by Jane Roser
“I would like to know the inspiration for “Out To Sea”. Ugh, I LOVE that song.” My concert buddy MacKenzie texted me this when I told her I’d be interviewing The Delta Saints’ lead singer Ben Ringel. Kenzie and I saw The Delta Saints last year when they were touring with Blackberry Smoke and I’d say that “wow” would be an understatement. Their live performance was electric and their energy resonated throughout the audience, many of whom posted on Blackberry Smoke’s fan site that they were one of their all-time favorite opening bands.
Ringel is originally from Louisiana and his passion for New Orleans food, culture and music is felt throughout the Saints’ earlier albums, which include three EPs, a full-length studio album and a live album. All released within four years. Currently based in Nashville, most of the band members met in college.
“The bass player (David Supica) and I transferred into Belmont University,” recalls Ringel. “It was my third school and by that time [the other students] had their patterns set in stone, so you were pretty hard-pressed to find your own pattern; we all really met out of necessity, we got tired of drinking and watching The Daily Show alone in our apartments. We wrote a couple of songs and it very slowly turned into this thing where you play a couple of shows and record an EP; it’s been essentially eight years of transition.”
In 2013, the band (including Dylan Fitch on lead guitar and Ben Azzi on drums) recorded their first LP, Death Letter Jubilee, which garnered a five star rating on iTunes with one reviewer exclaiming: “songs like “Out To Sea” show that they can write songs that speak to people even if those people are dancing with a jar of moonshine.”
“That’s one of the songs I’m most proud of writing,” says Ringel, “it’s a love song and it’s about my wife. When you really do love someone you’re vulnerable; when you find someone who can bring out that loving side of you, it’s the most powerful thing and if you have baggage or were raised a certain way, it doesn’t matter because in that moment and with that person, you have the ability to be different.”
The song is hauntingly beautiful, poetically simple and I can’t stop listening to it: “I heard that on the other side they’re people just like me/lonesome hearts from northern parts just headed out to sea/and of the crowd there are a few that speak of your name/fools we are, but we’re not far, just headed out to sea.”
Now back in the studio recording their next LP entitled, Bones, The Delta Saints worked with producer and Third Man Records alum Ed Spear (The White Stripes, The Shins) to shake things up a bit.
“It was a great moment of change and evolution for us,” says Ringel. “On Death Letter Jubilee and every record before that, we had a harmonica and while it’s a great instrument, it’s very easy to become sort of pigeonholed with it and we felt we’d become trapped in a corner. We had a moment about a year and a half ago where we had the opportunity to switch from harmonica and bring in a keyboard and organ player (Nate Kremer); we looked at what we were doing and realized that we weren’t necessarily connecting with the music we were making, so we took that opportunity and got it tight.”
Kremer brings a new creative element to the band and Ringel says it’s been the best recording experience he has ever had. “All of a sudden that box that we felt constricted by was bigger, so for the new record, instead of focusing so much on the blues element, we focused more on the rock and roll influences that we love- Zeppelin, The Who, My Morning Jacket, even an East African group we love called Tinariwen,” says Ringel. “All these new influences came into play, so we really got to explore a bit and the new record will sound like we took a big step forward. It still has the roots and blues elements, but we’re doing something different.”
The Delta Saints’ new producer really pushed the band and it was “awesome to be essentially shoved out of your bag of tricks,” describes Ringel. “He has this hunger and passion and sees music differently than the rest of us do. He’s immensely talented and I’m excited to ride his coattails for as long as he’ll have me.”
Bones is in the process of having a few finishing touches completed and should be released in “the summer…ish, ideally,” says Ringel. “The title track has a little bit of that East African carnal groove and pulse in the rhythm section; we started playing that one live a few months ago. Then the first single we’ll release is called “Heavy Hammer” which has this chorus that you can really get down to, but the verses and melody have an almost pop sensibility, if you can call it that.”
Selling out shows in six countries last year, playing Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Simple Man cruise and touring all over the country with Blackberry Smoke, The Delta Saints are in constant motion. When I asked Ringel about touring with Blackberry Smoke, he has nothing but praise and admiration. “You know, the coolest thing we left with was that for 53 shows we got to watch a band that is the epitome of professional; the team they have built around them got their shit done efficiently and they’ve built a system that is the most stable I’ve ever seen and that really just comes from the hard work that they put into it, so for a young band like us to see that, you leave knowing what that level of success looks like and that’s one of the things that we’re really building towards.
“You know, they didn’t have to give us the time of day, but they did and were very hospitable, which is great because for some reason, and I don’t quite understand this, but so many musicians are dickheads, which is confusing because musicians rely on the people who come to your shows and buy your t-shirts, so to be unapproachable is just counter intuitive. But with the guys in Blackberry Smoke it was just the opposite, even when it was inconvenient they’d sit and have a conversation with you, so it was great to see a band that has their shit figured out.”
While Ringel admits he prefers the stability of being in one place, he enjoys traveling and the idea of waking up in one city and going to sleep in another. “We’ve toured Europe six times and are going back two more times this year; there’s always that moment when you get home from a tour and realize, man, I woke up in Brussels and I’m going to sleep in Nashville, what life is this? But we’re amassing fantastic stories [speaking to fans]. I’ve been to 25 or 30 countries and to be able to do that under the guide of rock and roll? Get outta here-that’s just a pretty cool thing.”