Interview // Alabama 3
Last week I interviewed Nick Reynolds of Alabama 3 ahead of the premiere of Songs For Amy at the Galway Film Fleadh. The band have a cameo as a bunch of debauched rockstars (a.k.a. themselves) in the movie, and will be playing a few acoustic shows in Cork, Limerick and Galway at the weekend.
Originally published in the Irish Sun on July 6.
“One of our singers was named the Reverend D. Wayne Love – the first minister of the Presbyterian Church of Elvis the Divine. In America, they actually believed it was a real church!”
Nick Reynolds – a.k.a. Harpo Strangelove – falls into hysterics as he recalls the hostility his band, Alabama 3, have inspired in the States since their song ‘Woke Up This Morning’ first came to prominence on the iconic US crime drama the Sopranos.
Reynolds’ steely harmonica is an integral part of the sound he describes as “electro techno country acid house” – and along with the American-accented vocals of D. Wayne and Larry Love (no relation) convinced many they had come straight out of the Deep South, rather than South London.
“I think for a long, long time, because of the Sopranos, a lot of Americans thought we were American, and I think they felt a bit cheated when they actually found out we’re from the UK singing with American accents, completely satirising the American dream and the American condition. Basically we sing about America but seen through a dark glass.
“They’re a bit slow over there, and by the time they realised we were actually realised we were taking the piss out of them, I don’t think they appreciated it! I think they felt a little bit cheated: ‘God damn limeys, who do they think they are?’ They always had a different sense of humour to us, the Americans.”
Nevertheless, their association with the Sopranos – near-universally acknowledged as one of the greatest television series’ to be produced across the water – is one that Reynolds openly acknowledges has served the band very well, though it hasn’t quite been the cash cow some might imagine.
“The thing is, as Warhol said it, ‘in the future, everyone will be famous for 15 minutes.’ I think it’s actually about one minute. I meet people today who have never even heard of the Sopranos! It’s amazing how something can be really big in so many people’s consciousness and all of a sudden, to a younger generation, it’s gone because there are so many things to replace it.
“We’re lucky in the sense that we’ve got a really good loyal fanbase, so most people that come to see us have seen us lots and lots already, so it’s not just that song. Having said that, we’re not ashamed of it. It put us on the map and we’re very pleased to be associated with such a prestigious and successful program. We’ve even been on the Simpsons twice – that’s something my kids can appreciate!”
Reynolds is keen to highlight the political overtones that grace the band’s music, and he reveals the group formed as much as a counterpoint to ‘Cool Britannia,’ the Union Jack-thumping, New Labour-supporting orthodoxy that consumed British guitar music in the middle part of the decade.
“You gotta remember when the band started, it was the mid-nineties and everyone was doing this Britpop thing and waving the Union Jack, so Larry Love and D. Wayne decided, hold on a minute, there’s all these Britpop bands doing all this rubbish kind of pop music and flying the flag, so they decided to do something unorthodox and said, ‘Why don’t we pretend to be American?’
“For a while, the band was looked upon as kind of a novelty act, and there was a lot more kind of humour put into it originally, but we’ve matured and I wouldn’t say that’s one of the major political thrusts now, to satirise America, but that certainly was an original idea with the band.
“We were hamming up the American dream and how they treat religion over there with all the evangelists, but as we’ve gone on and matured, these days Alabama 3 take a swipe at anyone who deserves it. We’re quite a politically-minded band and we do a lot of benefit gigs for various charities including the Miscarriage of Justice Organisation, which gets wrongly convicted criminals out of prison. That’s run by Paddy Hill, who was one of the ill-fated Birmingham Six.
“We’re quite politically aware and, without trying to tell people what to do, we’d like to think we’re like, ‘hey kids, this is what’s going on out there.’ But set to a groovy beat.”
While Alabama 3’s music retains a strongly satirical tone in relation to American culture, there is one area where Reynolds has to concede the US holds the upper hand: its rich outlaw tradition.
