The Boys and Girl from Alabama who brought back R&B
The story of the Alabama Shakes, the little band from Alabama that took over the world, is the kind of classic rock and roll story that gives one hope for the future.
The group was formed by singer Brittany Howard and bassist Zac Cockrell, classmates at East Limestone High School near Athens, Alabama. They soon took on drummer Steve Johnson, who worked at the local record store, and began assembling a set list of covers by James Brown, Otis Redding, and AC/DC as well as a few originals to play at parties.
Local guitarist Heath Fogg, who had been actively playing in other bands around town (including his own), joined up after hearing the trio's demo. After only a handful of shows (originally billed as The Shakes and then the Alabama Shakes) and a homemade EP, their world exploded. NPR and the New York Times hailed their EP and live performance after the group debuted at the CMJ festival in New York. Last year, Jack White invited the band to open his first solo tour. White's label Third Man Records also released a vinyl 45 featuring "Hold On," surely one of the best singles of the best decade. In the spring of 2013, the quartet performed with Steve Cropper and other Stax alumni at the White House.
For the last year, the Alabama Shakes have been touring the world to support their debut album, Boys and Girls, which features an original blend of classic rhythm and blues grooves, rock and roll, and gospel. Their live shows are explosive and inspiring and their on-stage camaraderie is palpable.
We've been fans from the beginning as the Alabama Shakes' guitarist, Heath Fogg, is rarely seen on stage without his Epiphone Sheraton-II. Epiphone.com spoke with Heath from his home in Alabama.
Thanks for speaking with Epiphone.com, Heath. It's rare to find you at home these days, right?
Yeah, we're just at home today. We leave Wednesday for a three-day run.
It seems like the Sheraton-II has been your main guitar over the past couple of years.
Yeah, that's the main guitar I play usually. I bought that guitar on ebay about 10 years ago. I had seen Nick from the Strokes. He played an Epiphone and I thought it was cool and I really was trying to find one like he plays. But I found the Sheraton-II and I thought: you know what? I'll try it. And I fell in love with it.
A semi-hollow archtop is actually a great guitar for R&B. Many of the session players at American Studios in Memphis and Muscle Shoals used them.
Right. That's what I like most about that guitar is that it's the most versatile guitar I've ever played and for what I do with this band. I like Teles too, which is a classic R&B sound and sometimes I play them live. But I don't like switching guitars live. The less I have going on the better. I get confused easily--too many variables for a mistake. I feel like I can get so many sounds out of my Epiphone. And with the amp I play--I play an Ampeg Gemini 1 from the mid to late 60s--it's just so dynamic and versatile. I can get those thin Tele sounds and then I can get it thicker and warmer.
We just cut a song for the soundtrack of 12 Years A Slave and we did this jazz song--a Max Roach song--called "Driva Man." I played the same guitar and the same amp on that. So you can warm it up to play more mellow jazz stuff on it. Not that I consider myself a jazz player but with that guitar, you're able to do that.
What was your style before you joined the Alabama Shakes--what kind of music were you playing?
Before I joined the Shakes I was playing in this band and we would try to write our own songs but we didn't have much luck doing that as a group. But we would play like... Glam Rock covers--that's what we loved; David Bowie, T-Rex, KISS, AC/DC--I don't consider them glam rock! But we would play a lot of that stuff.
But I was playing the Sheraton-II back then, too. I've had it for ten years or something like that. I was about 19 and we were playing these bars where you had to be 21 to get in. And I was playing a Marshall at the time so I would just go in with a Tube Screamer and my Epiphone and that was all I needed. Like a Mick Ronson sound or something like that.
What were you listen to when you started learning guitar?
