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

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Music -

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.”

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