In the nearly two years since the release of Southern Gothic, their raucous and infectious full length ode to sweet home Atlanta, The Constellations have toured England and Scotland and put over 160,000 miles on their 15 passenger van and trailer hookup, hitting every club, nook and cranny possible across the U.S. and Canada. Mixing it up with and loving every bit of crackling energy exchange with their party-ready fans, the psychedelic soul-rock warriors, led by frontman/songwriter and ringmaster Elijah Jones, realized something both obvious and crazy that led to the perfect title for their 429 Records debut: they’d gladly Do It For Free.
Do It For Free
Shining brighter, grooving harder, The Constellations teased fans eager for the full length with Sold Out, an interim four-track EP on 429 featuring three new tracks and the audio and video for their hit single “Love Is A Murder,” featuring Cee-Lo Green. These songs have a lyrical realness and a laid back coolness that, like their other hit “Felicia” (whose video snagged over 200,000 views on YouTube), might help the crowd take a breath between the wilder adventures of their killer live show. Yet the band—whose permanent recording and touring members include Wes Hoffman (bass), Jamie Gordon (keys) and Shane Human (drums)—is eager to show on the new 13 track set how it has grown and solidified since their genre-hopping debut.
“We’ve been on the road for what seems like non-stop and a lot has changed musically since our first release,” says Jones. “We’re changing what The Constellations sound can and will be defined as. ‘Going Down in Flames’ on the EP has some of the old flavor, while ‘Good Old Fashioned Freedom’ and ‘So It Shall Be’ are a departure from the first album. While there was no overall concept going into the writing and recording of Do It For Free, we knew we wanted to make something that sounded a little more soulful, with more melodic songwriting and less rapping. We wanted it to be defined under one musical umbrella instead of doing all the stylistic jumps.”
As for the album title, Jones sees a connection between his involvement with and support of The Occupy Movement and the concept of Do It For Free—note the colorful album art featuring a blindfolded Ben Franklin and the double insignia “99 Percent.” But originally, the idea came from a more personal place that connects with his and his bandmates’ feelings about The Constellations after years leading or being part of more conventional rock bands in Atlanta for years. “It seems like we’re out there 365 days a year,” he says, “playing for a little money and beer, but it’s the ideal life if you love what you’re doing like we do. We do it for the extreme energy we feel onstage with each other and the crowd—and know any money that comes flows from that. We do it for the love and at least theoretically, we would do it for free. Musicians understand the idea of trickle-down economics better than anyone. We’re usually the last people to cash the check.”
Though the lineup is the same and Jones continues as The Constellations’ driving songwriting force on Do It For Free, one of the big shifts was in the change of producers from Ben H. Allen (Animal Collective, Gnarls Barkley) to Andrew Rose, a former film composer, songwriter and producer whose credits include indie singer/songwriter Alex Boyd. It was the open invitation Allen extended that brought many of Atlanta’s rock powerhouses to jam in his studio and ultimately join forces as The Constellations. Just as that experience happened organically, Jones’ decision to work this time with Rose was based on pure studio serendipity when they got together in Los Angeles last summer to write songs—not necessarily for a Constellations project—after meeting through their publishing company.
“Typical L.A. songwriting sessions are two hours in a room trying to write a hit with someone you never met, and nothing much comes out of it,” says Jones. “Things were different right away with Andy. I showed up at his studio and we hung out on the patio and talked for two hours before we went into the studio. We started jamming and the next thing we knew, 45 minutes went by and we had this incredible session which I chopped up to ultimately make three different songs on Do It For Free. The title track just came to me, like one of those mysterious gifts from God, and I was just channeling. The other two that came from that session were ‘Right Where I Belong’, which reminded me of a classic 70’s Donny Hathaway ballad and ‘Let It Go.’ Andy and I didn’t have concepts going in, these tunes just developed. I called our manager and told him ‘This is the guy I want to produce our new record.’”
