Alabama Shakes - when sudden success stirs things up: Beatroute

Posted by Sebastian Buzzalino on 1 July 2013

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“Every time we left the studio with a new CD of the songs, I would wear the CD out just listening to it. I was surprised at how much I liked it. I’ve been in bands before, writing songs and everything, but there’s something about these songs that I knew I loved. I wanted to stand by them, put a record out and tour behind them.” There’s real passion and honesty behind Heath Fogg’s Alabama drawl, as if, in that moment, nothing beyond the band matters. In that instance, recalling the recording process for Alabama Shakes’ debut, breakout album, Boys & Girls (2012), Fogg seems to return to those seemingly carefree days, when Alabama Shakes were nothing more than a group of kids in Athens, AL, working dead-end day jobs and spending warm evenings bonding over their shared love of soul, rock and roll and Motown classics. Life was simple back then, like it always is when you’re in a new band and the world seems at your disposal. Then, seemingly overnight, they broke into the larger consciousness.

Alabama Shakes have trodden down the same worn path as countless bands before. Front woman Brittany Howard and bassist Zac Cockrell met in high school after discovering mutual love for rock and roll. Like most high school bands, their initial collaborations were tenuous and uncertain; but, it was an excellent way to pass the time after school and wile away the muggy Northern Alabama evenings. They soon added Steve Johnson on the drums and trotted off to record a budding demo they could pass around to friends. Fogg heard the demo as it made its rounds and joined soon after on guitar.

It’s hard to say exactly what clicks so neatly with Alabama Shakes. Certainly, Howard’s vocal delivery has been lauded as following in the footsteps of Janis Joplin, with a crystal-clear delivery that belies her soulful, mournful pipes. Behind her, the band steps lightly from Motown riffs to sunshine surf, meandering down squiggly Southern rock detours and picking up some classic rock panache along the way. Northern Alabama, by Fogg’s admission, is a cultural island, seemingly disconnected from the rest of the United States. Isolated from it all, with only Nashville as a relative geographic neighbour, it’s not a far stretch to imagine that their music provided a respite from the “classic rock, top 40 pop, country [and] oldies” that dominate the musical landscape. Indeed, Boys & Girls is at its most charming when it’s at its most uncertain: brief moments of apprehensiveness seem to hang between notes throughout the album, almost as if the band was unsure if they should lead with their right foot or their left. But, the music was theirs — their own interpretation of shared influences that bound them together, giving them a voice and a collective identity.

In the past 18 months, Alabama Shakes have had to grow up more than they could have ever expected. After a successful stint at CMJ in 2011, they positively blew up, garnering praise from just about every corner of the rock and roll world in North America and Europe. From without, it seemed like the band were overnight stars, rock and roll’s new saviours, a direct conduit to ’50s bop, ’60s soul and ’70s flair. But, from within, Fogg maintains that it seemed like time slowed down around them as they tried to take it all in.

“There was a time when people and media would say how big we were, how huge we were getting, how things had happened so quickly,” he says. “But, we were still playing these clubs, these really small shows. I was thankful to be playing them, but we were still in a van, playing these bizarre, small clubs around the country. But, it didn’t take long: I remember playing about a year ago and we played the Hangout Music Fest, which is on the Gulf Coast of Alabama, and they estimated like 20,000 people at that show. That’s when I was like, ‘OK, something is going on here, this is different.’”

It’s been a challenge for them to maintain their core identity as things exploded. What was once a great way to pass the time, write some riffs and share some laughs now became a career and the pressure was on — to the point where, now, Fogg admits that they relish their infrequent time off from grinding out another tour.

“It gets stressful to us. We all like our downtime, just being home. We all like to have the time to get together and enjoy each other’s company and write music together… That’s what I want to be doing for a living, so any time I say something negative about it, I feel guilty, like I’m taking it for granted. It’s just a different beast than I thought it would be,” he confesses. Fogg doesn’t make an attempt to try and hide the fact that he’s torn between pining for the nostalgic, simpler days before all the attention and wanting to make an honest attempt at a fickle career. “You know, new material is harder to come by than I thought it would be when you do this for a living.”

For now, Alabama Shakes are trying to keep their heads above water, making sure that their sophomore album lives up to the expectations — something of which Fogg is acutely aware, despite the fact he tries not to think about it — and trying to stay abreast of the great beast that is the music industry. If nothing else, Athens will always be their home and refuge (Fogg jokes that they don’t even get played on the radio in that part of the world), where they can return to their music that will always unite them. The only thing that’s changed is that “the songs belong to the people as much as they belong to us.”