Movers and shakers
With a cracking debut album and explosive live performances, Alabama Shakes are causing quite a stir. It beats sorting mail at the post office, Brittany Howard tells Tony Clayton-lea
AS BEFITS A WOMAN who once worked in the US postal service, Alabama Shakes’ frontwoman, Brittany Howard, knows how to deliver. She does the emotive, volcano-erupting, soul-quivering, finger-snapping singer shtick like very few others.
It all started in a high school psychology class in Athens, Alabama. Howard noticed a guy who wore cool T-shirts with obscure band names on them. Bass player Zac Cockrell had, for his part, already noticed the initially shy Howard, who, after conversational icebreakers, turned out to be an assertive, confident type to whom he was compulsively attracted.
Within a matter of weeks – following a series of after-school song-writing sessions on the floor of Howard’s home – which is situated too close to Athens’s railway system for comfort – the pair concluded that there was only one thing to do: form a band, call that band The Shakes, and start looking for two more members. Cue a quick visit to the town’s only music store, where drummer Steve Johnson worked. This was followed some time later by a flagrant piece of poaching when guitarist Heath Fogg left his own band for life in the now renamed Alabama Shakes.
The majority of bands go through this stuff: the sitting around, the hanging about, the writing and dispensing of songs, the tiptoeing around each other until the time comes when actually stepping on each other’s toes is no longer a problem. And then, on Record Store Day, in Athens – in the backyard of Groove: New & Used Vinyl/cds – the band played to a crowd of no more than 20 people. It happened, however, that in the audience, chugging a beer and chowing down on a burger, was a guy called Seth Riddle. Riddle had once been employed by Rough Trade, but was now general manager of a small label called Serpents & Snakes – which just happened to be owned by a big band called Kings of Leon. So far, so fantastic? Yep, but wait – there’s more . . .
At this point – just over a year ago – Ala- bama Shakes had no Facebook page, no website, no blogging experience, no onlinenothing. What they did have was a four-track EP, which the band cautiously put up on music fan/community website Reverbnation. Riddle promptly passed on the link for the latter site to Aquarium Drunkard music blog author Justin Cage, who contacted Howard, requesting the release of an EP track that he could share. Result? Batten down the hatches. “I think things have gone off for us just fine,” says Howard. “We know that often things take off for some bands way too fast, but for us it’s exactly the way we want it. It’s actually very exciting.”
Even more exciting than your former job? “Oh, yeah. I used to be, you know, just sorting through mail. That’s as interesting or as boring as you want it to be. I was doing it for about seven months before everything happened for the band. Leaving that job was a liberating experience, I have to say. I’m now happy to wake up every day knowing that I don’t have to sort envelope after envelope, package after package. I wasn’t happy doing it, but it paid okay... I was going to get me a little house.”
Plans for a settled life will have to wait, says Howard, who admits that she and Zac had no major ambitions when they started off writing songs. “We were just bored hanging around, having nothing to do. We just got together at my house and started to write songs, and fairly quickly realized that playing music would be a good thing. Looks like we were right.”
Not that she hadn’t been writing songs by herself for ages. “For years. So it just seemed natural to me to sing the ones myself and Zac were writing,” she explains. “For sure, we started off doing covers – most bands do, don’t they? – but then we decided pretty quickly to ditch them and concentrate on originals. We made the right decision, because when we started playing our stuff the reaction from audiences was much stronger.”
Is it true that the band didn’t have a website or any other kind of online presence? If so, that’s odd in these online times of constantly plugged-in news feeds. “It just happened that way, to tell you the truth. We didn’t really have any expectations when we first started out, so we didn’t think that there was any need to get our name and our music out there. We were just getting together to play music twice a week, and that’s all there was to it as far as we were concerned.” Yet it’s way beyond that now, isn’t it? “Yes, it looks like it.” Howard says this more with relief than regret.
“God, we were all astonished and overwhelmed that first day we saw the response to our music on the Aquarium Drunkard blog and then the subsequent interest! At the same time we didn’t understand the concept of publishers, management companies. We knew at that point we would have to tread very carefully in order to protect what we were doing. Obviously, we’re far more familiar with the music industry now, and for us that’s a good thing. There’s now a structure around what we do, which will enable us to carry on for the foreseeable future.”
Ah, yes, the future. It’s looking bright, isn’t it? “We really think,” says Howard with a blend of understatement and optimism, “that this is the beginning of something.”