The shuffler: Jim Elkington, an England-born, Chicago-based singer-songwriter who headed up the gravelly indie-rock act The Zincs and currently co-leads the jazzier, rootsier The Horse’s Ha (alongside former Eleventh Dream Day/Freakwater singer Janet Beveridge Bean). The Horse’s Ha’s debut album Of The Cathmawr Yards is available now.
Orange Juice, “Felicity”
Jim Elkington: Did you get Orange Juice over here?
The A.V. Club: Domino put out an anthology a couple years ago. How familiar were you with Orange Juice when you were growing up in the UK?
JE: Not enough. I kind of just missed them. They were in their heyday when I was about 10 or 11. I was more into The Police then. But I had older friends who were into Orange Juice and subsequently The Smiths and things like that. The larger amount of the content of my iPod at the moment is stuff that I’ve been buying over the last eight years or so, sort of to retrace my steps a little bit. I’m fascinated with music that I either liked as a kid or just missed out on as a kid, even though it would’ve been part of the same scene. This Orange Juice song is from Orange Juice’s first album, which I never heard at the time and now I think is unavailable anywhere, apart from Japan. It’s called You Can’t Hide Your Love Forever. It’s a great record. Wish it were out there for everyone to buy.
AVC: When were you born?
JE: In 1971, in a small town sort of northwest of London.
AVC: So you were coming of age right in the thick of what over here was sometimes called “The New British Invasion,” when a lot of New Wave, New Romantic, and post-punk bands started hitting the Top 40, via MTV.
JE: Exactly. When I was in my late single digits, I went through my ubiquitous Beatle phase, as I think everyone in England did because everyone’s parents had Beatles records. As a kid you just pulled them out and listened to them. But then I remember getting into The Police when I was about 8 or 9 or something and I took a dive into synth stuff, and Human League specifically. Their album Dare I have on every format that it’s come out on. I keep buying it. I still listen to it. I also like Japan and stuff like that. Orange Juice is much cooler than that. But I confess I wasn’t listening to it then.
Penguin Café Orchestra, “Flux”
JE: This is from the album called Penguin Café Orchestra, but I’m not sure exactly which song this is. I’ve got about five albums of Penguin Café Orchestra on this iPod so they’re probably going to come up a lot. They’re a group from the 1970s that started out on Brian Eno’s Obscure label, which he had from, I guess, 1975 onwards. It was a label he set up to just put out English minimalist composers and things like that. The Penguin Café Orchestra is probably the most poppy of the bunch. They’re a sort of instrumental, slightly world-y, folky sounding group, led by a classical guitar player. And it’s good stuff. It gets used a lot for commercials. It’s considered somewhat New Age. The song’s called “Flux,” but I’ve no idea what it sounds like. I never look at the titles of songs when I’m listening to music. That’s something that kind of stopped with me when I stopped buying vinyl, for some reason. But it’s under two minutes, so whatever it is, it’s brief. I suppose this is as good a point as any to say that I’m usually ideologically opposed to shuffling.
AVC: You are? You’re one of those albums-from-start-to-finish kind of people?
JE: Well, sort of. My intention is always to listen to a record from the beginning to the end, but I never do that. My mind sort of wanders off. No, I’m afraid if I listen to my iPod on shuffle I might not ever stop listening to it. It might be too entertaining. I might start missing work.
AVC: That’s sort of the fun! When you pull up into your driveway and you’re still listening and you want to hear what comes next. It’s also good for taking long walks. Keeps you walking longer.
JE: Shuffling also sort of feeds into that suspicion human beings have that machines can read their minds, like when you’re thinking about a song and it comes up randomly. We have an iPod at work and that’s on shuffle like eight hours a day and there are times where we’ll be discussing something and it’ll come on within the next five minutes. It’s happened quite a lot. Of course it’s usually Glenn Gould. My boss bought an 80-disc—80-disc—complete box set of Glenn Gould. Most of those CDs are on his huge iPod. So all our guess-what’s-coming-next will be punctuated by these extremely short, extremely aggressive art-piano pieces.
The Red Krayola, “Plekhanov”
JE: This is off an album called Kangaroo, an early 1980s album from when Mayo Thompson was involved with Rough Trade. He made a couple of records that involved people from Swell Maps, and I hesitate to say anymore than that because I know I’ll be wrong, but he was working with young, English, Rough Trade-type people. Made a couple of records. I think the other one is called Black Snakes. But of the two I prefer this one. And I think he was working with a band called Art & Language, maybe, who were writing the words or something.
