James Elkington used to be the frontman of the much-loved The Zincs. There is simply no way you could not have come across his work – he contributed his stylish guitar work (and other musical touches) to countless works of artists and bands alike or played with them live. To name but a few: Richard Thompson, Steve Gunn, Laetitia Sadier, Tweedy, Brokeback, Eleventh Dream Day, Tara Jane O’Neil. The list is indeed endless.
The year 2017 finally saw him getting around to put the finishing touches to his first solo album “Wintres Woma” (Paradise Of Bachelors). On the occasion of touring with this album in tow almost a year later on the continent, James Elkington kindly gave Offbeat an interview before a tremendous gig at the King Georg in Cologne, Germany. After visiting Europe he will open for The Sea And Cake in the US in May.
Offbeat Music Blog: Thank you so much for taking the time, James! To start off really heavily: Steve Gunn called you one of the best guitarists (if not the very one) of this generation and said, you can play anything, anything at all.
James Elkington: That is…untrue. He is a very supportive person, Steve, and we are good friends. But it is not true that I can do anything. As anyone who is coming down to the show tonight is probably going to find out (laughs).
OBM: Your masterful guitar playing then, does it stem from talent, is it genetic or immensely hard work or a combination?
JE: I am glad you are asking about that because I was talking to an elderly man called Charles in Overpelt (B) this morning on the train about that. And he was saying that he never played a musical instrument because he assumed you had to have some sort of innate talent or ability. Two things I have to say to that. Firstly, when I was learning how to play guitar, I was the slowest student. I mean, anyone else, anyone I studied with or played with, they all got better than me a lot quicker. I had to work twice as hard or at least twice as long to do the most basic things. Later in my life I was teaching guitar for a while, so I got to see people learning a lot and what I realised was: What we think of as being talent is just those people who for whatever reason happen to have the right muscles in the right places to be able to make those sounds. But for most of us, you just have to put the hours in. I think what we sometimes mistake as talent is just kind of luck or something. Maybe there is something innate that gets passed on but not in the terms of the technicalities of playing. I think you just have to put in the hours or even more hours if you are me.
OBM: So did you come from a musical family?
JE: My Mum was a singer in a choir and my Dad played the spoons to a high level. People were impressed, other spoon players. But no, ultimately no, not really, There was no-one in my family. People were musical but they weren’t musicians.
OBM: You eventually joined bands in the UK and then had your own band The Zincs and took them over to Chicago?
JE: Well, actually I started The Zincs in Chicago. I played in other people’s bands. I hadn’t really done anything of my own until I moved to Chicago. It took me moving to Chicago to have the confidence to start my own project completely.
OBM: The music of The Zincs already sounds very influenced by all kinds of American music.
JE: I had been mostly listening to American music during my late teens and twenties. I also moved to Chicago because I wanted to be near to where some of this music was being made. But also when I was a kid, I grew up listening to The Smiths and Orange Juice and things like that. All of this stuff was beginning to mix together for me. I was trying to synthesise something that was partly what I was at the time and also what I had been into as a kid. I was already thirty or in my late twenties then. So I was beginning to be interested in the stuff that I was listening to as a kid and reconnecting with that. So that band was sort of about that. But the weird thing is that I wrote a few songs…I had already sort of started my guitar style. It started around then. It wasn’t particularly technical but it had the foundations of it. I played a show one time and a friend of my bass player said: “This actually sounds like English folk music. Does James like to listen to much of that stuff?”. The fact is that I had not really listened to it since I was a kid. I don’t know if you had this too, but there was country dancing when I was a kid. (OBM: Nooo.) No, no (laughs). I mean, it was awful. We were exposed to a lot of this music and it always seemed to be around in some shape or form. It seeped in somehow but I was not really conscious of it. It was around that time that I was making more of a study of the sixties and seventies folk band stuff from England. I found that a lot of things about it really resonated with me. It set me off on this new trajectory. The Zincs were the beginning of that. I was even thinking about some of those older songs. They are not that dissimilar to my songs now but they are just wearing different clothes or something.
