When your influences range from James Brown to Led Zeppelin, you already have a lot to work with. Add in immense and innovative talent, and you’re going to rule the world. Case in point: Alabama Shakes. Just over four years ago, the band went into a Nashville studio to lay down some demos. In less than a year, those demos got them radio play, media attention, national tours, a manager, and a deal with ATO Records. Singer/guitarist Brittany Howard was a force to be reckoned with, to be sure, but her bandmates — guitarist Heath Fogg, bassist Zac Cockrell, and drummer Steve Johnson — were equally powerful with what they brought to bear. Together, the Alabama Shakes were magic.
By April of 2012, those same demos — along with a second batch — were released the raw and ragged Boys & Girls, a debut album that would go on to sell a half-million copies and earn three Grammy nominations. The band traveled the globe and, everywhere they went, blew people’s minds. It was phenomenal to watch, their rapid rise. NPR Music’s Ann Powers says, “I think it was maybe the fastest rise I’ve seen since, I don’t know, the Strokes … at least in rock. Very quick and very sincere, as well. Not just a flash in the pan, but a band that people were really rooting for to continue to be successful.”
No doubt they will be. As their sophomore set, Sound & Color, drops, the Alabama Shakes are ready to do it all over again. The new album is astonishingly great and staggeringly bold, pulling threads from soul, prog-rock, blues, heavy metal, punk, and more to weave a sound that is absolutely singular to the Alabama Shakes.
Alabama has a rich and deep musical history. What does it mean to come from there and carry that legacy forward? How does that inform the Shakes’ writing and the music?
Brittany Howard: The history of Alabama music is not something I was ever really interested in until I was probably around 20 years old. When you’re hearing all this great music and all these great artists … I lived with my grandmother, so we listened to ‘golden oldies.’ So I would hear it on the oldies station and think nothing of it — “Oh, man, I really love that song and really love music like this.” But I never knew where it was from. I just knew it reminded me of my grandmother. It reminded me of happy things as a child. I’ve always loved that music and it’s something I’m rooted in because of the way that I grew up. But, as far as, “Is Alabama music something that informs my music?” I’d have to say, I think that I could be from anywhere and, as long as I grew up the way that I did, I’d still like it.
Heath Fogg: There are definitely artists native to Alabama that have inspired me over the years in different ways — in ways that may not be blatantly obvious in our music. They could be Hank Williams, they could be the Drive-By Truckers, they could be the Dexateens, or they could be the music that was made in Muscle Shoals, some of the soul music that was made there. One thing that people probably don’t associate with us … I really like the Paul Simon stuff that was cut in Muscle Shoals. I don’t think that whole album was done there, but “Kodachrome” and songs like that — that stuff inspired me a lot, the type of playing on that. Trying to translate that and mix it in with bands like the Dexateens — trying to mix all those influences together and, at the same time, mask them all. You’re trying to create something that just sounds like you. That’s something I enjoy. But, definitely, being from Alabama, I try to have a love for my region and try to have a knowledge of the art that’s made there. You can’t help but be influenced by that.
That first van tour in the Fall of 2011… I know it was Brittany’s first time outside of Alabama. The highway must have felt like world of possibilities rolling out in front of you.
BH: We’d never seen anything. We’d never seen the desert. We all saw the desert together — we saw the sun go down in the desert… the red mountains and the sky. Seeing the beaches in California, seeing the palm trees — I’d never seen a palm tree before, the big tall ones. All the different wildlife… we’d never really been anywhere, so things like that stuck out to us — different birds and the way they sound. Everything. The way people dressed, the way people talked. It was cool.
HF: That was definitely not my first time out of Alabama, but some of those early tours were definitely my first time to go to a lot of places in the country… out West and things like that, I had never been. We covered a lot of ground in some really short amounts of time and it was pretty special. Looking back, those are still some of my favorite tours.
Not a whole lot of any artists get Gold records these days, especially on a debut. What do you think it is about the Shakes that resonated with fans?
HF: I guess it’s just Brittany and the way she really captivates people — as a performer, as a writer, and vocally. There are things — some of them are generalizations — but there are things people really latched on to about Brittany. She kind of became a hero for a lot of people. It’s just hard to deny her ability to captivate as an entertainer. She’s really got a special talent, a special gift, and she knows how to use it. I think that’s what the majority of the people who latched on to the Alabama Shakes caught first. I think there are other qualities about Brittany and the band itself that are more interesting, but I think that’s what the masses latched on to.
