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WE'RE AMAZED WE'RE STILL ALIVE
WE'RE AMAZED WE'RE STILL ALIVE
by Irvine Welsh
Guardian Monday April 21, 2008
Their sound is synonymous with The Sopranos, and yet the Alabama 3's hard living would make Tony himself blush. They talk to No 1 fan Irvine Welsh.
More than 10 years ago, a friend from Brixton came to stay in my Amsterdam apartment and brought me a tape of the sessions that would become the bulk of the Alabama 3's incendiary debut album, Exile on Coldharbour Lane. Its fusion of techno with country and western was astonishingly bold, combining the most radical and reactionary genres of popular music. I started to check out the band's gigs and found that Jake Black (aka D Wayne Love), one of the band's founding members, and I had many mutual friends from our raving days in Glasgow, stretching back to the punk era. So I became one of the band's aficionados, known collectively as the "bammies": we're the punters who help make A3 gigs the best party in town.
I can't understand why the Alabama 3 aren't one of the biggest bands on the planet. Woke Up This Morning, which plays over the opening credits of The Sopranos, remains their best-known song, but you would expect at least one of their albums to have gone platinum on the leg-up from that alone. Over the course of seven albums - from Exile, through Power in the Blood (2002) and last year's MOR, to their latest retrospective, Hits and Exit Wounds - the A3 have turned a crazed mirror on the UK's mainstream cultural influences, parodying derivative and genre-based music through the lens of what the band call their "sweet muthafuckin' acid house country music", with a leavening of dirty rock'n'roll.
I'm wondering how they'd cope if it all suddenly went mega. I settle down with D Wayne and Rob Spragg (aka Larry Love), the other founding member, in a dark corner of Dublin's Clarence Hotel, the smart, corporate, U2-owned enterprise, in front of a tray of our favourite blended margaritas. Does it concern them that lesser lights are fawned over, while they remain on the margins, albeit the exciting, interesting ones? "As long as we do good work," Larry says, "we know there will be a payback time."
Larry is as cadaverous as ever, a man who still looks as if a ray of sunlight will combust him. D Wayne, though, is a more substantial figure than the skeletal, spectral one I've seen grace stages, couches and floors over the years. But these boys are proper rock'n'roll stars. If they wear shades indoors, it's because they're covering up strung-out eyes and brawlers' bruises. Glancing at the tape recorder I've slipped on to the table, Larry asks me: "Do you feel guilty that you haven't had a rock'n'roll death yet, and are still bounding down the highways and byways of self-destruction?"
Death is such a cheerful presence in the A3 canon, it's easy to think of the Grim Reaper as a band member. "We've got a lottery in the band about who's going to die first," Larry says. "We're amazed we're all still alive."
D Wayne comes from the Possil area of Glasgow and I'm from Muirhouse, in Edinburgh, so when we get together we talk about art and politics, with all the pomposity, pretentiousness and guilt of true Scottish schemies. Playing back the tape of us rapping is like listening to two 80s Marxist polytechnic sociology lecturers vying to seduce an impressionable fresher. He tells me, touchingly, about my debut novel's influence on the band. "Trainspotting was iconoclastic for us. It introduced a whole disenfranchised generation to literature - a generation that had been informed literature was the possession of an elite. It delineated the complex inner lives of the housing estates and communities people lived in. We've been trying to do the same with our music, trying to show young people that they can make music based on their own lives, using genres like country and blues that they probably considered the territory of their dads and grannies."
But writing novels is a lonely business, and release is often difficult. That's what I envy about these boys: they can hit that stage and perform together; the communication and catharsis is instant, and there's an immediate connection with their audience. "That's the end of the process - the performance," Larry says. "But we're constantly looking for new experiences, new people to bounce off, new shades of reality to reflect our twisted US accent-based view of life. We're always collecting experiences to use as songwriters. But you can write everywhere," he suddenly accuses me. "You used to sit on the Circle line in London with your laptop and knock them out."
I ask them what music kicked off their warped but exhilarating vision of the world. "House affected us deeply," says D Wayne. "But punk rock liberated people like me and those I knocked around with in Glasgow. For the first time, we were able to come out of the scheme, dress up and hit the city centre, talk about Rimbaud and Baudelaire, mix with Jim Kerr and Charlie Burchill [of Simple Minds] and get shagged. It opened up a brand new lifestyle for us."
In practical terms, the band grew organically out of its members' acid house DJing activities. Larry explains: "We were doing a gig in Italy, me and D Wayne in the early days, with two turntables and a load of acid house records and some obscure blues LPs. It was run by the Italian Communist Party. There were lots of punk bands. We played our house, the room was full, it was kickin'. Then this guy from the CP came in and said we had to prepare and read out our manifesto. Someone tore a page from an Italian comic book and we read it out. It started, 'The techno warriors will save the Martians.' It made me think about the veracity of political manifestos. The crowd loved it. I often wonder if there are still a few addled Italian CP members trying to live by the code we outlined that night."
Things seem a lot blander now, in the age of Simon Cowell. "Alabama 3 live in this world," Larry says. "We reflect and comment on it. But we're trying to cut through the distortions of people who peddle popular culture as a series of Pop Idol-type creations."
So are they speaking to the old punks and house heads, those of us who should know better but just can't quite stay indoors and behave?
"Yes," Larry says, "But not exclusively. The last album was called MOR. Some say it stands for Middle of the Road, but it's based on those gorgeous California west coast sounds like the Eagles, and it maybe widened our audience. With the new collection, we just thought we'd offer up a reminder of how we got there."
One of the Eagles' most famous tracks is Take It to the Limits. Rest assured, the A3 will continue to do just that. It would be nice if the mainstream caught on and this retrospective brought them their just rewards. Yet for selfish reasons, I enjoy being part of a cult who can access the best party around.
Hits and Exit Wounds is out today on One Little Indian. The Alabama 3 play 53 Degrees, Preston (01772 893000), tonight, then tour.