Whether by divine intervention or just Jones’ need to write some kick-ass new stuff after months on the road in a passenger van, these three initial tracks evolved into the core of The Constellations’ multi-faceted vibe circa 2012. “Do It For Free” is old school jazz-blues on happy steroids, featuring a high energy swirl of funk via a conversation between the Hammond B-3 and Fender Rhodes. Jones distorts his voice a la Wilson Pickett on this one, but lets the crisp edges of his voice shine through directly on the sensual R&B flavored “Right Where I Belong, which features a dramatic gospel organ element reflective of Jones’ church upbringing (his dad and stepmom are both preachers). On the easy funk blues rock ballad “Let It Go,” Jones (backed by lush female harmony vocals) urges anyone who would seek his good advice to drop the baggage in their life and get on with things.
Jamie Gordon’s arsenal of retro soul keyboard sounds create powerful textures throughout, most notably on the infectious opening track, which broods along until the power chorus gushes in; the explosive “rock all night” anthem “Afterparty,” a tune Jones calls “Iggy Pop within a honky tonk” which blends a wild B-3 led jam with electric guitar passages by Trevor Birdsong that swing like Django Reinhart; and “The Breeze,” a slice of psychedelic rock/blues funk anchored by Gordon’s cool keyboard. And there would be no groove without the expansive, snappy basslines of Wes Gordon, who joined The Constellations after booking one of their first shows at Atlanta’s Star Bar and seeing how they fired up the crowd.
Another creative inspiration for Do It For Free was life on the road—a natural outgrowth of the fact that Jones wrote a lot of tunes en route from one gig to the next, with a mic plugged into his laptop and simple acoustic guitar or keyboard lines sketched out on the bus or in random hotel rooms. The stripped Tom Waits flavored down folk/pop tune “The Ol’ Speakeasy,” which features a whistling interlude and rhymes “nookie” with “whoopee,” is an example of a track where Jones’ original tune transferred to the album with minimal bells and whistles.
The bridge on “Back in ATL,” an exuberant celebration of how the band feels when they’re inching closer to getting home,” includes a reference to a time when their trailer broke down in the middle of the desert in Arizona. “Turns out the manufacturer was just up the road,” Jones says. “It really made me think that someone is watching out for us.” But the granddaddy of all road adventure songs is the trippy pop-rock-soul jam “All My Great Escapes,” about the time Jones got arrested in Philly for doing essentially nothing—but supposedly resisting arrest.
“We were pulled over for expired tags,” he says, “and we showed the cop our current ones. He asked for our IDs and flashed the light in my face, then pulled me out of the passenger side window. The other cops jumped on me and arrested me for supposedly resisting—a clear cut example of someone with too much power throwing it around like I don’t even matter. The ironic part was that I’ve done my share of mischief in my life, but this time I got arrested but wasn’t doing anything wrong. When we play ‘All My Great Escapes’ live I dedicate it to the Philadelphia PD for inspiring a great pop song.”
Most of the time, The Constellations save their mayhem filled moments for the studio (a little) and onstage, where they let loose and give their fans a real show. From the outset, their explosive shows were selling out all over the city. Prior to becoming a founding member of this exciting new collective, Jones was having fun but essentially biding his time creatively with bands like his previous one, The Gates of Berlin, which in his words, “mixed Southern Rock with synthy pop stuff.” The Constellations gave him a chance to further explore a unique range of influences that includes Tom Waits, Cee Lo (in his Goodie Mob days), Outkast and—upon some recent “soul” searching—now incorporates Freddie King, Sam Cooke, Al Green and Solomon Burke.
“When you talk about any music that has Southern rock as an inspiration, you’re talking about music that’s a little dirty and dusty, as if the red clay is on everything,” says Jones. “The Constellations just takes that concept to a sonically disorganized but fun place where we can explore the tension between dark and light. The band is amazing in the studio, but they really get it going onstage, with West wearing his afro and dashiki and Jamie hamming it up as I do my thing and take it all in as the ringleader. The key to making Do It For Free the next step in our unexpected journey is just the honesty that went into the album and our refusal to rest on our few laurels and make the same album we did the last time.”