Interview: Alabama Shakes

Annie Zaleski

By Annie Zaleski

on 04.12.12 in Interviews

During “Hold On,” the first track from Alabama Shakes’ debut album, Boys & Girls. vocalist Brittany Howard asserts, “I got so much to do, I ain’t got much time.” Those words perfectly summarize the ascent of the Athens, Alabama, band. Once known as the Shakes (they addedAlabama later to avoid confusion), the quartet formed in 2009 and cut their teeth playing a mix of covers and originals at local clubs. A chance encounter with Patterson Hood led to some tour dates with the Drive-By Truckers — and, soon after, a record deal.

While Alabama Shakes do share signifiers with the “Muscle Shoals sound” (in fact, the city in which the famous studio originated is located roughly an hour from Athens), it’s a mistake to categorize Boys & Girls as an exercise in nostalgia. The album is refreshingly free of easy-to-pigeonhole styles; instead, its gentle, heartfelt songs are a timeless amalgam of Motown strut, low-lit soul, swampy blues and classic-rock swagger. And there’s a stubborn optimistic current permeating Boys & Girls, in no small part because of Howard, a vocal powerhouse whose lyrical inspirations include Erykah Badu, David Bowie and AC/DC’s Bon Scott.

Guitarist Heath Fogg and Howard checked in with eMusic separately via phone. The former was running errands and navigating some rainy weather — although he reassured, “I drive better than Dale Earnhardt, Jr.” despite the inclement conditions — and the latter was a bit tired after staying up all night fishing “and not catching anything.”

Check out free tracks from Alabama Shakes and other great ATO bands on this sampler.

Heath, what made you want to pick up the guitar?

Heath Fogg: My dad played guitar. He was in bands in high school and things like that, so there was always a guitar lying around the house. It was just a matter of learning how to play it. He would show me stuff, but I never really took an interest to it until I made a good friend in, like, the fifth grade. I would go to his house [and] we would sit around and try to learn AC/DC and Lynyrd Skynyrd songs all day. We were about 10, 11 years old. I think I’m still doing the same thing. [Laughs] Still trying to learn those AC/DC songs.

Was your dad not teaching you enough cool music?

Fogg: He was showing me chords — he showed me the first song I ever learned, which was the riff to [Ted Nugent's] “Cat Scratch Fever.” But it’s something about having a buddy that’s your age, and you do that as a hobby. It’s just like throwing a baseball in the yard or something like that. We were just playing guitars, all day long.

Brittany, what are your first memories of singing?

Brittany Howard: Oh my goodness. I remember being tiny, like four, maybe? And my great-uncle Don has a woodworking shop, and he had a bluegrass band that would come in there every once in a while. I remember them playing an Elvis Presley song, bluegrass-style. They gave me a little microphone and I sang. I was fascinated; I was like, “I didn’t know people could do this!” That was my first experience with that.

And then me and my sister, we would play piano at my grandmother’s house. She had a piano she inherited. [My sister] is four years older than me, so she’s writing these really strange, dark classical pieces. [Laughs] By this time, I was maybe five, so that would make her nine. I played the bass lines of [that music]. That’s kind of when I first started writing songs; I wouldn’t have done it without her.

I was about 13 when I actually started writing my own songs.

What were the first songs you wrote about?

Howard: I was listening to a lot of My Chemical Romance. They had just put out their first record [I Brought You My Bullets, You Brought Me Your Love]. I had never heard anything like that as far as the guitars go. You know who I’m talking about, My Chemical Romance?

They’re actually one of my favorite bands!

Howard: Well, the first record is absolutely incredible. For an entire year, I listened to that record. I learned all the guitar parts. My music was kind of like that, because that’s all I listened to. It was really dark music and had interesting, storytelling lyrics. Then I wrote a lot of punk music then — I started a little punk band when I was 14 years old and put on punk concerts here out in the county. [Laughs] Which is really funny, if you see where I’m from.

An At the Drive-In shirt played a role in how you met some of your future bandmates.

Howard: The shirt was really insignificant — I just knew Zac [Cockrell, bassist] played music, but I didn’t know what kind of music. When I saw he wore an At the Drive-In shirt, I was like, “He likes cool music, he likes a different kind of music. I’m going to approach him and see if he’d listen to my music.” And he did, and that’s kind of how I met Zac.

