With their blended appearance and a sound steeped in soul yet born of the millennial rock scene, Alabama Shakes could symbolize a post-racial dream that, as the recent U.S. election shows, remains a work in progress.
As with the civil rights movement, the band’s approach, says formidable singer-songwriter Brittany Howard, draws on race-mixing experiments that began in the mid 20th century.
“The biggest influence on the band was the session players of the 1960s,” Howard says via telephone. “We were really inspired by the Wrecking Crew, the MGs. …We’d just learn about how the same players played on all these records. The Funk Brothers — they played on Stax, Motown — it’s the same guys on the hits. But they’re not all black.”
Even white soul from the previous decade became a source of inspiration for Alabama Shakes’ 2012 breakout release, “Boys & Girls.”
“When Amy Winehouse started getting popular, I was definitely listening,” recalls guitarist Heath Fogg of the British singer. “I’d known of some of the Daptone label bands, and started connecting the dots. I was really interested in bands doing classic R&B-inspired music.”
Acclaim arrived rapidly for the incendiary “Hold On,” a track Rolling Stone magazine called best song of the year, sending “Boys & Girls” to the top spot on the Billboard chart. More importantly, it established Alabama Shakes as innovators of a contemporary but identifiably classic sound from the American South — one that appealed to both hipsters and their parents alike.
Close to a million in sales for “Boys & Girls” swept Howard, Fogg, bassist Zac Cockrell and drummer Steve Johnson away from their day jobs in Athens, Alabama, as postal worker, painter, nuclear plant worker and animal clinic employee.
Three years of heavy touring followed “Boys & Girls,” taking in major festivals Lollapalooza and Bonnaroo as well as a brief jaunt to Japan. It wasn’t until 2015 that the group’s second studio album, “Sound & Color,” appeared. By then Alabama Shakes’ approach had evolved considerably.
“We were able to afford a lot more in terms of time and finances,” Fogg explains in a mild southern accent. “It was the opportunity we’d been waiting for to explore in the studio.”
“Sound & Color” brims with subtle electronic effects and instrumental overdubs; Howard even busts out Led Zeppelin-inspired power chords on the track “Dunes.”
“There’s definitely a risk of going overboard,” Fogg says. “I’m proud of our record, but we were walking that line pretty tight. We don’t have a string section, just one guy, but it still beefed up our sound a lot. We had to remind ourselves to be true to ourselves and what we can do live on stage.”
The funky lead single, “Don’t Want To Fight,” garnered most attention, winning two Grammys for best rock song and best rock performance, and even entering Billboard’s Japan Hot 100. But the song’s retro vibe is hardly typical of the album’s atmospheric diversity.
The members of Alabama Shakes worried they might leave some fans behind with “Sound & Color.”
“We’re proud of the record we put out and what we’ve accomplished — it’s been unbelievable in a way,” Heath says with a note of incredulity at their transformation. “At the time we recorded it, we thought it might go another way because we thought maybe fans were expecting something we weren’t delivering.”
As much as Alabama Shakes look to the past for inspiration and present for a career they never dreamed would materialize, they also have their antenna pointed at the future.
“I can’t help but think one day I could have a daughter listening to this stuff,” Heath says. “And I want it to be something positive for her. You hear a lot of music — the new Kanye West — and he says a lot of things I couldn’t say if I had a daughter. That’s him and it’s a different art form. But I think about that sort of thing a lot with my music.”
Both Howard and Heath proclaim their normalcy, and they do tend to gush more like starry eyed rock fans than stars themselves.
“Meeting your heroes is the high part,” Howard says. “Booker T, Chuck White, Neil Young. … Now you’re part of their world, you meet them at festivals, we get to hang out with fellow musicians. Where we come from there weren’t many people who write music and now we’re surrounded by them.”
Heath notes he still lives in Athens, a town of 20,000, and enjoys “boring stuff” like fishing and golfing.
“We are just normal people popped into an abnormal situation,” he says. “People like to build up stories about us, but we’re just like anyone else. There are some artists out there who seem to live on a different plane. But we’re the epitome of, ‘If we can do this, you can too.’ ”
Alabama Shakes play Studio Coast in Koto-ku, Tokyo, on Dec. 12 (03-3444-6751); Zepp Nagoya on Dec. 13 (052-936-6041); Dojima River Forum in Osaka on Dec. 15 (06-6535-5569); Drum Logos in Fukuoka on Dec. 16 (092-771-9009); and Toyosu Pit in Koto-ku, Tokyo, on Dec. 18 (03-3444-6751). Shows start at 8 p.m. and cost ¥8,500 in advance. Tickets for the Tokyo shows are sold out. For more information, visit www.alabamashakes.com.
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