Fronted by the smokey-voiced Elijah Jones and featuring a revolving cast of characters drawn from the Atlanta music scene—including a “clap section” of all-female backup vocalists—The Constellations have been building a grassroots following at home in Georgia since 2008. On their debut LP, Southern Gothic (originally released in 2009, but set for a June 8 reissue on Virgin Records) the funky troubadours effortlessly blend genres from the psychedelic freakout of the Tom Waits-inspired “Step Right Up” to the thumping “Love is a Murder” featuring Cee-Lo Green; with the help of producer Ben Allen (Animal Collective, Gnarls Barkley) the album takes listeners on a tour both through Atlanta’s dark back-alleys and the city’s diverse sonic landscape. With a big label behind the new album and an extensive tour of the US and Europe kicking off today in London, The Constellations are set to drop their strange southern grooves on the world at large. Paste recently chatted with frontman Jones about the new album, making music in Atlanta and loving Tom Waits.
Paste: I know you’re playing a few northeastern shows this week. How do those shows compare to being in the South?
Elijah Jones: Actually, Milwaulkee’s been super, super good to us, and a couple of the places that we’ve been up North have been super, super good to us. We went on tour with the Greyboy Allstars a few weeks back and we played all the way up in, like Maine, and the response was great.
Paste: Because your music and the album is so heavily influenced by Atlanta specifically, how do the fans that aren’t from Atlanta relate to those songs?
Jones: Well I think, at the end of the day the songs are just—the fact that we use names and references to Atlanta, it puts more of a personal touch on it. And I think everybody just kind of applies it to their own city.
Paste: You’ve said a lot that Southern Gothic is your exploration of the underbelly of Atlanta. How did you get into that scene?
Jones: I moved out of the house when I was like maybe 15 and I went straight to Atlanta. So I’ve been dropping around the streets of ATL for a while now. And it’s grown, it’s changed, but there’s always places like Clairmont, Little Five and East Atlanta that really haven’t changed much.
Paste: What other Atlanta artists do you look up to? I know you worked with Cee-Lo on Southern Gothic.
Jones: Cee-Lo is absolutely one of my main influences and has been since I first started listening to Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik, rapping with Outkast on “Git Up Git Out.” His voice struck me enough that everything he puts out, I’m the first one in line. So especially Goodie Mob and whole Dungeon Family Crew is definitely something I grew up on. At the same time, you know, Black Crowes, Deerhunter, Black Lips. I love Atlanta music and how diverse it is. You get up close to things and you see the hip hop kids going to punk rock shows and vice versa. I just think Atlanta’s got a scene that’s like no other.
Paste: I think that on Southern Gothic you can really see that because every track is influenced by a different genre. How did you put together a collection of songs that’s so diverse but also keep it cohesive?
Jones: I’ve got to thank Ben Allen. ... [He] really gave everybody the freedom to do whatever they wanted to do. We didn’t set out to do a hip hop record or a psychedelic record or anything, it just—we would go in the studio and do whatever we were feeling that day. There was never a thought-out thing, and it just happened to be that the record turned out being a collage of different types of music and all taken from so many different genres.
Paste: Is The Constellations more of an “Elijah Jones and friends” project or is it more of a collaborative thing?
Jones: Oh, it’s definitely a collaborative thing. We took musicians from all over Atlanta, and the live band especially is a collaborative effort. But from day one we never had a “band,” it was basically just whoever was in the studio that day got on the track. And I think that just shows—that lends to the idea of not sticking to one type of music or one type of idea. It was just everybody get in there, and we write the song and wherever the song leads you, that’s where you go. Obviously, I do all the lead vocals so, you know, it is definitely my baby, but it was definitely a collaborative effort. ... There’s eight of us [and] that does include the clap section, yes. The girls absolutely are amazing. When we recorded the record we put tons of background vocals and claps and percussion and stuff like that, because we never really intended on playing this live. Then when we finally decided we wanted to do them live, we were like, “Well how are we gonna do this?” ‘Cause really it was me and Ben that were talking about doing this live show, and we had no idea how we were going do it. Luckily, we had a great community of musicians to pick from.
Paste: Have you seen the crowds at your shows getting better?
Jones: Oh, absolutely. Nobody knows who we are right now, and every city we go into we get such a great response. The fans have been really, really cool. Coming up to us after the shows and really showing their appreciation for something new. I think the industry is definitely in need of a little jump start, you know, and a new idea and a new approach.
Paste: You guys recently signed with Virgin Records?
Jones: That’s correct.
Paste: Has that changed the dynamic, or do you think that will affect the way you make music and conduct the band at all?
Jones: No, they’ve been super cool and they’ve absolutely given us complete artistic freedom. They’re not looking to change us. They want us to keep on doing what we’re doing. That’s ultimately why we signed with [them]. They have faith in the record as is and didn’t make any kind of suggestions for change, you know. ... Obviously there’s a little bit more of a team backing you up and they have money to do that. Also, they have connections to places that wouldn’t call me back a couple of months ago, so that definitely helps. ... Definitely I think we’re seeing a lot more people responding, following us on Twitter and so on—all of the Internet social media. We’re seeing a lot more people getting involved, asking about the band, asking where we’re playing next, when we’re going come back to their town, stuff like that.
Paste: Are you working on any new music right now?
Jones: Absolutely, there’s going be a few new songs on the record. I think we did that more for Atlanta, just so it doesn’t seem like we’re re-releasing the same old record everybody’s been listening to. So there’ll be some new songs out, definitely.
Paste: What are your plans for this year and the future? Where do you want to see The Constellations go?
Jones: I want to go all over the world, and see how other countries can react to it. I want to go all over the U.S. and tap into every market we possibly can. I said to our booking agents, I was like “You know if not I’m not on the road, I want to be in the studio, and I want to be on the road 365 days.” They actually filmed that and said, “Alright, we’re quoting you on that.”
Paste: Have you been to any city that you liked enough to maybe consider leaving Atlanta?
Jones: Uh, I don’t think I’ll ever leave Atlanta, honestly. I love my city. But absolutely, Milwaukee has been kind of our home away from home. They caught wind of the record a long time ago and have been super, super supportive of us; over the last year, year and half, we played three shows there and every single one of them sold out.