AVC: The Red Krayola were one of those bands written about a lot in the better British music magazines, while they were incredibly obscure in America. It was easy to get the impression that while they weren’t “popular” in the UK, they were at least better known. Was that so?
JE: That’s weird because I think I first read about The Red Krayola in Trouser Press. [Laughs.] So I had that same perception in reverse. In England they’re still somewhat esoteric and unknown. It may also be that Mayo Thompson is a little better known in England because he was actually involved in working at Rough Trade, the record label, during the 1980s. And he put out quite a lot of records in the 1980s. I only really started listening to him in the 1990s when he started working with David Grubbs and Jim O’Rourke, with Chicago people. And then I went back and listened to the older records and there’s one called Corky’s Debt To His Father that Mayo Thompson made in the 1970s, which got reissued over here, and that’s hands-down my favorite record of his. Everything I have bought of his after hearing that has been because of my hearing that record. He’s made some good records but that’s my favorite one.
AVC: When did you move to Chicago?
JE: I got here in 1999. It’s coming up on ten years now.
Bert Jansch, “The Blacksmith”
JE: Ooh. This is great. Honestly, I have to admit that I was thinking before I started talking to you that maybe I could kind of fake-shuffle so that I could end up with… well, there’s a certain amount of embarrassment on this iPod, to tell the truth. And then I thought, “No, it’ll actually be more interesting if I do it right.” But now it’s throwing out stuff that I really do genuinely like and has some bearing on what I’m doing now. This song is from L.A. Turnaround, which is a Bert Jansch record that I really like. Marks a sort of different part of his career in the 1970s. I want to say this record might’ve been produced by Mike Nesmith of The Monkees. He definitely did make a record with Mike Nesmith and I think this is it. It’s got pedal steel on it and I think maybe Klaus Voorman plays bass on it. But it’s a really good record. I don’t think you can even get it on CD anymore. All of his ’60s output and all the Pentangle stuff, that all came out like five or ten years ago. That’s all easily available. On this ’70s stuff he started branching out a bit. I think each record came out on different labels. They were kind of sporadic.
AVC: According to the Internet, L.A. Turnaround was indeed produced by Mike Nesmith. You got that right. And Klaus Voorman is on bass.
JE: Double score.
AVC: Also it was just reissued by Drag City.
JE: All right, excellent! I’ll be going downtown today.
AVC: That’s a fascinating transition that a lot of folkies made from the ’60s to the ’70s, as they expanded their sound to include more rock elements. Like when Phil Ochs made the change from stubborn Village troubadour to L.A. rocker.
JE: I’m fascinated by that too, and I think one of the reasons for that is that when you’re out cutting your teeth as a folk singer on your own, you really learn how to do the whole thing by yourself. And Bert, in my mind, he’s the king of that. Like the way that he arranges his own songs for guitar and voice, so he didn’t really need anything else. Then when he decided to move into wider orchestrations, it’s really interesting how he chooses what’s gonna play what and how his music is going to—what’s the word?—be disseminated? Spread out through new orchestrations, if that makes sense. Because when you can choose what you want to emphasize, with different voices and things, I find that really interesting.
Krzysztof Komeda, “Main Title”
JE: [Laughs.] This is the main title from the soundtrack for Rosemary’s Baby. You know a lot of the songs coming up are a lot more hipster-leaning than I actually am. It sounds like I listen to really serious music all the time. That’s not the case. It’s almost having the exact effect of my fake-shuffling idea. Anyway this soundtrack I haven’t actually listened to very much. I started getting his stuff because I was blown away by the soundtrack for Fearless Vampire Killers. Krzysztof Komeda was a jazz composer in Poland in the late ’50s, early ’60s. And I guess he did the music for Roman Polanski. There’s that song in Knife In The Water; I think that’s him, I might be wrong about that. Roman Polanski brought him to Hollywood with him as his score writer, and the music that he did for Fearless Vampire Killers is amazing. It’s a small choir, sleigh bells; it’s really unusual. That one is actually less known. Rosemary’s Baby is probably the one he’s best known for. It’s pretty spooky, but I haven’t listened to it much. I don’t really have any comment on it except I think it might be Mia Farrow that sings this.
AVC: Do you have a lot of soundtrack music? Is that something you listen to in general?
