The story of the Alabama Shakes begins in a high school psychology class in Athens, Alabama. Brittany Howard, who had started playing guitar a few years earlier, approached Zac Cockrell and asked if he wanted to try making music together. “I just knew that he played bass and that he wore shirts with cool bands on them that nobody had heard of,” says Howard.
They started to meet up after school and write songs sitting on Howard’s floor. “It had that rootsy feel, but there was some out-there stuff,” says Cockrell. “David Bowie-style things, prog-rock, lots of different stuff. We started to come across our own sound a little bit, though it’s evolved a lot since then.”
Steve Johnson worked at the only music store in town, and Howard knew he played the drums. She invited him to a party where, she says, “he met everybody from our side of the tracks.” The three young musicians began working together, further expanding their style and approach. “Steve is kind of a punk-metal drummer,” says Howard, “so we embraced that edge he brings to everything he does.”
The trio soon went into a studio in Decatur to record some of the songs they were working up, and this proto-demo found its way into the hands of Heath Fogg, with whom Howard had been familiar because he had been the lead guitarist in what she describes as “the best band in our high school.” Fogg, who by now had graduated from college, asked them to open a show for his band, which they agreed to do—on the condition that he play with them. The response was immediate: “That first show was really explosive,” says Howard.”
Though they had been focusing on original material (“It’s just more fun to write than to learn someone else’s music,” says Cockrell), as the band—newly christened the Shakes—began playing out, they added more cover songs. They played classics by James Brown and Otis Redding, but also by Led Zeppelin and AC/DC. “We had to find music we could all agree on and figure out how to play together,” says Howard, “and that had a lot of influence on how we play now.”
Attempting to record their songs with the honest sonic qualities they cherished, the Shakes bought a few microphones and a vintage Teac mixing board and set up in Howard’s house—which didn’t work, since she lived right next to some railroad tracks. They eventually found their way to a Nashville studio in early 2011, where the songs they cut included “You Ain’t Alone” and “I Found You.”
When they appeared at a Nashville record store, people started to take notice of the group’s relentless, hard-charging live attack, and Howard’s magnetic stage presence. One especially ardent fan raved about the band to his friends, which included Justin Gage, the founder of the Aquarium Drunkard blog. Gage wrote to Howard, asking if he could post one of the Shakes’ songs. She sent back the yearning, intense “You Ain’t Alone,” which he put up in late July, calling it “a slice of the real.” And, literally overnight, all hell broke loose.
“I woke up the next day to emails from record labels, managers, publishing companies,” says Howard. “At first I thought, everybody’s making a mistake!” Gage also emailed “You Ain’t Alone” to the Drive-By Truckers’ team. The band was immediately blown away and offered the Shakes an opening slot, sight unseen. (Patterson Hood of the Truckers later noted that the group “totally blew us off the stage in Winston-Salem.”)
Yet even as the attention and the pressure were mounting, the band—who by now had changed their name to the Alabama Shakes—continued to break new ground musically. Their first single, the hypnotic, show-stopping plea “Hold On,” grew out of an on-stage improvisation. “We threw out that riff,” says Cockrell, “and Brittany started singing along, and the crowd started singing with her like it was a song they already knew.”
In October, the Shakes gave a performance at the CMJ Festival in New York City that earned a glowing review from the New York Times. Jon Pareles described the band as “a thunderbolt dressed in bluejeans,” with music that’s “aching when it’s slow and growling and whooping when it’s fast.” NPR named them one of the best bands of 2011, while MTV called them one of the top bands to look for in 2012.
As word of mouth spread, more offers to tour came in, and the band members were finally able to quit their day jobs; until this point, all the writing, recording, and touring had to be done around such responsibilities as Howard’s work as a mail carrier and Johnson’s hours toiling as a night watchman at a nuclear power plant.
Now, with expectations at fever pitch, the Alabama Shakes have delivered Boys & Girls—six of the songs from that initial Nashville session, and another five recorded during the rest of the year. From the heart-rending title song to such stomps as “Rise to the Sun,” the album demonstrates the sense of groove and space the band learned from their idols, along with a blistering force and emotion that simply can’t be learned.
Overwhelmed by the response they’ve already received, there is one perception of the band that they want to challenge. “A lot of people think we’re a soul revival act,” says Cockrell. “That’s an honor to me, classic R&B is my favorite kind of music, but everybody has their own influences. Brittany is way more into rock and roll—she likes things pretty amped up most of the time.”
“Retro soul is not what we’re going for, though it’s understandable why people say it,” says Howard. “We take inspiration from that, but we all understand Black Sabbath, too. On the record, we left a lot of room for whatever we want to do in the future.”
The release of Boys & Girls marks the arrival of a major new rock and roll band. To the members themselves, though, what’s been most exciting has been the reaction they have felt on stage, whether tiny local dates or under the glare of the media.
“It seems like everyone can tell how into it we are,” says Cockrell. “Every show, people say they can feel how much we love what we’re doing.”