Shakin’ All Over: Alabama Shakes

They’ve already created more buzz than a swarm of angry bees and, good news, they’re returning to the UK later this year. Brittany Howard of Alabama Shakes talk to R2‘s David Burke, explaining how it all began.

THERE’S A HIP new sound the kids are digging these days. Except to ears that know about these things, it’s really just a bunch of old sounds shot through with a modern sensibility – a ragbag of soul, rock’n’roll, Southern rock and blues, propelled by a visceral punk energy.

Yep, the kids just can’t get enough of Alabama Shakes. And judging by the audience, crammed into Birmingham’s HMV Institute near the end of the group’s short British tour in May, nor can their elders.

Boys & Girls, their brilliant debut album, has been flexing its considerable muscle in the upper echelons of the chart on this side of the Atlantic (helped along, no doubt, by an extraordinary performance on BBC TV’s Later With Jools Holland), while frontwoman Brittany Howard, in typical NME hyperbole, was hailed by that long-running weekly as the greatest singer of her generation. She’s not, incidentally – but then she’s probably not far off it. How to define the voice? Well, imagine something like a composite of Otis Redding, James Brown, Janis Joplin, Robert Plant and Bon Scott, and you get the idea. 

“It’s just the way I sing,” says the modest Howard. “There are lots of people who sing. I guess I just got lucky and somebody heard me. And I’ve got this great band and people to write with.

“I guess singing for me, it’s like a freeing thing or maybe like a therapeutic thing. For a while it’s kind of like your own little world and it’s all you’re concerned about. While you’re singing, it’s the only thing that matters, trying to find that moment between all of us. Everything else just goes away.”

You’ve all heard of Athens, Georgia, from out of which came the venerable REM. The story of Alabama Shakes begins in a high school psychology class in another Athens, this one in Alabama. Howard approached Zac Cockrell and asked the hirsute bass player if he wanted to try and make music together.

“I just knew that he played bass and that he wore shirts with cool bands on them that nobody had heard of,” she recalls. “Zac didn’t really have any expectations. He wasn’t like, ‘I want to sound like this; I want to make a band like this.’ He just wanted to play and I just wanted to play. It was as simple as that. We didn’t have many people who wanted to sit round for hours and pretty much come up with nothing, just play all day. It was cool with Zac. He was cool with that and it was fun.”

They would meet after school and work up material in Howard’s house: “David Bowie-style things, prog-rock, lots of different stuff.” Bowie and Pink Floyd were important reference points for Howard in her formative years. Before these weird Brits crashed into her orbit, she used to hang with her grandmother and listen to the local radio station: “…a lot of Elvis, James Brown, Patsy Cline. Elvis was just so effortless. He had a beautiful voice. He seemed really sincere even though he didn’t write the songs.”

There wasn’t much to do in Athens, as Howard tells it. Kids had to exercise their imaginations. “It wasn’t like we played video games all day or watched TV all day. We had woods and we went and played in the woods with the neighbour kids. It was kind of nice growing up, actually. It was really kind of… fun. We played in creeks. It’s a quiet place to live. It’s really easy. It’s a simple place to live. It’s not hustle bustle. 

“My cousins and I used to play music all the time. We’d have harmonicas and we’d choreograph dances to TLC songs when we were younger. That’s something we would do for fun. There was nothing else to do. It’s always been a part of my life. It wasn’t until I was older that I decided that I was going to write music. My sister and me wrote songs when we were younger, but those were mainly her songs. Silly things.”

Howard was just seven when her sibling, Jamie, died. Jamie is the subject of ‘On Your Way’, the heartbreaking closer on Boys & Girls. Losing her big sis changed Howard’s life forever. “People in your family become more precious – people in general become more precious. You want to waste less time with people you don’t really like, and kind of appreciate things more. Like everything that’s happening around us now, it’s tremendous.”

As Howard grew up, she got herself a guitar.

“As soon as I got it tuned, and figured out how to keep it tuned, I started writing songs and just figuring stuff out. Like I would figure out a jazz chord – C major diminished seventh, or something like that – and I would freak out about it. I mean… I just created a new chord! I didn’t know anything about music. It was just a lot of stuff like that went on. Then I would experiment with this diminished seventh chord. Every time I would find something new I’d go off on this tangent about it. When I found David Bowie, I was going to do anything kind of weird just to try it. I’ve got a lot of respect for him in the fact that he just brings his own way.”

Pink Floyd meanwhile “opened up a door” for Howard when she heard The Dark Side Of The Moon.

“I’d never heard music like that before, where everything was just… I mean you couldn’t really box it in a genre. These people made their music however they wanted to. The storytelling and the content of the songs, I’d never heard anything like it. When I heard it for the first time I knew there was a lot of stuff I was missing out on. I mean, I grew up with stuff like Elvis and James Brown and Aretha Franklin and Percy Sledge and that kind of stuff, but I didn’t know Led Zeppelin, I didn’t know Pink Floyd or Yes or Rush or anything. So I started to dig in and really expand my horizons.”

What Howard wasn’t aware of back then – and the same goes for Cockrell, Alabama Shakes guitarist Heath Fogg and drummer Steve Johnson – was Alabama’s rich musical heritage. Namely the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, established in 1969 by The Swampers, alias Barry Beckett (keyboards), Roger Hawkins (drums), Jimmy Johnson (guitar) and David Hood (bass), later renamed The Muscle Shoals Sound Rhythm Section. Their distinctive accompaniment and arrangements can be found on a stack of legendary recordings by Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin, The Staple Singers, The Rolling Stones, Traffic, Paul Simon, Millie Jackson and Bob Dylan.

