Red-hot Alabama Shakes beats the odds

    1 of 2 2 of 2

      Hard as it might be, Alabama Shakes drummer Steve Johnson is making a concerted effort to slow down and enjoy a ride he never dreamed he’d be on.

      And if he’s determined to embrace every moment of his band’s trajectory, it’s because he realizes how lucky he is. The easygoing southerner can remember shooting for something big when he was younger, driven by aspirations of the variety that seldom come true.

      “My teacher in fifth grade asked me ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ ” Johnson says, reached at home in Athens, Alabama. “I played a lot of football when I was younger. I told her ‘I wanna be in the NFL,’ and she was like, ‘You know that’s never going to happen—it’s a one in a million chance or something like that.’ I remember thinking the same thing about musicians when I got into playing in bands when I was 14 or 15—that the chances of something big happening were just, like, negative.”

      Alabama Shakes has, however, beaten the odds, enjoying a rise that most acts will never experience. The hype machine hit overdrive before the group even had a full-length, the New York Times kick-starting things with a review of a CMJ showcase back in 2011. Seemingly overnight, Johnson and his bandmates—singer Brittany Howard, bassist Heath Fogg, and guitarist Zac Cockrell—went from struggling small-town-Alabama soul revivalists to a bona fide sensation, hyped as much by Rolling Stone as by Stereogum.

      The first time the band hit Vancouver—supporting an eponymous EP in 2011—it sold out the Media Club. A year later, touring for the 2012 debut album, Boys & Girls, the group was headlining soft-seaters like the Orpheum.

      Johnson and company could have been forgiven for playing it safe with this past spring’s Sound & Color. Instead, the members of Alabama Shakes decided to play by no one’s rules but their own.

      The fantastic weirdness starts right off the top on their sophomore effort, with the title track starting out like the sequel to Tubular Bells and then setting Howard’s jazz-star vocals to a skittering drum track that suggests Ninja Tune Records circa ’99. “Don’t Wanna Fight” is bloody-knuckled blues with a badass streak of super-freak funk, while “Dunes” starts off as a rattling-chains field holler before surfing a wave of triple-fuzzed guitar to somewhere near Exile on Main Street.

      Alabama Shakes doesn’t completely abandon the sound that first got it noticed, with “The Greatest” an artery-clearing shot of Mississippi Delta garage thrash, and “This Feeling” a heavenly exercise in soft gospel.

      But overall, Sound & Color is about taking risks. Ever wonder what Billie Holiday would have sounded like working a bump-and-grind strip club in Muscle Shoals? Look no further than “Gimme All Your Love”.

      “I remember, once we had about six or seven songs tracked, thinking ‘Man, I don’t know what people are going to think about this, because it’s really all across the board,’ ” Johnson says. “There are some real curveballs. Like ‘The Greatest’, which doesn’t really sit with any other song on the record.”

      And those curveballs caused some concerns for those in the Alabama Shakes camp who would have preferred the band played things safe.

      “For the most part, we were able to go ‘Here is the record, whether you like it or not,’ ” Johnson relates. “We weren’t really tied down to any label because Boys & Girls [Rough Trade] was just a one-off record deal. That meant we didn’t have obligations to anyone. We recorded and funded Sound & Color ourselves, and really just did what we wanted in the studio. I do remember, though, a few comments from people on the business end of things, where they’d be like, ‘What about some more rock ’n’ roll songs?’ Or ‘I don’t know about this one—it’s a little too weird.’ In the end, though, we were like, ‘This is it—the mood that we’re in, what we’re into, and the kind of songs that we’ve written.’ ”

      That’s translated into a No. 1 record, and a whole new blitzkrieg of touring, including major events like the Squamish Valley Music Festival. Johnson acknowledges that things have pretty much been nonstop over the last couple of years, bucket-list moments including appearances on Saturday Night Live and playing for Michelle and Barack Obama at the White House.

      The only downside? That would be being so busy that sometimes having a normal life outside of the band is hard. During Johnson’s conversation with the Straight, his young son can be heard gurgling away in the background. In a matter of hours the drummer will be on a plane for yet another round of touring.

      “I enjoy what I do—getting to travel and play shows—but it is tough,” he says. “Like right now my son is learning to walk—he’s probably going to start any day—and we leave to go on the road tonight.”

      Still, if he’s learned anything, it’s that sometimes it’s best not to sweat the insanity.

      “Oh, man—there’s definitely moments where it feels like roaring along a highway at 200 miles per hour, especially when there’s promo involved at the start of a tour,” he says. “But I’ve been trying to take it easy this tour, to soak it all in, as opposed to rushing through it all and just trying to get in and out as fast as possible. I’m trying to see more stuff, and get out more in each city. When you’re out on the road and have to do a lot of promo and play shows, you get tired. Sometimes you don’t even want to leave your hotel room. I’ve found that getting out and doing something for a little bit each day, taking in some sights, is more healthy than reclusing.”

      Johnson pauses for a second, and then continues. “But, looking back at everything so far, I find that I’m much more reflective when I get back home than I am while I’m on the road. It’s nice to come home, and to have a place and a family to come home to. And that’s when it’s really nice to think about all our accomplishments.”

      Alabama Shakes plays the Tantalus Stage at the Squamish Valley Music Festival next Sunday (August 9).



      moe lyons

      Aug 10, 2015 at 11:07am

      I loved them from the first second i heard them back at the beginning. Tried to get the local blues club in Nelson to bring them in but they hadn't heard of them so it didn't happen. Oh what a lost chance! I doubt if i will ever see them now, the kootenays is too backwater for them even tho they really are a backwater band in their roots.