In his element
Jim Elkington hearkens back to his favorite British bands on the Zincs' latest.
While some songwriters seem gripped by the clutches of an unholy ambition, Jim Elkington has a more casual relationship with career opportunities. The Englishman, who has called Chicago home for several years, has had a steady backup gig as a guitar repairman. That is, when he’s not fronting his clever rock outfit the Zincs.
“I don’t want to be counting pennies and picking up soup tins when I’m 40,” he says, with an air not of resignation but dryly realistic humor. It wasn’t as if the one-time drummer ever intended to become the subversively witty auteur behind the Zincs, which began as a one-man project and has evolved into a full-blown band—now more than ever, in fact, as the group’s sophomore effort, Black Pompadour (Thrill Jockey), so energetically displays.
Elkington’s emergence from behind the drum kit only began after he fell in love with Chicago. He visited for a then-bandmate’s wedding, and eventually returned for a longer spell. “The city had everything I thought London was going to have when I moved there,” he recalls. “London is crushingly large and dense. The fact that I could go see the Vandermark 5 for $3, a bike ride away, every week, was amazing.” Besides, other than his friendship with bassist Nick Macri (now of the Zincs), Elkington felt happily anonymous.
“No one here knew me so I gave myself absolute free range to fail,” he says, “and my fear of failure is pretty innate. I let myself off the hook, trying to do something I’ve never done before and that may well not work out. I didn’t find songwriting hard because it had the novelty of something completely new.”
Black Pompadour is piled high with Elkington’s uncommonly literate twists of phrase: He alludes to “trout-greased crowds,” “Caesarian smiles” and “the mumbler with the marcel wave,” constructing little narratives whose meanings can be temptingly obscure. “I can’t really guess what they’re about until years later,” he says, then offers an insight into his approach.
“I started complaining yesterday about the lexicon of rock lyric writing and the conventions thereof, it just makes my skin crawl,” Elkington begins. “In a way, it’s part of the package: The same way people learn to play the drums by listening to Stewart Copeland, guitarists learn how to write lyrics by listening to Pete Townshend. I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong with Pete, heaven forfend! But I can tell when I’m listening to a guitarist’s lyrics. They sound like they were written because they needed to be written.”
Though he worked on a much faster schedule for the new album, Elkington had some specific ideas about what he wanted to evoke. The title flashes back both to the 35-year-old’s youthful fixations and the classic style wars of Absolute Beginners–era England. “I had a flat top, trying to coax it into a pomp but it never happened,” he says. “Morrissey and Johnny Marr had them. I was really into jangling guitar bands and wearing ’50s haircuts. We all smoked Woodbines, these filterless, thin cigars, which were very popular in the Second World War. I wanted to hark back to that energy that bands had in the mid-’80s in England, but make it sound like a newer thing. Pop is eating itself. There seems to be less scraps than there used to be.”
Even if he wanted to more baldly emulate the ’80s (and Elkington can cheerfully rattle off the names of bands he discounts for doing so), his voice pretty much destines him to be original: His classic smoky baritone skews his delivery toward the Nick Cave/Tom Waits/Leonard Cohen end of the mojo spectrum.
“I’d love to be able to explode in a David Byrne–ish way, but I just don’t have it,” he says, wistfully. “In the car, I have been trying to build up my exploding ability, but it’s not good. Look at the Shins! They had to get some operatic vocal coaches.”
Indeed, Elkington takes the mike because he has no other choice. “I’m dubious of people who are born singers. Singing seems like a really weird thing to get up to do. I was always looking for some singer-songwriter guy or girl to partner up with to write music for, but for some reason I never met that person.
“If you want to get something done,” he concludes with an ironic sigh, “you have to do it yourself.”
Black Pompadour hits stores Tuesday 20. The Zincs play Empty Bottle April 7.