Zac Cockrell / Alabama Shakes at Field Trip, Toronto
Photograph by Will McGuirk
The Alabama Shakes are the modern musical equivalent of the Southern Drawl. Sure, the Athens, Ala., four-piece’s career can be seen as a surge in popularity and a slow sustainable subsidence but it’s the music on their second album Sound & Color that gets the tail, holds on, inhales and then exhales in long slow sexy lingering moments; not just the track build but the hook and each and every note goes in, goes down, pauses slightly and then goes in deeper, goes down further and holds on to the sweet sweaty rollicking balls of it all.
“I think its something that me and Steve just have without trying that much,” says 27 year-old bassist Zac Cockrell. “We just naturally just rub against each other. But it works for some reason.”
The Steve he speaks off is the drummer Johnson. Ben Tanner is on keys for the tour, Heath Fogg is on guitar and the vocally ambidextrous Brittany Howard is up front.
The Alabama Shakes are front and centre of late. Their monster hit, Hold On, from their 2012 debut album Boys and Girls is both title and them. That’s their sound, the sound of drag, the sound of drawn-out, the sound of drawl, the sound of holding on and who can blame them. The rise has been sweet and swift; Grammy nods, late-nite TV, Rolling Stone, New York Times, The Guardian, festivals and sales. Nothing that four peripheral figures in their high school in a peripheral town in the America’s South would have ever dreamed off. Hold on.
“I sure never thought ever in my life I would ever be a touring musician,” says Cockrell. “I just liked doing it for fun. Who would have thought it would turn into this. It’s a crazy thing and I am proud to be doing it. I guess if I can do it there’s hope for a lot of people to be doing it.”
The pride is earned. It takes some doings to follow the muse even it that muse is Howard, a thrift shop siren with a soulful allure. They followed. They held on. Cockrell says he is takes pride in holding on and in his family too for the push solving the take it or leave it dilemma.
“I had to face a choice, should I quit my job and do this and maybe not make. My family was like we’ll give you money if you need it, just go out and do. I’m really proud of them for doing that.”
Chance taken and it’s been working since 2009, always doing it their way, but open to new ideas. Their sophomore album was released June 9 on Maple Music Records and in some ways it’s a departure, in some ways it’s an evolution, in some ways its sings to their roots. This is Alabama Shakes all shook up.
“I think a lot of that was just having the time to experiment with getting things we wanted to sound like. The first record was pretty quick, ‘it was boom, boom, this sounds pretty good lets use this,” says Cockrell. “This was more like, lets get those little details like that, that we really like, right and lets get them to happen on this record.”
This southern drawling devil is in the details, between sound and colour, barely discernable in the shadows of a languid summer night of an album. Whether on the Velvet Underground Palisades Park thrash-out of the appropriately titled “The Greatest” or the inappropriately titled disco-era Stones hiphunch of “Shoegaze” or the titular track, all xylephonic prelude, or the transcendental “Gemini” with its Erika Badu as Major Tom cosmology, the Alabama Shakes push, drag, push, drawl, and Howard’s vocals push just one more deeper. She is at the core of all that’s swirling around her and all is swirling around her. Alabama Shakes huddle around her and the overall feel of the album is of a band glad to be done with the glad-handing and back in the studio, making songs for an audience of five.
“We were definitely happy to be in there and happy to take the time we needed,” says Cockrell. “We didn’t have a record label, it was just a one record deal, so we went in thinking, lets just get this the way we wanted and we knew we had the time that we needed. It was a real happy time to know you had the freedom to do what you wanted. It took a little longer than we expected but we got a record that we are really happy with.”
It is a shiny happy record even at its most soulful as on “Give Me All Your Love”, “Future People” and “This Feeling” where Howard croons “I spent all this time trying to play nice. I fought my way here. See I’ve been having a me real hard time and its so nice to know I’m going to be alright. So I just kept dreaming, I just kept dreaming it wasn’t very hard. I spent all this time trying to figure out why nobody on my side. See I’ve been having a me real good time and its so nice to know I’m going to be alright.”
“This Feeling” is Superfly meets Madame Butterfly. It feels like Leonard Cohen’s unmade bed in the Chelsea Hotel and Howard is the satiny voice of the tale. She is Prince, Nina Simone and Etta James all at once and who wouldn’t want an unmade bed with all three. Sound And Color is This Feeling. The album is touch and taste, not sight and sonics. It is visceral.
“I think we wanted it to be physical,” says Cockrell. “Some of the songs are pretty aggressive. Yeah we like that. Shawn (Everett) our engineer brought out some of that out some of those aggressive sounds. It was cool. It was fun to hear our stuff that way. The first record was really raunchy but it wasn’t that aggressive. I like it, its cool.”
Everett and Blake Mills helmed the recording sessions at Nashville’s Sound Emporium with Mills helping out on tracks with Howard as well.
“It was a lot of help to have Blake in the studio. He was a great motivator. He got our gears turning pretty quick. A lot of the ideas we had going into there but he jut helped. At time we’d be not sure if that was the take but he was like no that’s definitely the one to keep. He has a good ear for that and he was good for minimal support. It was good to have him around,” says Cockrell.
Rather than just reproduce success the Alabama Shakes chose to get good people around and like they have always done is just hit record and play like no one’s listening. Its how they worked it in the past and he says its something for others to consider says Cockrell. The tools are accessible; just add desire and practise.
“I think it’s easy to make it yourself now. There’s really no excuse,” he says. “If you can get your hands on a computer you can record stuff. We did that a lot. It sounded pretty bad but we just really enjoyed coming up with ideas and hearing them played back. Even if it sounded terrible.”
The Alabama Shakes are a long way from terrible. They are a chart topping band of high school friends who know more about each other than ever before and still can huddle, close out the world and be in the moment, holding on, lingering on a note, just that little bit longer, just that ever so sweet bit longer.