Most modern rock guitarists who compose and perform instrumental music are focused on technique. But not Steve Marion, aka Delicate Steve: “Everyone thinks my guitars sound like synths,” he says, “but I was thinking more along the lines of Kanye West’s vocals, where it’s a distorted and Auto-Tuned room mic.” Photo by Eleanor Petry
Steve Marion might not be a particularly well-known figure amongst the mainstream of guitar music cognoscenti (yet, at least), but there’s a distinct possibility you’ve heard his playing before. Marion releases his own guitar-focused instrumental albums under the moniker Delicate Steve, but has worn a wide variety of hats over the years, working as a session guitarist, producer, and songwriter with a cavalcade of hip, adventurous, and downright legendary artists since initially gaining notoriety for his intriguing guitarwork within New York City’s ever-eclectic music scene.
Marion’s first two albums as Delicate Steve (2011’s Wondervisions and 2012’s Positive Force) were released on David Byrne’s wildly diverse Luaka Bop label, and those offerings earmarked the New Jersey-bred guitarist as a standout in a scene that really embraced musicians who reveled in abnormal styles or framed their work in off-kilter ways, but came from a technically proficient place. In many ways, Brooklyn’s music scene in the mid-aughts mirrored the freewheeling, intellectual, and anti-establishment spirit of Manhattan’s ’80s No Wave movement—which famously influenced Sonic Youth—but with a much less sonically combative attitude.
Watch the animated official video for “Till I Burn Up,” the title track from Delicate Steve’s latest album.
So, what exactly is it about Delicate Steve’s music and Steve Marion’s guitar playing that’s not only allowed him to build one of the most impressive and varied resumes of anyone working today, but also garner legitimately strong reviews—and remember, these are instrumental guitar records—from famously cutthroat outlets like Pitchfork? Steve Marion’s approach to the guitar shirks almost all of the clichés guitarists typically love about the instrument.
The latest Delicate Steve album, Till I Burn Up,is a perfect point of entry for those uninitiated to the cult of Steve. On his new LP, Marion has embraced what he describes as his “unhinged” side and found the confidence to allow Delicate Steve—formerly his sole creative outlet—to become a space for truly unfiltered self-expression. It’s undoubtedly a rock ’n’ roll album, but one that swings with the swagger of contemporary pop hits, the square-wave intrigue of classic prog, and the bubbly ambiance of ’70s African rarities. There are moody moments (“Ghost,” “We Ride on Black Wings”), but the record doesn’t take itself too seriously. Taking influence from albums that had flopped upon release, but would go on to become well-respected and influential (like Dr. John’s Gris-Gris and some of Iggy Pop’s weirdest work), Till I Burn Up seems like a raging party attended by each of Marion’s many musical personalities—none of which rely too much on classic guitar tropes, but remarkably never come off like they’re trying particularly hard to be futuristic.
Part of that trick is that for many years now, Marion’s key influence has been the work of soul singers rather than other guitarists, and he’s worked hard to posture his guitar as a kind of second voice. Additionally, while Marion is an extremely capable player, he avoids histrionic flash altogether, which lends his music an air of playfulness and means there’s never a moment on Till I Burn Up that sounds like it’s got something to prove.
Whether adopting the timbre of a synth or copping the vibe of a distorted and auto-tuned pop vocal, Marion’s guitar is always about conveying a vibe and a melody, and his slide guitar in particular—which is worlds away from anything one might describe as bluesy—has a distinctly human quality, but is very much its own thing, much like how George Harrison created his own inimitable vocabulary as a bottleneck player.
Premier Guitar spoke with Marion as he was knee deep in a tour to promote Till I Burn Up. The jovial anti-guitar hero from Jersey opened up about his new record, his background and philosophy as a player, his motivation when it comes to Delicate Steve, and even shared the tale of his recording session with Paul Simon.
As someone who has played on and produced many records by other artists, what’s your motivation when it comes to the instrumental guitar stuff, particularly on Till I Burn Up?
I feel happy with where I am in my career and I say “yes” to working on almost anything, if it seems even remotely interesting, because I like to work. Everything that’s happened for me so far has been through friends or friends-of-friends, so it doesn’t necessarily feel like I’m exactly in-demand so much. I feel content with that, but it doesn’t feel like my playing is the thing everyone needs on their track.
Until a couple of years ago, my whole identity as a musician was just a guy making instrumental guitar records. The only way I could export my creativity was into Delicate Steve, but having more outlets has made this a creative place where I can actually be a bit more unhinged. That’s a recent development, and the first three studio albums, when Delicate Steve was really my only outlet, the music was maybe a little less playful because of that.
On his new album, Till I Burn Up, Marion played just one guitar—a ’66 Gibson Melody Maker SG equipped with PAF humbuckers.
Till I Burn Up is a bit looser than your past albums and has a fuzzy layer around the edges in a fun way.
I was really paying attention to artists I like, like Iggy Pop or Dr. John—artists I was casually getting back into at the time. Dr. John’s debut album [Gris-Gris] was a critical and commercial failure when it came out, but it’s now on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time list. It’s kind of funny how that works. Looking at that phenomenon, how weirder records are initially received versus how they’re remembered gave me some inspiration to be more free in my own music.
I’m one of the only “indie” artist making instrumental guitar records that’s even sort of on the radar, so it does take a lot of work to get people to pay attention to it. Until this last record, I was trying hard to produce something that was really accessible, but this is the first record where I’ve embraced feeling like my music doesn’t really fit in. There’s not a lot out there that excites me in a way I want to be a part of, so this record is where I finally said “fuck it” and decided to pave my own path.
I hear that come through in some of the more aggressive, synth-like fuzz tones you used on songs like “Freedom” and out-there moments like the kitschy space boogie of “Rubberneck.”
It’s so boring to see artists continually put out what they’re expected to put out and pander to this really tiny indie world—which I guess I’m a part of—and not push themselves creatively. I’m being really negative right now, but it just seems like everyone is trying to fit into whatever box they’re already in, whether they’re a punk-rock person or an indie or electronic musician.
I definitely want to push the box I’m supposed to be in. I like to play with elements of experimental music because it’s not really expected of me or of instrumental guitar records. Everyone thinks my guitars sound like synths, but I was thinking more along the lines of Kanye West’s vocals, where it’s a distorted and Auto-Tuned room mic, like on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. My inspiration was trying to channel a reverent second take on that.
That’s unexpected, but you’ve done a session for a Kanye West record, right?
Kanye sampled one of my songs. I know a producer brought it in, Boogz Da Beast from Chicago, who is one of Kanye’s old friends and apparently a big Delicate Steve fan. There’s only a little snippet of the track out and while I haven’t heard the whole song yet, my old record label says it’s really cool and Kanye actually sings my guitar part. That’s something I’ll always be proud of! I think Kanye West is a creative genius and he’s a big influence on me, so knowing that he was inspired to turn something from my music into a song ... well, that’s just so cool to me.