In the last year as Alabama Shakes have catapulted from obscurity to widespread critical acclaim, the band's life remains more or less unchanged when back in their kitchen.
"It's great, I love being at home," frummer Steve Johnson gushes. "I barbecue everyday. I know where everything is. I'm familiar with my surroundings, so if I need something I know where to go and get it. My two kids are here; my family is here. So that's good."
Steve is a parent, unlike the rest of the band. Despite being several years older than singer Brittany Howard and bassist Zac Cockrell, with whom he started Alabama Shakes, his joviality gives him the air of something closer to an older brother. He talks with a slow drawl, not lazy, but comfortably paced, a voice that communicates the type of clearheaded presence one would want behind the drumkit, keeping the beat. Even over the phone, he has the air of a man who takes life one measure at a time.
Johnson originally met Howard while he was working at the local music store. "She was 14 years old, maybe 15," he says. "She came in the music store with one of her friends. They were looking to buy guitar strings or something."
"When I first heard Brittany play, we were both doing punk rock," he remembers. At the time, Johnson and Howard were playing various garage shows in bands called Domino Theory and Kerosene Swim Team, respectively. "Both of our sounds developed a lot from then to five years later when we actually did get together and start playing music."
LUMPED INTO THE MUSCLE SHOALS SOUND
These days, the Alabama Shakes are often lumped into the blues and soul of the Muscle Shoals sound due to their upbringing in Athens, Ga. Though their music does evoke that signature swampy sound and cuts it with classic hard-rock touchstones like AC/DC and Led Zeppelin, in Steve's mind Muscle Shoals was never a deliberate reference point.
"Muscle Shoals wasn't so much an influence on me until recently," he explains above the noise of a lunchtime kitchen. "It's something that I've definitely thought more about in the past four to six months since people have been bringing it up."
PUTTING A BAND TOGETHER
In fact, starting a full-time band wasn't even his original intention. Several years after he first met Brittany, Johnson ran into Cockrell while working at the music store. "I knew that him and Brittany had been playing," Johnson recalls. "I was like, 'Hey man, you guys wanna jam or whatever?' So I went over to their little practice space after work one day and worked on some songs over the course of a couple weeks."
A couple jams and a studio session later, the band was invited by their now-guitarist Heath Fogg to open up for his band at a wedding. They thought it would be a one-off gig, but after the wedding festivities had come to a close, they had folded Fogg into their ranks and began playing shows as the Shakes. Soon, the band changed its name to the Alabama Shakes, added keyboardist Ben Tanner and garnered a substantial amount of buzz, landing them opening slots for the Drive-By Truckers and Booker T. Jones, as well the adulation of high-profile fans like David Byrne and Adele. The hoopla reached fever pitch a couple weeks ago when the band played Austin's SXSW, leaving Texas as one of the festival's most celebrated bands.
Johnson seems generally unphased by the expectations surrounding his band. On the topic of Russell Crowe attending one of their shows, he responds simply: "I wish I had gotten to meet old Maximus. That would've been awesome."
DEBUT ALBUM 'BOYS AND GIRLS' OUT SOON
Though Alabama Shakes are about to release their debut album 'Boys and Girls,' their new buzz-band status is barely on Johnson's radar. "We had been working on the album for close to a year before anybody really started hearing any of it," he says. "I don't feel any pressure at all. Like I said, I'm at home barbecuing every day. I'm making lunch right now talking on the phone."
While the band's comfort level is set to "maximum relaxation" at home, there can be small flies in the ointment at times. "Given our history, it makes it a little more difficult being where we're from," he says of the band's Southern origins and mixed-racial-and-gender makeup: Three white dudes fronted by a black woman. "We don't think about stuff like that honestly. Some people can stereotype Alabama as being ignorant and slow and racist and simple-minded. A bunch of those things are true."
On the road, they deal with challenges of a whole different nature. Besides being away from his family for extended periods, "You gotta watch what you eat because you eat cheeseburgers and French fries every single time," Johnson cautions. Touring life can be physically strenuous for him as well. "I wake up and I have whiplash the next day so I try and get in a lot of good stretching and everything," he laments before surreptitiously adding, "Try not to party too hard, maybe."
On March 23, the Alabama Shakes will embark on a tour of North America and Europe, including six dates as the supporting act for Jack White. 'Boys and Girls' will hit shelves April 10.