Elijah Jones, drawling frontman for eclectic Atlanta rock collective the Constellations, wanted the centerpiece of his band's seamy debut, Southern Gothic (Virgin), to be a radically reworked funk version of Tom Waits' carnival barker shuffle "Step Right Up." But before he could realize that vision, he felt obliged to ask for permission -- twice. "We were tearing the original apart," says Jones, 32, of the song, in which he name-checks a rogue's gallery of regulars at his favorite watering holes, "so I sent our new lyrics to Tom for approval.
A little while later, his people said he was cool with it. I also went around to everyone I mentioned in the song to make sure they dug it, too." And? Jones laughs. "Let's just say I haven't had to pay for a drink for a while."
Bartenders and balladeers aren't the only ones who have been supportive of the eight-member outfit, which Jones, son of a Baptist deacon, assembled in 2007 from veterans of Atlanta's indie scene. Gnarls Barkley's Cee-Lo Green, who Jones met at a show, contributes vocals to Gothic's buzzing, melodic "Love Is a Murder," and Asher Roth, who'd worked with the album's producer, Ben Allen, adds a verse to smirking rock-hop number "We're Here to Save the Day."
Then, inexplicably, there was Milwaukee. "We sent songs to everyone," explains the singer. "And [radio station] 88.9 in Milwaukee was the first to catch on. They invited us to play a show, and the day I got there, I heard three of our songs on the radio. Why that city was into music about what happens in Atlanta between midnight and 4 A.M. I have no idea, but it made me feel a little better about having maxed out four credit cards to pay for the band." Presumably, an ensuing four-album deal with Virgin also helped.
Currently headlining a national tour, and with upcoming gigs at Lollapalooza and the Austin City Limits Festival, the Constellations have traveled far from home, but Jones isn't worried about his inspiration drying up. "As long as I can find a bar," he says, "I'll be able to write a song." With or without permission.