It was only last year that The Constellations released their album debut, Southern Gothic: the eleven-track record, mixing rock&roll, hip-hop, and soul music and featuring none other than Cee-Lo Green and Asher Roth, has been critically acclaimed and revitalized the idea of a coherent album with a strong message. After two years spent writing and recording the album with producer Ben H. Allen (Animal Collective, Gnarls Barkley), some of their hit songs such as “Felicia” and “Perfect Day” are now being featured on TV shows like House and Chuck. That said, the band is certainly not resting on their laurels as they travel the country and convert thousands of listeners into instant fans every night. I was able to catch up with them in Asheville, where we talked about everything: from the origins of the band to their collaborative process, and from dealing with fame to almost getting shot in the face. (True story.)
Just so you can follow the interview without any confusion, here are the different members of the band in alphabetical order:
Shab Bashiri (background vocals, keys, percussion)
Trevor Birdsong (guitar)
Jamie Gordon (keys)
Wes Hoffman (bass)
Shane Human (drums)
Elijah Jones (vocals)
Who am I speaking to right now, and where are you guys?
Shab: Right now it’s Elijah, Jamie, Trevor, Wes, and myself — Shane isn’t with us tonight. We’re having dinner at a restaurant in Asheville, North Carolina, where we’re doing one of our two shows with Gogol Bordello. We just finished our second tour with Electric Six.
2010 has been a crazy year for your band, first because of the release of your first album and second because your success has taken off so quickly. What has that experience been like for you?
Elijah: It’s been hard to take it all in, since we’re pretty much been on tour non-stop since the release of Southern Gothic. We’ve been waking up in a new town almost every day, so that has almost become our norm.
While all of you stem from different backgrounds, each of the members has a connection to Atlanta, right?
Trevor: We’ve all been part of the Atlanta music scene for a relatively long time, contributing to it in different ways.
Jamie: Yeah, we all call Atlanta our home now, even though not all of us are from there; I’m originally from Birmingham, Alabama. We all became part of the music scene and gravitated toward each other in more or less random ways. For example, I’ve known Shane for one year, and he played the tambourine during one of our songs randomly at this annual charity event called 500 Songs for… (the sound becomes muffled, all I hear is a word that ends in “ITS“)
I’m sorry, I heard “500 Songs for Tits,” and I’m sure that must be wrong.
Shab: [laughs] That would be pretty awesome though.
Jamie: Unfortunately, it’s 500 Songs for Kids, an Atlanta non-profit that enriches the lives of children in need through music. But I would attend that kind of event. Anyway, Shane eventually ended up joining the group years later when the band needed a drummer.
Wes: We look at The Constellations as a community-based group. This means that it could involve the six of us on tour, plus six other people on the edge. This is the core group, but there are definitely revolving doors with different musicians.
In that case, I’m interested to hear how you individually got involved.
Elijah: The whole thing started when Ben Allen, our producer, opened a studio for a bunch of local musicians to come out and work on stuff. A friend of mine was in one of those bands and asked me to work on the chorus for a song which they didn’t end up using — however, the first lyric written for the record was: “From darkness to light, we shine through the night, the stars will combine and form constellations.” I worked with Ben more and more and we decided to form a band.
Wes: I was booking shows as a party planner in Atlanta and had been playing with other local bands long before. I got to be friends with Elijah, Shab, and other people who were playing in the group at the time. For a New Years Eve show they were putting up, their base player happened to be out of town. I’m a guitar player but since the show must go on, I ended up playing base for them… and the rest is history.
Jamie: I moved to Atlanta about four years ago; Elijah, Trevor, Shab, and I happened to be working in the same place completely randomly. Elijah told me about The Constellations, and I was interested in joining as a drummer… except that their drummer would always show up and it would never happen for me. A year and a half later the original keyboard player left, and since I was a music major in college, I told them that I could fill in that part even though I had never really done keyboards before.
Wes: Jamie and I are really playing a different instrument than what we were originally trained in.
Trevor: My story is more boring: Shab called me at work one day and told me that they needed a guitar player, and since I had been thinking of joining the band for a long time, it completely worked out for me.
Shab: I was there from the beginning, when The Constellations was more like a studio project. They needed extra stuff on the record: hand claps, bells, whistles… Since they were always trying to figure out how to do these things live, they got a couple of girls together. Over the years, I became the back-up singer, and now I also do keys and percussion.
Southern Gothic draws the portrait of Atlanta, and your website quotes that the record is about “what happens [there] between 2 a.m. and noon.” So what happens there?
