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, Brittany Howard, Heath Fogg, Zac Cockrell, and Steve Johnson went into a Nashville studio one day to lay down some, essentially, live demos. In less than a year, those demos got them radio play, media attention, national tours, a manager, and a deal with ATO Records. By April of 2012, those same demos -- along with a second batch -- were released as Boys & Girls, a rough and ragged debut album that would go on to sell a half-million copies and earn three Grammy nominations. 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. The Shakes' new album, Sound & Color, is astonishingly great. From the opening strains of the title track through all the howls and hollers that follow, it's a huge step forward, artistically … though not a surprising one to anybody who knows their work and certainly not to the band. Alabama Shakes always knew what their vision was and, with Sound & Color, they are showing if off to the rest of us.
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.
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.
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.
To read more of Kelly McCartney's conversation with Alabama Shakes, hop over to Cuepoint. Photo courtesy of Brantley Gutierrez.