It’s not exactly a stretch to say the Alabama Shakes have come out of nowhere — it would, however, be incorrect.
After all, they hail from the town of Athens, Alabama (pop. 21,897), and, since forming in 2009, they’ve logged thousands of hours playing sweaty, soulful gigs throughout the Southeast — though Egan’s Bar in nearby Tuscaloosa remains their spiritual home. Since January 2011, they’ve been working on their debut album, paying for recording sessions themselves using money from their various day jobs (painting houses, delivering mail), and slowly but surely building a bit of buzz, namely on blogs like Aquarium Drunkard, which posted an MP3 of the band last summer and inadvertently got them a deal with ATO Records.
In November 2011, they finished that debut disc, and in March 2012, the Shakes tore through the South by Southwest Music Festival in Austin, Texas. On Tuesday, their journey finally came to a head with the release of Boys & Girls, a crackling, creaky collection of ringing, downright retro guitars, pealing organs and, of course, frontwoman Brittany Howard’s voluminous, velvety voice.
Not surprisingly — given the Shakes’ Southern roots and the laundry list of adjectives their music inspires — long-suffering rock critics have already embraced both the band and their sound, dubbing them everything from the genre’s next great saviors to the new kings and queens of retro soul.
But, as Howard explains, she prefers to call it one thing, and one thing only: “It’s rock and roll. Think about Chuck Berry … rock and roll. AC/DC, rock and roll. Little Richard. James Brown was doing some rock and roll. That’s what it is,” she told MTV News. “R&B and rock and roll go more hand in hand than I think a lot of people want to admit.”
MTV News caught up with the Shakes, MTV PUSH Artist of the Week, on Tuesday at New York’s Studio at Webster Hall before they took the stage for Live in NYC, MTV Hive’s concert series. Their performance will be available on-demand next week. Howard and bandmates Steve Johnson and Heath Fogg told us they are proud of everything that’s lead them to this point and that they did everything their way.
“We’d go up to Nashville once a month, at most, to make the album,” Fogg shared. “We’d get up there Friday night, work all day Saturday, head back home Saturday night … It was a long process.
“We’ve been wanting this record to come out for a long time,” he continued. “To get the opportunities we’ve gotten, we were all pretty shocked. We’d get taken out to dinner by all these big labels, and the whole time I kept thinking I’d have to pay for these meals, like, I’d stand up and kinda grab for my wallet, and they’d be like, ’No no no.’ ”
Johnson added: “When we were making [Boys & Girls], there were certain recordings where it felt like you were almost in the room with the band while they were being recorded. Just background voices, the stir of the room; it felt like there were other people in there, and we were all fans of that kind of stuff, so we decided to leave little things in.
“The songs have a feel to ’em: There’s kind of a sway of the rhythm, it picks up and slows down. We weren’t sitting there on a metronome, playing to a click track or something like that, and I think that was the overall goal: to make a good-sounding, good-feeling album. And if there was a mistake, but it didn’t mess with the groove of the song: leave it in.”
Of course, the Shakes are trying very hard to come to terms with their newfound fame, which includes a sold-out North American tour, dates in Europe and the U.K. and an opening slot for avowed-admirer Jack White on his solo trek. Mixed in with all of this is the very real struggle to remain attached to their roots, which are as far-reaching as they are humble. After all, they’re not a “retro soul” band, they’re a rock and roll band. One whose time has finally come.
“A lot of people listened to James Brown and Elvis Presley when I was growing up,” Howard explained. “We had a station called Solid Golden Oldies, and I would spend a lot of time with my grandmother, and that’s what we would listen to. We’d be in the kitchen cooking or cleaning, listening to Solid Golden Oldies, and she’d tell me about Dion and Elvis Presley, how her and her friends would go dance to Elvis records.
“I just grew up loving it and understanding it and just the sound and the honesty of the music was something I’ll never forget,” she explained. “And I ran into these guys, and they all get it too. But, we also listen to a lot of other stuff — it doesn’t stop there. That’s why we don’t say we’re retro soul, because I also love MMJ [My Morning Jacket], the White Stripes, Kings of Leon … I’m not stuck under a rock or anything. I don’t think any of us are.”