Elijah: [laughs] Anything you want! A lot of debaucherous stuff, soul searching, drug prowling… Most of the songs are about partying a little too hard and the consequences. You also mix genres, from dance to hip-hop to rock’n'roll. Who were your inspirations?
Elijah: We were inspired by a lot of different sounds as far as percussions and the psychedelic sound go on Southern Gothic. I’ve also been a big Tom Waits and Cee-Lo fan, and they both ended up on the album in one way or another (Cee-Lo on the song, “Love is a Murder,” and Tom Waits referenced in the song, “Step Right Up – A Tribute to Tom Waits”). “Step Right Up” is an old Tom Waits song that we reworked. And Cee-Lo was actually at one of our shows, and I spotted him in the audience…
You can’t miss him!
Elijah: [laughs] Yeah, he’s definitely larger than life! He was already connected to Ben Allen, and when I hooked up with all those guys who were such an inherent part of the music scene in Atlanta, it opened the door for all of this to happen in the first place. As for other collaborations like Asher Roth (“We’re Here to Save The Day”), we did that song probably a year before he released his own record. We were looking for someone to add a verse for a song that I felt like I had said everything I needed to say in. Ben brought him in, and it turned out to be a perfect match.
Shab, what’s it like being surrounded by all that testosterone? Are you holding your own end?
Shab: Absolutely! It’s like having five brothers I guess. Anybody who has toured can tell you that when you spend that much time together, you become family whether you like it or not. Even when we’re home in Atlanta we end up hanging out together.
Trevor: That’s because we have no friends. [laughs]
You have been featured on so many TV shows this year: House, Body of Proof, Royal Pains, Vampire Diaries… is it weird hearing your songs on national TV?
Wes: I didn’t even realize, and I speak for some of the others, that the songs were being used. I’d check my phone and there would be ten text messages and a couple of missed calls from my mom saying, “Oh my God, you’re on House tonight!” She DVRs that stuff, so I can expect a marathon when I come home.
Elijah: We are always on the road playing our shows when those come on. We saw a couple episodes of Chuck that featured our songs, but haven’t seen the rest.
Shab: There is definitely a little bit of weirdness to it. It’s cool to see how they choose to interpret the songs and have them fit with their shows.
So many bands just write a few hits nowadays, but you have consistency in your entire record.
Elijah: Thanks! We didn’t want to just do one big hit, and it’s a big part of what makes us a little different. We didn’t want to pigeon-hole ourselves in one style or look, and instead tried to let the music write itself and not think about the rest. Even though I write the songs, I take inspiration from all of the members of the band and take a lot of pride in the community-feel we’ve been able to instill. A lot of people have joined The Constellations and left, so it doesn’t really feel like a band in the traditional sense of the term.
Jamie, where was your favorite live experience and why?
Jamie: That’s a tough one, but I’m definitely going to say in Milwaukee or Chicago. The former because it was the first place where we went out of state and immediately felt a huge response, with sold-out shows and people singing every word of our songs in the audience. Chicago is incredible because of the partying we do before and after the shows.
Elijah: Most of our stories are pretty X-rated. I know mine are.
Wes: A few years ago in Baltimore, a large group of us went to a bar after the show until Elijah, Jamie, and myself left last in order to make sure that everything was packed and locked. The three of us are walking back to the place we were staying at around four in the morning, when we passed this house on the side of the road. A crazy man jumps out on the porch with a twelve gage shotgun which he points directly at our face and screams, “What the hell are you doing here? Get off my perimeter, the cops are coming!”
Did you run as fast as you could?
Wes: Absolutely not. [laughs] We were so tired and shocked that we didn’t really respond the way he was expecting us to. We simply said, “Oh. Okay. I’m sorry, man.” We kind of turned around and about ten to fifteen seconds after, my knees started shaking and reality set in. I realized that I could’ve gotten my head blown off, which is not a feeling I do not recommend to anyone.
You should’ve given him a free CD.
Jamie: [laughs] Maybe that’s what he was after.
How can Daily BR!NK readers contribute to your success?
Shab: Listen to our music, come to our shows, tell your friends, buy the record. Just more word of mouth. Getting the name The Constellations out to as many people as possible is the priority as of now. Support us in ways that you see fit.
Elijah: As for live shows, you can always check our website or social networking platforms to see where we’ll be playing next.
I thought you guys were going to answer, “Avoid pointing a shotgun at our faces.”
Wes: We don’t want to ask for too much.
Since you guys are in Asheville, a friend of mine who happens to be a huge fan recommended that you go to the Sunny Point Cafe in West Asheville. Best breakfast in town!
Shab: Oh cool, thanks! Good advice.