Alabama Shakes: “The disbelief of fame is what helped us cope”

Cast your mind back, if you will, to early 2012, when American-quartet Alabama Shakes emerged with their fantastic debut track Hold On. It was a song which had just as much raw vocal emotion as it had blues groove and power. That year saw them go from strength to strength, with Hold On even receiving a Grammy nomination. Now, we fast forward to 2015, a year which will see the Brittany Howard fronted group release their hotly anticipated second album Sound & Colour. In February, All Things Loud had the opportunity to sit down and chat to Steve Johnson, Zac Cockrell and Heath Fogg from Alabama Shakes about new music, touring and what inspires them to make the music that they make today.

We begin our chat, which takes place in a former tram warehouse (and now hotel) in the west of Amsterdam, with Heath outlining the recording process and ideas behind Sound & Colour. “[The process] was really sporadic; as the songs came we decided it was time to start focussing on a record” explained Fogg, as the baseball cap-clad bassist Cockrell silently nods to his right. Drummer Johnson is fiddling with his fingers as he tells us about some of the main influences behind the album. “I know Brittany [Howard, guitar & vocals] has mentioned Curtis [Mayfield] and David Axelrod as her main influences, but everyone really had their own” he says, before Cockrell adds that there was no main influence which inspired them to make the record in a particular way. “I can’t think of anything in particular that made us say,
‘oh let’s make it like this, or let’s do it like this’
”, he said before reaffirming that each band member was inspired by a lot of different things for multitude of reasons. Californian musician Blake Mills helmed production duties for Sound & Colour, with Johnson noting that Mills shared a wide variety of unknown music with them which slowly embedded itself into their playing, thus becoming a part of the soundscape that created Sound & Colour. Before we move on to the past, we briefly discuss two songs on the record – lead single Don’t Wanna Fight and stellar album track Gimme All Your Love. At first, Fogg is reluctant to discuss their specific meanings without head lyricist Howard present, later giving us the lowdown on how the songs came to be. “They basically just came out of rehearsals and old demos”, he enthusiastically adds before we ask them which Sound & Colour tracks they’d consider personal favourites. Without much hesitation, they agree on Over My Head as one they’ve been “digging, for different reasons”. “That was the last one we’d tracked for Sound & Colour” said Johnson, before adding, “It’s funny too because Brittany said she was gonna work on an upbeat rock ‘n’ roll song, and then she came back with Over My Head, which was in the opposite direction”. It was a song which Johnson claimed came really quickly and everyone felt instantly, as opposed to Gimme All Your Love, which took two years to surface. Cockrell also notes that Dunes will be a live favourite, before Fogg tells us that they tracked around 20 songs for the record.

At this point it starts getting busy in the hotel lobby, as we turn our attention to the song which made it all happen – Hold On. On the subject of handling all the attention and ‘fame’ which came with the songs’ success, Johnson jokes that “the disbelief of it all happening is what helps us cope”. “You’re not really thinking about, because at that stage everything happened really fast” he continues, noting that all the constant press attention and touring kept them grounded. We turn our attention to their three Grammy nominations, with the talkative Johnson telling us that it was unexpected, but “one of those things you just roll with”. He takes this as an opportunity to label the Grammy’s as a “marketing tool which aims to expose us to all the music recorded in that year”. As the band has been nominated before, it also makes them eligible to nominate others for upcoming Grammy’s. When asked who they would’ve nominated for the (generally controversial) album of the year category, Fogg tells us that Sun Kill Moon’s 2014 album Benji worked for him “in a way that no other album did.”

By now, Johnson, Cockrell and Fogg look rather fatigued following a long day of press. Johnson, the most talkative member of the band, is nervously clutching his beer as Cockrell stares into space for the majority of the interview, even when speaking. On the subject of performing new songs live, Fogg tells us that the band is growing by numbers constantly (they now tour with two keyboardists and will have three backing vocalists this year). They completely rule out any use of backing tracks to make up for the amount of vocal layering present on the new songs, insisting that this is the main reason three backing vocalists will join them on tour this year. Fogg puts the backing track scenario in the context of DJs, stating that they could get away with it whereas a band like Alabama Shakes just aren’t that kind of band. As we finish up our chat, Johnson expresses his enthusiasm at their upcoming summer tour which kicks off at the legendary Coachella Festival in April. The new songs are powerful, they have “fervour”, and Alabama Shakes are absolutely ready to go out there and show everyone that they’re not a one-trick pony.

Sound & Colour is released on 20/21 April through Rough Trade and ATO Records. Stream it here.