Listen Up / March 2012

A Conversation with Brittany Howard from The Alabama Shakes

by Todd Coder

Alabama Shakes

When I called Brittany Howard last month, she was taking dinner to her family in Athens, Ala. Two days before that, she was in Los Angeles with the Alabama Shakes as they made their television debut on Conan. What a difference a few days can make.  The Alabama Shakes know how quickly things can change.  Just months ago, they were unknown. Now they are one of the most talked-about groups in the country, with no signs of slowing down. Things like that don’t happen often in the music industry, and certainly not to a band from Athens, Ala. — until now.

TC: How did this all get started?  Give us a quick snapshot as to how you got here.

BH: It all started with that blog, Aquarium Drunkard and he (Justin Gage) just wrote me.  He had found us, and we’re not really quite sure how he found us, but he found out about us, and he wrote me an email.  He asked if he could reach out and put one of our songs on his blog.  I had never heard of it before, so I just thought he was just some guy who wanted to write about us.  I said sure, but I didn’t really understand that he had his own radio show and that everybody listens to it.

When that went up, that’s when everything happened. He was sharing us with a lot of different people in the industry. He shared it first with Patterson Hood (of the Drive-By Truckers).  He asked him if he had heard of us, and Patterson said no, but he really liked it.  The Truckers happened to have a show the same weekend as the W.C. Handy Festival, which we were playing at Pegasus record store, where we first shot our first videos.  Patterson was there. He was watching us and really liked us.  We all got along really well, right off the bat, and he asked if we would open some shows, and that was the day I met Kevin and Christine (the band’s managers from Red Light Management).  They asked if we needed help, and of course we did, because I didn’t know what was going on.  After Justin put that thing on his blog, we woke up the next day [and] literally, it was producers, publishers, management companies and labels.  I had an inbox full of people asking what kind of help we needed.  Somebody who used to work for Sony passed it along to someone in England, and then an English management company called me, and I was really confused. All we knew how to do was play and record, and that’s what we did.  Then all of a sudden, there was this business side that we didn’t quite understand.

TC: How did all of you get together initially and what made you start the band?

BH: Me and Zac (Cockrell) and Heath (Fogg) all went to the same high school.  Heath is four years older than me, so I didn’t know him well, but he had this amazing band.  I would go see his band and just loved them.  I remember hearing Heath play and thinking, “Man, that’s the kind of guitar player I want.”  But I knew, at the time, that I would never play with him.  He’s four years older than me and way better than us, so he didn’t have time for that.  So I gave up on Heath, but there was Zac.  He played bass guitar, and I was playing guitar then, so I just walked up to him and said, “Hey, do you want to start playing together?” And he said, “Sure.”  We all liked kind of the same music, and Zac used to come over to my house, and we’d just play and play.  We’d listen to different types of music and kind of emulate that music.  We wouldn’t copy the songs, but we would just try to write a song like it.  Then one day, we walked into Railroad Bazaar, which is our only music store here in Athens, and that’s where Steve (Johnson) was working, our drummer.  We got to know Steve, and we talked about music, and we showed him the kind of things we were doing.  He said, “I would love to be y’all’s drummer,” and we were like, “Awesome!”  So we took Steve in and we started playing, and it was great.  All of these songs that me and Zac were doing, now we could actually realize them and… hear them back without having to record them with separate drum parts that one of us would do.  We could actually play them in front of people, and it was really cool.  So Steve had this idea and said, “Let’s record a demo.”  So we went to this little studio in Decatur, Ala., and we did a couple songs.  A little while later, Steve had that (demo) CD at a wedding, and Heath was at that wedding.  Heath really liked it and said, “We should get you guys to open for us; open for my band.”  This was a really big deal for me because like I said, at the time, I really, really loved his band.  We only had something like seven days to get 30 minutes of material together, and we only had five minutes (of material at this point).  Heath called and said, “Do you want to do this?”  It was one of those situations where you either say yes, and it could open up all of these doors, or you say no and you keep doing what you’re doing.  So we said yes and Heath said, “I will help you out.  I play guitar and we can learn a bunch of songs.” We did all sorts of things and threw it together.  We all played together for the first time in May of 2009, in this little dinky bar, and everyone was really turning their heads.  They were kind of freaked out because they had never seen anything like us before.  It felt really, really great, and we found out that we all love writing music and we just stayed together.

TC: Let’s talk about the band’s name. Initially you were called The Shakes and then changed it to the Alabama Shakes.  Why?

BH: Well, we were The Shakes, but so was everybody else.  It was impossible to be seen.  You’re invisible.  It was like everyone was The Shakes, and people were getting confused.  There’s a Shakes from Athens, Ga., that we kept getting confused with. It was a booking agent’s nightmare.  We didn’t have rights to the name and it was kind of becoming a problem with all this work that we were doing, and all this touring we were doing. We were going to have to figure out a name.  We had always thought about being The Alabama Shakes, so it was totally natural.  It’s where we’re from, where we love.

TC: Your first performance in Birmingham was a sold-out show at the Bottletree.  How was that experience for you?

BH: It felt so good that we finally had a place to come play, close to home, where people would come out and wanted to hear us play, because before we couldn’t find a show.  It felt good to sell it out and people came to see us.  The venue was respectful.  It was great, and all the people there — we kind of knew a lot of those people.  They were in bands that we knew, and it was this kind of feeling, like, “Finally. We’re in here.”  It felt really great, actually.

TC: Obviously, this kind of success is uncommon, and for a band to be so popular so quickly, and to be one of the biggest “buzz bands” around, what do you think are some of the contributing factors?

BH: It’s really hard to answer that because I have no idea what’s going on (laughs).  To me, it’s just remarkable. I don’t know why it’s happening. A “buzz band”?  I’m not really sure what that means exactly.  Now “word of mouth band” — I would totally get that. That was how this whole thing got started in the first place.  People were just coming to our shows, like I said before. We didn’t have anything to offer anyone, and we were just playing shows so we could record an album, really for ourselves.  We go out and we play shows and we have fun onstage.  We really like meeting everyone, we always try to do the best we can and we always try to put on a great show.  I am not sure why it’s working out so well, but I’m really glad it is.

TC: So there are a ton of plans in the pipeline for 2012. What are you most looking forward to?

BH: I am really excited to go out and do Europe in April after the album is released.  We’re only going to do two weeks, and they’re very excited about us, which to me, trips me out.  How can they be so excited when we’ve never played there before?  But at the same time that makes me really, really excited.  They’re into it and they get it.  Not to say that there is a message, but they kind of get the whole energy from it.  When we get together and we play, it’s just a place to be positive and feel good for a little bit. You know what I mean?

Who to See and What to Hear

Thousands of people know what Brittany is talking about, and many more are learning every day.  But the energy at an Alabama Shakes show is more than just positive.  Last December, I caught their show at the Mercury Lounge in New York City, and when they took the stage, I felt and witnessed something special.  The environment that the band creates is comforting. It feels like “Alabama,” and it feels like home.

Todd Coder is the Director of Music Account Development at TicketBiscuit.  He is also the talent buyer at WorkPlay Theatre and for The Hangout Music Festival.

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