Alabama 3 tastes some success, especially with ‘Sopranos’ theme 

Special to the Journal Sentinel
Posted: July 2, 2008

The members of Alabama 3 are not actually from Alabama, and there are more than three of them.

These are pieces of information that this U.K. collective believes its fans can be trusted to process, according to founding member Rob Spragg, a.k.a. Larry Love.

"The people that get us do get us," Spragg said. "We actually sing in American accents and talk in American accents as a point of playfulness. I'm aware we set up a particular smokescreen and we require our audience to see through that."

Since its formation in the mid-1990s, Alabama 3 - which usually performs in the United States under the name A3 - has created its smokescreen from a swirl of disparate parts: club-ready dance beats, a fascination with American roots music from gospel to blues to country, and a certain low-down decadence that Nick Cave could appreciate.

Its humor, as heard in songs like "U Don't Danse to Tekno Anymore" and "Ska'd for Life," took time to find traction, even if its nodding acknowledgment of the American influence did allow a few inroads on this side of the Atlantic. Back home, its music and its politics-"Don't cut no slack for the Union Jack" is a key line in the song "Woody Guthrie" -certainly found no friends during the heights of Britpop.

"I was told I couldn't mix acid house and Hank Williams, and I think you can," Spragg said. "We are culturally indebted to certain elements of Americana, and this was our two fingers to Britpop. We had to keep our heads down in the face of some animosity from U.K. journalists and American labels."

Alabama 3 also had to dodge that country-pop monolith known as Alabama.

"It came close to a suit," Spragg said. "We got a letter from an American ambulance-chaser saying we couldn't use the name Alabama, because it was copyrighted. This letter was as thick as 'War and Peace.' "

Even so, Alabama 3 has had devotees as big and bad as its detractors.

The fan club includes David Chase, who was driving down a New Jersey freeway when he heard "Woke Up This Morning" on the radio and realized he had a theme song for a television show he had sold to HBO. It was called "The Sopranos."

"Chase thought it was three black kids from the Bronx, but then he found out it was us," Spragg said. "We were proud to be associated with something of that caliber, and it has been very good for us."

Other fans include Stephen King, "Trainspotting" author Irvine Welsh, music critics Nick Tosches and Peter Guralnick, and legendary "Last Exit to Brooklyn" novelist Hubert Selby Jr., who allowed himself to be sampled for the track "The Moon Has Lost the Sun" in 2002, two years before his death.

"He told us, 'Boys, you can have that track for one dollar,' " Spragg said.

Alabama 3 hasn't converted its infamy to larger success yet - a fine compilation, "Hits and Exit Wounds," is available only as an import, so American record companies haven't necessarily caught on just yet. But the group has built its touring reputation with a nine-piece band that has barely changed membership.

And it has its own definition of success.

"We have a cultural aesthetic as opposed to a chart position," Spragg said. "We know we're in this for the long haul. There is vivaciousness in our approach, and what comes out is that we do enjoy our music and that we are original. That's all I need."