafted collection of fuzzy psych-pop and understated electronics, with a vintage aesthetic and daydream-y vibes. It’s Delt’s first release for mega-indie label Sub Pop Records, and it’s a softer, more subdued effort than his self-titled 2014 breakthrough, which crackles with quicker tempos and crunchier guitar tones. Delt is originally from the Bay Area, where he grew up with parents who didn’t play instruments. (Although they were into musical theater and rock radio hits with local roots, like Jefferson Airplane and Santana.) By the time he was 4, he was taking violin lessons, and he started playing guitar around age 10. It’s been a long, slow climb since, but the slo-mo buzz and shimmering beauty of Phase Zero marks another impressive step forward from the West Coast’s New Hermit King Of Far Out Sounds. L.A. RECORD caught up with Delt by phone in his beloved studio. Morgan Delt performs Sunday, Oct. 16, at the Desert Daze fest. This interview by Ben Salmon.
How do you walk the fine line of being inspired by psychedelic music and 60s music without sounding like another retread?
Morgan Delt: I sort of think of it almost like an alternate history kind of thing. A lot of music can draw from the past and do a revival retro thing, and that’s sort of a version of time travel. But I’m more interested in the idea of creating this alternate history, like if you go back in time and actually change events.
Morgan Delt: Well, with our hindsight and the perspective of time and the availability of everything on the internet, we know so much more about everything that was going on in particular time periods than anybody could’ve possibly known at the time, you know? We can hear so many different types of music from all over the world that was happening in a particular moment and we can kind of draw influence from all that stuff that the people that were there didn’t necessarily know about. I’ve always been interested in the early bands that incorporated electronics, like Silver Apple, The United States of America, White Noise, Fifty Foot Hose. So if that technology was available then … what if every band had synthesizers in 1967? There’s a lot of great stuff that was going all over the world. Big bands in L.A. didn’t necessarily know about Tropicalia music or whatever. Even beyond that, the passage of time gives you a different perspective on things. I like a lot of music that maybe I could see how somebody at the time was like, ‘Oh this is just a second-rate version of a more popular band.’ But if you’re really into a particular niche of music you might find that the second- and third-rate stuff actually has interesting qualities. You can see why people might’ve ignored it at the time, but in retrospect it has its own merits.
How does this play out in your music?
Morgan Delt: I don’t know, I’m just trying to justify it after the fact. (laughs) At a certain point on this album, I decided to have this more electronic element come in. I was thinking about a lot of the early electronic music: Morton Subotnick, Terry Riley, looping organs. I tried to get an element of that type of thing into every song. It’s sort of like, ‘What if a late ‘60s L.A. psychedelic pop band had used more electronic music?’
Do you feel like you were born in the wrong decade?
Morgan Delt: I definitely don’t feel like, ‘Oh, I wish I was born in the ‘60s.’ It kind of seems like it would’ve sucked. Now is probably the best time to live in by pretty much every measurable standard. And we get to listen to all that music, so we get the best of both worlds.
If you were sent back to the 60s with everything you know now, what musician would you seek out and befriend and try to help change the course of history?
Morgan Delt: I would try to save Brian Wilson from Dr. Eugene Landy and convince him to finish and release Smile in 1967.
Is there any lost knowledge from the 60s you wish we had now? Like the way medieval people had Greek fire, but we can’t reproduce it—is there some technique or insight from the first psychedelic era that you wish we still knew how to do?
Morgan Delt: The overall level of players was a lot better back then. The biggest thing missing in music now compared to then is just amount of money and resources spent on pretty strange music.
When musicians made psychedelic music in the 60s, do you think it was more for ‘themselves’ or for their public—like were they trying to make this kind of music as sort of a missionary effort to elevate their listeners or were they trying to document their own personal journeys into the beyond? Basically: were they leading by example, or by instruction?
Morgan Delt: Some of each I’m sure. I don’t really think about the artist’s intent myself as a listener—probably because I absorbed too much post-structuralism in college. I also have a lot of love for some of the kind of phony psychedelic music made by session musicians to cash in on the trend.
When did you start writing songs?
Morgan Delt: That’s the weird thing. I didn’t write songs for a long time. I would occasionally try to write a song but I was mostly into recording. I had a cassette 4-track and I’d kind of just record things but they weren’t really songs. They were like bits and pieces. I’d take a drum beat of a record, put it on cassette and hit pause and put it back, make a loop and then add guitar and stuff to it. I never would write lyrics or do anything that had any kind of structure. It took me a long time to figure out that I should try to do that.