Classic rock mainly. My Dad played guitar so he would show me stuff. I think the first song he ever showed me was "Cat Scratch Fever"--I mean, that was just like a pretty simple blues thing really. I didn't know that at the time but now I do. I was playing Classic Rock stuff on the radio because that's what I liked listening to. And then I would get my Dad to show me a song. I think this was a reason why I started playing music more and really got a love for it. I just had friends who did too. We would get together and play when we were like 10 years old. We would get together on Saturdays and play AC/DC songs. My buddy Cory had an older brother named Pat. He would kind of make us be his backing band. He would wanna play AC/DC--they were always kind of big for me. We had a group with bass and drums and rhythm guitar. That's just kind of how I started falling in love with it.
Now that you're playing every day, what have you been listening to for inspiration?
I think anybody who is playing guitar is always learning. I play along with records. And now it's so easy to get just get on YouTube and watch an instructional video to learn any song you can think of. And sometimes it's the guitar player who wrote the song showing you. And I do that a lot--I love doing it. It's a hobby of mine.
What's weird though is trying new things out in the public's eye. I think: well, should I try that out or not, you know? Usually with the songs from the last album, I try to play them as true to the recordings as possible. I don't like using a lot of effects and trying new things out. But, when we're recording in the studio, I always try new things. I think that anybody that's playing guitar is always trying new stuff or taking stuff away. It just seems like a never-ending process for me.
In England, for instance, there has always been a strong audience for classic American R&B and rock and roll. Do you notice any difference between how American audiences and UK or European audiences react to your shows?
I think it changes night to night but I don't think it's a matter of countries or regions that matters. I think it's a matter of venues. If we're playing a theater--that's our venue. We have more freedom to do what we want and present the show as we envision it. We don't really stray too far from the songs. We don't improvise that much. But we might try out new stuff--stuff that we wouldn't try out at a festival show. Festival slots, which we play a lot of, we're only on for 45 minutes or an hour or however long. The crowd usually just wants to hear the record. Even then, our record is so short that we have to play new stuff.
I think a lot of people know our live show and know we play some songs that we really love but also use to fill out the show. Perhaps songs that didn't make the record. The theater shows give us more freedom to do what we want. And like you said, I think the crowd is more appreciative of that in those situations.
Are you ready to work on a new record?
We've been writing but we've been taking it pretty slow. With the record deal we had for the last record, it was just a one-off. In North America it was put out on AGO and everywhere else it was out on Rough Trade. And both of those record labels are really great. And we were really lucky to get a one-off record deal with them. Now, we're just in downtime--it's like off-season--and we're just taking our time, writing slowly. But you know, I think we're going in the studio the second week of November for a few weeks. I got a feeling a lot of things will happen then.
Will you be recording in Nashville again?
Yeah, I think that's actually going to be in Nashville. Where we live in north Alabama is just so close to Nashville and Nashville just has so much to offer. And now we know a lot of people there and it just makes sense to go there.
Do you have a sense of direction for the new album?
Lately I've been into a lot of the Meters songs, stuff I've heard for a long time but have never dug into until recently. We're going into the studio and we're trying out a co-producer named Blake Mills. And I've been listening to him over the past couple of years a lot. Every time I see a new video of him on YouTube or hear him play, it always raises the bar. He's a pretty amazing guitar player that I think everyone can learn something from. I know I can.
Is there any one person in the band who sparks the songwriting? Do you write as a band?
I think all of us come up with ideas and complete songs--riffs, sketches. We all have recorders on our iPhones and I think we use those a lot. Everybody is bringing stuff to the table. I have songs that I have written that the 'Shakes will never play. That's just the way it is. I'm sure someday I'll do something with them. The songs that I write with the 'Shakes, it's always a group effort. We all have to play multiple roles.
The classic R&B artists that you covered in your early days tended to focus on singles rather than albums. Did you approach Boys and Girls that way--as a collection of individual songs?
Yeah, I think that if you think of our record in terms of singles, I think that theory fits into the way we're working now. Each song is an accomplishment. Each song is different. We're not the most profound songwriters and we're not the most productive. Each song we write is just a new and different experience it seems like. In that sense, we're not thinking in terms of albums. We just want each song to be a little different.