When Death Songs cruised through town late last year, they immediately perked my ears with their haunting mix of breakneck and layered percussion parts, achingly warbled vocals, and vivid lyrics. Not long into the set I also realized that I had seen both bandmates (vocalist/guitarist Nick Delffs and drummer Justin Power) before, as part of one-time Portland buzz band The Shaky Hands. Like their musical alma mater, Death Songs plays with the idea of American folk, inviting all manner of influences and inspiration to sneak into the mix. But where Shaky Hands openly referenced the American pop songbook, Death Songs borrows from more worldly canons. Here, the drum work is punching and multi-tiered, and combined with harmonies and auxiliary instrumentation it creates something that crosses genres seamlessly, inviting reference to African tribal music, Appalachian porch songs, and, well, everything in between.
This Thursday, Death Songs returns to Santa Barbara to play the Mercury Lounge with fellow PDX band And And And. Below, I catch up with Delffs via email to talk influences, inspiration, and the “kinkiness” of the Portland music scene.
When and how did you settle on the band name? I think it was in the summer of 2005? I had realized one day that all of the new songs I was writing were about death; death of the body, death of an identity, the potential death of misery. I also was reading about Native American death songs, which was a person’s finally song. I thought by giving my music such a title it would help me try and make the songs as best as they could be.
How would you describe the music you’re making now versus what you and Nathan were writing during the early stages of Death Songs? There definitely is more of a soul music influence now. I think it is better now because I am completely focused on it. It is my only project.
How would you compare it to the songwriting you did with The Shaky Hands? It is the same. I would like to think that I have gotten better at songwriting.
There are a lot of different stylistic elements — African drums, hand claps, call and response vocals — working together throughout the EP. Who would you say are some of Death Songs biggest influences? Walt Whitman, Otis Redding, Nina Simone, Mississippi Records compilations, Krishna Conciseness, The Boss, Talking Heads, music from the Andes Mountains, The Clash, Fela Kuti, Rodger Miller, Can, Mohammed Ali, Towns Van Zandt, and The Last Poets.
Is there anywhere that you personally tend to look for inspiration? Tao De Ching, T.V., Mississippi Records compilations, Bagavata Gita.
As a listener, what draws you to certain songs or artists? I usually am drawn in when someone or a group of people have this perfect balance of not caring and caring. Pop music that breaks rules and boundaries.
Is there a new Death Songs full-length in the works? Yes.
Can you share any details — release date, title, maybe a bit about the recording process and sound of the record? It will be coming out in the fall. [It’s] a super hi-fi recording! I went to Austin, Texas and recorded it with a good friend of mine in his house. It was an amazing experience, full of challenges and realizations. I can’t wait until it is out. [And the] album art is looking really good!
Do you have a preference on recording techniques tape versus digital, lo-fi versus more hi-fi)? I like it all. What ever sounds rad and exciting.
How would you describe your live show? What do you hope people walk away with from a Death Songs set? Lately it has been getting really funky. We have been locking in to some serious grooves. We are more of a rock ‘n’ roll band now. I want our shows to effect people in any way they let it. I would prefer that people walk away happy and confused.
Your last trip to Santa Barbara found you playing alongside Y La Bamba. This go-round you’re touring with another Portland band, And And And. Do you guys feel pretty tied to the PDX scene? Maybe in the “kinky” sort of way.
What are some of the benefits (and some of the drawbacks) of being in a band in such a music-filled environment? I am not sure about any drawbacks. The benefits are that there’s a handful of really good bands to play shows with.
Any local bands you especially enjoy? Anyone you think deserves a plug? Wollen Men, And And And, Rememory, Y La Bamba.
Death Songs play the Mercury Louge (58871 Hollister Ave.) with And And And on Thursday, February 2, at 9:30 p.m. The show is 21+. For tickets and info, call (805) 967-0907.