So you were more into creating sound collages than writing tunes.
Morgan Delt: For a long time, I was into really experimental electronic stuff—Warp Records and things like that—so I’d try to make music that was as weird and crazy as I could. All instrumental. Then I realized, ‘Hey, I actually mostly like listening to pop songs.’ Not Top 40 stuff, but 60s music and stuff like that. From there it took a long time to figure out how to do it.
Generally speaking, Phase Zero has a softer, more downcast vibe than your self-titled album. Was that your plan going in or did it evolve into that on its own?
Morgan Delt: I had a batch of songs that were more mellow and almost gloomy that didn’t really fit on the first record, and they seemed to fit together as a mood. So I put them together and pretty early on I realized I wanted the second one to be more mellow. I was thinking a lot about The Byrds’ The Notorious Byrd Brothers album, and I wanted that really wimpy 60s soft-rock session drummer sound. No big thundering drums or anything, just that tasteful L.A.-session-musician-in-68 kind of sound.
After the self-titled album came out and got some positive attention, did you ever reconsider using the mellow songs for your follow-up?
Morgan Delt: Nah, it was full steam ahead down this path. It was only after a couple years of (Morgan Delt) being out when I thought, ‘Am I making a big mistake? What if I’m removing the things that people actually like the best about the first one?’ But by then there was no turning back.
What’s your favorite part of the creative process, from song idea to recording?
Morgan Delt: The thing I like the most is writing, because pretty early on I can hear what I want a song to be like, so then it’s kind of a struggle to get there. I can listen to the demo version and hear what I want to do, but it’s like, ‘Oh, I have to actually re-track this part and I have to do this and do that.’ And it takes me a while to actually get there.
Are you a studio rat?
Morgan Delt: I just get up in the morning and sit in front of my computer and I’m there all day. I come up at night and and have dinner and stuff and then I go back down and I’m there until 2 in the morning. I’m not necessarily working on music always, but I’m always down here.
So it’s your happy place?
Morgan Delt: Yeah. It’s full of a bunch of junk. So … yeah.
When you’re in your studio, how much time do you spend playing instruments versus manipulating the recording afterward?
Morgan Delt: The bulk of my time is probably spent listening. I’ll get caught in these things where I have something I’m working on and I’ll just listen to it, and I’ll be in that mode for two months. So, um … I don’t know … 20 percent writing, 10 percent playing, 80 percent listening. How many percents am I up to? Add another 20 percent editing and messing around with stuff.
Have you ever thought about bringing in someone else to act as a producer?
Morgan Delt: I like the idea of doing everything myself, just as a deliberate approach. I came out of electronic music and I always liked the idea of a one-man show—somebody that does everything themselves. It’s more like writing a book or making a painting, where it’s a very singular vision. Even if that makes it kind of flawed, I think it’s more interesting. I also think being able to do everything yourself at home on a computer to a pretty high level of quality is not something that’s been possible for very long, really. People have been home-recording for a long time, but the equipment was really expensive and there were limitations of the quality, and now anybody can do anything. To me, that’s the exciting new thing: You don’t have to be able to pay money to go into a studio or you don’t have to be a leader who organizes people into a band. It’s just your own personal vision at home in your bedroom. Most of the artists I really like kind of are like that. White Fence. Tame Impala. Unknown Mortal Orchestra. Grimes. There’s so many people doing that kind of thing. That’s what interests me the most.
What’s the most powerful thing that shaped you as a musician that wasn’t music? A book or a film—maybe a mind-blowing meal?
Morgan Delt: Weed. It’s not hard to find in L.A.
MORGAN DELT WITH TELEVISION, BRIAN JONESTOWN MASSACRE AND MANY MORE ON SUN., OCT. 16, AT DESERT DAZE FESTIVAL AT THE INSTITUTE OF MENTALPHYSICS, 59700 29 PALMS HIGHWAY, JOSHUA TREE. NOON / $75-$340 / ALL AGES. DESERTDAZE.ORG. MORGAN DELT’S PHASE ZERO IS AVAILABLE FRI., AUG. 26, FROM SUB POP. VISIT MORGAN DELT AT MORGANDELT.COM.