Alabama Shakes knew right away that their second album was going to take them down a strange new path. The first track the band laid down for Sound & Color (out April 21st) was "Gemini," a six-minute slow-crawl mood piece that sounds more like Sly Stone's There's a Riot Goin' On than the lean rock & soul of Shakes' hit 2012 debut, Boys & Girls. "That was a fun song for me to play to my friends," cracks bassist Zac Cockrell from beneath a bushy beard as he sits with his bandmates at a New York restaurant. "They're like, 'Uhhh . . . OK.' I don't think they liked it. I finally quit sharing with people." Adds frontwoman Brittany Howard, with a sly smile, "Ambitious."
That's a fair word to describe all of Sound & Color, which runs from volcanic thrashers ("The Greatest") to silky soul ("Dunes") to spacey psychedelic-soul jams ("Future People"). "It's a bit far-out," Howard admits. "When it came time to gather all the songs, we thought, 'What kind of record is this?' And we said, 'Very strange.' But I love it."
You would have forgiven the Shakes for sticking to the sound of their debut, which has sold 725,000 copies and took them from Alabama bar band to one of rock's biggest new acts almost overnight. Soon, Adele was praising them, Robert Plant was coming to their shows, and the band was nominated for three Grammys. "I don't know what happened with all that," says Cockrell. "People just started going crazy. It was really just . . . weird. It was like, 'What's the source of this?' "
The journey to Sound & Color was a bumpy one. With Howard listening to everything from Roberta Flack to the E.T. soundtrack, the group decided to widen its sound. "We just wanted to be free and explore and not worry what this record would be in the public's eye," says guitarist Heath Fogg.
The Shakes booked studio time in Nashville with producer Blake Mills, but since they'd spent so much time on the road for Boys & Girls, they hadn't had time to write many new songs. The sessions wound up dragging out to a year. "We didn't know what the hell we were doing," says drummer Steve Johnson.
For Mills, the sessions posed challenges. "The experimentation is more in line with who they are as people than the lazy connections a lot of people make to Janis Joplin or Southern rock," says Mills. "But we had to have the cohesion conversation: 'All this stuff is great, but is it a record?' " Unable to finish the lyrics to "Gemini," Howard cut up a bunch of phrases, mixed them up and pulled them out at random.
Recording wasn't all hard work. One night, the band had dinner with Kid Rock, who worked with Mills in the past. Afterward, all of the musicians headed to the studio. "We had a great time hanging out — cigars, whiskey, all that shit," says Rock. "I don't spend a lot of time with other musicians in studios, but listening to them jam, I felt I was in a privileged spot. They're making music I want to listen to." With Rock, the Shakes cut a track Mills calls "a document of a really good time." Howard compares the song to Lynyrd Skynyrd — not that she wants to share it with the world. "You're never going to hear it," she warns. "Ever."
For the Shakes, success is now sinking in. Their day jobs — Cockrell worked for a veterinarian, Fogg painted houses, Johnson toiled in a nuclear plant in Decatur, Howard was a mail carrier — are far in the rearview mirror. When the Shakes hit the road this year, they'll bring along three backup singers and two keyboardists to help replicate Sound & Color.
Whether their fan base will follow them into riskier musical territory remains to be seen, but the first of two sold-out shows at New York's Beacon Theatre in March partly answered that question. Howard showed off a new look — a curly poodle-top haircut, shaved on the sides, plus a subtle face tattoo — and spewed out guitar leads and sang in an eerie falsetto, generally proving herself one of the most exciting and commanding new stars in rock ("She holds court up there like Otis Redding or Sister Rosetta Tharpe," says Mills).
Most of the set was devoted to Sound & Color, but the audience ate up each song, and didn't even mind that the band didn't bother playing "Hold On," the signature track from Boys & Girls. Afterward, Howard reflected on the openness of their fans. "Having the people be so welcoming is really awesome," she says. "The way I grew up was kind of conservative: 'Stay in line and don't rock the boat.' And of course, I work hard and I'm good. But I don't mind rockin' the boat a little."