by Jeff Niesel
Alabama Shakes drummer Steve Johnson was working at a small musical instrument store in Athens, Alabama when some of his musician friends asked him if he wanted to join their band. Since they were pals with whom he had jammed on numerous occasions, he said he’d give it a go. So he showed up one day to a rehearsal and immediately knew he stumbled upon something special.
“I had heard they didn’t have a drummer,” he recalls via phone from his Athens home. The band performs at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday at Hard Rock Live. “Their drummer was kind of flaky. We’re actually all still good friends with him. But he wasn’t as into it as they were hoping he would be. I got wind of it and I went over there and [singer] Brittany [Howard’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.”
That “first show” was a rough one. Because the band didn’t have enough material to fill a two-hour set, it needed to learn a few covers. So they learned a handful of classic rock covers.
“It was nuts,” Johnson says of the band’s debut performance. “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.”
A turning point came in 2011 as the band played a showcase at the College Music Journal festival. New York Times critic Jon Pareles caught the show and wrote a rave review.
“That was a good show,” Johnson says. “We played first and we just wanted blow it out of the water. At least we didn’t have to close it out.”
The band quickly signed a major label deal and headed out to Nashville to record with Andrija Tokic at his Bomb Shelter studios. It cut the album on weekends and had to work around members’ day jobs.
“They were all written at home and we went in and laid them down,” Johnson says of the songs on 2012’s Boys & Girls. “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. You can still tell when you listen to it that’s it garage. It’s garage as hell.”
Johnson says the band knew the single, the woozy, bluesy “Hold On,” would be a hit when the band first played it live.
“When they first came up with that riff, we had jammed on it at rehearsal,” he says. “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.”
Johnson says the band is currently in the middle of recording the much-anticipated follow-up to Boys & Girls. He says fans can anticipate the band will again emphasize the music’s raw power and distinctive Janis Joplin-inspired kozmic blues.
“I don’t think we really know how to do it any other way,” he says of the first recording session. “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. I think we’ll experiment with some other stuff in the future, but not much more.”