Alabama Shakes: 2011 New Band of the Year

Music Features Alabama Shakes
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Hometown: Athens, Ala.
Members: Brittany Howard, Heath Fogg, Zac Cockrell, Steve Johnson
Album: Alabama Shakes EP
For fans of: Janis Joplin, Sharon Jones, Led Zeppelin, Otis Redding

To call the ascent of The Alabama Shakes meteoric might be a little hyberbolic, so let’s just stick to the facts: Two months ago, they set CMJ abuzz, their name on the lips of seemingly every journalist, publicist and all-around industry type in search of the “next big thing” at the festival. Now, despite having only a four-track EP to their name, the Athens, Ala. group’s song “You Ain’t Alone” can be heard in a Zale’s holiday jewelry commercial. They recently signed to ATO Records. On Feb. 22, they’ll cross the pond and make their London debut. The show is already sold out.

In short, it’s a lot for a band whose members held day jobs as recently as a week before I caught up with them on the phone.

“It’s been kind of like a dream, because everything’s happened so fast,” frontwoman Brittany Howard says. “It’s not like you have time to assess what’s going on around you.”

“I still don’t fully comprehend that I’m doing this as a career now,” drummer Steve Johnson adds, laughing. “I just quit my job recently, and I feel unemployed. People ask me what I do, and I feel embarrassed to tell them I’m unemployed.”

They’re certainly new to the scene, but give the Alabama Shakes EP a listen or two, and you’ll be convinced that Howard, Johnson, Heath Fogg and Zac Cockrell have been doing this for years—decades even. As our own Josh Jackson wrote when we named them one of our favorite live acts of 2011, “At some point, God decided to take the voices of Janis Joplin, Robert Plant and Tina Turner and roll them all up into the body of Brittany Howard. She also happens to front a band that sounds like it just sprouted fully formed from the clay of Muscle Shoals.”

Don’t be fooled, though. In actuality, they sprang up from the other Athens music scene—the sparse one in Alabama, not the thriving one in Georgia. And Howard shies away from the comparisons to older artists. The Alabama Shakes have, in fact, been playing together for years—but the material probably isn’t what you’d expect.

“Me and Brittany knew each other,” Johnson explains. “We were both in little punk bands when we were in high school. … She had a little emo band, and I had a little emo band, just a little punk band that played in a garage together when we were all 17 and you were—how old were you?”

“Thirteen,” Howard responds. “I was 13. We all went to the same high school, and me and Zac started off playing first, and Steve worked at the music store in town in Athens, Ala. So we kind of knew everybody. Heath our guitar player was in one of the best bands in our school, so we all knew who he was, and one day he needed a band to open up for him. He knew that we had been playing, and he reached out to us and reached out to Steve and put this thing together so that we could open for his band, which, for me at least, was unreal. We just did like a bunch of old soul covers and stuff like that and did like a 30-minute set and thought that was going to be it.”

They all shared a reverence for the down-home soul of years past, but ultimately, The Shakes were born out of a need to create new music, pooling together a slew of influences.

“The thing about all of us is all of our tastes are really different, so when we came together, it’s like we came together out of necessity because it was like, ‘Well, here are the only musicians in town that want to write,’” Howard says. “So we had to find a way to kind of work together. I mean, it worked out obviously, and the only thing we had in common was that we all listened to this kind of music, we all shared this music. And it’s not like we’re out to do any kind of retro soul thing, but that seems to be what everyone thinks.”

Johnson cuts in: “We’re into so much more than just that. That’s just what we’re on for right now.”

“Yeah, everything evolves all the time,” Howard agrees. “When we put this CD out, everybody’s gonna realize.”

That CD—the band’s full-length debut—has a tentative April 2012 release date and is likely being recorded as you read this. According to Johnson and Howard, the goal is to capture the feel and energy of The Alabama Shakes’ live shows.

“We’ve got some songs that are a whole lot different than others, and well, I guess what we’re going for here is to make sure people know we’re not just a retro soul band and we do play rock ’n’ roll music,” Howard says. “The way we play songs live is all in ascending order. It starts off in one place, and by the end of the show, it’s a completely different type of feeling. And I think that’s what we’re trying to do on the album. We’re trying to make it exciting, and everything we put into it, we want to keep it natural, but we also put a lot of thought into it.”

“Natural” seems to be the way to go for a band whose members are so at ease with one another on stage that they once penned a track (“Hold On,” the Alabama Shakes EP’s opener) live in the middle of a gig.

“We were just in between songs, and a string broke, or somebody was tuning their guitar, and we were just messing around, but we just started playing a groove and Brittany just started making up words,” Johnson explains. “And it felt good.”

In January, the Alabama Shakes will tour the West Coast before heading over to England the following month. When they return to the States in the spring, they’ll put the finishing touches on their record—and hopefully find some time to get some much-needed rest.

“We’re so tired right now,” Johnson laughs. “The rest of the band’s like, ‘Oh, c’mon, let’s go out and shop and see the sights,’ and that sounds cool, but man, I’m tired.”

“We’re Grandma and Grandpa,” Howard chimes in.

It seems, given their level of exposure and their international fanbase—not to mention the talent they’ve got to back up all the buzz—that The Alabama Shakes are poised for world domination in 2012. But first, maybe a nap.

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