The clothes look lived in, as though Garcia has been wearing this get-up for days. He stands onstage, nodding with the beat, his eyes shut tight. His right hand clutches the mike stand like a lover as his left arm extends toward the near-capacity crowd pressed into the black-box confines of the Double Door in Chicago.
Garcia blinks once, twice, then leans forward and murmurs, When I first saw her/I knew that I loved her/But when I said good-bye/I knew that I lost her.
These are the opening lines of "Now That I Miss Her." With its throbbing rhythm, spartan guitar and impassioned lyrics, the song offers a head-rushing microcosm of everything Elefant does best on its full-length debut, Sunlight Makes Me Paranoid. It's a record that Garcia says brought out the "innocent romantic" in him. The music is merely an extension of the singer and the emotions, addictions, vices, contradictions and torments of being in love.
"Can we turn that on?" Garcia asks the Double Door soundman, pointing to a giant disco ball directly above the stage. The man complies, and Elefant launches into the opening strains of "Tonight Let's Dance," a romantic saga perfectly complemented by the orb's thousand points of light.
Diego kneels at the lip of the stage and moans, All I want is her love.
A young girl presses her way to the front. Her face is the color of skim milk, topped off by a black, bobbed haircut and heavy mascara. She wears a candy-apple-red shirt under a shiny black leather jacket. Three stars are tattooed on the nape of her neck. She watches and smiles. She knows the words to every song.
Elefant attracts the lovelorn from both genders, and the sensitive rock-boy contingent is also out in full effect, sporting sad expressions and enough thick black glasses to stock a Roy Orbison convention.
"I'm singing about beautiful things. I'm singing about pain," Garcia muses a few days before the Chicago show. "I think you get what you sing about. I think we get people that are in touch with art and their surroundings. We get such sweet, pretty girls, I guess because I'm singing about them in a way. And then I get a lot of kids like me who are just romantics."
Garcia's romantic voyage began as an economics major at the relatively dispassionate campus of Brown University. Though he spent most of his Ivy League days playing guitar with dormmates, Garcia amassed enough credits to graduate. He hitched a ride to New York City seeking fortune, fame and big-city glamour and quickly fell into the music scene, though few of Garcia's early band experiences bore fruit.
"We started with the typical open-mike nights," he recalls. "We'd go in there and cover [Iggy Pop's] 'I Wanna Be Your Dog' and get funny looks. But I was never attracted to the idea of being just a singer-songwriter. I've always been very allured by the idea of being a frontman in front of a great rock band, so that's kind of what I set out to find."
With a truckload of tunes in tow, Garcia hooked up with Elefant, a trio in need of a singer. The new lineup signed with the minuscule Kemado imprint, released a three-song EP and continued to work the club circuit. Eventually, the group settled into an East Village studio to record Sunlight Makes Me Paranoid.
"We could have gone so many different directions," Garcia says. "We could have gone dark, really psychedelic and decadent. Instead we all said, let's make music that's uplifting and happy and kind of an escape from how miserable everything was."
Elefant's buzz built slowly, buoyed by a tour with Interpol and a video for "Now That I Miss Her" that featured a bevy of New York supermodels. Critics were quick to compare the band to other Big Apple "the" bands, such as the Strokes, but Sunlight's true inspiration came from U.K. "the" bands the Cure and the Smiths, both known to spin their own sugary tales of grand romance.
"I was going through [what] any 22-year-old goes through," Garcia says. "Not knowing what you're doing with your life, long nights, the growing pains of a relationship -- jealousy, losing sleep over the silliest things, and then enjoying all the beauties of being in love, being with someone you care about. I was growing up, and I think that record really captures that."
Garcia seems eager to grow up even more. At the Chicago show, he introduces no fewer than four new songs, including a waltz called "The Clown" and "Black Magic Show," an epic ditty awash in power chords and dramatic sonic shifts.
"'Black Magic Show' sums up what the next record's going to be about," Garcia explains. "A lot of decadence, late nights, almost a circusy madness, but of course in the context of pop. It's a natural step. I can't explain how happy I get, what a high it is, to start writing a melody and deciding what the song is. When you decide what it is, then it just writes itself. That's the best feeling, to see it unfold in front of your eyes."
Onstage, Garcia isn't quite stoic, but his detached air is broken only occasionally. At the Double Door, during a raucous instrumental break in "Misfits," he grabs a Yankees cap from a kid in the front row and puts it on. Smoking a cigarette, drenched in sweat, he cracks his first smile of the evening. It's a short but effective set, 13 songs and gone. Then on to the next one-night stand.
"It totally surprises me," Garcia says of his group's success. "Going to a show in Miami and having it sold out is just bananas. It's so crazy to see kids so far away from where you started making music. That's the beauty of music. It travels so quickly."