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After capturing the hearts of music lovers worldwide with their out-of-the-blue(s) debut album, return with a sophomore LP that proves Alabama Shakes is one of the greatest rock bands on the planet. MAGNET asked Drive-By Truckers frontman Patterson Hood to interview the group for us.
A few years ago, Alabama Shakes seemed to come from the middle of nowhere. A photo and mp3 of a mysterious band doing a song in its practice space first appeared on the Aquarium Drunkard website and soon went viral, being passed around via internet word of mouth. Suddenly, everybody was talking about this band.
They weren’t really from nowhere. They actually came from a small town in northern Alabama. Athens is a small community of farms and fast-food joints roughly halfway between Birmingham and Nashville, where I-65 intersects with Highway 72. I grew up about 40 miles from there, and was lucky enough to catch them playing in a small record store in my hometown just weeks before the explosion of attention they received. It was love at first sight.
It was easy for people who didn’t know better to be cynical. It all seemed to happen so fast. They appeared to be suspiciously fully-formed, but actually the band’s origins date back to lead singer/guitarist Brittany Howard meeting bassist Zac Cockrell in high school. They had spent several years rehearsing in their small practice space in Athens, where they built their band with guitarist Heath Fogg and drummer Steve Johnson, working up original songs that they recorded and funded themselves by playing covers in regional dive bars. They worked day jobs that included being a postal carrier and a watchman for a nuclear power plant. Those self-funded recordings became the majority of their debut album, Boys & Girls, which earned them gold certification and a spot on Saturday Night Live. It was the kind of whirlwind of excitement that could easily destroy less strong-willed and thoughtful people.
I’ve watched them work and grow, driven by an instinct that, to outsiders, might seem counterintuitive; but actually, that very instinct and drive might be their greatest strength. They turned down bigger money record deals to sign with a label that they felt “got” them and enabled them to develop at a rate that felt right. When it came time to record a follow-up, they took their sweet time and crafted an album of songs so mature and so far advanced from their debut that it sounds more like a third or fourth album than a sophomore effort.
That album is Sound & Color, and it is a magnificent collection of songs that, while true to their roots and origins, also points straight ahead in surprising ways. In it, you can tell where they came from, yet it’s totally contemporary and facing forward.
I had the privilege of talking to Brittany and Zac about where they came from and where they are headed. They have been through so much in the last four years since I first saw them at Pegasus Records in 2011, yet they still seem like the same down-home and sweet folks who first blew me away that summer.
I think they might be one of the best rock ‘n’ roll bands in the world right now.
Patterson Hood: First of all, I just want to say congratulations. I am so proud of y’all for this record. I think it’s great; y’all knocked it out of the park. I mean, knocked it out of the town. It’s just a fantastic record, and I’m just really blown away on every single level.
Brittany Howard: Wow, thanks a lot, Patterson. That means a lot coming from you.
Hood: I’m sure there’s at least the perception that there’s a whole lot of pressure on y’all this time because the last record was such a success. But I really love what you all did with that. You didn’t make what I think outsiders would view as the most obvious follow-up. I’ve been telling people that, instead of making their second record, they went ahead and made their third or fourth record. It’s an extremely mature record—really, I’m so blown away.
Howard: Wow, thank you.
Zac Cockrell: That’s a really cool compliment. I appreciate that.
Hood: When I was seeing y’all play when you were touring behind Boys & Girls, y’all pulled out several new, unreleased songs you were working on, and they were always really fantastic songs. And that fits into my theory of y’all skipping your second record because none of those songs are on this record. It’s like, when it came time to actually make the record, you all just reinvented yourselves, and reinvented the record you were thinking about, and made this very cohesive statement of a record. That was my interpretation as an outsider … I’m a very close outsider. Does that make sense to you all?
Howard: Yeah, those songs that we were playing when we were touring for Boys & Girls—when it came time to record this record, we tried them. We recorded them and listened to them, and it was some tough decisions. There’s a song we played called “Joe,” and we all really loved that song and recorded it for this record—actually two different versions for this record. But then, when we kept moving and kept writing and kept coming back for sessions, we just moved on. And it’s not that we didn’t like the song, but it didn’t have a place anymore. And so, I’m sure we’ll do something with those songs and record them later.
Hood: Well I certainly hope so. Are we referring to the one I know as “Gospel Song”?
Howard: Yeah, that’s it. The name of it is “Joe.”
Hood: That was such a stunning song, and it would be a shame for it not to be recorded. But, at the same time, I think y’all made the right choice. It would have been an outlier on this record, and it might have detracted from the rest of the record in a way that might not have served either quite as well. And I really respect that. It takes a lot of guts to leave a song off a record—a great song. And it’s a proven great song. And there’s a story that I’ve been telling about y’all from the night I opened for you in Munich, Germany—you pulled that song out, and of course it’s an unreleased song and no one had ever heard it, and I was standing out by the soundboard watching the crowd react to it. And I was looking around, and there was a room full of Germans with tears on their faces. It was one of the most moving, powerful things I’ve ever experienced at a concert. It was Springsteen-ian, is the word that I used for it. It was a beautiful thing; it’s obviously a beautiful, powerful song. And it’s always good to have one of those tucked up your sleeves, because you never know when you might need it. But for this record, I think this record needed to be exactly the record you made. I love the vibe of it, the flow of it, the story it tells—even if it’s not a specific, literal story. It implies a story to me, and I’m just so taken with that.
Howard: Thank you. You know, we recorded that song (“Joe”) like three times. It’ll be released, I can tell you that definitely, for sure. Of the songs that we loved, it just wasn’t as cohesive as we thought, and it was a tough decision.
Cockrell: We all kept sort of pushing for it to be on, but in the end, it didn’t make a whole lot of sense with this record. But it’s definitely one that we want to do something with. We’re all very proud of that song—but for whatever reason, that song, it just sort of stuck out as an oddball on this record.
Hood: I really liked Blake Mills’ production. It’s really such a killer-sounding record. Any comments on that?
Cockrell: I think with Blake, we were mainly just really interested in the—there’s always something interesting going on, even if it takes you a little while to notice it. I think that our main reasoning for getting him was—just listening to his first record, and for me that record never gets old, I’m still hearing new things and I’ve listened to it so many times. And you know a lot of that’s in the songwriting, too, but there’s also things in his production. It’s just a lot of detail, and we were kind of interested in having something like that. And he really brought it to our record, I think.
Howard: To Blake, it’s important which sound you choose, and why, and when, and where you’re at. And we’re into that, too. It’s cool to work with someone who’s not focused on like, “Is this gonna be a big record?” Not that I’m saying anybody else we would have worked with would have said that, but you know. There’s a lot of perceived pressure that I don’t think was actually there. The only time I ever felt pressure was when I would wait to the last minute to write songs—which, for whatever reason, that’s how I work. That’s the only time I ever felt pressure. There was frustration, but there was frustration because the things we were playing were challenging. The great thing about Blake was that he knew we could do it. He knew we were capable. Some things took a while because we were catching up to ourselves. And then other things were very easy.