Alabama’s makin’ brand new shakes
By | Last updated: 13:54, 10/05/2012
Calum Bradbury-Sparvell gets down with Alabama Shakes, the latest musical darlings to create a storm from America’s deep south
Alabama Shakes are making waves. In the space of a few months they have become the most unlikely buzz-band of 2012, unlikely not because they lack pizzazz; far from it – just see the album review I did the other week. But put it this way: their self-produced debut Boys & Girls was, only a few days ago, sitting pretty at 3rd place on the UK Album Chart, sandwiched between Jessie J and Nicki Minaj, yet their emotive brand of bluesy American rock is probably as far from these two pop divas as you could possibly get.
“It is exciting but also scary” lead singer and guitarist Brittany Howard says of the band’s new found fame. “We are watched and critiqued more.” You cannot blame her, either; this lot come from pretty modest beginnings, a true testament to the DIY spirit of rock ‘n’ roll. Even during the recording process for Boys & Girls Howard doubled as a postal worker, and drummer Steve Johnson spent some time working in a music shop: “We would wrap up our jobs, drive to Nashville, record all night and then return home.” Now, however, the music has grown to become a full-time concern, a fact which seems to elicit little regret in Howard and her band-mates: “Honestly, we love what we are doing and are just honoured that anyone is listening,” she gushes.
Way back in the mists of 2009, Howard met bassist Zac Cockrell in a high school Psychology class, and Alabama Shakes was born: “In school you definitely gravitate to people with similar interests and that is basically what happened. We started listening to music together, jamming and writing songs.” It sounds simple, but a humble chin-wag over mutual music tastes has been the seed of many seminal rock bands.
The two then became three, with the addition of Johnson, before guitarist Heath Fogg was, in the words of Howard, “hijacked” from another local band to complete the line-up. This coming together was “really lucky” she tells me. They have gone from strength to strength since. “All of our backgrounds are different but we’ve developed this common bond musically that unites us.”
The bond that Howard speaks of has partly been forged by their shared love of a good record: “I think we all realized from a young age that we had a passion for music, most of us before 10 years old”, she explains. “Good music will always survive and those oldies are just great. We are influenced by them but we are trying to put our own stamp on it and create our own sound.” Interested in this, I asked about their inspirations and was surprised at first by Howard’s response: “Musically, our influences are so wide. Tina Turner, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Eddie Hinton, Steve Cropper, Jack White, Daft Punk… It can go on and on.” Tina Turner and Daft Punk might seem unlikely bedfellows, but in a way it makes sense; both artists course with energy, innovation and character, qualities at the forefront of Boys & Girls.
All in all, Alabama Shakes might be getting noticed, but for me, what they prove is that, in terms of motivations, nothing beats a good old passion for what you do. “It’s a great thing to be able to play music with people you love, and share this road together” Howard muses. Listening to Boys & Girls, it’s not hard to understand why.