Alabama Shakes: The Power of Place (Cover Story Excerpt)

Jewly Hight on March 9, 2015

Tonight the Alabama Shakes will appear on the Late Show with David Letterman in anticipation of their forthcoming album, Sound & Color, which is set for release on April 21 (they’ll also be at the Beacon Theatre for two sold-out shows on March 11 and 12 in the midst of a tour that will carry them to Australia in early April). The Shakes appear on the cover of our current issue, discussing the new record and all that preceded it. You can get this issue, and many more, with a subscription to Relix (use promo code SOUND&COLOR for a special discount).

It is no mystery why people associate the Alabama Shakes with Muscle Shoals, their home state’s recording hub for iconic, red-blooded soul and rock sides in the ‘60s and ‘70s. The band came out of Athens, Ala., only an hour east. It was there, in a vacant single-wide trailer that got its electricity through a tangle of extension cords running to the place next door, that singer/guitarist Brittany Howard, guitarist Heath Fogg, bassist Zac Cockrell and drummer Steve Johnson worked up a gristly, swinging, soul-infused rock attack and an apparent appetite for the woolen sounds of vintage gear. Connecting the dots of proximity and sensibility, many journalists cast them as products of their Shoals-adjacent, blue-collar, Deep South environment.

The Shakes clearly felt some degree of kinship with their surroundings. At a guest-filled concert following a screening of the Muscle Shoals documentary in February 2013, Howard delivered a potent rendition of “Wild Horses,” The Rolling Stones tune that first turned her on to the region’s rich studio heritage, with the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section. But in numerous interviews, Howard and her bandmates also signaled their discomfort with being cast as Southern soul revivalists following an inevitable stylistic path. That way of thinking implied that their musical identity was defined by their most physical, eruptive moments. Most important, it minimized the conscious aesthetic choices that played into what they were doing. The image was altogether too narrow to accommodate the true scope of the Shakes’ musical ideas, and Sound & Color, their otherworldly new album, is destined to explode strictly earth-bound interpretations of their music.

Incidentally, most of the Shakes actually grew up more aware of the aerospace and defense industries based in Huntsville, Ala., nicknamed “The Rocket City,” half an hour to the east than the nearby soul history. Howard’s grandmother was even employed by NASA as a secretary. But that’s merely proof that there was more in their youthful fields of vision than those profiling them in the media have tended to consider. It’s definitely not what inspired Johnson, speaking with an alt-weekly interviewer last year, to give such a sci-fi description of what to expect from the band’s second full-length: “Umm…Space odyssey!” he attempted. “Futuristic, uh, laser beams!”

* * *

When the Shakes convene at Howard’s tidy, open-plan house for a January interview, the album hasn’t even been officially announced yet. Almost nobody’s heard it—not even their families—so there’s been very little opportunity for feedback. But they’re feeling secure enough about their evolution that the topic of their old “jam trailer” becomes the recurring punchline of the conversation, eliciting easy laughter each time it comes up—including when Cockrell and Howard recall how, as high-school classmates, they’d hole up in there taking turns on different instruments and splicing licks into proggy, meandering compositions.

They’d been evicted from their original rehearsal space and rudimentary studio—Howard’s bedroom—when her dad tired of them endlessly repeating the same passages of the same songs on the other side of the wall. By the time Johnson, a local drummer a few years their senior, heard about their fledgling project and offered his percussive services, they’d entered the wage-earning workforce with Cockrell scooping poop at a veterinary clinic and Howard delivering mail for the U.S. Postal Service. At a mutual friend’s wedding, Johnson played a rough demo of the trio for Fogg, who’d gone to the same high school as Cockrell and Howard, attended the University of Alabama and was now working for his dad’s house-painting business. Then, Fogg offered them a gig opening for his band at a bar. The night of the show, he played guitar during their set, and from then on joined them for bi-weekly practices in the single-wide.

It wasn’t long after the four of them pooled their cash to record a legit demo at the least expensive analog studio they could find—Andrija Tokic’s Bomb Shelter in Nashville, Tenn.—that the buzz began building, fueled by the sense that they were the sort of exciting, out-of-nowhere discovery that music scenesters and rock critics crave. Word about one of the band’s arresting performances at a Nashville record store reached the Aquarium Drunkard blog. From there, Patterson Hood of the Drive-By Truckers discovered the band, caught the Shakes live, connected them with his own band’s managers and record label, and invited them to open for the Truckers. After that came a trek to New York, where people made quite a fuss over the young quartet at the next-big-indie-thing forecast, CMJ Music Marathon, as well as club dates, more festivals and a song placement in a Zales jewelry commercial.

All that’s to say the Shakes got on a national—and even international—radar at a very early stage in their development, which positioned their April 2012 debut on ATO, Boys & Girls—the culmination of their Bomb Shelter sessions—to get more attention than new acts can usually expect. The album that people heard was a split-second snapshot capturing the band in a rough-and-ready phase.

“It’s not like, ‘I want to be a soul band, so we’re gonna write only soul songs,’” Howard says now, sitting at her reclaimed wood dining table, flanked by her bandmates. “That’s not how that worked out. It’s just—that’s what we were into at the time. Any time I did an interview, I’m pretty sure I explained that pretty well. And they would always ask me, ‘Oh, do you like Janis Joplin? Do you like Aretha Franklin?’ Of course I do. But I also like a lot of other things.

“But, you know,” she continues, “the way our record became popular, there was no stopping it and saying, ‘Hold on a second. This isn’t actually who we are.’ We didn’t get a chance to put another record out. But I’m not complaining.”

The Shakes could’ve tried to rush out a follow-up to capitalize on the momentum. They had churned out songs on the fly, after all. Their best-known number, “Hold On,” was the result of Howard improvising over a riff during a live show. And between their old day-job work schedules and shoestring budget, they had the most experience with a bang-it-out approach to recording.

But that wasn’t what they wanted for their second album. This time around, they decided to proceed at a deliberate pace that allowed time for more meticulous craftsmanship and introspection, beginning with the songwriting. Howard would gather up diaristic morsels, mystical musings and fragments of sensory perception and flesh them out, nurturing the imaginative possibilities.

“It was very enveloping, [creating] those demos,” she recalls. “I would sit in the basement for a long time and think a lot—for, like, days. And I think that
kind of speaks through some of the songs on the record.”

That was only the beginning of the dedicated album-making process. The band elected to bring in outside co-producer Blake Mills, a Los Angeles-based guitarist adept at deconstructing pop, rock and roots idioms with forward-thinking finesse, who frames his own albums in dexterous minimalism. (He first made his name in the Dawes predecessor Simon Dawes and lately has worked with the likes of Sara Watkins, Fiona Apple and Sky Ferreira.)…


Pick up the latest issue of Relix to read all that follows. The magazine also contains features on Modest Mouse, Guster, Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn,The Lone Bellow, José González, JJ Grey & Mofro, George Porter Jr. and Page McConnell, Mick Fleetwood, Reggie Watts, Anders Osborne, Diamond Rugs, Will Butler, Caribou and much more.