Interview: Alabama Shakes
Championed by Jack White, Adele and, um, Russell Crowe, Alabama Shakes are undoubtedly one of the most talked-about new bands of 2012 so far. Their debut album, Boys and Girls, more than vindicates the celebrity endorsements, offering up an abundance of soulful, Southern blues rock and showcasing the remarkable vocal talents of singer Brittany Howard.
To find out all about the new record, the band’s journey so far and why we should take our musical pointers from 'Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure', read our exclusive interview with drummer Steve Johnson below.
Hi Steve, so you are actually in Alabama right now?
Yes I am: southbound Highway 65 to Tuscaloosa…
You have just come back from SXSW, right? Was it the first time you have played there?
Yes it was. It was very cool, not like any music festival I’ve been to before. We got worked pretty hard while we were there but it was a lot of fun: we ate a lot of barbecue food, played a bunch of shows and got to stay at a pretty nice house. I would say we had a really good time.
How many gigs did you wind up playing in the end? And did you get chance to go watch any of the other bands?
Umm let me see: we played Austin City Limits, two at Stubbs’, the Hype Hotel, Easy Tiger… There were, like, eight or nine of them that we played in the end. Yeah I got to see a bunch of people: Dan Deacon, Futurebirds, Fiona Apple, Andrew Bird and Sharon Van Etten. She was amazing.
So congratulations on Boys and Girls! Can you tell us a little about the inspirations behind it please?
The album took close to a year to record and I think a big part of the inspiration was what we were going through at the time, like working our day jobs and relationships. From a musical standpoint I can’t really speak for everybody, but I drew inspiration from the other members of the band. And then there were some other bands that we were playing with around the time we were recording that we developed friendships with, like Hurray For The Riff-Raff. Going out and watching local bands would inspire me as well. But aside from that, we all have Southern rock, country and soul influences. Artists like The Rolling Stones and James Brown.
Do you think the fact you all had day jobs and were recording in intervals had an impact on the sound of the album?
We knew that with our time being limited we needed to get as much work done as possible so I think it kinda pushed us to work really hard in the studio. We would be there weekends, when we were all off work, and track four or five songs. But then we wouldn’t be able to go back to the studio for, like, two months and we knew that when we did finally get to go back, we might only go for one day. So we would sit there and mix until 11 or 12 at night, after going from early that morning, and sit there for as long as it took until we were finally satisfied with the way that it sounded. So, yeah I would say so, I would say that it definitely affected it.
You produced the album yourselves. Did any of you have any previous experience or was it something you were figuring out together as you went along?
Producing to me is no more than, like, writing a song: if you write a song and track it, and you’ve pretty much produced that song. So I guess we’ve been producing our own music since day one, though without the proper gear and technology. Mixing, we had a little bit of experience with but we went into the studio with an engineer and that made it a lot easier on us.
If there was one thing that our engineer said that stuck out to me the most, it was that “You can’t take it out unless you put it in first”. So if you think it might sound cool you might as well go ahead and do it – if you don’t like it you can always remove it.
If you had to single out the track you are most proud of on the album, which would it be and why?
I would have to say “Heartbreaker” just because that song was more or less written in the studio - the exact opposite of how we normally work. It started out as an idea that Brittany had. I had never heard it before, had no idea what I was gonna do on the drums and I felt like we were on the clock (laughs). It put me on the spot and forced me to play and play well. I think it’s a great song: the lyrics are kinda touching (laughs). When we recorded it I knew it was special and the more I listen to it the more I like it.
How are you all feeling about the impending album release?
So excited! So ready for this thing to be out because there’s people who had formulated opinions about the album and the band, and had written reviews and whatnot on it already, before we had even sent out copies for people to hear. So it was like, “How are they reviewing it?!”
Is the critical reception important to you as a band?
Um, I don’t think it’s important really. It is definitely interesting to see what they have to say. Our music makes us so happy so we’ll just continue to write it, if only for that reason.
You have had lots of endorsements from famous fans. Is there anyone in particular you would like to get the seal of approval from?
It would definitely be cool but it’s not something we seek or anything. If The Boss was to hear it and like it, it would put a smile on my face, for sure! I mean, there’s been numerous [famous] people who’ve said they like our music or who have come to our shows, and they’re all great. I’m definitely glad they like our music!
You released a record with Jack White’s Third Man Records: how did that come about?
We first met Jack at Third Man Records in Nashville, when we were invited to play the SoundLand music festival. We actually had a show that day that wound up getting cancelled for some reason, and by some fortunate twist of fate we wound up on the bill at Third Man. He’s so nice. Though I didn’t really talk to him a whole lot; I was a little star-struck...
You’re supporting him on his forthcoming tour, right?
Yes. I know we’re playing at The Ryman [Auditorium] with him and, being from Alabama and that close to Nashville, The Ryman is like a staple in this area: when you’ve played The Ryman you know pretty much you’ve accomplished something. So I’m really looking forward to opening for him there in particular.
Do you have any plans to collaborate with him on stage or on record?
No, no plans to. But that would be awesome to say the least.
So what are you most looking forward to for the rest of 2012?
Definitely the album coming out, but after that I would say the European tour. I’ve been all over the United States and to Canada but I haven’t been across any oceans but one time, and that was for London. And I haven’t been anywhere but London so I’m really looking forward to that. It’s gonna be awesome. [I'm looking forward to] playing lots of festivals in Europe.
Any in particular?
(Laughs) You probably know more about our schedule than I do.
What has been the highlight of being in Alabama Shakes so far?
Probably getting to play with Zac, Brittany and Heath, honestly. Because if I didn’t get to play with musicians as good as them we wouldn’t be where we’re at. It gets better and tighter every time that we play together, and our relationship gets tighter.
If you had to recommend one album, what would it be and why.
Led Zeppelin’s Houses of the Holy. From the time I was probably 10 or 11 years old I was magnetised to that album: the cover of it, the song titles... Do you remember in ‘Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure’ when they’re talking about their trip to go get Socrates and he’s like, “Yeah man, it looked very much like the cover of Houses of the Holy, with all the pillars”?! The comment in Bill and Ted kind of pointed me towards the album but then once I finally got it I was hooked from song to song to song. It was my prize possession when I was 13 years old.
And finally, if you had to sum up your sound to someone who had never heard you, how would you do so?
Church of rock n roll. (Laughs)