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THIS TRIP HAS BEEN FROM ALABAMA 3: I DON'T WANNA GO HOME
THIS TRIP HAS BEEN FROM ALABAMA 3: I DON'T WANNA GO HOME
THEY MAY BE BEST KNOWN AS THE OUTFIT RESPONSIBLE FOR THE SOPRANO’S THEME SONG ‘WOKE UP THIS MORNING’, BUT IN TRUTH THEY DON’T COME ANY MORE ROCK ‘N’ ROLL THAN ALABAMA 3, A BAND WHO – AS IT HAPPENS – WERE REFUSED ENTRY TO THE US FOR VARIOUS CRIMES AND MISDEMEANOURS. BUT THE BRIXTON NINE-PIECE, UNDAUNTED BY LIFE’S CRAZIER VICISSITUDES, HAVE JUST RELEASED A KILLER ALBUM IN REVOLVER SOUL. SO MIGHT THIS BE THE RECORD TO TAKE THEM HIGHER?
WORDS OLAF TYARANSEN PHOTO BARBARA ROTERBERG
“So our flight leaves in 70 minutes. How long to get to the airport? Thirty minutes. Go on then, we’ll chance another pair of pints. And some more vodkas.”
Coming to the end of a brief promotional trip to Dublin, Alabama 3’s Rob Spragg and John Jennings (aka Larry Love and Segs, respectively) don’t seem particularly eager to leave the Central Hotel’s Library Bar. The last 48 hours have seen the pair do various TV slots, radio and press interviews, and a liver-threatening amount of drinking. Speaking in a husky Welsh accent, Spragg cheerfully admits to throwing up – off camera – in the middle of a live TV performance yesterday. Segs, meanwhile, has just got his very first tattoo at the age of 54.
“This trip has been brilliant,” he enthuses. “Dublin’s a lot of fun. I went to Johnny Eagle’s yesterday and got a tattoo of a pearl done on my arm. My daughter’s name is Pearl.”
Spragg chuckles wickedly. “I told him it looked like a fuckin’ potato!”
Your Hot Press correspondent cracks a lame joke about Alabama 3 patronising the Irish with potato tattoos.
“Actually, straight up, Tayto were going to sponsor us at one point, but I think they soon realised that they didn’t want to be associated with us. We would’ve been more than fuckin’ happy to travel around on a big Tayto bus. Anyway, for obvious reasons it didn’t happen.”
Given the band’s well-deserved rep for hard-living, copious drug-taking and general rowdy behaviour, I’m surprised it was considered for even a second (though, come to think, there might have been a good advertising copy line about “frying your brains to a crisp”). Spragg and Segs are in town to promote their seventh studio album, the very excellent Revolver Soul. Recorded in their own Jamm Studios in Brixton, it’s their first release on their own label Hostage Music.
Signed at various points to One Little Indian, Columbia and Geffen, Alabama 3 haven’t had much luck with major labels in the past – or maybe it’s the other way round. When Geffen signed them for a cool million a decade ago – mainly on the back of the massive popularity of The Sopranos theme tune ‘Woke Up This Morning’ – label executives were horrified to discover that most of the band were unable to get US travel visas.
“When the Sopranos thing kicked off we were going to do a video in the Bada Bing, and everyone was heading over,” Segs laughs. “Then nobody could get in – except me, actually. Nobody could get a visa.”
“Yeah, we had some visa problems over various . . . crimes and misdemeanours,” Spragg concurs.
Tony Soprano would understand...
LIVING IN A REMIX CULTURE...
Alabama 3 – or A3 as they’re known in America – have had a chequered history since they first formed in Brixton in 1996. Fusing rock, dance, blues, country and gospel styles, their energetic live shows are still notoriously crazed, while their recorded output has varied between bland and brilliant. Thankfully, Revolver Soul belongs very much in the latter category.
Now signed to new management and to their own record label, is there a sense that this is a make or break album for the band?
“It’s certainly loaded with expectation and excitement,” Spragg admits. “Like with the state the record industry is in now, we’re happy to still be on the margins. We never wanted to be part of the establishment. So this album is as much a statement of lifestyle as it is a musical artefact.”
Segs nods his head. “It feels really good,” he says. “That’s a direct question that we haven’t been asked – is it make or break? This one feels really positive. Usually when we’re making an album, Rob always says, ‘This is our last album’, almost as a kind of work ethic, but this one don’t feel like that. It feels sort of like a stepping stone to the next one. In fact, in the car on the way here I asked him, ‘What about the next album?’ and he said, ‘I’ve already written it’.”
