Classic albums have often been inspired by specific places and a time important to the artist that created it. Music from Big Pink by the Band comes to mind, where a pink house in Upstate New York gave a bunch of road dogs time to slow down and write the music they wanted to write.
Monte Vista, the latest offering from blues-rock veterans the Delta Saints, transports listeners to guitarist Dylan Fitch’s grandmother’s house on Monte Vista Avenue in San Diego, California. While the Delta Saints have been a Nashville staple since their humble beginnings at Belmont University in 2007, Monte Vista notes a new musical direction, one that leads to California. “It’s a special place,” Fitch said. “[My grandparent’s] house has become a home to so many people over the years. They have always had an open door where families can come and stay.”
Speaking to Behind the Setlist, Fitch described the California home as a living museum with mahogany furniture, tall fireplaces and a literal suit of armor. It’s the band’s home away from home when on the West Coast. On one such pilgrimage, singer Ben Ringel pitched the idea of naming the new record after the old house on Monte Vista Avenue, and it stuck. “It’s an homage to that feeling and wanting to get there,” Fitch said. “It’s great here in Nashville and the South, but there’s nothing like Nana’s. It’s funny, you’d never think that a bunch of band dudes are longing to go to someone’s grandma’s house. But it’s such a cool place and the location is great.”
As they chewed on the name of the street, the music they were writing began to reflect an intentional departure from the swampy-blues sound featured on their previous studio and live releases. Monte vista translates from Spanish to “mountain view,” and Fitch began to see a larger metaphor at work.
“This band has been through hardships year after year, whether it’s losing members, getting robbed [the band had gear stolen in Barcelona while on a European tour in late 2015], or disappointment in a label campaign,” he explained. “It’s been amazing, because we’re still going strong and going better than ever, but it’s been a tough climb. We’ve gotten to this point where we can see where we want to go. It’s within view. That is represented in the lyrics and feeling you get on the record.”
Like the scenery of a mountain view, one thing that stands out on Monte Vista is the amount of space in its sonic texture. Dylan cites the group’s maturation and their relationship with producer Ed Spears as two factors why. It also helps how the majority of vocals and solos, minus a few punch-ins and guitar layers, were tracked live, within up to three takes in most cases. It was a process Spears encouraged, recording 11 songs in six days, and while the Delta Saints may have initially been uncomfortable, the end result speaks for itself.
For example, the final version of “Roses” is from the first take and includes a guitar solo that spontaneously happened while the band felt their way through an unfinished bridge. Fitch remembered Spears calling it a “danger take.” “It’s dangerous. You don’t know for sure what’s going to happen and you just go,” he explained. “There’s a little bit of excitement and anxiety, but it totally gets there.”
Fitch’s approach to tone on this record was fairly simple. The main philosophy was to crank old amps, the ages of which may surprise a few gear snobs. The two main culprits were a 1930s Gibson GA-22 and a 1960s Silvertone 1×10 combo with onboard reverb. The Gibson runs hot at 65 watts and provides a dry and satisfying tone, while the Silvertone channels Keith Richards’ famous sound.
The lone guitar used on the record was a solid mahogany 1962 National Westwood-2. The bridge pickups are broken and the neck pickup is bassy, almost to the point of being unusable, but the secret is in blending those two throwaway sounds together. “I knew it was the one when I was doing demos in my basement,” Fitch said. “I had no equipment. I was just going direct into my computer with a SM57 on my amp. The tone I was getting was amazing. Every tone I would try was awesome. I figured if I could get this great tone in my basement, it’d be no problem in the studio.”
Monte Vista also features a liberal amount of delay. They used a tape machine in the studio as well as a late 1960s Moog MoogerFooger analog delay, conjuring up stoned-out, Floydian echo tones. And though one can hear sprinkles of Neil Young and David Gilmour, Fitch offers unique character to his phrasing with an absolutely pining vibrato.
While the album has lyrical valleys that match its emotional peaks, to Fitch the themes are positive. “Ultimately, the record leaves me with a feeling of hope and a feeling of newness. It doesn’t weigh you down,” he said. “I think our previous album, Bones, was much darker. It’s so heavy. I get to Monte Vista and I feel good. ‘Sun God’ is about being the leader and a positive beacon and example for society. That’s where I want to be. People worshiped the sun at one point, this ball of light in the sky, because it gave you heat. It made things grow. It turned nighttime into day. It carried the sky. It was a beacon that people followed.”
The next step for the Delta Saints is a breakneck pace of touring through the fall and putting the record into as many hands as possible. Fitch wants to use the opportunity to re-engage people. “Music is active and has identified with so many points in my life. It’s given me snapshots of very visceral moments. I put on a song and it takes me there. You can just reach out and touch it!”
While music can be created solely for quick, commercial consumption, Monte Vista is refreshing in that it aims to earn a long-term place in its listener’s collection. Whether the Delta Saints grow into their vision of becoming sun gods or not is yet to be seen, but the record is a positive step in that direction.