OBM: But being a frontman was not really your thing?
JE: Yeah, it was. I quit was what basically happened. The Zincs had been the first band that had been purely mine. I worked really hard on it and I took it very seriously. I took it way to seriously. What I realised in retrospect was that part of me actually needed it to be a success to make it all worthwhile. However you quantify success, in sales or people coming to shows – I really wanted those things but I hadn’t admitted it to myself. When those things did not happen and they don’t happen to most bands…
OBM: Critically they did…
JE: Critically, yeah, some people seemed to like it but it did not really go anywhere and I needed it to go somewhere. I thought it was not really worth my while or I did not really have the temperament for it. So I stopped for a couple of years and I was just teaching. It was around 2010 or 2011 that a friend of mine, Jon Langford asked me to come and play a show with him. Jon has a band called The Mekons and The Waco Brothers and he has been around making records for over forty years now, I guess. I did not really know anything about his music but I took my guitar and he showed me a couple of songs. I played the songs with him and I had a great time and I realised that what had been missing from music for me was or what it added to music was that expectation that it would go anywhere instead of doing it for the sake of doing it. I had a complete rethink. I was like, okay, I just want to play in other people’s bands because it makes me happy to do that. And it frees me up from any expectation of anything. I can concentrate on the music which is all I have ever been interested in.
OBM: Also, no responsibility?
JE: Oh yeah, that’s another one. I mean, I am not really a natural leader. I never had a gang or anything. I was more worried that my band was having a bad time. or there was not enough money. Being in other people’s bands was a way for me to play music and be completely absolved of that responsibility. That made me happy to the extent where when I had some free time, I actually started to write songs. But it was purely as a kind of…you know, I always liken it to when people were on the phone, or when they used to be on phones that had cords, they would stick it under their chin and they would draw little doodles. The music I was coming out with was like my little doodle that I did when I had time off from touring. It was really just for me and not meant to be anything. But I found after a year of these doodles that I had of what amounted to a collection of songs. I very slowly recorded them and stopped, thought about it for a while and play some to people and stop. I was sort of edging my way back in but it was very important to me that it wasn’t like before and I was doing it for the right reasons, just that it made me happy to do it. That’s how it worked out.
OBM: The artists whose work you contributed to or played with cover a wide range of genres. Is that part work for you or does it reflect different sides of your musical character?
JE: Sometimes when I would be playing with people it would be more of a technical exercise for me to see if I could do it. The thing is though, with playing in different styles of bands, my style of playing remains the same in all of those bands. The fun for me is to figure out where I fit in to something. I played with Jon and that was fairly straight rock stuff with a country tinge. But then I played with Kelly Hogan for a year and she has almost more of a soul thing going on but again, I was still playing my style, my sound, but her songs. Usually I can find some sort of combination that makes me fit. That’s why I don’t really think of myself as a session person because if I came to play with you and you wanted this to sound like Nile Rodgers, I don’t know if I’d be able to do that. I can only do the thing that I am going to do. Fortunately for me, the people I played with have asked me to because I do a certain kind of thing. But I am certainly not a master of all styles.
OBM: Is that a technical thing or would you say, your heart is not in it?
JE: I think I made a decision when I got back into music that there is a lot of people playing guitar, a really tremendously huge amount of people playing guitar and to try and play like someone else, it’s just a dead end for me. I don’t think it’s worth pursuing for anyone. Because there are a lot of them out there. By finding your own voice on the instrument, the interesting things happen. But that’s what I have been able to concentrate on. But I have also been very lucky. It’s a Chicago thing too because Chicago has a wide and very inclusive musical community. People play across genres all the time. The folk guys play with the jazz guys who play with the experimental rock guys. It’s always been that way.
OBM: Doug McCombs (Tortoise, Eleventh Dream Day, Brokeback) himself is already combining all the genres.