He can play anything — he’ll play anything, and he’ll be happy to do it and he’ll be good at it. When I found Zac, it was like this little treasure, because I could finally write songs with someone. It built from there. That was the foundation.

People in bands look for that chemistry for years — and some never find that.

Howard: I don’t even think we were friends — when he started coming over to my house a lot, it was music. We’re from a small town; there’s not much to do. Music was a really big deal to me, because that was all I was into. That came first — music came first. We became friends later.

How far after that did the Shakes form?

Howard: I graduated [high school] in ’07, and it wasn’t until 2009 that we actually started playing shows, the Shakes formed. I met [drummer Steve Johnson] a long time ago, when he was drumming in that punk band [I knew of in high school]. He was just a drummer, so I didn’t talk to him much, but I knew him. It wasn’t until later that he rolled in and met Zac again. [Steve] came over, we jammed, he listened to the songs we had [and] he wrote drum parts to it. We were actually starting to realize that we could be a band.

We cut a demo and Steve let Heath hear it. Heath was playing in this big band around town, they’d play awesome songs: deep cuts of AC/DC, T. Rex, Prince, David Bowie songs. Stuff that was not country, basically. They were good. I would sneak out to see ‘em all the time. Heath heard us and said, “We should get these guys to open for us.” I said, “We’ll do it, if you can come and help us out, we’ll play.” We learned a bunch of cover songs with Heath, and we opened up for his band.

Fogg: [The Shakes] were being a cover band just out of necessity. We all enjoyed playing, and we wanted to play gigs, just for fun. It was harder to get in those venues where you could play original music than it was to get in a bar and play covers. We played covers, for fun, to get out and play. We were always writing [original] songs.

It’s a weird oddity of the Midwest and the South that you can get more work as a cover band than as an original band, even today.

Fogg: Our keyboard player [Ben Tanner], he has this joke — I don’t know who said it to him, but it goes, “Y’all gonna play some real songs? Or y’all just gonna play that stuff you made up?” That’s the joke of, like you said, theMidwest and the South. People don’t have a desire to hear bands play a set of music they’ve never heard before. They want to hear Jimmy Buffett covers.

What were some of your favorite cover songs to play in the Shakes?

Fogg: We played Otis Redding’s “These Arms Of Mine,” that was a good one. We did “How Many More Times” by Led Zeppelin, “Going Up the Country” by Canned Heat. Or “Spirit In The Sky.” We did a James Brown medley, with three songs in it, and then we’d [cover one of] Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings’ songs. It was pretty eclectic. We’d even cover My Morning Jacket and a Loretta Lynn song off the record she did with Jack White. No big crowd-pleasing hits — it was more songs we just liked to hear anyways, so why not try to play them?

It would be very easy for people to listen to the Alabama Shakes’ music and say, “You take inspiration from these particular artists.” But if you listen closer to Boys & Girls, there are diverse flourishes, where you can tell there are those other influences.

Howard: We’re so excited for the album to come out, because I want people that are real music lovers to listen and know where stuff comes from. It’s almost like you could write a checklist to yourself, like, “Oh, I know where they got that from.” It’s kind of like when you listen to Led Zeppelin and you already know a lot of the blues artists — you hear all of the nods they did to other blues artists. It’s everywhere when you listen to Led Zeppelin. Instead of being like, “Oh, they’re not that original,” you just kind of chuckle to yourself, like, “Yeah, I like that too. That’s cool.”

Their music — and your music, too — feels very timeless. It’s not quite of one era. That’s what also struck me about Boys & Girls.

Howard: Huh. Well, maybe. I don’t know — that’s a good thing. [Pauses while she excuses herself to order coffee] We always wonder…why is this song so good? And really, when it comes down to it, it’s not complicated. A good song is a good song because whoever’s singing that, means it. That’s a lot of the difference between songs then and songs now. They just seemed a little more honest.

Boys & Girls also sounds effortless and casual. The record is casually vulnerable.

