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NEWS FROM THE FRONTLINE...
NEWS FROM THE FRONTLINE...
It's a good thing that Alabama 3 make such sublime sense in song, because they sure as hell make little sense on the page. Imagine having to pitch them to a major record label today, in 2011: okay, so there's a whole bunch of them, they're from Brixton, mostly, they make country funk music as authentically Americana as Jack Daniels and as illicit as crystal meth, but with some Afrobeat in the mix, of course - oh, and some dubstep, and some parboiled blues, too. How do they sound? Lowdown, mean and dirty, like they stayed up late, like they didn't even go to bed at all.
No, wait - come back! People love them, they do. HBO people, bestselling horror writer people, and poet laureates of the chemical generation. The people they've collaborated with, you wouldn't believe. They sell out tours and club nights, off their own backs, and endlessly. Who else can boast likewise? And they operate outside of the mainstream, way outside, and on their own rules. Are they difficult to manage? God, yes. But then aren't all the very best acts? And you've got to check out the singer. He’s part Nick Cave, part Will Self, political firebrand and rock monster both, loveable and terrifying. Can’t take your eyes off him.
Guy Hands, you'd imagine, would pass…
Mercifully, Alabama 3 no longer need to be pitched to major record
labels. Fourteen years into one of the most joyfully idiosyncratic
careers in music, and they are now their own bosses, with their own
studio, and venue at Jamm in Brixton, and their own label, Hostage
Music. They've got a new album out soon, and they regularly host one of
the best club nights in town, Outlaw, to which all manner of artists,
musicians and creative types flock.
Frontman Larry Love, you figure, could no doubt by now run his own masterclass in the virtues of such a DIY ethic.
"Um, could I?" he says, laughing in an ominous sort of way. "To be honest with you, we haven't got got a fucking clue what's going on most of the time. In fact, I don't even know what day it is right now. But then that's the very essence of intelligence, right? You don't know what's going on, but you find your way anyway, you locate the method in your madness." He laughs again, a cauldron bubbling. "Somehow, it works for us."
Alabama 3 are about to release a new album, Shoplifting 4 Jesus. They always did have a brilliant way with album titles - 1997's Exile on Coldharbour Lane, 2010's Revolver Soul - and Shoplifting 4 Jesus might just be their best title to date. With a pleasing sort of synchronicity, it might just prove their best work as well.
"It's a concept album," says Larry.
He explains that it was prompted by the world we live in today, a world where nobody buys anything anymore, where files are shared, governments lie and banks steal. If it's good enough for everybody else, runs the Alabama 3 logic, then it's good enough for them.
"We've dropped a lot of samples on this record," he says. "Well, not samples exactly, but riffs, snatches of melody, and hints of choruses from other songs, and we've appropriated them as our own."
"But don't try to stitch us up, you cunt, because what we've done here is very much in the jazz tradition. And besides, there's honour amongst thieves, and in every case we've walked just the right side of litigation. Okay?"
The end result is a glorious brew of styles, of culture- and musical-clashes, and wonderful, wonderful songs: country ballads with evil basslines, throbbing rock epics with frantic rpms, and dub, an awful lot of dengue feverish dub.
"We've come across all sorts of fantastic new music and DJs through our club night, you see," he says. "Afrobeat, of course, plenty of dubstep, and - what's it called? - New Garage, or whatever it is your average 17-year-old is calling it these days. It's all still acid house to me, of course…"
Alabama 3 are unique. It's a bold statement, but one that bears out, holds water. Unlike most bands of their era, who, let's face it, are either dead or should be, they have proved themselves a constantly mutating collective, and always deliberately out of step with everybody else. They were the most unlikely act to have come out of the Britpop era, so little wonder, then, that they are proving the most enduring. Their collaborative approach to music, meanwhile - and they have worked, in their time, with everyone from Shane McGowan to Angelica Houston, Tony Benn to Tony Soprano - has kept them preternaturally creative. As a result, their back catalogue hasn't dated. If anything, it still sounds alarmingly fresh and relevant today.
Setting up Hostage Music, Larry says, has allowed them to follow nothing but their own gut. As has, less obviously, the world's current problems.
"While I don't want to make life any harder for the little woman whose pennies don't stretch quite so far in the corner shop," he says, "the recession, the global slump, whatever you want to call it, can have a beneficial act on outfits like ours that have remained outside of the mainstream."
How so? Well, he believes it means that your average music fan has become an altogether more discerning listener.
"Those kinds of soporific Coldplay ballads aren't going to have quite so much clout today as they did during the Blairite golden showers years, because people are a little less trusting of authority and predictability than they once were. They want something a little different now, a little subversion."
And subversion has been this band's stock-in-trade all along. They have perpetuated what can look like to the outsider as a chaotic existence, but Larry Love is no fool. In his own counterculture way, what he has created here is nothing less than a brand, an instantly recognisable brand.
"And why not?" he argues. "We live in a world of branding these days: Starbucks, McDonald's, the new Apple Mac. It's how we communicate with people, and I guess it's what we’re doing as well."
In other words, if you purchase something by Alabama 3, or anything else from their Hostage Music label, or if you attend one of their Outlaw nights, "then you pretty much know what to expect: the unexpected, the fact that anything can, and frequently does, happen."
The band has upped their workload of late, too. An acoustic album followed hot on the heels of last year's splendid Revolver Soul, as did a little-publicized but sold-out tour. Shoplifting 4 Jesus will be out in time for the autumn, at which point they will embark upon another nationwide tour. Next summer they will hit all the festivals.
"In this day and age, you have to step up your game, to think outside the box. It keeps you keen and creative. Being a musician today," he suggests, "is very much like being a musician pre-1900, long before there was anything so crude as a record industry. It's an artisan's existence, a traveller's life. And as such it can be a pretty romantic life. Certainly beats digging ditches, anyway…"
In a career in which they have constantly bucked expectation - not least their own – Alabama 3 continue to weave their own labyrinthine, archly haphazard way, making fantastic music, and then watching as that fantastic music goes out to meet the world head-on.
"Would we love major commercial success, stretch limos and a gaggle of ho’s on our arms?" he says, laughing again. "Sure, why not? But it's not going to happen. But then we've always been about not fitting in, and that gets you into interesting places. We are still rolling along, in other words. We're toxic athletes, bruv, and the party hasn't stopped yet, not by a long shot."
In a world of identikits, let us celebrate the one-off.