JE: To be honest, the way Doug’s whole career has gone…I play in a band with Doug…even just watching him, developing the different things he was doing, was part of led me to move to Chicago anyway. You could go and play different kinds of music but that does not necessarily mean that you are like a dilettante or that you are somehow insincere. I think, if you have a style or a sound and an approach, then it is actually an interesting synthesis to be playing in different styles. When I lived in London, I did not find that people looked at music that way so much. It seemed to be much more segregated. That did not appeal to me so much.
OBM: I do think your style is very distinctive. I was listening to James Toth’ (Wooden Wand) wonderful “Clippership” album and during the song “Mexican Coke”, I thought “That sounds like James Elkington in there” and I looked it up, yep, it is.
JE: That’s the best compliment anyone could give you, thank you! Or did you go: “Hang on a second, this does not sound that good. I bet Jim is on this.” (Laughs).
OBM: No, no, it wasn’t that way at all. You do not only play guitar though, you are a multi-instrumentalist.
JE: No, I play the drums. The drums were my first instrument. And I love the drums but the drums do not love me. It doesn’t matter how hard I try, I just don’t get very good on the drums. So I sort of stopped doing it. I loved it though! The again, it is just for me. I play drums on a couple of records. Doug’s band Brokeback – not on the last record, the record before, I was the drummer. And I played drums with Laetitia Sadier as well. Both of them will tell you (laughs), it’s not my main thing. I play a lot of piano on people’s records, too. And I am a terrible piano player.
OBM: Oh stop! On Joan Shelley’s record for example?
JE: Yes! There’s some terrible piano playing on that record. But no-one else wanted to do it. (Laughs out loud).
OBM: Ah, I wouldn’t believe that. It says here on the blurb for tonight’s gig on the website you are the master of the open tuning. Did you always use open tuning? I did not think that.
JE: No, I didn’t. Actually, I play with this guy, Nathan Salsburg, and he really is the master of the open tuning, as is Steve (Gunn).
OBM: Yeah, he is trying everything and so is Nathan but I would have thought that you stick to the classic one.
JE: Yes, I do, especially when I play with those guys, I just need a stable reference. I need to go with what I know. But again, the record that I put out last year, my solo record (Wintres Woma) is all in this tuning called DADGAD. That was part of the doodle. In my spare time, instead of just going to sleep or wandering off to a record shop or something, to sit down with this tuning that I did not really understand, I got that feeling back when I very first started to play the guitar. I did not know what I was doing. I was kind of wandering around.
OBM: You were out of the comfort zone?
JE: Yeah, and that’s were all these songs came from. I was finding all these little surprises in this tuning. But I am too lazy to change the tuning. So I went, this is all just going to be DADGAD. I never change it, so I am by no means an open tuning master.
OBM: So the album was based on the tuning DADGAD, you had that and you took your time to do it. It took some convincing to get on with it (JE laughs), so I have heard. But did you also have in mind, well, not in the sense of a concept album, but a certain atmosphere that it was going to convey?
JE: I had already been involved in a couple of records that were made in the Wilco Loft recording studio and I knew that the sound that they have there was going to marry well with the way the songs sounded. “Wintres Woma” means “The Sound of winter” and I wanted it to have a sort of, not cold sound, but sort of sparseness to it. I had quite detailed demos already. I have a project studio at my house. I pretty much mapped out exactly how I wanted it to be. It was never going to sound great. It was just a kind of a road map. I work with this guy in Chicago, Mark Greenberg, who is very good at reading maps and being “oh that I think what you mean is this” and then makes it sound great. It was a combination of me having a strong idea of what I wanted and Mark is just an amazing facilitator at that sort of thing. I kind of go into making records with kind of a strong idea in mind of what I want it to sound like. Sometimes it doesn’t really end up like that. Most of the time it doesn’t end up like that. I don’t even like to go into the studio without knowing. I am a little uptight like that (laughs).
OBM: I have seen pictures of The Loft and it must be guitar heaven.
JE: That’s it. It’s insane. I could use whatever I’d see but there are so many guitars there, there isn’t time to try out everything. So I limited myself to the – literally – five guitars that were within eight feet of where I was sitting. And that’s the whole record. It’s just those guitars. Of course they are all fantastic and they all record really well. I’d love to have all of them.
