We first caught wind of Alabama Shakes in late 2011 after seeing them included in a handful of those inevitable year-end lists. Each month since then seems to have brought the band another level of success, from the release of their debut LP Boys & Girls to their current tour with the venerable Jack White. But don’t think these achievements are causing any ego swelling. We caught up with drummer Steve Johnson who talked to us about meeting his idols, keeping humble and staying away from stadium shows. At least for now.
It’s almost impossible to talk about Alabama Shakes without mentioning [lead singer] Brittany. How did you meet her, and what were your first impressions?
I first met Brittany when she was about 14 or 15 years old, and I was working at a music store – the only music store that we had in town – and I was maybe 18 years old. Her and one of her friends came in and were looking at guitars and asked me if I played anything. They needed guitar strings or something. She was in a band at the time that was playing pop-punk, emo kind of stuff, and I was in a band that was pretty similar, I guess. Her dad is like a used car salesman and he got us a show in town at this old garage. We got together – my band and her band – and we played a show and everything. I thought Brittany was interesting in the fact that she dabbled in a little bit of every instrument, and being female made it that much more cool. She could just jump right into anything.
It seems like the Shakes’ success come as a big surprise. Is that the case, and has it been difficult?
It has come as a big surprise. It has its moments, you know. There’s times when you might be on the road and all of us being very grounded and never having the anticipation of this going anywhere, we’re all pretty rooted in our surroundings and never expected to be outside of North Alabama playing music. So to be gone for long periods of time can be difficult, because we’re so used to having our family and friends so close… It can be a little overwhelming and difficult, but our dreams are coming true so there’s not much I can complain about!
What’s been one of your most meaningful experiences of the past year?
Definitely getting the chance to play with Booker T. We played 9:30 Club [in Washington] New Years this past year, and Booker T played with the [Drive By] Truckers and came out for a couple songs to play with us, and that was amazing. About a month prior to that we had the chance to go into a studio and work with him for a day, just play around, record stuff, jam. On one occasion in Nashville, Robert Plant [of Led Zeppelin] popped up backstage and I was just, man, so shocked and in disbelief. I didn’t know what to do. He came into the room and the room just fell to a low mumble of people like, is that who I think it is? Is that Robert Plant? It had to have been awkward for him… That was cool. Weird, but cool [laughs]. Playing with Jack White was unreal. Unreal. He’s amazing, and his stage presence is killer, and his band is killer.
Are you the last humble band in rock and roll?
I wouldn’t say so. Seems like everyone we’ve met so far have been extremely humble and nice and willing to work with us or tell us what they can. Like The Truckers, for example, they’re all great, Jack White and his crew are all great. There’s a few here and there that are a little awkward or full of themselves, but that was always something that didn’t sit right with us when we were playing music. I’ve never understood the reason for somebody to treat somebody like that based on how good a musician they were. And sometimes they weren’t even that great of a musician!
Alabama Shakes gets a lot of Black Keys comparisons. They’re a band that comes from a similar place – new approach to old traditions – and essentially became a stadium rock band. Is that a path that interests you?
Not at the moment. We’re pretty comfortable where we’re at, because I don’t think any of us anticipated even playing small theatres right now. We had gotten so used to playing dives and small bars of 300 or 400 capacity. Those are the kind of shows that make us feel real. When somebody’s in your face, and they’re sweating with you. They’re a lot more personal, a lot more intimate. And we love playing small theatres because it gives more people the opportunity to come see us. But stadiums? Man, we might have to work up to that. We’re still at the point where if we walk into a room that might be 1,500 and it’s sold out, that’s breathtaking to us. So, stadiums? [Laughs] That one we might have to hold off on for a minute.