Do you think having no expectations going into making your first record made everything easier? Getting into that first studio session was the cake and everything since has been the icing, yeah?
HF: Going into the first record, I mean it sounds simple, but we really just wanted to make a record. We had a small batch of songs and we just wanted them recorded, was the initial goal. Then, as we started recording, we knew that we’d be happier if we recorded them in a way that sounded really great to us and if we did it on our own terms, rather than just going into some studio for the day and letting an engineer call the shots. We started searching around for a place that was, first of all, budget-friendly, but somewhere that had the type of gear we wanted to work on and the type of atmosphere we wanted to be in and the type of engineer that would help us make the sort of record we were shooting for. And I’d say we did that. We pretty much nailed it. I’m still really proud of that record.
BH: We had been playing these songs a long time and we just wanted to go record them. And I think the thing we were most interested in, while we were there, was the recording gear and how tape machines work … just being in the presence of someone who knows how to work all of this. It looks like rocket science. And that was something we were fascinated by. We were all very much interested in the production of music and the whole process. We were there and getting the songs down — and getting them right — was important, but I think we didn’t know as much about studio performance. We were playing all the songs like we would live, which was totally fine. But it’s interesting to listen to the record and then listen to the way we play those songs live now.
The way you’re playing those older songs has evolved?
BH: We’re just better players and we pay attention to things like tempo, keys, groove. Whereas, when we were in the studio, we were just playing them how we played the songs. It’s interesting to have a different perspective now.
One of the things people cite about the band is the balance of preservation and innovation in your music. How do you weight those for yourself? Is it more intentional or intuitive?
BH: As a band, the things that we think through are small details. Everything else is really organic. We’re trying to impress each other and make something that we can all like. Everyone’s taste is really considered heavily because I like everybody’s taste. I like where everybody’s head is at. If we listen to a record, say we listen to Gil Scott Heron and someone says, “Man, that drummer’s a badass.” It’s like, “Yeah, you know what? That drummer is a badass.” Everybody’s got good taste so wherever we start is already solid and it’s just fine tuning all of those things. So I don’t think we have to think too much.
I was talking to a radio guy who loves both your records, but he said he felt like this new one is sort of a transition record for the Shakes… stretching out and trying on some new musical clothes and such… going from where you were to where you’re going to be. Does it seem that way to you guys?
HF: Maybe so. I think that’s a great compliment. We definitely weren’t thinking of it that way when we were making it. It’s just a good representation of where we are as musicians right now. But I think, in all the interviews and all the press we did for the last album, we tried to be really clear about how the next album we put out isn’t going to be Boys & Girls II. It’s not going to be “Hold On Part II” or anything like that. The songs that were developing at that point in time and the songs that had been cut from the album before were all so different. We’ve always known each song we cut is going to be different from the last. Probably the same will be said for each album.
BH: Everything is a transition all the time. This record is the here and now. It’s an interesting comment because I’m not sure what he means by a transition because I’m not sure what’s going to happen. I’m not sure what the fully formed Alabama Shakes is. I don’t know if it’s now. I don’t know if it was then. Actually, the fully formed Alabama Shakes is always going to be the here and now. Wherever we are as players is where we are. It’s hard to make a comment like it’s not fully developed.
What’s the trick to getting just the right sounds… from your head to the tape? Because this thing is chock full of cool sounds.
HF: Just having fun and experimenting and having the right mindset to do it. And being able to afford the time to do it. Also, the people we chose to work with were really interested in that. Blake Mills, who co-produced the album with us, and Sean Everett, who engineered the record, they really wanted to scrutinize tones as much as we did and explore all the options before settling on one. So we had a lot of fun doing that.
What did Blake bring to the group that wasn’t already there?
HF: Blake is extremely dynamic, in terms of being a musician and a producer. He’s rooted in a lot of tradition. He knows how to do things properly and he also knows when to break the rules in a very dramatic way. That’s something we’re interested in and he helped us do that. I’d say, in addition to that, he just has an extreme attention to detail that I guess some of us in the band may have — not necessarily myself. But he has it in the most extreme form. It’s also his ear. He’s just really tuned into things. He can hear things that I can’t hear. He can really pick things apart in a way that are good from a sonic, technical standpoint. But then he also brought out a lot of confidence in us. It helped us to be expressive and be experimental, and at the same time still be rooted in traditions we love, and be true to ourselves.