JE: I do have quite a lot. Mostly John Barry. He did all the Bond music. My favorite of his is the soundtrack for The Ipcress File, which is one of my favorite soundtracks ever. That’s really amazing, that whole album. And actually John Barry’s incidental music is of a very high quality for films. I find that not just does it work well with the images it’s supporting, but by itself. The first four or five Bond scores I think are just great.
AVC: Fact-checking you again, and you are correct: Krzysztof Komeda did do the soundtrack to Knife In The Water, and Mia Farrow sings the main title theme of Rosemary’s Baby. You’re really racking them up today.
JE: I’m doing much better than normal.
Simple Minds, “Constantinople Line”
JE: Oh this is more like it! It’s from their album Empires And Dance. Have you heard that record?
AVC: Yes, and that’s still pretty hipster-ish because it’s early Simple Minds. Pre-Breakfast Club.
JE: I suppose so. I’ve been listening to New Gold Dream a lot as well. I think that’s like two albums later or something like that. That’s got more sort of hits on it. They were still pretty New Wave and weird at this point. But not as weird as Reel To Real Cacophony. Now that record… actually I hadn’t heard either of these records until this year. I was sort of curious to hear what they sounded like because I’d always read about them, but I only recently made the leap and got Reel To Real and Empires And Dance. And I like them a lot. But Reel To Real Cacophony is a bizarre record. It totally justifies the hype. Surprised more people don’t wank on about that. This record’s pretty good, too. Much more sort of solid dance-based record, but still very odd.
Another band, actually, from this exact era that I’ve been listening to lately is Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark. They have a few great albums: Architecture & Morality is a great album. But once they had a few hits they went completely off the wall and made this record called Dazzle Ships which cost a fortune and didn’t really have any singles on it. It’s the sort of record that gets mythologized in music books and stuff. It’s a great record too, and totally justifies the hype.
AVC: A lot of those post-punk/New Wave acts had a similar career arc, where they’d have a few pop hits and then release an album that’s really difficult or experimental or dark. Like The Cure, with Pornography.
JE: Right. Pornography. I don’t know if it’s my favorite, but I definitely think it’s The Cure’s best album. I think it was expected of bands to kind of push the envelope back then. I kind of see punk as a bit of a blip, and then post-punk had more of those prog-rock values coming back, where bands were expected to be challenging and sort of mess with the form a little bit. I’m really interested in those groups, too.
AVC: And then by 1985 they were all doing songs for John Hughes soundtracks.
JE: Yeah, I know. It was literally all over. I read a book a few years ago called Rip It Up And Start Again, by Simon Reynolds. I think he makes a good case for pop music sort of ceasing to develop in that way. Around 1985 or 1986, I can’t remember, but I think he narrows it down to like one album. The last album, and then things changed. But not necessarily for the worse. Echo And The Bunnymen, my favorite album of theirs is probably Ocean Rain, although that might be because it was the first one I ever heard. That’s a case of a four-piece rock band who just decided they were going to make an orchestral record and try and fit themselves in around it. That’s one of my favorite records ever, that one. It’s funny that all the Bunnymen albums have their own individual strengths and yet they’re all very different from each other.
Talulah Gosh, “I Told You So”
JE: So that kind of brings us full circle. That brings us back to the Orange Juice days. Talulah Gosh were a band that… I’m thinking now that they maybe turned into Heavenly. I knew about them because the lead singer, Amelia Fletcher, sang on a Wedding Present song. I think it was “My Favorite Dress.” And The Wedding Present was a big favorite of mine when I was 15 or 16. But like Orange Juice I never really heard Talulah Gosh at the time. Now you can get their whole recorded output on CD, and I’ve been listening to that a little bit. I like it. Have you ever heard of the C86 movement? They were part of that. And that happened when I was about 15, so I was very into that. And Wedding Present and The Go-Betweens, bands like that.
AVC: Would it be possible to have a movement like that today, where people create little songs and put them online and have it be as big a deal as it was in the C86 days?
JE: I don’t know. In theory it seems like you would be able to. Every musical movement is born of community, and they’re not always a rejection of current values, or what seems to be popular or that sort of thing. It seems like in this day and age that it would be easier for those sort of communities to flourish, but then I also think that because now that you have the ability to record your own music and post it online for an audience, just by yourself, maybe that actually stops communities from forming. Maybe people would listen, but they’re not forced necessarily to work together in the way that groups and record labels did then to create their own distribution system. So in conclusion: I don’t know. I couldn’t really say. I’m extremely behind the curve on this whole Internet thing in general. I know people are listening to more music than they probably ever have been. But how the industry sustains itself is kind of a mystery to me.