By Manel Celeiro
Ruta 66 (Follow this link for the original Spanish text.)
They have rock elements and a southern accent, but this is the blues. Blues touched by two slide guitars in perpetual mourning and deep-seated in the roots of the genre. They have won numerous awards and are featured on the posters of the most prestigious events of the style. They are visiting the local venues for the first time to present their last two releases, a couple of live albums reviewing their already long history. Tom Gray, one of the axes, vocalist and composer, confronts a battery of questions before this first visit. Quality in abundance and secured feeling. Do not miss them.
You both came from rock. How did you begin to play the blues?
When I was in my teens I played the piano, because there was one in our house. I figured out that most rock-and-roll piano was based on Johnnie Johnson’s playing on the old Chuck Berry records (though at that time I didn’t know his name) and that in fact many of Chuck Berry’s famous guitar licks came from the same source. So I followed the musical line back to the great boogie-woogie players of the 1930s and 1940s, and along the way discovered many wonderful blues pianists and guitarists. I started collecting old records and trying to duplicate those sounds on both piano and guitar.
After all this time playing together how do you assess your career? What has been the evolution of your music?
Delta Moon has been through several phases. In the early days of the band we had a female singer who sang about half the songs, but that did not last. When I started singing all the songs, everything became easier and the sound of the band grew more focused. Of course, we lost some fans who enjoyed a pretty woman singing and shaking her body on stage (laughs), but we gained fans who were interested in the band. Mark and I continue to explore the musical possibilities of two slide guitars, and I am always writing new songs. We stay excited about the band. The more we play the more we discover. We feel we have only scratched the surface.
You have a very personal style. You are a blues band, but there are also things of southern rock or pure American rock in your songs. Is this how you wanted to sound?
Our sound is who we are. Southern and American rock is part of that, and we don’t deny it. True music comes from the heart, and we would be false to ourselves and our music if we tried only to imitate what others have already done.
Live you play versions of RL Burnside, Fred McDowell and Slim Harpo. Traditional blues passed through your filter. What would you like to contribute to the versions?
The artists you name are huge influences on Delta Moon. I would add Blind Willie Johnson, Skip James, Howling Wolf and Muddy Waters, among others. But our versions of their songs never sound like the originals. As you say, the music passes through our filter and becomes something unique to us and our moment in time. I’ve been fortunate to have other artists record my songs. Those recordings never sound anything like my versions, and I would be disappointed if they did.
The sound of your albums is very simple, very organic and very natural. How do you work in the studio? They seem recorded live… All playing together…
That is what we strive for, recording the whole band at the same time. Then we add the vocals and sometimes other touches. Often there is an energy and honesty in that original take that you cannot duplicate in an overdub.
One of your key points is the joint work of the two guitars. How do you work?
Mark and I have been playing together a long time now and know each other’s voices. We try to listen to each other and respond to each other. Sometimes if one goes high the other will go low. We know when to give each other space and when to jump in on top of one another to make one big sound. We put in a lot of time, on and off the stage, experimenting and working things out. It’s a lot of fun, and we never get tired of exploring.
Tom struggled for years against cancer. Fortunately he won the battle. Has the disease affected his way of composing? Have you changed your worldview?
Your worldview changes forever the moment the doctor tells you that you have cancer. Some people can tell you the exact time and minute they heard the news. I had a couple rough years but fortunately came out okay. I’m fine today, but my body has changed. I’m missing a few organs. To get strong and healthy again, I had to change some habits. I live differently today than I did a few years ago. But it’s a good life. The way I write songs has not changed, because I never had only way of writing. (Laughs)
How do you see the current state of the blues? Some young bands who appreciate and respect tradition (North Mississippi Allstars for example) bring young blood and new ideas but don’t you think that there are too many imitators of Stevie Ray Vaughan by there … Pure pyrotechnics without feeling …
I am not interested in hearing a musician play scales, no matter how fast. On the other hand, there are many wonderful players today who have something to say. I will always take time to listen to that.
I always thought that one of the main drawbacks of the blues is its excessive immobility. Too many purists. What do you think about that?
I love, respect and constantly study the great music of the past. But it should not become a box walling off the present and the future. Music is like a butterfly. Once you pin it down, it’s dead.
You have already visited Europe several times. Will this be your first time in Spain? Do you know our country? What do you expect from this visit?
My only experience in Spain has been in the Madrid airport. Mark (the other guitarists) took a vacation on the north coast last year and never stops talking about it. At the end of this tour my wife is joining me and we plan to spend a week in Madrid and Barcelona and get to know some of the country. I hope that this trip will be the first of many to come.
Finally. The last two published works are live. Do you have plans for a new studio album soon?
We are working on our next studio album now and hope to have that out by next spring. See you soon!