Interview // Alabama Shakes
Originally published in the Irish Sun on Friday, August 31.
“I’d say it’s a typical small town band story, only we’ve gotten a lot more attention than typical small town bands do,” says Alabama Shakes guitarist Heath Fog – but the band’s meteoric rise from relative obscurity to festival headers has been anything but typical.
Less than a year ago, the Alabama blues rockers were practically unknown outside their home state. With the release of their debut self-titled EP in September of last year, however, they quickly became one of the internet’s most talked-about acts and were soon organising extensive tours of the United States and Europe.
Fogg says: “It’s been surreal. We never expected as much attention as we’ve gotten, and to do the things we’ve done from this record. It’s only been a year from when it seemed like we were completely off the radar to getting a lot of attention.”
The group’s origins lie in East Limestone High School in rural Athens, Alabama (not to be confused with Athens, Georgia, home of REM), where singer Brittany Howard and bassist Zac Cockerill met and began jamming and writing songs together in the mid-200s, but it was another few years before they added drummer Steve Johnson. Fogg was the final piece of the puzzle to be added in 2009.
“Three of us went to the same high school but we all graduated in different years. Brittany and Zack were writing songs together when they were in high school, but it wasn’t until years after that this band got together.
“Steve got them into the studio to make a quick little two-song demo. I was playing in another band at the time, and Steve let me hear the demo. Some of my friends had been talking about them, saying they were very good, but they didn’t have any gigs so the band I was in decided that since we had a few local gigs, we would let their group open for us.
“They decided then they didn’t have enough material and they wanted another guitar player, so that’s where I came in. They just asked if I would help out to learn some new material, and then I would go into rehearsals and they would be writing material. It felt good from the start.”
The four bonded over a shared love of classic rock and blues, with Fogg’s Stax and Motown-inspired riffs the perfect foil for Howard’s soulful wail, which can be as delicate as Dusty Springfield one moment and as rough as Otis Redding the next, not least on the rousing album opener ‘Hold On.’
Fogg notes Redding as one of his main influences, but points out that he stumbled upon his music in a roundabout fashion: “I got into Otis Redding through the Rolling Stones, when I heard Keith Richards liked Otis Redding’s version of ‘Satisfaction’ better than his own.”
There is a tendency for bands whose influences lie so deeply in the golden era of rock to be labelled ‘retro’ acts, but for Hogg it’s a completely just to be mentioned alongside such great names, and he asks why other musicians aren’t lumped with the same tag.
He says: “If people want to say that [we’re a retro act], that’s fine. It doesn’t bother us. We draw from a lot of that and that’s the kind of music that we like to play. I don’t think it’s necessarily ‘retro.’ When you hear somebody playing bluegrass, you don’t say that’s ‘retro,’ you just say they’re playing that genre of music. I don’t see our music as retro.”
Nevertheless, ‘Boys & Girls’ – which peaked at #5 in the Irish charts and #3 in the UK – is steeped in the musical tradition of artists like the Stones and Redding, and their authenticity and attention to detail has been validated by none other than Jack White, who invited them to open his US tour earlier this year.
“I love the sound of the Stax records as much as I love the sound of a Reigning Sound record or, like, Jack White’s album with Loretta Lynn, ‘Van Lear Rose’ – that’s an influence on me. And the stuff they’re doing at Daptone, I’m really into that stuff.
“We pull from a lot of things, and when you’re in there mixing each song, we agreed with the mentality that it’s worth trying things out rather than never hearing something, so we’d always try soaking something in a lot of reverb or slapback, just to see what it’s about.
“When we went into the studio there was a good opportunity to explore and get some of those sounds that we were curious about. Before, we’d settle on a snare drum sound before we were getting to the studio and saying ‘this is what we want,’ but some of the best things happen by accident. You never know what to expect. It was an exploration.”
The group’s appearance at Electric Picnic will be their second time visiting Ireland this year, having played two shows in Dublin and Kilkenny back in May – the latter date coming about with the aid of a little bit of local knowledge.
Fogg says: “On the last tour we did the European festivals and it was nice to see how many people were coming out and supporting us, whether it was Portugal or Belgium. We’d never played festivals in Europe before so we didn’t know what to expect, but it’s been good.”
“We also played Kilkenny and Dublin, and I had a blast in both. In Dublin we played a small club and it was just a rock n’ roll show and everybody was into it. We brought out a guy from Kilkenny called Evan to help us with the festival thing – loading and unloading – so we got to learn a lot about Irish people and Ireland.”
Alabama Shakes play the Main Stage at Electric Picnic at 5.30pm on Friday, August 31.