Online Extra: The Constellations Q&A

Living up to their name, this group of Atlanta stars just signed a four-album deal with Virgin

Atlanta’s supergroup is an amorphous thing to wrap your mind around. With a genre-straddling sound and everchanging roster that has included former members of Atlanta’s Gates of Berlin, Vin Corejo, Snowden, Second Shift, Ocha la Rocha, Trances Arc, and others, the Constellations are, in many ways, the voice of the Atlanta music scene. Since vocalist Elijah Jones and his seven-person band teamed up with Grammy-winning producer Ben Allen (Animal Collective, Gnarles Barkley, Gym Class Heroes) in 2008 to create the group’s first album, Southern Gothic, the Constellations have traveled the country and caught the attention of record executives. Jones is working on writing the band’s second release. On their way through Atlanta on a national tour that included a stop in NYC to meet with stylists from their new label, Jones and bassist Wes Hoffman took time to talk to Atlanta magazine. —Interview by Kimberly Turner

How did Virgin discover you?

EJ: An A&R guy at Virgin heard the record and brought it to Rob Stevenson, the president of Virgin, and he fell in love with it. They came down and saw a show and signed us that night. It was actually very, very quick. Universal had been courting us but after I met Rob, I knew it was the right fit. I could tell they listened to the entire record, not just “Felicia.” Those guys were absolutely about the record, not just the single.

WH: And the longevity of the band rather than just a quick buck. We’ve got a four-album deal. That includes the rerelease of Southern Gothic [sometime early next year].

Your lyrics are really reflective of Atlanta. Will you have to think about writing differently to appeal to a worldwide audience?
EJ: When we decided what songs were going to be on Southern Gothic, it was obvious that it was an Atlanta record and was all about Atlanta, but other cities embrace it just as much as the Atlanta crowd. It’s a universal theme. We talk about the people that are in our scene but everybody’s got those characters.

WH: So when we play “Step Right Up” in Milwaukee, he sings about the Clermont Lounge or MJQ; there is a Blondie and there is a Little Joe there, so they cheer for it, whether or not they’ve actually been to any of these places. They’re universal characters.

How do you fit into the Atlanta scene?
EJ: I love the Atlanta scene. It’s based on a hip-hop society, a punk rock society (Black Lips and stuff) and then there’s the indie part of it, like Deerhunter and the Selmanaires.

WH: There’s a big indie-electronic side of it too with Futureshock and Judi Chicago.

EJ: The key is that all those groups, all those different people—they all come to Constellations shows and I think that’s why we’re relevant. All of us can come together and represent our city under one flag.

How is it changing?
EJ: I went to a Black Lips show the other day down the street, and it was filled with every kind of scenester out there. The scenes are definitely coming together, and should be because Atlanta is a great city.

WH: It feels good to see people collaborating and getting along.

EJ: It’s not about hip-hop, it’s not about punk rock, it’s not about any of that. It’s all about music. Good music. It’s not about one particular scene. It’s about a music scene, all coming together.

WH: And it’s starting to do that now. I’ve been involved with the music scene since about 2003—and I’ve seen it: Certain bands will only play certain venues in certain parts of town, and their fans won’t travel to see them play somewhere else, and it’s kind of a drag.

EJ: I make it a point to have a hip-hop artist on the bill, no matter what. There is a hip-hop artist on my bill. I came from hip-hop. I came from Tom Waites and Ceelo, those are my idols. So how can I not have the indie scene, the punk scene, and the hip-hop scene all represented?

WH: That’s one of the cool things about the Constellations. Elijah is definitely more of a hip-hop head than some other members. Everybody has their influences and that’s what makes it this eclectic and interesting thing and enables us to walk that line between all these different genres.

Of all the projects you’ve been involved in, does it surprise you at all that this is the one that took off?
EJ: Not at all. It makes perfect sense. When I was recording the record, I felt so much freedom to do whatever I wanted to. I used to be in the Gates of Berlin. It was definitely pigeonholed into this certain thing. Not by me. Not by the band members necessarily but it’s just what happened. I wanted to push the envelope, but there was just no way it made sense. With this band, I could come in with every idea I had, and Ben [Allen] would say, ‘Cool, let’s cut it.’ It all made sense.

WH: There were no boundaries. We’re lucky too that the people at the label, at Virgin, understand that and have given us creative control. They’re taking Southern Gothic and putting it out as is, which does not happen. It’s amazing.

What have you guys sacrificed to get to this point?
EJ: These guys have been with me from nothing. I’ve had everybody and their mama say, “Can you do it with three people?” Well, yeah, but it would suck. I need every motherf***er that’s in this band on my team. I’ve gone into debt, putting us out on the road. I’ve gone into major, major, major debt and these guys have played for free. For free. And that’s what it takes nowadays because nobody buys records. This is something I really want to say: We dictate what to give our money to. We dictate what is gonna be top 40. We dictate the fact that fucking Mylie Cyrus and Jonas Brothers are the major moneymakers in the music industry, and everything else is second-tier to that. We dictate that because we download shit for free. I come from an old-school situation where I go out and buy a CD. I don’t expect that from everybody, but all I’m saying is: Represent the people you really think are doing good music. If you like something, buy it. Represent the people that you want to succeed. Do you want Jonas Brothers and Mylie to be the number one songs in America? Of course not. I can’t think of anybody in this place that wants that. Let’s represent the people that we want to succeed. It takes all of us. It takes a community to do that.

What advice would you give to new bands in Atlanta?

EJ: Write really good songs. Don’t be compromised or limited by any genre or anything. If you write a good song, it doesn’t matter what genre it’s in, how you perform it. If it’s a good song, it’s a good song. Play a good song, write a good song. And you have to write about something that’s real, not just throw-away lyrics. Write about your f***ing drug addiction, write about your affection for your neighborhood babysitter, I don’t know. I don’t care. Just make it a story, make it real, make it something that I care about listening to. And represent your community. That’d be the other thing I would say.

WH: Be proud.

EJ: Yes, be proud. Atlanta is a very hard place to break a band because it’s so far from the tastemakers in New York, L.A., and Seattle. Get the out of this town as well. Represent your city in other towns and enjoy coming back. Be true to your fans. Be sure you put every ounce of blood that you have into it. I played a show last night where I walked off stage and I threw up, not because I drank too much, but because I put it all out on the stage. Put everything out that you can. Give everything you’ve got onstage and your fans will appreciate it.