OXFORD TOWN – There was so much to say about the Alabama Shakes that there was no way that we were going to fit it all in Oxford Town this week (No. 972) — from the instant downloads of live tracks available when you pre-order the “Boys & Girls” CD to the bonus 7” album that includes the tracks “Heavy Chevy” and “Pocket Change/Mama” when you pre-order your vinyl copy to the band’s television debut on “Conan.”
Oh, and then there’s that lady out front, who Paste magazine’s Josh Jackson said, “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.”
Howard has the stage presence of a true veteran, and will hold every bit of your attention by belting out powerful and soulful lyrics, while handling an equally impressive spot on guitar.
This Athens, Ala.,-based band has a lot to offer and is rising quickly.
So quickly, that tonight will most likely be the last time Oxford sees them in an intimate venue like Proud Larry’s.
Don’t believe us, read what Drive-By Truckers frontman Patterson Hood had to say about them in the Feb. 2 issue of Rolling Stone. There’s no telling how big they will be.
And just in case you’re still not convinced with what you’ve read, take a look (and listen) to a clip of the band performing at South by Southwest earlier this month
We’re done holding on Oxford. It’s time to take in one of the hottest bands in the country.
And there’s more
Alabama Shakes guitarist Heath Fogg was nice enough to give Oxford Town close to 40 minutes of his time for a phone interview last week. Below, is the transcript from the interview where Fogg discusses the formation and rise of the band, his admiration of Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards and much more.
OT: Busy year for you guys. Seems like everything started out for you with that show in Nashville for Record Store Day.
HF: “That seems to be the catalyst for everything. It was shortly after that the blog Aquarium Drunkard contacted us and put us up online. That was the real shock wave right there when that happened. They heard about us through that gig in Nashville. Ever since then, that was back in the summer when Aquarium Drunkard hollered at us. It’s been busy, busy since then.”
OT: This wasn’t something you guys expected right? You recorded tracks mainly for yourself, right?
HF: “We wanted to put out a record and play shows. It was mainly just for us to hopefully get some better shows is why we were making a record, to maybe distribute it out. We planned on shopping it around to a few labels or something like that. We didn’t think it would be anything that we could quit our day jobs over.”
OT: Is that when the real turning point came? When you guys said, ‘alright, we can do this full-time and take off from our jobs?’
HF: “That was a big turning point. We got a booking agent and that was kind of what enabled us to quit our jobs. We saw the calendar and we saw all these gigs were confirmed and there’s no way that we could work full-time and do this. That was the green light. It was seeing the calendar, and knowing we had the shows and knowing we could make enough to at least scrape by and pay the bills. That’s all we needed.”
OT: You guys were having a hard time even getting shows in your hometown and then you start selling out venues in New York, Chicago, L.A., and don’t even have an album out yet.
HF: “It’s a struggle. I think a lot of bands would agree. Getting gigs, booking your own shows can be a big struggle and I think one of our problems, for the longest time, was that we were going about it the wrong way. We would just try to be our own booking agent and holler at venues and try to get gigs that way. We probably got a couple that way, but the best way was once we started making friends with other bands and supporting them as much as they supported us, and trading shows and opening up for each other, that was the best way we started getting shows. And that’s what allowed us to get out and play full sets of our original material instead of playing these cover songs at party bars and stuff like that.”
OT: How hard was it knowing you had good original material, but it’s kind of hard to get folks to latch on to knew stuff they don’t know or sing along with? How hard was that?
HF: “It’s hard to pull that off in those bars where they are expecting to hear cover songs. Some things that helped was that we had a lot of good friends who would come out to almost every show and they’d be right up front singing the words to our original. There was a little fire spreading gradually, locally, like that, but it was fun once we started partnering up with bands like Doc Dailey and Magnolia Devil, that’s a good band from the Shoals, that we buddied up with. They helped us out a lot. Their crowd kind of latched on to us as much as our crowd latched on to them. That makes it easier to play original music — when people are expecting it, when people know that they are going to a show to hear original music, rather than wanting to socialize and hear another Jimmy Buffett cover.”
