Alabama Shakes mix rock and soul

Alabama Shakes: Wait, what's that naked guy doing over there?
Pieter M. van Hattem / Contour by Getty Images

Alabama Shakes are souful, humble, and full-to-bursting with rock 'n' roll, punk rebel hearts, and a little bruised Southern soul. Led by singer Brittany Howard's howling, blues-soaked voice — which echoes Janis Joplin — the band's all-analog debut, Boys and Girls, is a glorious bit of American history, circa 1967 or so.

During the past year, the young band has grown far beyond playing AC/DC and Led Zeppelin covers in dive bars in Athens, Alabama. Of late, they've opened for fellow Alabamians Drive By Truckers and shared a stage with Jack White, and are now selling out venues across the country — including their upcoming show at First Avenue.

Lump Alabama Shakes in with the vast number of Americana-roots bands at your own peril. Bassist Zac Cockrell, drummer Steve Johnson, and guitarist Heath Fogg's contributions aren't so much "roots" as "garage soul."

"We just wanted to make a garage-rock record on analog gear," says Fogg, regarding Boys and Girls' sessions at Bomb Shelter Studios in Nashville. "Andrija Tokic, our engineer, he really understood where we were coming from, and it was a big draw for us to finally have a record recorded the way we wanted to."

Boys and Girls was released this past April, just five months after the band was signed to ATO Records. It was recorded over the course of a year — before anyone knew about Alabama Shakes and the boot-stomping live rep they've amassed ever since. How will the band fare now, with pressure closing in from all sides?

"We are kind of in an interesting position," says Fogg. "Because for both labels, we signed a one-off deal. After we're through with this round, we aren't obligated to sign again. I'm not saying we will or we won't, but we're not really focusing on that right now. We don't know what's going to happen."

Either way, the band have earned the right to take ample time in the studio for their next album, which they're anxious to begin recording. As for outside influence on that front, it's tempting to envision what Alabama Shakes would sound like if Jack White were in the producer's chair. This idea isn't so much of a stretch since the band recently recorded a set of singles for his label's Third Man Live series.

"[Jack White's] got his hand in so many different cookie jars in the music industry. To work with him could mean a number of things," Fogg admits. "To get to tour with him and get to know him a little bit has been great, but I don't think we want to produce with him. I think we're really trying to steer away from having any sort of big-name producer. Jack White is making things like Jack White sounds, and I don't think a band needs that, they need to sound like they sound. I think we're trying to steer away from having a producer at all."

Fogg takes long pauses before answering questions, and he speaks carefully, as though he is still processing how quickly things have changed for the band. Alabama Shakes are no different now than they were when they first started making music together in 2009, he insists, even if the venues have gotten grander and the audiences larger.

"Our dreams and expectations were just a lot smaller than what has happened," he notes. "From where we come from, we don't see a lot of bands have the opportunities that we have had, so it's unreal. It's surreal. There was a time when people were telling us how big we were, and I still don't think we're big. We don't think like that. We're still playing the way we always were."

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