We chat with Alabama Shakes
It seems the whole music world loves Alabama Shakes. Artists such as Jack White, The Strokes, Foster the People, Arctic Monkeys, The Vaccines and a host more have tipped their hats to the newcomers, who in 2012 have quite possibly taken the mantle as the year’s most buzzed about discoveries.
If you hadn’t already consumed their debut album, Boys & Girls, you’ll get a chance to see the four-piece live when they head down under for their first ever Australian tour as they join in on the mammoth Big Day Out festivities.
Their rapid rise has come off the back of a highly touted live show, the band’s soul rock hasn’t got them famous for being revolutionary, but rather many have drooled over the band’s finesse as live musicians. Catching the attention of many with their raw guitars accompanying a Southern-fried sense of soul centred around the visceral power of frontwoman Brittany Howard’s bluesy howl. Think a hybrid of Mama Cass’ power, Janis Joplin’s earthy growl and Aretha Franklin’s emotional impact.
The group – made up of Howard, Heath Fogg (guitarist), Zac Cockrell (bassist) and Steve Johnson (drummer) – have been bubbling under the surface of their hometown of Athens, Alabama for quite some time.
Interestingly, they initially began as a covers band, doing the rounds as ‘The Shakes’, the musicians chiselled out a live show full of rock classics, their setlist featuring songs from Led Zeppelin, Creedence Clearwater Revival, The Rolling Stones, AC/DC and Black Sabbath.
Although their taste in covers is hardly surprising, lead singer Howard’s current palette is a little more diverse.“ I’ve currently been listening to Marquee Moon by Television, the new Bobby Womack album, St Vincent and a bunch of other stuff.”
The four musicians all come from the same city, but it wasn’t until Howard, Johnson and Cockrell started recording demos together that the origins of Alabama Shakes really started to form.
Howard would drop by Johnson’s workplace, a music store, to occasionally pick up the guitars for a run through. Once the singer and Cockrell had Johnson on board, the band convinced local guitarist, Fogg to join.
Howard however, laments on their early beginnings in their native state: “There is not much of a music scene in Alabama, at least where we are from.”
The reason why a quartet with such talent were reduced to simply playing cover versions also becomes apparent as she reveals; “There is of course Muscle Shoals (in Alabama’s Colbert County), which is where many classic albums have been recorded but outside of Muscle Shoals there is not much of a scene, especially for live music. It is mainly cover bands.”
The soul rockers eventually upgraded their name to include their home state, Alabama Shakes to avoid confusion with other such groups called The Shakes. Their live show has for years been consolidated from their hometown gigs, where the band would play four 45-minute sets of covers, with a 15 minute break in between each.
Essentially playing for free with the small amount of cash acquired going towards fuel. A hard working ethic and experience that has obviously been a telling point in the incredible reviews they’ve garnered when they first started playing original material.
The likes of ‘Hold On’ and ‘I Found You’ and their debut’s title track, ‘Boys & Girls’ demonstrate their grasp of classic rock spirit and sound, while infusing it with a gritty charm all their own; all the while, Howard’s vigorous soul siphoned through her burly vocals.
Her stage presence as wrapped as much in her down-to-earth appeal as her southern drawl; as if your frizzy-haired aunty was possessed by the spirit of rock legends and proceeded to melt the room with wall-shaking vigour; all with her spectacles still slid politely on the bridge of her nose while slashing a Gibson SG for all it can muster.
Their eponymous debut EP only came out in October last year, but their first ever New York show during the CMJ music festival drew enough gushing praise for their passion and style for the music world to start paying attention to this as yet, little-known outfit.
A blistering set at Austin’s music conference SXSW, catapulted them into the spotlight with a viscerl live show that had everyone feverishly anticipating their debut release. Now the band are playing sold out shows across the world, a far cry from their humble beginnings.
“This is our first tour in a bus and it’s pretty cool!” Howard enthuses of the band’s current (modest) travels across Europe, adding “we are also flying in and out to a few festivals and then meeting back up with the bus down the road.”
Although as far as the singer is concerned there aren’t too many crazy tour stories as of yet, but they’re “having plenty of fun,” she said; “Europe has been amazing this time, playing a lot of great festivals.”
In January 2013, both Australian converts and newcomers alike will finally get to experience their much talked about live show, featuring amongst the likes of Red Hot Chili Peppers, The Killers and Yeah Yeah Yeahs on a huge summer line-up.
While Howard admits; “I don’t personally know much about the Aussie music scene at least that I can think of right now,” it’s no surprise that her classic rock sensibilities have turned her to Andrew Stockdale; “I like Wolfmother… we used to cover a song by them, we saw them at a festival in Belgium a few weeks back and it was fun to see them play.”
Alabama Shakes are likely to make as much noise here as they have all over the rest of the world when they finally tear up the Big Day Out stages across the country.
The band are of course, just as excited to come here as we are to finally see them, “I am beyond psyched for this trip, we have heard so many incredible things about Australia! It is a long flight but we are excited to come over and play with all the incredible bands on the line up and get to see Australia.”