OT: Another band that you latched on with was Drive-By Truckers, with them being from the Shoals area as well. Patterson (Hood) and Mike (Cooley) they’ve been through what you guys were going through. How was it partnering up with them?
HF: “It was a dream come true man. They’re heroes of mine, so for them to embrace us like they have it’s just a dream come true. That enabled us, Patterson heard of us through that Aquarium Drunkard blog, really it was a combination of the Nashville, show Aquarium Drunkard and Patterson that kind of us enabled is to go play music on a different level. Patterson set us up with the management that the Truckers have. We spoke with them and that’s who we ended up signing with. We had the booking agent and all that not long after that. Many, many thanks to the Drive-By Truckers. They’ve helped us out very much.”
OT: Patterson’s first time to see you guys was at a record store show in Florence. What was that like looking out in the crowd and seeing a guy like Patterson Hood, a guy I’m sure you followed throughout the years, taking in one of your shows and digging it?
HF:“I heard a rumor that he might be there, so I was kind of like looking for him. Then it was about the third song into the set I saw him out there. It was just overwhelming joy. I looked at Zac and he me and him both had seen Patterson and we just grinned. That was a good feeling. Then you get real nervous, too, because you don’t want to mess up.”
OT: Is nerves a problem now? You guys are playing a lot bigger shows. You guys just played South by Southwest and filmed for Austin City Limits. How are you guys handling that pressure?
HF: “I guess pretty well. Nerves are kind of unpredictable. Sometimes they kick in and sometimes they don’t. It’s hard to tell. I don’t think crowds growing makes our nerves worse. We just try to do our thing and we’re grateful people like it. Sometimes, nerves come in to play when cameras are in front of you and things like that. It seems like we do a lot of little video blogs and things like that for the Internet. It’s something about with any kind of camera in the room it’s a different ballgame.”
OT: How is it hitting the road so much? I caught you guys over at Blue Canoe in Tupelo in early December and talked with Brittany and she said that you guys had barely been out of the Southeast, and then you hit the west coast, east coast and have a two-week tour in Europe.
HF: “It’s been good. It’s something I’m very, very thankful for. I’m getting to see parts of the world and country that I never thought I would every really be able to get to see. Travelling is so expensive so to get to actually play music and travel, do two things that I’ve always loved, it’s a blessing. It’s hard too. Everybody says that, ‘the roads hard,’ but shit, listen to Bob Segar. It gets tough being away from home, two, three weeks at a time. I know that might sound real small to some people, but our drummer has kids, and we’ve all got girlfriends and things like that. It’s something to get adjusted to. Before we started touring we were just weekend warriors. We’d do as much as we could, but that was just about the extent of it, just playing on the weekends. We thought we were doing something big if we went two or three hours away. It’s different, a different world.”
OT: Is Steve the only one of you that has kids?
HF: “Yeah, he’s the only one that has kids.”
OT: Is anybody married in the band?
HF: “No, I don’t think anybody’s married unless they’ve snuck off and eloped or something.”
OT: You guys started recording “Boys & Girls” while you were still working full-time right?
HF: “We started recording this in January 2011. So that very first session, we had demoed at a couple different studios before we set on a studio in Nashville called the Bomb Shelter. That first session that was in January of 2011. We went up there, and the very first night we tracked five songs. We had been content on just releasing like four songs or something, just a little EP or demo, just to get our name out there. We decided at that point we needed to do a whole record if we could put something together this fast then we’ll just do a whole record. That was kind of just a magical session I guess, because we never had another session where we did five songs in one night. We steadily, over the course of a year, went in and recorded at least once a month or maybe once every two months just for a night or two. Slowly we assembled a record and had a bunch of tracks that didn’t go on the record, might go on the next one, and record as much as possible. Back in September, when the Truckers asked us to play with them we needed something to sell at those shows, because a lot of people had been requesting, ‘where’s your record?’ You don’t have any music for sale? We’d love to buy something.’ So we put four of the songs that we had worked on on a little EP and really hadn’t intended to sell like it did, but it did really well. We are thankful for that. We just kind of felt bad because we knew those songs were going on the record so we didn’t want to disappoint anybody when the full-length came out. We’re giving away like three songs free so I think that makes up for it. Hopefully.”
