Alabama Shakes Interview: On Success, Keeping It Real And Reinventing The Blues On New Album ‘Sound & Color’
Who knew there were so many advantages to having a concrete driveway? Alabama Shakes’ drummer Steve Johnson is listing them. “You can’t skateboard or play basketball on gravel drives,” he explains. “You can’t draw a hopscotch court with chalk on gravel.” No, you can’t. Which is why, when Johnson had a bit of spare money last year, he concreted over his gravel driveway, all 50 feet of it. “Hell yeah, I got me a concrete driveway,” he says, thumping the table. “Concrete is good.”
It’s evidence, were it needed, that Alabama Shakes are not the kind of band to let a bit of success turn their heads. Their 2012 debut album, ‘Boys & Girls’, sold over a million copies worldwide, yet they still live in Athens, Alabama, the same dormitory town they grew up in, albeit, in Johnson’s case, with improved parking facilities. Johnson becomes a little belligerent at the suggestion that it must be hard to remain unaffected by all the attention a million-selling album brings. “That’s the thing,” he continues, looking genuinely affronted. “You see those people who have gotten a lot of success and turned out to be dicks, douchebags and wankers and it’s like, I don’t want to be like that. Has it changed us? Do I wipe my ass with 20s and 100s now? No.” By now, he’s in full-on hard stare mode. Frontwoman Brittany Howard steps in to diffuse the situation. “We’re pretty much the same people.”
The music is different though. ‘Boys & Girls’ was a retro fit of ’60s R&B and garage bands that saw Howard’s soulful voice powering over blues-driven grooves. It drew comparisons to The Black Keys, but, in fact, had more to do with the house band at the famous studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, as heard on tracks such as ‘Respect’ by Aretha Franklin. The follow-up to ‘Boys & Girls’, the newly released ‘Sound & Color’, draws from the same sources, but takes them in more esoteric directions. Though still a potent thing, Howard’s voice is less prominent in the mix. The opener and title track, a daydream of glockenspiel and shimmering guitars, has a new found psychedelic quality, ‘The Greatest’ is a rough and ready blast of garage rock that has hints of The Stooges and ‘Gimme All Your Love’ yoyos between gentle guitar strums and Howard howling over crashing guitar fuzz. ‘Sound & Color’ is not as immediate as ‘Boys & Girls’, perhaps, but there’s a lot more going on.
Howard and Johnson are currently enjoying the sun in the beer garden of a London pub. She’s drinking lager and smoking Lucky Strike. He’s on sparkling mineral water and has ordered some chorizo on sourdough. Both have the kind of Southern drawl you could listen to for hours, and, provided you’re not suggesting they might have changed in any way, are warm and easy company. Howard is talking about ‘Sound & Color’’s prospects. “I don’t think it will be as commercially successful as the last one, but I don’t care,” she says. There’s a bit of false modesty at play here – it’s already got to Number One in the States. She adds: “We never signed up to get rich real quick of doing music. That didn’t seem possible where we’re from.”
If ‘Sound & Color’ sees the band moving away from blues, is that conscious, a move designed to put some distance between themselves and the flavour of the month? “The blues is huge right now,” says Johnson, evasively. “I never consider us a blues band – ever,” says Howard. “But I mean R&B is inspired by blues so by proxy we’re definitely drawing from it, but I don’t consider us a blues band.” Johnson continues: “It doesn’t appeal to me in the same way as other sounds appeal to me at the moment, such as world percussion or orchestral music. I guess I’ve passed the phase in my life when the blues was the shit to me. When I was 16 I could listen to ‘Little Wing’ [by Jimi Hendrix] 10 times in a row, but it doesn’t do the same thing for me any more.”
Weren’t they worried about throwing the baby out with the bathwater, though? “The big difference this time is that we had time to make a record that we wanted to make,” says Howard. “‘Boys & Girls’, as much as we love it, especially for what it is and the time and place it occupied, this record is a lot more exploratory. We got the money, we got the time, so we just came up with some stuff. Let’s make something we like. It’s as simple as that. It’s here and now instead of trying to repeat what we’ve already done because what are you learning if you make the same thing over and over again.” She says they are far more interested in the band as a unit rather than genre. “The reason we like ’60s R&B is because back in the day the band mattered,” she says. “It wasn’t copy that and paste that, I’ll just set this on loop. The band mattered. That glues us together.”
By the time the afternoon is a couple of drinks old, Howard and Johnson start jagging off at tangents. Yesterday, they drove out to see Hever Castle in Kent, a 13th century stronghold and the home of the Boleyn family. “When I picture England I picture little gardens and beautiful yards,” says Howard. “I don’t really like cities, I like to go and see things like that.” They find the whole European air-kissing thing baffling. “Where I’m from we don’t do the kiss-on-the-cheek thing,” she says. “Sometimes we can feel a bit awkward in England. Someone needs to let me know what the rules are because I don’t want to be rude. I need a little more etiquette coaching.” Probably best not to worry about it too much. She peers over her sunglasses, “Believe me, I don’t.”
Then there’s Howard’s side project, Thunderbitch. “It’s a bit like Meat Loaf,” she explains. “It’s about a rock’n’roller who kills herself in the bathtub and the devil appears and is like, ‘I can give you eternal life if you wear my leather jacket, but you’ve got to rock’n’roll all the time.’ She puts on the leather jacket and she has an endless hunger to rock’n’roll. If she takes the leather jacket off she disappears.” Is that in any way autobiographical? “No, not at all. It’s about the need to rock’n’roll. It’s about having to do it, not wanting to do it because it’s cool.” Actually, that does sound a bit autobiographical. As they get up to go, Johnson realises he’s forgotten to eat his chorizo. No matter. He rolls in up in a napkin and slips it into his pocket, oil staining the paper red. “I’ll put it on my eggs in the morning,” he says. How about that for no nonsense?