Artist Spotlight & Interview: Alabama Shakes

Lindsey Scully / January 31, 2012
Photo via Alabama Shakes' Facebook

In case you have yet to turn on KEXP 90.3, any NPR station, or look at any music blog in the last six months, then let me introduce you to Alabama Shakes. The band is composed of four long-time friends: Brittany Howard, Heath Fogg, Zac Cockrell, and Steve Johnson. The quartet is based out of Athens, Alabama, and they’ll be quick to correct you if you dare say Georgia.

2011 was a whirlwind for Alabama Shakes, and it all really started when another music blog put their song “Hold On” in a post and it spread like wildfire overnight. That is one of the great aspects of the Internet, being able to share new music finds in an instant. The soulful rock band has churned out a four song eponymous EP that has consistently been Bandcamp’s number one seller for months, with rare occurrences of being bumped down a spot. When the buzz about the band started they were unsigned, but as of a few months ago they have signed with ATO Records. “ATO has a great roster and we felt ATO would treat us the same way and give us the same opportunities and freedom that our heroes had,” Heath Fogg told us. Check out the full interview below.

What is everyone’s background in music? Did you all start young or did you get into music recently?

I’d say other than Zac most of us started young, and Zac is the most talented musically! I think Britt came out of the womb singing! My dad played guitar and banjo and Steve’s dad played drums so I think for us it was natural to play music too.

What/who did you guys grow up listening to?

Growing up it was lots of classic rock and country. I love nineties alternative rock too. My mom was always a fan of Motown and Stax artists and I’ve always had a love for soul music, but it wasn’t until I listened to The Reigning Sound and The Sonics that I thought of playing in a classic r&b-inspired rock and roll band.

What artists or genres influence Alabama Shakes?

Otis Redding, Daptone Records, The White Stripes, Chuck Berry, rock and roll, classic country, classic R&B. We are always finding new influences and all of us have different tastes in music. For our last tour we played Die Antwoord and Bobby Charles in the van more than anything else.

Have any of you been in other bands or groups, or are there any side projects right now?

We all played in other bands before Alabama Shakes. No side projects at the moment.

You guys are from Athens, Alabama. Tell us about growing up there; is there a large music community or scene in Athens?

There are lots of great musicians in Athens but not many venues in the area to play original music. You have to be creative in North Alabama. I love it here, but the music scene is strange. Bars typically want bands to play four hour long sets of covers, and a lot of great bands get sucked into that machine. We started out that way, but we put our foot down and decided that it was more rewarding to make less money and play our own music for people who cared.

How did Alabama Shakes come about and form? Did you know each other beforehand?

We all knew each other from living in the same town. Musicians around here keep an eye on one another.

Your first full-length debut album Boys & Girls is due out via ATO Records in April. Will you include the songs from your EP on it or will it contain all new material?

Songs from the EP will be included, but there will be a lot of great new material.

While many people know of the songs on your EP, is there any song off the new album that you guys are really excited to share and release?

I’m excited to release all of the songs on the new album. There’s a great track called “Heartbreaker” that really makes the hairs on my arms stand up.

With as much press and publicity you guys have received this year, is there a lot of pressure to make songs that are in line with what people expect and are similar to your EP?

I don’t feel that pressure. Our EP gives people a good idea of where we stand as a band. We never set out to be a “soul revival” band. People tend to label us that way or compare Britt to Janis Joplin. Nothing against Janis but she is not an influence of ours. If people want us to be soul revivalists then they may be surprised at the record as a whole, but we only write songs we love.

Word of mouth is a powerful tool and has helped Alabama Shakes immensely in 2011. What bands are you guys excited about or listening to right now that you would like to share?

Fly Golden Eagle from Nashville. Doc Dailey and Magnolia Devil from the Shoals. Lee Baines III and The Glory Fires. Sam Doores and Tumbleweeds. Hurray for the Riff Raff.

WNRN was your guys’ first on-air interview. What other “firsts” happened for you this year that you all are excited about?

First tour in a van, completed our first full-length, first time in NYC and many other cities, Zac flew for the first time, lots of firsts!

What is everyone’s individual best memory or moment of 2011?

Patterson Hood [Drive-By Truckers] in the crowd for our show at Pegasus Records in Florence, AL.

Many view Alabama Shakes as one of the bands that are bringing the new Soul revival back into modern music. What are some other soulful bands or artists that you guys listen to?

We are huge fans of Lee Fields, Sharon Jones and The Dap Kings, Charles Bradley, all of the Daptone stuff, Raphael Saadiq, The Reigning Sound, the list goes on.

If you could ask any artist or band to do a collaboration with Alabama Shakes, who would you guys ask?

My Morning Jacket

If you could choose some other band to cover one of your songs, what band/artist and what song(s) would you choose?

Jonny Corndawg

With what you know now versus what you knew when you guys first started out, what advice do you have for aspiring and newer musicians? (how to pick a manager, how to promote yourself, picking a label, deciding when to tour, etc)

Trust your gut, be bold and don’t be afraid to pass out demos or email your favorite bands to try and get your music heard.

Alabama Shakes will be at The Crocodile tonight for their Seattle debut with a sold-out show.

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