Shake, Rattle and Roll
Rapid commercial and critical success hasn't swayed the raw, down-to-earth approach of Southern rock quartet Alabama Shakes
By now, Alabama Shakes' origin story feels downright mythical. In 2009, two high school outcasts, singer/guitarist Brittany Howard and bassist Zac Cockrell, start writing rootsy, blues- and soul-inspired jams in her bedroom. Steve Johnson, who works at the only record store in Athens, Alabama, add a punk/metal flavor on drums. The three record a demo; upon hearing it, guitarist Heath Fogg, Athens' resident older rock guy, asks the trio to open for his band — and then insists on joining the fold.
In September 2011, a self-titled four-song EP captures the attention of influential music blog Aquarium Drunkard; practically overnight, NPR and other mainstream outlets are similarly singing its praises. The following month, a blistering CMJ Music Marathon performance in New York City cements the Shakes' status as newcomers of the year. Within weeks, the band goes from playing dive bars and honky-tonks to headlining at Bonnaroo and the Newport Folk Festival, as well as gracing hallowed musical grounds like Nashville's Ryman Auditorium.
Three Grammy nominations, a gold certification for 2012's full-length "Boys & Girls," and a whirlwind of nonstop TV appearances and international tour dates have ensued. Yet at their core, the four members of Alabama Shakes have barely changed, simply refining everything they've always done — colossal vocals from Howard, gritty Muscle Shoals-influenced swagger from Cockrell, Fogg and Johnson — into a remarkably effective rock 'n' roll machine. Fogg chatted with Folio Weekly about kicking back, helping out and always returning to Alabama.
Folio Weekly: It's been two years since Alabama Shakes became a literal overnight sensation. With time and distance to digest that, does it still feel surreal?
Heath Fogg: To me it does. Lately, we've just been trying to get some down time at home with friends and family. But we just recorded in a studio for a week solid, which a few years ago was something I would have killed to do. Everyday things like that are a blessing to me. Getting to do what I love for a living — something that doesn't even seem like work — still feels surreal.
F.W.: Does the new material you're working on represent any kind of major artistic departure for Alabama Shakes?
H.F.: I don't think we're intentionally trying to stray from what the last record sounded or felt like. But I feel like every song we write is a little different in its own way. Even "Boys & Girls" was all over the place, even though there was a common thread. We try to take each song as a new thing. Once we finish writing one, it feels like a new accomplishment. Maybe we just have a short attention span. But that's really what makes us Alabama Shakes. We're flying by the seat of our pants — just having fun, really.
F.W.: Do you think the band’s live performance has increased dramatically since 2011 when you started touring?
H.F.: I think we’ve tightened it up, both sonically and performance-wise. We play a lot of really quiet, soft songs, and we’ve been really lucky to get the folks who come to our shows screaming and shouting with one song, where the next might be whisper-quiet. That’s asking a lot of a crowd, but we’ve been fortunate that everyone seems to grasp that idea. At the beginning, when we were playing smaller clubs, we couldn’t play that quieter stuff. So we’re growing, learning as we go.
F.W.: For as much success as Alabama Shakes have achieved, you still give back locally, playing benefits like the Tuscaloosa Get Up II benefit and even enlisted University of Alabama art students to create poster art for the band. How important is that to you?
H.F.: It feels important to me, although I don't think I get to exercise that muscle as much as I'd like to. That's why I always appreciate guys like Beau Hicks, who organized the Tuscaloosa Get Up. We did the first one when those tornados hit Tuscaloosa last year, and this one will be for the tornadoes that hit Oklahoma last spring. Here in Tuscaloosa, we helped Habitat for Humanity rebuild a house for a family, so rather than giving a little bit to so many people that we couldn't really see how we helped, we gave a lot to one family.
F.W.: Do you think you all will always maintain that native pride for Alabama?
H.F.: Yeah. Getting to travel like we do, I realize anywhere you go is pretty similar to home. And home for us is where our friends and families are, which is Alabama. That's where I want to start my family.
F.W.: So you haven't gotten any flak back home in Athens for getting too big?
H.F.: Well, there are other people from Athens for all of us to be proud of: producer Kelvin Wooten, who's worked with Raphael Saadiq and Anthony Hamilton, San Diego Chargers quarterback Phillip Rivers … But the town has really embraced and supported us more than I ever thought they would. I thought we might just fly under the radar.