Heath Fogg (far right) says Alabama Shakes wanted to experiment.
Alabama Shakes used small-town inspiration to leap to big-league stages, and now the quartet is using that momentum to evolve its sound. The roots-rock group from Athens, Ala., rose to fame in 2012 after the release of their debut album, Boys & Girls. Propelled by the masterly pipes of frontwoman Brittany Howard, the record went gold in an era of low record sales and brought the group three Grammy nominations, including Best New Artist. After touring extensively, the group retreated to Nashville's Sound Emporium Studio to record a second album, Sound & Color, set to release on April 21.
Sound & Color still features many of the Janis Joplin-esque howls and smoky guitar riffs fans have come to expect from the Shakes, but listeners should expect more exploratory material in the new album. The record features genre-bending tracks as varied as R&B ballads and garage rock jams. In anticipation of a March 17 concert at Overture Hall, Isthmus caught up with bassist Heath Fogg to discuss the new album, the challenges of touring and how to survive "music's biggest night."
What was the process behind putting together Sound & Color?
The success that we got from Boys & Girls gave us the opportunity to be in the studio for longer periods of time, to flesh out any ideas that we could come up with and explore any sort of avenue we wanted. I don't think there was any concept for the record, but all of us wanted to experiment and really grow as a band. We've known for a long time that this record was going to be different from Boys & Girls, but we didn't know in what way, so it was fun seeing it all come together. Each day there was something new and exciting.
What drove you to include a wider variety of styles in this album?
We've all been listening to so many different things and growing because of it. But also some of the same influences are always with us. I think if we'd had the resources we have now when we made Boys & Girls, it probably would have been more similar to this. There's a lot of the same influences, they're just separated more drastically -- this is the album of extremes. You have songs that are pretty hard-driving R&B songs, songs that are just rock 'n' roll songs and things that are more ambiguous and harder to define. We weren't trying to tastefully merge all the genres. If a song needed to go in a certain direction we just did that and didn't question it too much.
Since the release of Boys & Girls you've been nominated for three Grammys and played stages like Saturday Night Live, Bonnaroo and Glastonbury. Do you feel comfortable with that level of fame?
I'm used to it in ways. I'm on guard more now, when before I was more naÃve. Now, I always expect there to be a camera around, and cameras make me nervous. So I have to mentally prepare myself. We've really been thankful for the opportunities we've had. At the same time some of those situations -- like the Grammys in particular -- don't seem like our kind of scene. I just was uncomfortable the whole time we were there. But it was an honor to be nominated.
Anything we need to know about the Grammys that we don't already know?
My only advice is to make sure and eat before you get in there. I was starving the whole time. I didn't have a chance to eat before we went, because we were rushed around before. It was in the Staples Center, which has fast-food joints inside the building, so there was a McDonald's, and I could smell it the whole time.
What are some of the challenges you face on the road?
Recently [it is] playing these new songs in environments where there's a lot of attention on us. It's a challenge to perform them because they seem so fresh. We just finished the record. On the other hand, a little pressure is good.
What are you most excited about?
We love this record, and we're really interested to see what other people think about it. We're taking some big steps and trying to play mostly new material. I think that may be shocking for some fans who just want to come hear Boys & Girls, but hopefully everyone is going to be open minded.
What would you say to someone who's thinking about coming to your upcoming show in Madison?
I hope that people come curious. I hope they come wanting to experience something they haven't before, because that's something we're shooting for each night. I also hope they're understanding and patient, because we're growing and learning as a live act each time we play. We've made it a point to start fresh and try something new. I hope everyone's open to that.