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The Zincs' Jim Elkington Explores New Arrangements, Avoids Prostitution, With Third Release

By Sarah Dahnke in Arts & Entertainment on Apr 4, 2007 3:15PM

2007_4_4_jimelkington.jpgWhen The Zincs' frontman Jim Elkington moved to Chicago about seven years ago, he had already fallen in love with the city. He had spend a decade living in London and drumming with a band, but he had an itch to write songs — and get the hell out of London. “I was in bands where other people were writing songs, and I would write arrangements,” he told Chicagoist last week, while devouring a cookie the size of his head. “And that was about it. I didn’t write any lyrics until I moved to the states.”

Not only had he been listening to Chicago rock bands since the '80s and falling in love with labels that still exist today, such as Thrill Jockey and Touch and Go, but the general vibe of the city drew him in on first glance. “[Once I got here] I felt like I was in the middle of it, like a blues record I had been listening to for a decade,” he said. Plus, as an aspiring songwriter, it seemed like a logical choice to move to Chicago, rather than a large, expensive city with a thriving music scene. “It’s weird to me that people move to New York or London or Hong Kong,” he said. “If you don’t have any money, and you don’t know what you’re going to do, moving to one of those places is like the worst idea ever. You’re either going to have to leave or go into prostitution. You’re going to have to do something foul to keep going. I always laugh when people say they’re going to New York to ‘make it’ or something like that. Chicago is still a very livable city. It’s comparatively cheap to live here.”

Setting out with the notion that it was O.K. if he failed at this whole songwriting thing, Elkington realized that he hadn’t met a singer who would “complete the picture,” so to speak. He was going to have to take matters into his own hands and sing himself, even though he had never been a frontman or a singer before. And with that, he wrote and recorded an album, Moth and Marriage, under the name The Zincs. The next logical move was to try and find a label.

Being acquaintances with Bettina Richards, owner of Thrill Jockey Records, Elkington approached her with the album. “After the first record came out, she was the first person I gave it to,” he said. “It was one of those things that kind of hung in the air for a little bit. I think she wanted to see what would happen, and it was just coincidentally that the music was taking a slightly different trajectory. It was becoming more of a rock band, and I think she was more interested in the way it was going to develop. So she very sensibly held off until it got where it was going to go.”

Elkington eventually met up with his current bandmates, which include Nathaniel Braddock, Nick Macri and Jason Toth, and the sound evolved into what became The Zincs’ second album, Dimmer, which was released by Thrill Jockey. Even though the album leaned more toward rock music than the first, critics touted it for its minimalist sound and Elkington’s distinctively deep, smoky voice, which has been compared, unfairly, to everyone from Leonard Cohen to Stephin Merritt from the Magnetic Fields. “It’s as if there are only five baritones in all of music,” he says.

The newest album, Black Pompadour, hits right in the middle of the rock/pop divide, adding symphonic layers to ideas developed when recording Dimmer, although many are quick to lump The Zincs with the Nick Caves of the world, simply based on the previous album. “People have widely different takes,” Elkington said. “Some people think it sounds very sparse, but it’s the most packed out record we’ve done. It’s not a super arranged record, but it’s definitely the fullest thing I’ve done. I used to just write songs on guitar, and once the song was finished, then I could start to arrange it. Now it’s not like that. The songs are becoming more married to their arrangement.”

While it’s easy to infer that this evolution happened because Elkington finally teamed up with a band that began contributing to the songwriting process, it isn’t necessarily the case. “This record sounds the way it does because those guys are in the band,” he said. “I love being on tour with those guys; they’re some of my closest friends. But it’s not like everyone gets together, and someone brings in an idea and we develop that.”

In fact, the concept of letting this one-man project evolve into a band project, where each member contributes, is not in the stars for The Zincs or Elkington as an individual. It’s not that he’s selfish; he just wants to allow the creative process to be as organic as possible. “It seems like as soon as there are set parameters, I start seizing up,” he says. “I start not producing as much. Even though I don’t take advantage of it very much, I think I need to be able to sit down at an instrument and think I could write. I need to have that complete space to work in.” Although, he daydreams about letting go of the control of the band and letting someone else call the shots. “I like writing songs, but a lot of the rest of the stuff that goes along with it … it’s not that I dislike it,” Elkington said. “It’s that I don’t think I’m that good at it. I’d kind of like to be in a band where someone else is calling the shots, but then again, maybe I wouldn’t. Right now I feel like I’d like to be in someone else’s band.”

Watch Elkington try to have his cake and eat it too (before the band leaves for a mini-tour, supporting The Sea and Cake) on Saturday, April 7, at the Empty Bottle, where Thrill Jockey will be holding a release party for The Zincs’ third release Black Pompadour .” Calla and The Narrator will also perform.

Photo by Jim Newberry.