OBM: What would a guitar you would like to play have to be like (other than like in that case be in the proximity). How would it have to feel or sound?
JE: It is kind of a difficult thing to quantify. We settled on this old guitar from the 30s, a Gibson that Jeff owns. I sat down with it and immediately it had the kind of sound that associate with Davey Graham and John Renbourn even though none of these people played this guitar. This guitar is more synonymous with old blues players. But I played it and it sounded really good. Mark recorded me playing and when I finished he said: “You should come and listen to this because it sounds good when you stand next to the guitar but it sounds amazing recorded.” For some reason it sounded better recorded than just our ears. That ended up being the guitar for the whole record pretty much. Any other guitars I used just had to not sound like that one. Everything was built around that.
OBM: So you are not into a specific brand?
JE: No, no, the Gibson ended up being the basic guitar and if there was any other guitar, I made sure, it was as far removed as possible just to give it a different feel.
OBM: And are happy with the result of “Wintres Woma”?
JE: I think, yeah, I am. It’s the only time that I have been completely happy with a record I have done. Maybe even though I had a strong idea of how I wanted it to sound, I left ten or twenty per cent to chance and that’s where the surprises are. When I listen to it, I still like it. There are records of mine in the past where I really controlled every aspect and ended up with this boring…well, not exciting to listen to because everything sounds like something I have decided to do. This one has some random stuff in it. The mistakes are all left in. It’s pretty rough but I like it like that. It is like the music I like to listen to.
OBM: You come up with the lyrics last and they are pretty abstract.
JE: Deliberately so. Sometimes my lyrics are genuinely random. Then I find out six months down the line that my subconscious has been talking about something. I just found out something about a song, discovered that a song that I had written a year ago was about a very specific thing which is extremely mundane so I would not tell anyone what it was. I always like the sort of lyrics where you are given enough information for your brain to do the last bit of work. I mean the listener has to think to himself: What does it actually mean? What does it sound like to me? Because then the listener is involved in the process. Their brain has to work a little bit. All of my favourite lyrics have that. They don’t completely spell it out. There is enough space for the listener to get involved. Even if write something about something specific, I will intentionally cryptify it a bit to give it a space to operate in.
OBM: Or to make it possible for the listener to own a song – or totally misinterpret it, thinking the song is about a lovely man singing an ode to his sister….:-)
JE: Exactly. And yes, that just happened to me. A year a go I was playing in Louisville, Kentucky. A friend of mine went: ” I really like that “Sister of Mine” song. I think that is my favourite song of yours. What is that song about?” I told him and he went: “Errgh. I don’t think I a like it as much anymore.”
OBM: It does cast a shadow!
JE: It does, I know!
OBM: But it is about all not being black and white and perspective and all that, but yeah, people are humming along and then comes that dark cloud.
JE: Yeah, I spoiled it for him. That’s my point. I blew it. So now and try and shut up as much as I can. Difficult for me though.
OBM: So what are your next plans?
JE: I am going to finish tour and then I have another short tour opening up for my friends The Sea And Cake on the East Coast. And then, I am going to make another record! But again I am being careful not to get too far ahead of myself. I had so much fun making the last record. And I really had no expectations for it whatsoever. It was really nicely received and this is my first tour and it is really wonderful of everyone to come out and see it. I am really having a good time. I’ve got more than I could ask for right now. In making another record, I just want to make sure that I go into it with the same perspective. Not really wanting anything other than having a good time. So I frequently pump the brakes as they say. I go: Oh, wait a minute. I can tell I am really getting concerned or serious about this particular song. And then I just stop. You know, I have a wife and a four-year old – I am happiest when I am just with them and cooking and so on. So I have plenty of other stuff going on and then I play with other people. This is just one thing that I do but I am keen to protect it. Its value to me is really for me to have fun.
OBM: Thank you very much.
JE: Thank you!