Steve Marion, guitarist/multi-instrumentalist/mastermind behind the worldly, experimental pop of Delicate Steve, seems to fit the standard archetype of a 21st-century Pitchfork darling: He’s young (23 years old), slightly disheveled, and has an absurd fictional press bio written by famed rock journalist Chuck Klosterman. His music is bright, colorful, and slightly askew, inviting a number of obvious and easy critical comparisons. One minute, you’ll detect some of Animal Collective’s electric bounce in the minimal rhythms and psychedelic sonics. The next, you’ll notice how Marion’s guitars, most often filtered through a slew of left-field effects, echo the dexterous virtuosity of Dirty Projectors frontman Dave Longstreth. But Marion’s excellent debut album, 2010’s all-instrumental Wondervisions, somehow belongs to a different time and place. There’s a level of soul, of physical engagement, that creeps in every strangled guitar fill and synth buzz—a fact which puts Marion out of step with today’s detached indie-rock scene. And listening to Marion talk about his influences puts it all into perspective.
“In the past few months, I’ve been obsessed with Smashing Pumpkins,” Marion says. “I got re-obsessed with Mellon Collie. That and Tea for the Tillerman by Cat Stevens—that’s what I’ve been obsessed with for the past few months.”
There’s a charming innocence in Marion’s voice as he discusses the influential music created by his idols. Even during attempts to steer the conversation back to more personal matters (his fluid, lyrical guitar playing; the ups and downs of touring life), Marion likes to push the subject outward—toward his admiration for Allman Brothers guitarist Derek Trucks, his passion for soul legends like Otis Redding and Aretha Franklin, or his experiences opening for higher-profile bands like jam experimentalists Akron/Family or dance-pop veterans Cut Copy, whom Marion and his bandmates have been supporting on their current tour.
On Delicate Steve’s upcoming U.S. tour sweep—the third jaunt thus far in support of Wondervisions—Marion and company will, when not playing their own headlining shows, also open for acclaimed acts as diverse as math-rock veterans Battles and indie-pop romantics Ra Ra Riot. Marion says he finds the eclectic touring partners both exciting and musically rewarding. But Delicate Steve, as a band, is now positioned at an odd point in its career—no longer blog-busting unknowns (like when they stole the show away from headliners Yeasayer a couple of years ago in front of 3,000 fans at a Governors Island show in New York) yet galaxies away from being a household name, playing to 50 sweaty scene kids one night and an army of indie snobs the next. “We try to play the songs according to how we think they’ll go over well—like, if it’s a dancey band, we’ll try to do a little bit more of that that night,” Marion says. “But sometimes it just feels like we’re there to warm up the crowd. With headlining shows, when the room is nice and full and everyone wants to have a good time, that’s when it’s been the best—even when it’s like 50 people or 100 people. I’m actually looking forward to the smaller rooms because there’s people crammed in and sweaty. That seems to be consistently a great time.”
Marion isn’t bored with the Wondervisions material; he and his bandmates are constantly tinkering with new arrangements of the songs. The long-awaited follow-up album, which Marion describes as “hard-hitting” and “more electronic,” has been in the works for over a year, delayed by constant touring and Marion’s upcoming slew of collaborations (including a one-off track with virtuoso drummer Zach Hill of Hella). But Marion says he needed space for the songs to bloom.
“I feel like I want to experience some more stuff, and I need to experience some more stuff before we can finish it and have a broad direction with it,” he says. “I think this is all a good thing. And I get time away from all the daily things of being in the recording studio—especially being in my house. Being away from that I think is a good thing, being able to get a fresh look, take a step back from it, and look at it from a distance.”
The key is all in the spirit of the event and the performance—the audience’s body language, the interplay between his blistering, soulful electric guitar figures and the clatter of his effects pedals, the camaraderie his bandmates experience (they’re all friends from back home in New Jersey), whether they’re blistering through Wondervisions’ instrumental jams or gearing up for a show with their band tradition: sitting in a circle and sharing their feelings. Marion’s so focused on the task at hand (having fun) that he’s able to laugh off, and even relish, the bad gigs—like one notorious evening in Toledo, in which Delicate Steve played, splendidly, for an audience of none.
“There was a one-man band who opened for us, so he watched us, and our tour manager watched us, but there was technically no audience,” Marion says. “The sound guy just threw his stuff up on the board, so he wasn’t even in the room. So technically no audience members in Toledo, Ohio. But that was a really special night—it just felt really good because it was our last show after touring for eight weeks. It was our very last show, and there was nobody there.”