By Sara Spangler, DC Music Live
Storytelling, powerful vocals and high energy live shows describe the soulful North Carolina-based sextet Delta Rae. Delta Rae returns to the DC area to kick off their tour at a sold-out show at 9:30 Club on February 15. We got the chance to sit down with drummer Mike McKee to talk about the band’s growing popularity and what it was like to meet Conan O’Brien and Jay Leno.
DC Music Live: Are you excited about the upcoming tour, and having the first show at 9:30 Club?
Mike McKee: Yeah, it’s one of those ideal places to start the tour. DC’s been so good to us, and the club is amazing. It has great history, and for good reason it’s one of the top clubs in the country.
DCML: What’s it like playing bigger venues now versus the smaller more intimate venues you started out playing?
MM: They both have their merits I guess. Playing an intimate show is great because of the obvious, you can see people, and there’s a real connection. It seems like the veil between the artist and the audience can be a little bit thinner in the smaller shows. And what you’re playing can be picked up, from a my perspective as a percussionist, tiny little notes or sounds that I’m creating can be heard a little bit easier in a smaller room. In a big room there’s more energy present. I think playing the bigger rooms can be better overall though, better lighting, better sound. But doing an acoustic show and the smaller stuff – I will always have that as an option if we get to do an acoustic tour one day or something. There’s always something very special about that. There’s a reason that big artists continue to do small acoustic tours during their careers.
DCML: How did you personally get your start in music, and how did you come together to form
MM: I come from a big musical family with a bunch of professional musicians, and so that’s about all I know. We were never good at sports, I gave that a shot and it didn’t really work out. I started playing piano and trumpet, and then picked up drums. I made my first drumset out of household materials and eventually got parts and pieces together and built my real drumset. I was playing in neighborhood bands, local bands, things like that. All through college I played in cover bands, wedding bands. After I graduated I was running sound at a frat party at Duke University, and I met Eric there, saw him playing and I gave him my card as a drummer-for-hire. And about a year and a half later he formed Delta Rae and found my card and gave me a call. I auditioned and we’ve been making music ever since.
DCML: What’s the dynamic like being in a band with three siblings?
MM: I’ve never witnessed a fight EVER… and I’m a bad liar. We’re all passionate people and things are so important to us, and we care so much about what’s going on with our lives, our careers and our families that it can be intense on both ends. It can be intense with getting things done and it can become a little hostile. But we also love really big, and we’re very accommodating for each other, and really care about each other. So it’s really big on both ends, loving and fighting. That sounds pretty sappy, but it’s true.
DCML: How has being based in North Carolina has influenced the band’s songwriting and sound?
MM: Well, I can’t speak from a songwriting perspective, but from a sound perspective – well, a lot of the band is from all over. Liz is from San Francisco, and the siblings were kind of scattered around the South when they grew up. Some of them were born in Nashville, TN, and some were born in Durham, NC, and they moved around quite a bit. The bass player Grant and myself are native to North Carolina. I think we’re all influenced by southern Gospel music, especially the songwriters, and I’m sure that definitely played a part in their songwriting. And then artists like James Taylor, are from North Carolina. Personally, I’ve always been involved in the North Carolina music scene, and different types of artists and bands growing up through high school and college. So, the North Carolina music scene has always been supportive, which is a cool network of musicians. We all hang out together and play together, and support each other throughout the different projects that we have. For me, a sense of camaraderie has come through in Delta Rae and added a real family element to the music scene.
DCML: Who all is involved in the songwriting process for the band?
MM: Ian and Eric are the primary songwriters. However, there’s a new song on our EP that just came out (Chasing Twisters) that Brittany helped cowrite, so she’s reaching out and doing some writing too, which is great.
DCML: How did you meet and end up collaborating with Lindsey Buckingham?