OT: Talk about how you guys got together. Didn’t Brittany, Zac and Steve cut a rough-demo and then Steve slipped it to you at a wedding?
HF: “Me and Steve had a mutual friend who was getting married. Steve let me hear that demo. The mutual friend that we have I was in a band with called, they were called Tuco’s Pistol, and we were just gigging around locally for the most part. We had some pretty steady venues that we could play at for the most part and we was like, well this band isn’t playing anywhere, let’s ask them to play some shows with us. They didn’t even have a name at that point and they asked me if I would help on guitar, so I joined in. We started practicing and decided to call the band The Shakes. We played that show in Decatur, Alabama and it went over really well so we just decided to continue. Writing songs was always something from the start and that’s something that I was really wanting to do and couldn’t find that outlet in other bands as much as I could with the Shakes. It was a blessing to be a part of that. The other band I was in, some of the guys were married and had kids, and everybody was working full-time. It’s kind of hard, so that band kind of took a break. We kind of split up, but it wasn’t personal. It just seemed that people were too busy to be part of the band. Fortunately, instead of being left aching to write songs and play music I was still involved with the Shakes by that time, so that was a blessing to be a part of that.”
OT: Was Tuco’s Pistol a cover band or did you guys have originals?
HF: “We had some originals, we were writing originals, but we never had anything recorded. It was more like a play at cover bars, more of a hobby kind of thing.”
OT: How long was you with Tucos’ Pistol?
HF: “Some of those guys are like my childhood best friends, and things like that, so it was kind of like in a round about way we’ve been playing together as long as we have learned to play guitar. We were probably like 19 or 20 when we started Tuco’s Pistol and we were probably like 26 when we called it quits. Like six years.”
OT: On songwriting, you said it was something that you’re finally able to do, do you guys just go in and bounce ideas off one another? Or is that something you do separately? How does that work?
HF: “It’s a little of both. It’s not really a formula. Each song’s written differently. Everyone is coming up with ideas on their own time and deciding on what they want to bring to the table or what not to bring. That’s something that we all love doing — just sitting in a room and bouncing ideas off one another, just letting all the ideas pour out as fast as they can and just sorting it out later, trying to structure a song out of this mess of ideas. That’s something we all seem to enjoy doing as a group together. I think we’re fortunate, in that sense, that we all found each other and share that love. We all seem to work well together. Everybody lets their egos go. Everybody is anxious to see what the next person can do with an idea someone else developed.”
OT: With songwriting, do you like doing something more personal or do you like doing character songs, say like Patterson, where he can take an event that happened and make a song out of it? Something like “The Wig He Made Her Wear.” What do you lean more towards?
HF: “I like both. I really do like story songs. When I was in Tuco’s a lot of the songs we were writing for that band were more story songs. That kind of fictional songs about, whether the character is about whoever singing is in character or just a song about a fictional character in general. For the Shakes, most of the songs are really personal, but they’re personal in a way that they’re almost vague. There’s room for interpretation. Brittany is really good about that. She can write some really strong lyrics. She likes to transcend a lot of different visuals.”
OT: Like with the track “Boys & Girls” it’s a heartbreaker, but it’s so damn good you just want to sing along with it. It’s a bad situation, but the song sounds so sweet.
HF: “She’s good at that. I think if she were to tell you, she likes for people to interpret her lyrics the way they want to. I think everybody in the band would tell you a different story about what each song is about because everyone takes it differently.”
OT: How long have you been playing and what are some of your influences growing up? I know you said you’re a big fan of Patterson, I’m assuming Mike and Jason (Isbell) as well.
HF: “I actually met Jason Isbell the other day. That was kind of surreal. It was at a little show at South by Southwest.”
OT: How was that?