The album’s title, incidentally, isn’t a Beatles pun. “One of the black dreadlocked kids we work with in the studio in Brixton is dyslexic,” Spragg explains. “There’s a song called ‘Revolution Soul’, right, and he was trying to write the thing down on a CD cover one night and he wrote ‘Revolver Soul’. We saw it and thought it was a great title – so it’s really all down to a dyslexic engineer.”
Although it’s an occasionally revolving cast, Alabama 3 spans nine members in total. While this obviously means less money for everyone at the end of a tour (the band play anywhere between 150 to 200 gigs a year), Spragg maintains that the pros far outweigh the cons.
“We’re a big, bulky outfit. Like a nine-piece band is not financially a very palatable thing, but we stuck with it – much to our own chagrin. But the great thing that happens with a nine piece band, with all those inherent musical differences, is that you can start a song on an acoustic guitar at 4 o’clock in the morning and it could be a country song, and by the next night it’s turned into a dubstep track. We’ve quite a whorish approach to the song-writing process. It might arrive as a certain package through the front door but then it slips out the back in another format. But I think a song’s a song – whether it’s dubstep or blues or jazz. We live in remix times. To us, songs are just artefacts to be re-appropriated.”
Segs agrees: “One of the trickiest things is actually catching it at the right moment and nailing it down and going, ‘Right – that’s it’. Because we could carry on forever. But like Rob says, we live in a remix culture. Sometimes we get a good remix back and we’re going, ‘God, I wish we’d done it like that!’
“But in terms of the size of the band, we don’t always travel with a full crew. Like Rob can get in the back of a car and do acoustic stuff. Or I can go with him – you know, we can strip it down for funerals and weddings. Ha, ha! But everybody can go off in their own right and do what they want to do. So not everyone’s touring all the time. Same goes for writing and performing.”
THE SONG THEY DIDN’T WHORE
Alabama 3 have had a little help from their famous friends on this new album. Among the higher profile names who joined them in their Brixton studio to guest are Razorlight’s Johnny Borrell and the inimitable Shane MacGowan.
“Shane turned up twelve hours late, but he was great,” Spragg says. “It took a three day session to get two lines out of him – but they’re fucking great lines. Just that voice alone. Shane’s like an old bluesman, you know: ‘That’s where I stuck my spike/ In a blue vein’.”
Previous Alabama 3 efforts have often used religious imagery and iconography, and this one is no different – as evidenced on songs like ‘All God’s Children’, ‘She Blessed Me’ and ‘Oh Christ’.
“I come from a religious fundamentalist background – my family are Mormons,” Spragg explains. “So I’m the son of a preacher man. D Wayne Love [Alabama 3 vocalist] comes from a family of fundamentalist Stalinists – his old man was an extreme left wing shop steward in the docks in Glasgow. So he was only allowed to listen to Ewan MacColl and stuff like that. He had to smuggle his Black Sabbath records into his bedroom, like I used to have to do – because I wasn’t allowed to listen to any secular music. So neither of us particularly accepted Stalinism or the Lord, but having an early exposure to that is reflected in the music.”
How would you define yourself today – atheist, agnostic or other?
“We’re now both narcotic Marxists!”
Straying slightly to the right of that comment, what’s their take on Cameron and Clegg?
“Same boss – different suit,” Spragg sighs. “Bring on those financial cuts. Let’s see the unions getting naughty again and let’s have some fuckin’ fun. There’s gonna be a lot more political activism and resistance in the coming years.”
Segs: “It’s not like the last few Labour years were particularly left anyway, is it? They were like new conservatives anyway. So it’s not that much of a change. It’s more like a blip.”
Back to music. No matter how well the new album does, Alabama 3 will probably always be best known as the band who wrote and performed the theme to The Sopranos . . .
Segs begs to differ. “The thing is that Sopranos fans are more into The Sopranos than the theme tune. They don’t really know it’s us anyway. It actually says on the box set that it was written by Leonard Cohen. But we took that as a compliment.”
Has that song become a bit of a millstone at this stage?
“Nah, marketing-wise it was brilliant,” Spragg says. “If we can get into people’s front doors via their TV set, that’s alright. It’s not like we did the theme for Friends. Actually we did a track with Steve Van Zandt, who plays Tony’s concierge, and it was a real rock ‘n’ roll sort of track. It’s not the kind of thing we’d normally do. We sent him the normal mix back and then we sent him the dubstep remix. He’d never heard dubstep before. He called us up and said [adopts wheezy Mafia tone], ‘Whatever you fuckin’ guys are on, I want some of that!’
“But I think we were quite cool in the way we handled it. We didn’t exploit it. I don’t think we whored it. You know, we haven’t gone on to do ads for Kellogs cornflakes. I think that’s why Steve Van Zandt was happy to work with us – because we hadn’t gone around desperately whoring that song.”