MM: That’s such a crazy story. Our producer Rob Cavallo was working on doing a retouch for “If I Loved You”, which was on our first record. He was working on doing his version of it, and as he was in the process of working on it his friend Lindsey Buckingham was over at his house, and they were just hanging out as friends. Lindsey asked Rob was he was working on, and Rob says, “I‘ve got this band on Warner Brothers called Delta Rae, and I’m working on this new song, do you want to check it out?” So he played it for him and as he was listening Lindsey Buckingham had his cool, 12-string guitar in his hand and was noodling along, just as he was listening to it. And Rob says, “that sounds pretty cool, I have microphones, you wanna record that as an idea?” So they threw it down and it blended great with the song. It wasn’t intrusive and worked melodically with the song, it was pretty cool, very serendipitous.
DCML: Collaborating with Lindsey Buckingham is obviously a great opportunity, but if you could collaborate with any other artist personally, who would you pick?
MM: We’re all big Coldplay fans, and we all like Phil Collins and Peter Gabriel a lot, James Taylor, and also Kings of Leon. I think if I’d have to say any of them I’d have to say a Coldplay collaboration would be pretty rad.
DCML: So you played a lot of festivals this year, were there any favorites?
MM: The bigger festivals are really fun. They’re pretty chaotic because the change over’s really fast, you’ve got to rush on and rush off, soundchecks are very quick. It’s usually really hot, and sweaty and fast. There’s an energy that’s unlike a club show at a festival because it’s so fast, and there’s a ton of people and everyone’s having a great time, and I think they’re super fun. I really liked the Hangout Music Festival in Gulf Shoes, AL, partly because we were sharing the stage with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers which is my favorite band, so that was pretty cool getting to sit in front of Tom Petty’s drum kit. The crowd was great, it was super hot, the show went really, really well, and the response was great. And we were there for a couple of days so we got to actually hang out at the festival and catch some great shows. It was just a great time, really, really fun.
DCML: What was it like to play on some of the late night talk shows such as Conan and The Tonight Show with Jay Leno?
MM: Well we played Conan twice and Leno twice. Our first one was Leno, and there were definitely more nerves with the first one. We were all very nervous but Brittany especially since the spotlight’s on her for “Bottom of the River”. It was over so fast. You get there at like 8 in the morning and you set up, and you do a bunch of soundchecks, a bunch of lighting checks, get all dressed up, and then everybody’s there in the back room just hanging out and wishing you good luck and everything. And for several hours you’re there, and then you play your song and it’s done, you pack up and you go. It’s over so fast, kind of a blur. Since doing a couple of them the nerves have gone away and now it’s really been more exciting. Getting to meet Conan and Jay Leno was such a treat. It was just very surreal being able to meet them, and see how charming they both really are in real life – it was very cool.
DCML: How would you describe your live show to someone who’s never seen you before?
MM: I would say it’s very energetic, it’s very real. It’s very organic sonically, and everything you hear, we’re doing. A lot of energy, and we hope to create some magic on stage with storytelling, and the idea of magic. We hope to really convey that on stage musically and visually with the lights. We hope to take people on a journey – it sounds cheesy I kno – but we like to give them something they can’t experience anywhere else. And it’s also just great songs and great execution of the songs.
DCML: Are there any shows you’ve played in particular that stick out to you?
MM: I would say the first time we played 9:30 Club, it sold out and we were not expecting it to sell out, and like I said before the venue is just incredible. The people there are great, the sound is great, the lights are great. We were caught off-guard, in a good way, by such a great turn out. The crowd was amazing, that show was pretty great. Also, for me, I love Philadelphia, and I love the crowds in Philadelphia. We’ve done a couple of festivals, one was the XPN Festival in Philly, and again it was an unexpected turn out and people just went bananas for the show, there was a real connection and it felt like the veil between the artist and the audience was thin. And it was a great connection that’s not tangible, not something you can recreate at any moment, it just happens. So those two shows for me really stick out.
Delta Rae’s show at 9:30 Club this weekend is sold out, but you can still grab their new EP Chasing Twisters on iTunes here.