Alabama Shakes tap the roots of Southern blues-rock

by Shaun Curran

Special To The Japan Times

Here’s a question: what do Russell Crowe, Robert Plant, Jack White and David Byrne all have in common?

Incredible talent, fame and money is the obvious response, but the answer is that all four count themselves as part of the growing legion of Alabama Shakes fans, the Southern American four-piece who spent 2012 spreading their bourbon-soaked, radio-friendly blues-rock around the world to ever growing acclaim.

Drummer Steve Johnson can scarcely believe the year he’s had: from small-town buzz band to Grammy-nominated group, he and band mates Brittany Howard (vocals and guitar), Heath Fogg (guitar) and Zach Cockrell (bass) are currently following a well-worn path to acclaim trodden by fellow Southern rockers, Kings of Leon.

“Oh man,” he says from his Alabama home in an almost stereotypically measured brogue. “It has been crazy. We never expected it to get this far. And we keep on getting told that these famous people are coming to our shows. I haven’t met many of them, other than Jack White. I’m not going to crazy seek someone out and say, ‘You’re so cool, love your music,’ because they have had that all their life. But it is definitely a cool thing. The Grammy nominations, too. It has been crazy.”

But it isn’t just the glitterati that have fallen for Alabama Shakes. Signature tune “Hold On” was voted as the best song of 2012 by Rolling Stone magazine, while the debut album “Boys and Girls” was lauded everywhere as a modern twist on the traditional sound from the Southern states, namely soul, blues and rock ‘n’ roll.

“I guess that would be fairly accurate” he agrees. “We have lots of influences, Southern rock and what not, although we do try to like lots of other things as well. But I’d say what you said is accurate, we are all from the South and we have a lot of country and Southern rock influences.” They certainly don’t seem like a band that would suddenly up sticks and relocate to Berlin in search of a change in direction, I say.

“Haha, that is true. There are certain things we stay true to and certain things we don’t stray from. It’s not that we don’t have love and appreciation of different styles of music, but there are some things that just aren’t us. We just want to be ourselves.”

After meeting Howard, who Johnson cannot eulogize about enough (“she’s a powerhouse, amazing singer, great songwriter with great stage presence”) in the music store he was working in, Johnson was invited to jam with her and Cockrell as The Shakes. Their school friend, Fogg, heard a demo, asked to join and arranged their first gig, which consisted of a 35-minute set of two original songs and covers of, among others, Rage Against the Machine, James Brown and the Rolling Stones.

Via traditional word-of-mouth buzz, excessive touring (“whenever we went back to a town, the venue was three times as big”) and a little help from the blog community, Alabama Shakes have continued to grow ever since to the point that, even if they seem bemused by the situation, they are poised for a huge mainstream breakthrough.

That is down exclusively to the songs. “Hold On” became one of the anthems of 2012, its nomination for Best Rock Performance at the Grammy’s accounting for one of the band’s three nominations. Not that Johnson, who admits to being “burned out,” is overly keen to talk up its merits.

“It’s a good song, we are proud of it but we can do better,” he says firmly. “The singles that bands have aren’t always their best songs. There are numerous cases where a band I’m into put a single out, and it’s the weakest song on the whole album. That isn’t the case with “Hold On,” but it’s an easy song to get into and it had a pop radio hint going on, real easy to sing along to. But we can write better songs. We all think that. We got a bunch of songs wrote since the album came out. Some are really starting to take shape. And man, they are money in the bank.”

Japan may yet be treated to some of these new tracks when Alabama Shakes make their debut in the country next week, a trip Johnson, despite his fatigue, is excited about.

“I have never been, so I am really looking forward to it. I am definitely going to get me some sushi,” he says with a laugh. “We’re really anxious to see how the crowd react. In different parts of the world you get different reactions; in the South, they go buck wild crazy and don’t shut up. I’m curious if they’re going to be crazy or be quiet and attentive. That’s going to be interesting. But it’s going to be fun.”

Alabama Shakes play Liquidroom in Shibuya-ku, Tokyo, on Jan. 31 (7:30 p.m. start; ¥6,000 in advance; 03-3444-6751). For more info, visit www.alabamashakes.com.