Friday 14th May 2010

Jackie Butler meets Alabama 3’s maverick leader Larry Love ahead of their latest nationwide tour

Breaking the rules is all in a day’s work for evangelical rebel-rouser Larry Love and his musical ensemble Alabama 3.

Mixing country and western with blues and techno rave doesn’t sound like an obvious blend, but in their capable hands it becomes a surprisingly compelling fusion.

It’s a formula that’s been working ever since they emerged from South London’s Brixton in the mid-1990s as an antidote to Britpop.

“I’m 45 now; when I was a kid you were either a punk rocker or a raver. You couldn’t mix it up so much,” growls lead singer and frontman Larry in the Welsh drawl he retains from his strict Valleys childhood. “But we can do a blues ballad and bang straight into a techno number and it works.

“If you live outside the law, you must be honest, and we are. That is why we have lasted so long. We are immune to fashion and we’ve been told we are impossible to categorise. We are clever at acting stupid, but there is a serious side to us.”

The band’s 1997 debut album, Exile On Coldharbour Lane, was a stone-cold classic, illicit and feverish. One of its best songs, as any Trivial Pursuit pundit will tell you, made its way across the Atlantic to soundtrack The Sopranos TV series.

Most groups would be pigeonholed by such an accolade, but Alabama 3 have continued to grow and flourish, by their own admission frequently chemically assisted and forever politically motivated.

They visit the O2 Academy Bristol this weekend as part of a UK tour to promote latest long player, Revolver Soul, released on their own label – Hostage – and recorded at their own Jamm Studios in Brixton, a 24-hour den of iniquity driven by fevered creativity and a willingness to experiment.

“It’s a very exciting time to be a musician. It’s a bit of a punk rock time, I think,” says Larry. “People are moaning about downloads but you just have to come up with something more imaginative.

“We have been conned for so long into thinking we need this big corporate machine where musicians were only getting a tiny percentage of what they earned.”

The new album boasts this maverick spirit, clashing styles and contradicting tempos, at once mellow, angry and otherworldly.

“Revolver Soul is like listening to soul music with a gun to your head,” declares Larry. “The album is a reflection of what we have got in the studio. It’s a real multicultural mix and we have some interesting guests including Shane MacGowan, Razorlight’s Johnny Borrell, Tenor Fly and Daddy Freedy.”

Larry’s personal background comes as something of a surprise. He really is the son of a preacherman and grew up in Merthyr Tydfil in the heart of the industrial community listening to American gospel music – hence the bluesy influence. His mother played piano in the chapel and community singing was part of the deal.

Larry rebelled, of course. “I was into Black Sabbath and the Sex Pistols, but I wasn’t allowed to listen to rock ’n’ roll. I clearly remember smuggling a Stranglers record into the house.”

Larry now brings the evangelism vibe into the gig arena – albeit in tongue-in-cheek manner.

“I’m the eldest of five. All my brothers and sisters are preachers or preachers’ wives. I’m the black sheep. I did lose touch with home and didn’t speak to them for years. My mother had to find me via The Big Issue. We are all cool now,” he adds. “They are quite proud of me now they’ve accepted what I am.”

Alabama 3 have retained a loyal fanbase but are gaining new devotees all the time and love working with up-and-coming acts. In time, they hope to issue recordings by other artists on the Hostage label.

“The great thing with the iPod culture is that the kids are listening to their parents’ record collections and appreciating what they hear. They won’t necessarily know where a song is from or who it’s by, but they like it.

“We have a lot of reggae artists around here in Brixton – I’m teaching them country and western and they are teaching me ragga.

“We would like to put some other artists on our own label. There’s an 18-year-old hip-hop diva who is particularly good.”

As a unit, Alabama 3 – usually a nine-piece band, sometimes more, rarely less – are rock solid.

“We do what we do half organically and then we get a bit serious about it,” says Larry.

“We’ve had the same line-up of nine for years – you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.”

Following the current tour dates, the band will be back in the Westcountry to play Glastonbury in June.

“I love festivals – I love the idea of people gathering together for a big mash-up of musical styles. And it’s an opportunity to win some new fans,” adds Larry.