The Constellations Come Together On A Sound All Their Own

Monday, 29 November 2010

What's in a name? As fashionable as it might be to say that such qualifying measures are meaningless or useless when it comes to the arts, musicians live and die with generic names and their perceived status in pop culture. Think about it – how many new buzz words crop up per year/per month/per week to define the sound of the new “it” band? How do people view it on the basis of that nomenclature after its' fanfare has waned? Giving a sound a name can be a treacherous proposition; punk might not be dead, but grunge sure is, for example, while 'metal' has become tarnished and rusted several times over in the decades since the genre first appeared, only to once again be polished to a mirror shine by a new batch of bands in the next decade. Not only that, the power that nomenclature holds over fans can be incredible; to the point that trying to separate the differences between two genres can seem like an exercise in analyzing the smallest minutiae; 'alternative rock' has gone to ground, for example, and 'indie' is alive and well at the moment – but what really is the difference between the two?

In this time of slapping a name or label on anything and everything, the height of rebellion would seem to be defying categorization. By throwing a little bit of everything into the mix, that's exactly what Atlanta-based octet The Constellations have done on their Virgin debut, Southern Gothic. “What we're making is just pop music, man,” exclaims Constellations singer Elijah Jones. “I'd been in tonnes of bands where the first meeting and discussion of the band is, 'What kind of sound are we gonna be, and what kind of image are we going to portray?' I always just felt like that was super-cheesy and kind of a way of pigeonholing yourself. With this project, we never had that conversation; even from song-to-song, we were thinking about what we wanted to hear like, 'Let's do this psychedelic song, but we're gonna rap over it!' Each song would just be what it was going to be; I'd come in with a lyric or somebody'd have a lick and it would just go from there so trying to come up with a label was just impossible so it's pop music – just pop music. 'Popular music.'”

It sounds so simple, but how does one make popular music as The Constellations do on Southern Gothic? According to Jones, the only guiding principle when work began on the album was to let the form remain open and not discount any idea outright; while some of those ideas might not have worked, the trick was to try them first and see if they could work. “We were recording for the better part of two years because it was a side project for everybody in the band,” explains Jones of the process that ultimately yielded the album. “There were times when we'd take as much as three months off before we'd make it back into the studio to work on it some more.

“We had a great bunch of musicians in Atlanta and a lot of people would just come in to work on stuff as it went; it was very open-door like that,” continues the singer. “The whole process was just super, super organic – our producer, Ben Allen, just opened up the studio to us and there was no game plan or anything like that, we'd just go in with different parts, show them to each other and work on them to see how we could develop songs around them. There was never really a 'writing process' you know, sometimes I'd go in there and Ben and I would do everything. It was just a matter of time; whoever had time would walk into the studio and work on it. In the end, the people who play on stage with me now did a lot but, in the beginning, there was a whole bunch of other people working on it too. Towards the end, we did sort of reach a point where it was a solid group of people that we were working with and we knew were going to be the touring band, but that decision was really only reached at the end; before that, it was very, very open.”

That feeling of 'openness' and creative freedom is the first thing listeners will feel in listening to Southern Gothic. The beauty of this pastiche music-making is that, while two listeners might like what the band is laying down – they may even become diehard super-fans – it could be for completely separate reasons. From the opening buzz of “Setback,” The Constellations lay out a full and tantalizing smorgasbord of sounds including Top 40 Pop, R&B, trip hop, rock, soul and electro-clash but, rather than attempting to combine those pieces to show how versatile they can be, merely use them as ingredients that the band whips to a froth and serves up as a thoroughly unique music parfait. The end designs play out spectacularly well – but the secret is to not dissect it too much because trying to do so will drive any listener crazy. From the opening synth drone that almost immediately gives way to ethereal guitars and tight vocal flow, The Constellations will instantly grab the attention of listeners because they are playing to three or four different groups of fans (Top 40, hip hop and rock – at least) and doing it with disarming facility. As each track rolls out, The Constellations clearly relish in their re-setting of every musical value they run across but, for listeners, the true joy lies in the fact that Southern Gothic has no wrinkles in its' fabric and nothing resembling a misspent moment. In spite of Southern Gothic being their debut album, The Constellations come on confidently and deliver the goods with an ease that rivals most bands' third or fourth efforts and, according to Jones, audiences have really reacted positively to the sounds that his band has concocted; spurring the band to start getting creative on the road, and endeavoring to cement their status as the band that cannot be pinned down. “We've been out since last September so we've become a pretty lean, mean touring machine at this point, but I've been writing on the road recently, and we recently got the capability to record a bit on the road too,” hints Jones at the possibilities that the New Year might bring. “Like, we can't do full recordings or anything, just enough to pin ideas down when we have them you know? Because we have that capability now, who knows what the next album will be about [chuckling]. As I say, we really focused on touring this year – we were laughing at one point, because it seemed like after we'd think we had our bearings and knew when the tour was going to end, more dates would get added – but after we take a rest around the holidays, I wouldn't be against the idea of working on another album; again, it's all just a matter of time.”


Further Reading:

Ground Control's review of Southern Gothic by The Constellations


Southern Gothic is out now. Buy it here on Amazon .

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