Count Steve Johnson, drummer for Alabama Shakes, among those who didn't have pie-in-the-sky expectations for what the band could accomplish.
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"One of the first times I played with Zac and Brittany," he says, "I was like, 'This band has a better chance of going places than any other band I played with.' I was thinking along the lines of just putting out a decent album and playing in our town and surrounding bigger cities. That would have been fine for me, but I knew it had potential. I just didn't think it would be as well received by everybody as it was."
Since breaking out in late 2011, the Southern roots band led by soulful frontwoman Brittany Howard has taken its debut to No. 6 on the charts, played Bonnaroo and "Saturday Night Live" and received two Grammys nominations, including Best New Artist.
Bassist Zac Cockrell and singer-guitarist Howard starting playing together in high school in their hometown of Athens, Ala. Mr. Johnson, a few years older, worked in a music store and had toiled in a variety of bands: "Punk bands, experimental bands, guys who were into Tool and Primus and Chili Peppers' psychedelic funk, hardcore bands that were just thrashing it out, dumb stuff."
He had grown accustomed to his bands lacking a crucial ingredient.
"Your frontman, frontwoman, is always the missing the link, the hardest piece to come by, that can vibe so well and at the same time not be like a [jerk]. There's a couple of them I've played with where I'm like, 'Man, you're killing me.'
"She was always just different, and I've known Brittany since she was in like ninth grade. She would come in to buy like guitar strings and sit down and play little things she would come up with and she had a friend who was super cute, so I was like, 'Hey, ya'll wanna come play some music?' "
He knew that to suit her style, comparable to Janis Joplin and like-minded soul belters, he wasn't going to be playing as if he were in Tool.
"When I started playing with Brittany I was 24 and she had just turned 20 or 21, and that's when I started holding back, not trying to squeeze as much into the song, because before that we kind of had to make up for our lack of a frontman by our playability, playing all this cool stuff to keep people interested. Now I'm playing with someone who's got a good voice and it's not necessary for me to be back there doing this dumb stuff while she's while trying to sing something beautiful."
They formed the band in 2009, added guitarist Heath Fogg and went out as The Shakes before adding Alabama for legal reasons. Their 2011 EP got them a gig at the CMJ showcase in New York and a New York Times rave that called them a "buzz band" with an unpretentious singer who could wail.
Before their debut album even came out, they were invited to tour with veteran Southern rockers Drive-By Truckers.
"They were so inspirational and cool and good with us," Mr. Johnson says. "Had we not gone on the road with them first, we would have had some band who probably hazed us or were obnoxious. You come across bands sometimes like that that are just not friendly. But Drive-By Truckers, they were good to us. They would invite us on the tour bus and be like on the side of the stage fist-pumping us."
With the success of the album, which was recorded in Nashville and released in April 2012 on ATO, Alabama Shakes watched its stock rise quickly.
"It happened really fast and it was like, how do you digest all that: playing at a bar to a small club to a big-ass theater that fast, because so many different things play into that, like the crowd, the crowd size, how the venue sounds, how deep the stage is, how small you feel on it, your monitors, all this different stuff you have to get used to and engage in with a quickness. There are times when I was just struggling to keep up, basically."
Although the band has yet to play Pittsburgh, two years have gone by now, and constant touring has made it hard for the Shakes to generate a quick follow-up.
"Being new to it and touring as nonstop as we did," the drummer says, "that's so taxing on your body and your mind, and we're all just really big homebodies as it is, family people. It got to the point where, if you want anything decent from us, we need to get home and get our heads right, time to get back to normal mode and out of this chaos.
"So, we went back and had some time to just play at home and have some rehearsals in garages again and pay our bills and mow our lawns and stuff, and get a chance to write some more and go back in the studio, and we were doing that, and now we're to the point where we're itching to get back on the road. After you get your head cleared, you just wanna play music."
He expects a sophomore record to hit early next year and be a change of pace from the debut.
"A lot more experimental, a lot more sounds," he says, "kind of like digging for new textures and stuff. Some stuff is like spacey and some is really groovy and there's more of those heartfelt kind of ballads on there too. I think it's just in Brittany's DNA. She has a thing for writing in like waltzy ballads, 3/4 stuff. But it's like you can tell that we're growing and some of the songs are a lot different, maybe more hip-hop, but it still sounds like the Shakes -- the Shakes digging for something else, not 'Boys & Girls Vol. II.' "
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