It is an interesting time for the Alabama Shakes.
Riding high on the success of a nearly universally lauded debut full-length album, Boys & Girls, the group has undoubtedly earned a rep as one of the most exciting bands dwelling within the increasingly overrun world of roots and Americana music.
For most bands saddled with the success of Grammy nods and massive critical praise, the pressure might be unbearable. However, for the Alabama Shakes, a sophomore release was simply business as usual.
The band recently finished tracking the follow-up to Boys & Girls and will be performing in Miami this week. We here at Crossfade spoke with drummer Steve Johnson about what we might expect from the group's new album, , and authenticity versus originality.
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Crossfade: The band just completed tracking a new album, right?
Steve Johnson: Yeah, we just got home like, just a few days ago!
How was the experience this time around?
It was different. It was a lot different from the other times that we've been in the studio. Certain parts of the recording process were a little different; it was a rewarding experience this time. I think we put in a lot of work in getting some good sounds and everybody was pleased in the end. I think it was a little over our heads when we were in there doing it. But at the end of the day, we had a good final product.
How was the process different exactly?
Well, we were working with a producer this time, and some of the songs we didn't have completely finished. Before, we would kind of have a good idea of what the song was going to be like whenever we were done with it. In this case, it wasn't like that with all the songs. Some of them we would kind of jumble around for hours.
It was grueling, and by the end of the day, you're mentally exhausted. Physical labor, I kind of enjoy more, because there's no thinking involved in it. You just get out there and move stuff around or whatever. But this, you're just thinking about everything and taking it apart until it's nothing, you know? So that's one of the differences.
Without giving away too much, can you tell us what we can expect from the new album?
Umm ... Space odyssey! [Laughs] Futuristic, uh, laser beams!
So it's safe to say that it's a bit of a departure from Boys & Girls, then?
A little bit. Tonally and sonically, I think it's better. We just have a better grasp on what we're doing in the studio now. And as far as the songs go, I think a lot of people want to expect a Boys & Girls, Vol. II almost, more digging into Southern soul or something like that, and the songs that are coming out now, they're different. I feel like we've progressed in growing as songwriters, and while they're different in that respect, it's still not unbelievable that it's the same band. It still sounds like Alabama Shakes, just experimenting with other sounds.
I imagine there was a lot of pressure considering the acclaim Boys & Girls received. Did that pressure force the band to go after a different sound more aggressively than what might come naturally? Or was the writing and recording process as organic and natural as the first album?
I think it's kind of the opposite of what you just said: We haven't really felt a whole lot of pressure to really come up with any new material. Our management and everybody has said, "Take your time and let it naturally come out," and I feel like the songs have done just that. The writing process, anyways. The songs were there, and it's kind of like putting them into words when you go into the studio. You have these ideas, but it's kind of like, "How do we get these to make sense?"
I think that's just the process of growing up, you know? Doing this for a living now, you experiment with things. And as time goes by, you're always going to be finding new music and experiencing new things and having new things to write about. So if that's constant, your songs are always going to be changing as well. For the most part, you just take it day by day.
Considering the fact that the band received three Grammy nods for the last album, that must have been an unexpected situation.
Yeah, I mean, it's probably different for all of us. Brittany has had other bands that she's traveled around with, she's gotten to work with Jim James, and I think that kind of takes time away and you're just living life. Then finally when you do get a chance to write, you've got all of this new knowledge that you can experiment with and everything. And everybody's been doing that. We have our own lives to get back home to when we're not on the road playing music and everybody forgets about that kind of stuff. So, everybody kind of just forgets about what it was that we've done and moved forward.
Taking off on your hints about the band's sonic evolution, do you have any thoughts on other roots bands that focus more on authenticity than originality?
I think what you said is pretty valid. I've seen a lot of bands, and I might love them -- they do worlds for me -- but for other people, they don't see it. People say roots, Americana, or soul, or just rock 'n' roll, and it can be good, but I don't know how they made it their own? You kind of start digging into this style and you're always going to have different genres of music that you like. I mean, I don't know one person that only likes punk rock music. Actually, if I did know anybody that only liked one genre of music, it would probably be a dude that likes punk rock. But that's the point I'm making. I don't know too many people that only like one genre of music. So to be a musician, you're going to dig and you're going to throw things in there that you like, but it's still going to sound like you. You're going to evolve and grow.
I guess My Morning Jacket is one of the only examples I really know of of somebody that started in one spot, and over the past ten years, totally evolved. And they're still the same band and what they're doing now isn't a far cry from what they were doing ten years ago, but they've done all sorts of stuff in between and still maintained the 'Oh yeah! This is My Morning Jacket.'
A lot of people have labeled your band as the carrier of the torch for the Muscle Shoals sound, sort of lumping you in with the chasers of authenticity. Was preserving and updating that sound a deliberate move for the band?
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Definitely not. We live like an hour from Muscle Shoals. And yeah, everyone is aware of that place. I mean, I started listening to Lynyrd Skynyrd when I was, like,10. And you always hear about Muscle Shoals. But the sound of recording was not something I was thinking about when I was in high school or even when I was in college. I listen to music, but I didn't record music and it wasn't my profession, so I didn't listen to the tones of guitars or anything. It makes sense now, but when we were making Boys & Girls, we just went with a place that was twenty bucks an hour to record at! We were broke! Just the fact that we're from the South and we do have those Southern rock bands and country bands and soul bands as our influences, that just comes out in our playing!
The fact that tonally it kind of came out, it probably had the most to do with Zac. He was a little ahead of us, I think, when it came to the tone of the recording and everything. But for the most part, this was all news to me in the past two and a half to three years!
Alabama Shakes. Wednesday, December 4. Fillmore Miami Beach, 1700 Washington Ave., Miami Beach. The show starts at 8 p.m. and tickets cost $$36.50 to $45 plus fees via livenation.com. All ages. Call 305-673-7300 or visit fillmoremb.com.