This is the history of the much-maligned state that Howard would rather focus on than its notorious segregationist past. Johnson, in a recent interview, talked about how “some people stereotype Alabama as being ignorant and slow and racist and simple-minded”, adding that “a bunch of those things are true”. Howard disagrees. “I don’t know if that’s completely accurate. You’ll find people like that anywhere, not just in Alabama. I’ve never really had to deal with anything like that. Maybe my grandfather did, or my grandmother did, but not me.

“Alabama has a big history, and of course that’s what everyone’s going to remember – the civil rights marches and everything like that. But there’s more to it than that. At the same time as all those marches were going on, there was Aretha Franklin and David Hood and The Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section were doing an album. There are two sides to every story. Not everybody was like that. Muscle Shoals was a good thing. That’s something we didn’t find out about until later – about everything that happened in Muscle Shoals.

“It [the musical history] should be taught in schools. No one really knows how much history it has… we all kind of knew something happened in Muscle Shoals. You hear about Muscle Shoals all your life. I mean, we were listening to the songs but had no idea they were recorded an hour away, until we got older.”

Fogg and Johnson both joined Alabama Shakes when Howard and Cockrell were still trying to find their sound.

“There was me and Zac for a while. We had this drummer, who’s my best friend. He was really fun to play with, and we all loved playing with him, but he wasn’t really as focused. Steve is just one of these drummers who would come in and pick something up. We met him at the instrument store and he just said, ‘I’d like to come and jam with you guys.’ We had our little songs that we had written originally. He liked them, he though it was cool. He just stuck around from then on.

“We asked Heath to help us out so that we could play our first show with his band. His band asked us to open. We were going to play a lot of these old ’60s songs that we all liked. They had horn parts. I was thinking these songs would sound a lot better if we had somebody extra doing rhythm for the horn parts. I asked him to help us. At first he didn’t really want to. He just wanted to watch us and not be a part of it. But when he heard the kind of songs we were doing, he likes all this stuff, so he was like, ‘Yeah, yeah, I’ll help.’ For a while he was playing in both bands. Eventually the other band just disbanded – it had nothing to do with us. That’s really how he fell in with us. He’s a wonderful guitar player.

“We’re learning more about each other now that we’re on tour. Before, Zac and me would hang out. We used to meet up on Tuesdays and Thursdays and listen to music, write songs or watch music documentaries – it was always something about music. We really enjoyed having the time to sit around with people who appreciated it, and we could actually figure out the tunes together. It actually took us a while to figure out how to play with one another. As much as we have in common, we’re also really different.”

It’s this diversity as much as the commonality that suffuses Alabama Shakes’ songs with an edge-of-the-seat excitement. While they’re a tight, well-drilled unit, there’s sufficient space within the structure they create for each constituent part to express itself. All four members bring something.

“Me and Zac had these ideas. These ideas were always something classic. We’d get to a certain point in a song and we wouldn’t know what to do with it. It seemed like every time we added a member, the song neared completion. When we got Heath in the group, things started coming to fruition. Like all these ideas we have, we can actually make them happen because now we have a guitar player, a rhythm player – all these things make sense now. It can take shape. Everyone has their own little ideas, their own little sound. We just had to figure out how to make it all work together. Steve was like a punk drummer, but he likes all sorts of things.

“Heath doesn’t like effects pedals. He likes to work within the confines. He feels like if you’ve only got so many things to do, you have to be really creative to figure out how to get them done. I don’t like effects pedals either, just because I never could afford them, and I don’t really know how to use them. So they’re not in my rig at all. Zac will never do anything distasteful on the bass.”

It’s not just the ordinary punters who have taken Alabama Shakes to their collective heart. Their enthusiastic fanbase also include A-listers like actor Russell Crowe (“They’re fucking great!”), Bon Iver (“They are on fire”) and Jack White (“They just have soul, you know.”). Not that Howard’s head is turned by such fawning admiration.

“I don’t feel any different. I’m really appreciative that people are listening to it, but at the same time you have to remember that the only reason it started was because we worked hard. We played a lot of shows. We had to fund this album ourselves. We had ideas and we didn’t let anybody tell us otherwise. It was really just for us. Then it turned out that people started sharing it and all these people started listening to it. It’s great, but I’d also like to have something more than this record. I’d like to go out and make record number two and maybe number three and still be having a good time. I don’t want everything to go to our heads because it would ruin it.”

Besides, they’re too preoccupied with learning as much as they can about their craft than to bother about the ballyhoo that surrounds them.

“When we were doing this record, each time we would do a track and go back to the studio, we got a little bit better at understanding what we liked about certain aspects of songs and how we might approach it. I’d like us to keep doing that and keep learning about the production aspect of it and the engineering side of it, because I don’t think we’d be too far away from doing everything on our own altogether. It’s good to write your own music and not have a producer, and it’s good to do what you want and be like a real human being and not painted up as anything else.”

Howard admits she’s always thinking about the second album.

“We work on songs even on the road. We’ve got three that we’ve written on this tour and we’ll play them. That’s the thing we like to do – we like to test out songs on audiences. If we do it this way, we’ll have a really good second album. People respond to these songs. It seems like they really like them. So we know which ones will go on the album and we know which ones probably need more work. Even though some people might think we need a producer or what not, I think that takes all the fun out of it. You’ve got to learn your own way or else you’ll never write anything.”

© David BurkeR2/Rock’n’Reel, Summer 2012

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