FUN VERSUS FEAR AND SELF-LOATHING
With nine members on board, it comes as no surprise that there are plenty of children within Alabama 3’s extended family. Spragg has two young children. However, he laughingly admits that he has no problem leaving them behind when he goes on tour. “It’s great being away – especially during the teething months. I like the incongruities of having a beautiful artefact like a baby and then going to hang out with crack dealers on the frontline to get the song inspiration. Some people might say that’s an irresponsible thing to do as a father, but I’m not taking the baby down there.
“But certainly I’ve always made it my business to not change my lifestyle because I think I owe it more to them to be the man I am. Sorry kids, but daddy’s gotta rock ‘n’ roll! I’m not gonna stop and start doing the gardening because I’m not like some fucking idiot out of Coldplay. Who wants to be married to Gwyneth Paltrow and having kids called Apple? Besides, I’ve always found that a bit of self-loathing and guilt are very good for the songwriting process. The downside is that I live in Self Loathing W9 – just beyond the doghouse.”
With all the career ups and downs, and the strain of playing 200 shows a year, is it still fun being in the band?
“Well this trip has been fun,” Segs laughs. “I don’t wanna go home!”
Much as he agrees, Spragg insists that it’s almost always fun being in Alabama 3. “I think it’s always gotta be fun. The reason Alabama 3 have quite a good live reputation is because we’re obviously having fun. I come from a council house in South Wales, five kids, and me old man was a miner. So I’m not fuckin’ digging a ditch. I’m a lucky cunt in that people are willing to pay €20 to come see a gig and I can wake up at five in the afternoon and get stoned and pissed, and people still wanna clap at the end of the day. And that has gotta be fun. It’s a privilege to be able to make a living doing that.
“And I’m not saying that melancholy or depression is not a fixture in any artist’s life, but you should be generally enjoying it – especially while you’re holding a guitar or a microphone. Otherwise, what’s the fuckin’ point? Oh, and where’s my pint?”
Revolver Soul is out now on Hostage Music. Alabama 3 play support to Bob Dylan on July 4th, Indiependence on July 31 and as part of the Bulmers Live At Leopardstown Festival on Aug 5th
Alabama 3 Pharmacopeia
It is one of the great modern taboos: no one, it seems, is allowed to suggest that drugs can deliver good times or experiences that are a useful or interesting part of getting to grips with the world. But if this were not the case, why would so many people want to use them? Why would there be queues outside headshops?
In particular, music has been a focus for drug lore. Albums, songs and musical styles have been inspired by a variety of narcotics, from LSD through Cannabis to Ecstasy. Different drugs have inspired musical movements and scenes. They have also, of course, dragged individual musicians down into the gutter, addicted some and killed others. It would be stupid to deny the potentially toxic effects of pharmaceuticals. But it also goes against the common experience of hundreds of millions to claim that they are always and inevitably the start of the road to perdition.
As it happens, Alabama 3’s Rob Spragg – aka Larry Love – is no stranger to the ups and downs of chemical excess, herbal bliss and the odd bottle of Jack (or three). He has plenty of experience of the highs and lows of some of the most commonly used and abused mind-altering substances out there. Laced with humour his comments may be, and potentially inflammatory, but this is what he thinks about drugs, uncensored.
He has nothing positive at all to say about heroin.
“Part of the staple diet of the music industry. It’s just there – like air, water and the birds. It’s your round, by the way.”
“Fuck you Francis Drake, you stupid cunt! No, thank you very much, I love it, but I wish I didn’t. It’s a bigger killer than smack.”
“Compulsory for all post school leavers – at least once. One of the most important narcotics ever given to man. Access to the mainframe.”
“Do mushrooms! They’re wicked. I grew up on mushrooms as a Welshman. Compulsory… pre-school, post-school, during school.”
“Why ban it? You’ve just put the price up by £40 a gram. It’s horrible shit, you get a really bad comedown on a Wednesday... but why not, eh?”
“Compulsory for all. Should be a daily herb. I’m fortunate to work in a studio full of Rastafarians. And I’m not gonna have any arguments with Jah Rastafari today so bless the herb!”
“Sadly a permanent fixture in rock ‘n’ roll. Not a great lifestyle. But it gets the job done! It can be positive or negative. But we’ve had more fun with it than not.”
“Heroin is the most beautiful woman in a smoke-filled room. As you gaze longingly through the haze, you see her dancing in a beautiful see-through dress. Then the sun comes up and you realise she’s an old fucking hag with no teeth… and her tit is falling off.”
“Compulsory for all post school leavers who want to learn about Detroit house music and Chicago and where it all comes from. Do it once, friends, but don’t talk to your mother.”
“Angel dust . . . compulsory for James Brown.”