By Arron Kennon, First Year English
Arron Kennon catches up with Rob Spragg of Alabama 3 to chat combining country with acid house, making music in the toilet, and honouring lost band members.
Since 1997, Brixton-based Alabama 3 have been proudly releasing albums which feature an entirely unique fusion of country-western and techno. Often they can also be seen to experiment with trip-hop, R&B and acid house, to name only a few other genres that can be found in their impossibly eclectic selection of songs. Perhaps what they are best known for, however, is their track ‘Woke Up This Morning’, which was used for the opening credits for The Sopranos. In September 2021, they released their 13th Studio Album ‘Step 13’.
The band was born early in the 90s in a squat rave in Peckham. Leadman Rob Spragg, AKA Larry Love, reported how band member Jake Black was “playing some acid house and I started singing Hank Williams songs over the top and it sort of worked. We had a laugh about it, I think we had a fight and then a laugh”. It was there that they had the seemingly ridiculous idea to combine country-western and techno.
The multicultural backdrop of Brixton also encouraged them to combine disparate genres. “When you walk around Brixton you're exposed to so many beautiful cultures… I can hear all different accents, I can hear different styles of music, I always keep my ears open when I'm wandering around Brixton.” Spragg was clearly keen to express his gratitude and privilege to be able to spend time in Brixton and soak up its eclecticism and channel that into his music.
Just as they were about to start writing and recording ‘Step 13’, Covid and lockdown struck. “It was a fucking nightmare… I had to do it in my f***ing toilet in a flat with 5 other people”. Two months passed of zoom rehearsals and separate recordings until finally lockdown was lifted and they were given 2 weeks in a studio in Brixton to put all the separate elements together. Given this, the cohesion of the record was a big concern for the group, but the synergy and level of conceptual realization that ‘Step 13’ achieved in spite of this is remarkable. What started out in Spragg’s toilet turned into a delectable melting pot of country, rock, acid house, and techno.
Hanging over the record is the loss of founding member Jake Black, AKA The Very Reverend D. Wayne Love, who died in 2019. “We were dealing with a death in the family”, Spragg related as he recalls the whole band bawling in emotional disarray every time they encountered work written or produced by Jake Black. After eventually “hardening up” however, they used these feelings to produce one of their most emotionally charged records to date. For Spragg, despite the inevitably emotional experience of working with lyrics and beats that Jake Black wrote, guiding them to their completion in a completed song was the best way to honour him.
The Album opener ‘Whacked’ immediately familiarises the listener with their narcotic background. Spragg was keen to stress the deliberate direction and structure of the album, aware of the potential for being seen as insensitive when the first song after the death of Jake Black has a chorus that parades “everybody’s getting whacked on something”. He compared the album, in a way characterised by his typical brand of introspective hedonism, to when “you start off at a party and you end up on your own at a bus stop in Morden at 4 in the morning, crying into a can of s*** lager”. The latter half of this journey can certainly be seen in songs like ‘Night Tripper in the Trap House’, which represents one of the more heart-rending tributes to Jake Black. The song ends with the sound of a fleeting heart monitor, appropriately in the song’s key of G, and the Chorus of “don’t cry for me as I lay dying” was written by Jake Black before he died.
Alongside the mourning for Jake Black, the album never shies away from the political. Spragg describes ‘Yolanda’ as “a confessional about what we owe as white musicians”. “It's very much me trying to address, in my own pathetic white man way, what it's like being a white musician knowing full well that as white musicians, often you rip off black musicians, it goes back to Eric Clapton and the Rolling Stones”. This awareness of responsibility is presented in the song alongside his support for the BLM movement and a response to the police brutality in Brixton and around the country.
‘Tranquilise yourself Britannia’ aims to address a multiplex of political issues, from the use of painkillers by the Government to pacify the population, how the British Empire was built on the trade of Opium, and the ludicrousy of Brexit and “all that Union Jack bollocks”. The song reflects how the only match for the diversity of their music, is the lyrics they write over it.
Spragg explained that his musical philosophy is to “always keep it random”. This is reflected so clearly in his music that he almost wasted his breath by saying it. It's what makes Alabama 3 so appealing, so refreshing, and has kept them afloat for nearly 25 years. Few other artists would dare to name both Brian Eno and AJ Tracey as influences and fewer still would have the ambition and ability to combine those influences and have them displayed on one single track. It’s why, when Rob Spragg describes their upcoming album as “dark, twisted Southern funk”, I know that a kaleidoscopic and wholly unique musical experience is awaiting us.
You can catch Alabama 3 at the O2 Academy Bristol on April 29th. Tickets are available here.
Are you a fan of Alabama 3?