HF: “It was cool. We went to see some buddies of ours from Portland, they’re called Quiet Life, and they opened up for Dawes. Jason Isbell was just there walking around in the crowd. I go the opportunity to meet him. He was pretty nice and it was a good to meet him.”
“I started playing guitar around 10 or 11, something like that. My dad had a guitar laying around and he would show me the licks and things like that. If there was song I wanted to learn he would show it to me. Then I made one of my good friends, who actually was in Tuco’s Pistol, Cory Sowell was his name, the one who’s wedding we were at, he played guitar too. We would sit down together and we both knew very little about guitar, but we both knew some of the same songs. We could each try to figure out how to play this AC/DC song. His older brother would show us stuff. It was a lot of classic rock, but it was also trying to learn Nirvana just as much as it was AC/DC or something like that. I’m still a big classic rock fan. I’m a huge, huge Rolling Stones fan. A lot of the things I do almost feels like ripping off Keith Richards too much. “
OT: I think everybody feels that way though man.
HF: “I think so. Everybody’s ripped him off at some point I guess. He’s ripped off plenty of people too I’m sure. Some of the people I’m influenced by now, still a big Keith Richards fan, but in high school you hear Jack White and the White Stripes and all that stuff, that really kind of resonates for anybody trying to play guitar interested in that type stuff. There’s a lot of garage rock guys like Greg Cartwright from the Reigning Sound, that’s kind of a big influence on me too. It’s just different. It’s kind of all over the map really. I seem to find a new favorite guitar player every other day.”
OT: Was the rest of the record at Bomb Shelter? I know you said you guys cut the five tracks there in January. Was the rest of it recorded there as well?
HF: “The whole record was recorded there. We had demoed some songs at a couple other studios but we re-recorded them all at Bomb Shelter to get that consistency sonically we were looking for. “
OT: What was signing for ATO like for you? Had to be a blessing once you finally get recognized and know someone’s behind you and they’re going to push this thing.
HF: “It’s a blessing for sure. It’s kind of scary in a sense because you don’t know how hard they’re going to push it and you sure don’t want people to get sick of hearing your songs on the radio. It feels good to be a part of that team. We’re big My Morning Jacket fans, fans of bands like that. I was a big Ben Kweller fan and he was on ATO for a while. To be on a label that you have heroes on that’s a special thing. I feel like they did those bands right. They gave those bands a lot of freedom. It seemed like they put out the records they wanted to put out rather than the records the label wanted them to put out. Like Truckers for instance too, you know nobody’s in their ear while they’re making a record. That’s what we were looking for.”
OT: Yeah, they’re (DBT) not the radio band. It’s hard to sing about drugs, whores and booze and get on the radio, and they do a great job with it too.
HF: “(Laughing) They make a dark song very catchy. They’re good at that.”
OT: I’ve heard Cooley referred to as “The Redneck Hemingway.” He doesn’t put out many songs each album, but when he does they’re golden.
HF: “I know. I wouldn’t want to cross him; he’d cut you down. He’s got a way with words that’s just so, so powerful.”
OT: What were you doing before the Shakes? I know you had Tuco’s Pistol, but you were in college or had just graduated college before joining the Shakes.
HF: “I had just graduated. I graduated from the University of Alabama in December of ’08 so I had been home a little while before the Shakes got together. I couldn’t get work. I had a degree in advertising and graphic design. I was doing some freelance stuff, but just painting houses is what I was doing to pay the bills at that time, working construction.”
OT: Brittany was working for postal service and Steve was working as a night watchman for a nuclear plant, right?
HF: “He worked at a nuclear plant. I can’t remember exactly his job title, but he was like a radiation detection expert. He had to wear the big fancy radioactive suit and he would, depending on where he needed to be, he would scan certain areas of the plant, or he would scan individuals for radiation to make sure there weren’t any lethal amounts of radiation.”
OT: You guys keep a distance from him after he came home for work?
HF: “(Laughing) He was glowing man. Lime green.”
OT: What was Zac doing?