“It is purely coincidental, but we did do an album called Outlaw a few years ago, which was loosely themed on the fact that America has this great tradition of outlaws like Jesse James and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and all we have in England is Dick Turpin and maybe Jack Shepherd. So Larry Love was like, why don’t we do an album saluting English outlaws?”
Even so, the Alabama 3 story comes with a little bit of a twist: Nick Reynolds is the son of Bruce Richard Reynolds, the alleged ringleader of the Great Train Robbers, who ran away with the equivalent of £40 million from a Royal Mail freighter in 1963.
“Larry heard that in the sixties, somebody did a song called ‘Have You Seen Bruce Richard Reynolds?’ which was written about my dad when he was on the run. Larry heard it and said ‘we should do a re-recording and get your dad on it?’
“That gave us the idea to do an album loosely based around my dad and the train robbery. For that album, there was kind of an embracing of my dad’s background, but it’s not really part of our identity. That just happened to be a one-off chance thing that was a bit of fun to do.”
Alabama 3 return to Ireland next week to attend the Galway Film Fleadh premiere of ‘Songs For Amy,’ in which the band play a small, but pivotal, cameo role. The film has already captured the ‘Outstanding Achievement in Film-making’ award at the Newport Beach Film Festival in California.
“Basically, ‘Songs For Amy’ is a darkly comedic bittersweet tale. It’s an odyssey of music, lost love, hope and redemption against the beautiful, haunting backdrop that is Galway. We’re playing ourselves in a cameo role.
“Without giving away too much of the plot, the main protagonist in the film is all very happy and his life is all set to go great, and then we turn up and then his life gets incredibly complicated. That was our role in it. It’s almost like he came to the crossroads and we’re the devil.”
Ever the dramatist, Reynolds evokes Robert Johnson in one breath and another cultural icon, Keanu Reeves, in the next:
“Just as you think the film is going one direction and it’s predictable, we pop up and the film goes off in another direction entirely. We’re in it a good for about 5-10 minutes. It’s a small but sweet and pivotal role, I’d say. We’re in it long enough to influence events and corrupt things. It’s like the Matrix – you can take the red pill or the blue pill, and he takes us, much to his cost!”
‘Songs For Amy’ stars former Eastenders actor and one-time popstar Sean Maguire as Sean, a Galway musician who embarks on a journey of redemption to win back the love of his life, the eponymous Amy. Maguire’s songs in the film were composed by Irish songwriters John McKee and Ultan Conlon.
The group will wrap up the week with a trio of stripped-down acoustic shows outside the capital, with four of the band’s ten members presenting their music stripped of its electronic, acid house flavour.
“We’ve been doing the acoustic formula for about 8 or 9 years. A lot of us were sitting around not doing much at the beginning of the year, so to keep busy we started doing some little acoustic gigs in Brixton, which is where Alabama 3 is based. We’ve got a little nightclub there called Jamm and our studio is there, so Brixton is a big part of our identity.
“We realised we had an opportunity where we could play to smaller audiences, which wouldn’t normally be financially viable for the ten-piece band with all of our kit and everything. It gave us an opportunity to play in venues where people wouldn’t normally see us, and it also gave us an opportunity to put forward a different side of our music for those who wouldn’t normally be into the electro techno country acid house thing.
“You could almost say we’re going into unknown territory like a small reconnaissance outfit, giving the locals a taste of our gospels and after that they want more and that’s when we come back with the real band. People still dance and jump around as much to the acoustic stuff as they do to the electric stuff. The beat’s there, just in a different format.
“It was a way of bringing the purity of the songs to bare bones, and it just so happened that of all the places that we started playing, that formula resonated particularly well with the folk in Ireland, and I think that’s because acoustic music is something that’s within their hearts. I suppose, for the acoustic, unplugged version of Alabama 3, Ireland is our second home.”
Alabama 3 play in Cyprus Avenue, Cork, on July 12, Dolan’s Warehouse, Limerick on July 13 and Roisin Dubh, Galway on July 14. ‘Songs For Amy’ premieres at the Galway Fleadh Film Festival on July 11.