Posted April 24, 2014 by Jeff in Tunes

Alabama Shakes’ Steve Johnson: Rolling with it

Alabama Shakes
Alabama Shakes

Athens, Alabama-based Alabama Shakes practically came out of nowhere in 2012 when it dropped its debut, Boys & Girls. An album of raw, bluesy songs sung by Brittany Howard, Boys & Girls received three Grammy nominations and would eventually go gold. Reached via phone, drummer Steve Johnson talked about the current tour that comes at the end of a recording session. According to Johnson, the group will record again after the tour wraps in mid-June and then will play a few more shows in July as it tries to finish up the follow-up to its acclaimed debut.

Is it disruptive to have to tour while you’re in the midst of recording?
I haven’t had to deal with it before. When we recorded the first album, we had never been on tour. I am itching to get back on the road. We haven’t done any shows in a hot minute. If you’re a musician, there’s a time to get away from it but, after your break, that itch starts to come back and you’re ready to go again.

Talk a little about how the band came together. You were working at a record store when you joined the group in 2009?
It was an instrument store. It was a music store. We sold guitars and drums and stuff.

What attracted you to the music?
Brittany’s voice. We all knew each other and had played together before way prior to this when we were still in high school. Over time, we developed our own styles and got better. Later on, after we had experience playing with other people, I had heard they didn’t have a drummer. He was kind of flaky. We’re actually all still good friends with him. He wasn’t as into it as they were hoping he would be. I got wind of it and I went over there and Brittany’s voice had developed. I told them, “Ya’ll got something going.” We just pieced it together from there. We got our first show and kept the ball rolling and that was it.

Do you remember what your first live show was like?
Oh yeah. It was nuts. We opened for our buddy’s band and had like 12 songs to play. I think there were two originals and the rest were covers. the Stones, Led Zeppelin, Chuck Berry. I think there was an AC/DC song in there.

It was random. But the show was well-received and we felt like if we didn’t keep going with it, we wouldn’t know what it would turn into.

You didn’t play too many small clubs before you started playing mid-sized venues. What was that experience like?
It was like realizing how inexperienced you are. Before you get to the next level, you’re just like “I got this.” You’re killing it. You get into a bigger picture where everybody is good and you have to push yourself to keep up. You try to think of how you wouldn’t play the song and try to get outside of your own style. It can be discouraging, but if you’re in it to win it, cool shit will happen.

Is there a good scene in Athens, Alabama?
There’s a large bar band scene in Huntsville. You can get in doing that and travel that circuit. We all wanted something more than playing covers. We sought out shows in Birmingham and Nashville too. We would just do small shows. We would do short sets of 30 to 40 minutes but we could play our own songs. You’re not making any money. You drive an hour or two hours to the show and you have to get up and work, but you just keep doing it.

You put out that first EP in 2011?
That was something so we would have something at shows. We didn’t have anything. We’re not good at putting out material. We all have our own style so it’s hard for us to agree on something when it comes to design and packaging and having stuff like that. People were asking if we had a CD or demo tape or shirt. We had nothing.

How did the songwriting work?
There were parts of that album where we did all worked on it together. [Guitarist] Heath [Fogg] had come up with a riff. [Bassist] Zac [Cockrell] had come up with a riff. Brittany had come up with a riff. They would come to rehearsal and we’d work it out there. In others, the structure was already there. Sometimes, we’d have to work around her vocals and it was just coming up with parts around it. It works in different ways.

Talk about the recording process of Boys & Girls. You did it in Nashville?
We did it at our buddy Andrija [Tokic’s] house in East Nashville. We had to work around his schedule. We all had day jobs and had to do weekends. It was in between a week and two weeks total spent in the studio if you count the days, but it took place over the course of a year.

Did you flesh the songs out in the studio or already have them written?
They were all written at home and we went in and laid them down. It think “Heartbreaker” was fleshed out in the studio. Brittany just had that lick on the piano that starts it off. And she had all the vocals. Once we figured out the parts and everybody had something they were happy with, we nailed it in the studio. It took a few takes. I couldn’t get that roll at the beginning to save my life. It finally landed, and I has like, ‘Hell yeah!’ Andrija had a sweet idea of meshing it into the next track, “Boys & Girls.” Hats off to him because that was sweet.

The album sounds like it might have been made during another era. Were you going for an old school soul and R&B sound?
I think it was just a time and a place. We were getting past college and getting older. We weren’t interesting in hitting as many notes as we could and cram it all into one song. These sounded like real songs. We could tell it. We were trying to play it to the vocals. We didn’t aim for it to be a soul and R&B thing. It’s what everybody was getting into at the time. There’s rockier stuff on there. “On Your Way” and “Rise to the Sun” are out of left field. They’re different compared to the other tracks. You can still tell when you listen to it that it’s garage. It’s garage as hell. Since then, we’re growing a little more at the studio. It’s a lot different. Everyone’s style is starting to shine through.

Was it the consensus that “Hold On” would be the first single?
Not at all. When they first came up with that riff, we had jammed on it at rehearsal. I was going to roll with it. The only thing I had to go on was that Brittany said, “When I get to the part where I sing ‘you’ve got to wait,’ just hold off and wait with me.” I said, “Okay. I can do that.” We were playing it at a show and she didn’t have word for it. She told us to just bust it out in a set so she’d have to roll with it and improvise. She started singing the song and people were singing the song with her. I wasn’t paying attention but that’s what she said happened. I’m sure she had to play with it a bit after that. I think there were a couple of lines that she stuck with because they were making an impression.

Do you hear the Janis Joplin comparisons?
I never dug into Janis a whole lot. I have an ex-girlfriend who liked her a lot. She wore me out to the point that I haven’t listened to it much since then. I think the main comparison is that Janis was a belter. She would belt it and rage it out. I think Brittany does that a lot. She’s so theatrical and vibing it out. She’s lost in her own words.

I like the fact that you put the focus on the music.
I don’t think we really knew how to do it any other way at the start. It’s happening so fast and everybody does have their own ideas but you have to come up with something that everyone can agree on. We just wanted to play the songs and figure it out afterwards.

Upcoming 2014 Tour Dates 












Washington, DC @ 9:30 Club

Washington, DC @ 9:30 Club

Asheville, NC @ The Orange Peel

Asheville, NC @ The Orange Peel

New Orleans, LA @ New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival

Plano, TX @ Suburbia Festival

Memphis, TN @ Beale Street Music Festival

Northfield, OH @ Hard Rock Live

Pittsburgh, PA @ Stage AE

Richmond, VA @ The National

Atlanta, GA @ Shaky Knees Fest


Jeff started writing about rock ’n’ roll some 20 years ago when he stood in the pouring rain to hitch hike his way to see R.E.M. on their Life’s Rich Pageant tour. Since that time, he's written for various daily newspapers, alt-weeklies, magazines and websites. Feel free to comment on his posts or suggest music, film and art to him at