HF: “He was working at a vet clinic as a vet technician doing all the dirty work.”
OT: You mentioned Jack White and looking up to him in high school, and now you guys are going out on tour with him in May. What does that mean to you guys to tour with him and take part in the Third Man Label?
HF: “To be a part of Third Man or anything Jack White has going on is something that is really special to us because we are all big fans of him and everything he does. We got that show at Third Man for SoundLand Music Festival. That was kind of a round about way, we were supposed to play another show at SoundLand and it got canceled, so the guys at Third Man heard our show got canceled and asked if we wanted to play there. Then they asked if they could record the show in hopes of releasing a 7-inch with two songs on it. That’s how that single came about of two live songs. That was just unreal, just a dream come true. We played the show and I think Brittany met Jack. I saw him, I don’t think I ever actually got a chance to talk to him. That was about the extent of our relationship with Third Man until our management reached out to them for this new Jack White tour. Since we already kind of had a relationship they reached out to see if they would be interested in having us open and they were. That’s just unreal, to get play the Ryman two nights opening up for Jack White that’s just unreal.”
OT: Have you ever caught a show there? It’s a great venue.
HF: “I’ve seen a few shows there, never played there though. That’s going to be great. So many people have come through there. I might have to scrape off a little bit of that stage and put it in my pocket. Everybody that has touched that stage is blessed it I think.”
OT: Talk about growing up in Athens. I had read that you guys knew each other before the band, but you weren’t tight before right?
HF: “There is a little bit of age difference. Brittany is the youngest, Zac is a year older than her and me and Steve are each three years older than Zac. Brittany, Zac and myself all went to the same high school so I knew them; it’s a small school, a small town. I knew who they were, but just kind of ran in different circles. Steve moved around. He was born in Athens and didn’t move back until he was about 17. After high school he was working at the local music store and then after that he was delivering mail through FedEx. I had met him through the music store, Brittany had met him through the music store and then Zac knew him because he delivered mail to the vet clinic that Zac was working at. Everybody kind of knew who each other were. If we were to see them out we would have been sociable, but we never really hung out. It wasn’t until I heard their demo and they asked if I’d help on guitar, once we started playing music together we knew we really had a lot in common. It was every week, multiple times a week we’re all getting together just making music.”
OT: You guys started out at Brittany’s playing, right?
HF:“She had a house she was living in in Athens, close to downtown Athens.”
OT: What was you first impression when you heard Brittany on the demo?
HF: “I was impressed. It was kind of funny. They had two songs on there. It was a funk song and a rockabilly song. We still play that rockabilly song, it’s called ‘Mama,’ It’s going to be on that 7-inch. I was more impressed with her guitar playing more than anything. She just kills me the way she plays guitar. She’s just a fireball. It’s fun to play with her and watch her, bounce ideas. She’s a rock ‘n’ roller through and through as soulful as she is she’s a true rock ‘n’ roller in the vein of Chuck Berry or Little Richard. I think she to into the same stuff they got into. There’s something in the water.”
OT: How big is Athens? Twenty-thousand people or so?
HF: “Yeah, give or take. It’s a big, small town I’d say. It’s small, but not tiny. There’s smaller.”
OT: What can fans expect out of the show at Larry’s, or how do you describe to someone who hasn’t seen or heard you guys?
HF: “It’s probably going to be sweaty, I know that much. I hope it is. The best shows are just drenched in sweat and it’s going to be loud. Loud and sweaty and hopefully everyone will leave with a smile.”
OT: Do you dig playing the smaller places compared to larger venues?
HF:“Yeah, absolutely. I love the small one’s. It feels like a family between the crowd and us. Those are the shows I like to go see too, where everybody is really reacting off each other. Those are the best shows seems like.”
OT: You got a few days off after the weekend, what are you going to do with your time off.
HF: “I don’t know. I guess go see my grandma. Cut a little grass, just normal stuff.”
OT: From South by Southwest to cutting grass for your grandma, normal stuff, huh?
HF: “(Laughing) Yeah.”
(March 29, 2012)