Fogg: It wasn’t written as a concept or anything; we just wrote as many songs as we could and recorded as many songs as we could and [sifted] through those and picked the ones we felt most like a record. That was something we kept in mind: Lyrically, it seemed like there’s a theme of hope that runs through the record — and striving to better yourself and better your surroundings. It was like, “Let’s stick with those type [of] songs, rather than throw a novelty song in the mix and send the whole listen for a loop.” That’s kind of the way songwriting is for us, too: You throw out as many ideas as you can and sort it out later. That seems to work for us to do things that way.

What was the process of writing the lyrics for the record?

Howard: It’s always different. I call ‘em my tomes. T-o-m-e-s, tomes. I have a lot of books of lyrics. I’ve had them for a long time, and I guess that was me making myself write, because I was never a writer — ever. [But] I hardly used them, to tell you the truth. Because the thing is, the way most things work is…everything starts with an idea. One of us will have an idea. That’s where it all starts from. It can be half a song… [Howard pauses to pay for her coffee]

Me and Zac have a lot of unfinished songs. [After] Heath came in [and] Steve came in, we finished the songs out. That’s songs like “You Ain’t Alone.” Me and Zac wrote “Boys and Girls.” Songs like that we had, and they became better. [But] songs we’ve written now, they’ve started as an idea…and [we all] latch onto it. And you know when you hear the music what you want to do with the words. It’s almost like, the songs can write themselves like that. It’s what sounds good, what feels right doing it that way. Sometimes if a song makes you struggle to write for it, then just stop writing for it, let it go and come back to it later.

The thing about the words is, usually you’ll hear the music and you know what kind of song it is. It’s a sad song — or if it’s a sweet, sad song. Maybe it’s a sad song but there’s still hope for it at the end of it. That helps you write lyrics; it’s all about how the music sounds and how it makes you feel.

“You Ain’t Alone” is a song people are gravitating toward. And it celebrates fear and loneliness — it’s a twist on the usual theme.

Fogg: In a way, it celebrates it because it’s about being brave and knowing that [feeling's] not going to be forever. Just because you’re upset and lonely right now doesn’t mean you will be a year from now. There’s someone else out there that feels the same way you do, and you’ll meet that person sooner or later.

You guys are from an area that’s in close proximity to Muscle Shoals, and you’ve received comparisons to many of those associated acts and the region’s sound. How accurate do you think that is?

Fogg: If you would ask Zac this question, he would say, “Yeah, that’s pretty accurate,” because he’s studied a lot of that music. Muscle Shoals is so close that it gets overlooked really easily by not only musicians, but [by] people in general in northern Alabama. You’ll hear songs on the radio that you didn’t even realize were recorded there until later. I’m a huge Rolling Stones fan, and it took me seeing them on the Gimme Shelter DVD in Muscle Shoals listening to the playback of “Wild Horses” — that’s when I started digging. I was like, “The Rolling Stones recorded in Muscle Shoals?” A lot of that stuff I’ve discovered later.

It’s not like I grew up trying to study how to sound like Eddie Hinton or anything like that. But looking back, you hear a lot of great music that was recorded there and take a lot of pride in what all has happened in Muscle Shoals. If our band is influenced by that, it’s in a roundabout kind of way.

That’s very interesting. I always wonder what kind of impact a famous legacy has on the region.

Fogg: There’s something that takes you growing up and maturing a little bit to have an appreciation for that music. I read an article about this Southern soul box set called Take Me to the River. It even talks in the liner notes about how soul music is for grown-ups, it’s filled with grown-up topics. It kind of makes sense; it takes you getting a little bit older to appreciate that stuff for what it really is.

What did you learn from opening for Drive-By Truckers?

Howard: One of the things I learned was how a band really is. Like, there’s what you think a band is — and then there’s how a band really is. I wanted to know if they were still having fun. They have families, and I wondered how they could do this when they had families. I learned a lot about what it is to actually be a band — to actually have to travel and be the same group of people for this amount of time and how to work through that. They seem to work through it pretty well; they all get along and they all give each other their space. I think I kind of learned about that dynamic.

That’s the side of being in a band people don’t think about: This is your second family, and you can drive each other nuts.

Howard: Yeah, and then you have to put up with it. You’re right, it’s a family. I love all those guys [in my band] — I consider them my brothers. Brothers can get on your nerves. But whatever — I’m trying to get on their nerves, too. At the end of the day, we all love each other, and that’s the way it is.