BH: We never worked with a producer before and we all understood it was going to be a co-production because we have a lot of opinions ourselves. A lot. We consider our music like our baby — you can’t just put your baby in anybody’s hands. So we didn’t go for someone that was obvious. There were a lot of producers we could’ve worked with that would’ve said, “Oh, yeah, we’re going to make you like this and we’re going to have this as a hit.” That’s not really what we’re interested in at all. So we went with Blake. We had a meeting with him and he seemed pretty cool. We had a lot of like-minded ideas, as far as details and tone and really taking the time. That was going to be different this time — time was important to us. We wanted to do something that we’ve always wanted to do. So we went into the studio with him and I’d say the greatest thing he brought to us was just letting us be ourselves. And nurturing that. And knowing that we were more capable than we thought we were — which is pretty incredible for someone to bring into a group.
And he also had the tech expertise to get you where you wanted to go…
BH: Absolutely. Absolutely. You could talk to him and try to describe this radical idea you have and he’s already on the same page as you.
You could say, “I want it to be more purple” and he knew which button to push to get that.
BH: Oh, yeah, he totally gets it. And also the tiny details, the minute details was the most fun part to me working with him because he doesn’t mind sitting all day and scouring through things. He doesn’t mind at all. He has all the patience in the world.
As a guitar player, he must’ve spoken the same language.
HF: A little bit. There’s the English language, then there’s varied versions of the English language. He’s an amazing musician. I’m a big fan of a lot of the thing he does. But sometimes it’s hard to communicate. He’s just around really great musicians all the time and he’s such a good musician that he knows theory and things like that in a way that I just do not know. I guess he’s good at bringing it down to my level and making it to where I can understand it.
Now, Brittany, you told BET a while back that you got into music because your “dream was to not work for anyone.” How’s that going? You probably have a lot of people telling you where to go, but maybe not what to do.
BH: When you’re in the music business, you start figuring out how things work. There’s a big wheel and they want to put you in it. You hold this person’s hand. You hold that person’s hand. Everybody’s happy. Yadda yadda. That’s business, isn’t it? So there’s that side to it. And then there’s the creative side to it which you have to protect and nurture because one side wants to eat the other side. So I feel like, in order to be your own boss, you have to set limits and you also have to have a goal. And ask yourself what you want from this business exactly and always keep that in mind when you make any decisions. Therefore, you’re always nurturing the thing that got you here in the first place. That’s how I feel. You have to play smart and you can’t get wrapped up in it.
When you’re not on the road, which probably isn’t very often these days, what has all the success changed about your daily lives?
BH: I’m traveling a whole, whole lot now. But I think the thing that has probably changed the most is that our personal time, when we’re off the road, is a lot more precious to us than it used to be. Used to, we’d take that for granted. We’d be coming home after work and thinking about “Oh, we’re going into the studio this weekend. But I’ll see you on Tuesdays and Thursdays.” Now, you get home and you don’t want to see anybody for the entire time you’re home. [Laughs] That’s pretty different from how I was before. Gotta stay balanced.
HF: Just being able to not have to work a 9-to-5 day job or something like that is nice. This is our full-time job now. And we’re all really grateful for that. And it’s nice because, when we want to go to the studio for a week, we can do that and not have to worry about anything, really, other than family and things like that at home — which is important. But, financially, we can do that and it’s a nice luxury to have, as a musician.
Tell me about some of the highlights of the past few years.
BH: I’ve seen the world. Going to Hawaii for the first time was really incredible. Seeing the world, seeing different countries… What I really like is seeing how other countries do things, like how efficient Germany is. And seeing how people are different. I love my country; it’s my home. But I always do this thing where I see things and I think about how they can be improved. So when I go to other countries, I have all these ideas. Like, the bathroom stalls here should be addressed. You can see right into the bathroom stalls, if you really want to. In Europe, you don’t see any of that funny business. You have full privacy. They have toilet seats that clean themselves. [Laughs] But I will say that America has best dining service. Your drink is almost never empty in America. You go to Europe, you’re going to be sitting there with an empty cup. That’s just how it goes.
This compiled article originally appeared as two separate pieces on Cuepoint and the Bluegrass Situation.