The life & times of Alabama 3
By, Sergio Burns
Digging a rich seam of post-modern, musical super-fusion, the band, Alabama 3, are a heady mix of eclectic beat cocktails. Simultaneously as explosive as a Molotov, and at…times, as soothing as sunlight on skin.
“You can’t be too careful sometimes,” Larry Love (AKA Rob Spragg) Alabama 3 vocalist pointed out when he spoke to Ayrshire Magazine. “You can be too eclectic and, you know, you miss the core of it. But I think Alabama 3 have remained true to that core thing, which allows us to be eclectic.”
The band could never be described as mainstream. For one thing they lack the formulaic and simplistic sterility of much of manufactured pop (no bad thing), and are much more challenging. Yet, it is still a mystery that after a fistful of albums, stretching from ‘Exile On Coldharbour Lane’ (1997) to ‘Blues’ (2016), the band have yet to be accepted as one of the most brilliantly innovative and original acts around.
Their song ‘Woke Up This Morning’, for example, was used for the opening credits of Home Box Office’s hit TV series: The Sopranos. Described by some as the ‘greatest television show ever written’.
Admittedly, Alabama 3 do mess around with your brain cells.
They are not from Alabama, and neither are they a threesome. They are, instead, an ironic, humorous and tremendously talented band who feed colliding genres into a genius sound machine. Fortunate for Ayrshire then that they play the Palace Theatre, Kilmarnock, on September 27, 2018.
“We like to tell stories,” Larry Love tells me about their approach to song writing, and then, with a huge sigh of thoughtful exactitude, he attempts to describe the music of Alabama 3. “It’s…erm…21st century acid house blues. I don’t know, I like to think it is a future conglomeration. We thought it a good idea to mix country and western and blues with techno back in 1993/94. We came out at the height of Britpop, no one seemed to understand us, now people are understanding our crossover, I think.”
Getting deeper into the rationale behind Alabama 3, and their creative engine, I asked why Larry thought they worked so well together?
“Alabama 3 have been together for about 25 years now or something,” Larry Love explained. “I would put chemistry at the top, above musical proficiency. Sometimes you can have a really good musical player but without intensity. If you are going to spend time with the band, you need to be able to have a laugh and have a fight. Fighting is really important, a band that fights together, stays together.”
Originally known as ‘The First Presleytarian Church of the Divine Elvis’, the band were dismissed by the music press as a novel and potentially short-lived, gimmick act. But these guys were not playing around. They held their nerve, worked hard and their popularity began to grow.
“David Chase, the writer, was driving down the New Jersey freeway,” Larry retells the story. “The one where you see Tony Soprano driving in the show, and he heard the track, ‘Woke Up This Morning’, and thought, ‘we want that for the opening titles’. David Chase thought, ‘That’s the one’, and it was interesting because he thought Alabama 3 were these guys from Alabama. He couldn’t find us, then he thought we were from San Francisco, then he thought it was three young black kids from the Bronx (New York), and he found out it is a Welsh and Scotsman living in fucking London!”
Larry chuckles, enjoying the irony of David Chase hunting down a mysterious band by looking in the wrong places.
But, the song certainly has everything. Neat melody, a hooky chorus, an impressive rap, underpinning rave beats. The whole package steeped in Americana.
The line: But you were born under a bad sign/ with a blue moon in your eyes, now seems – somehow – tragically appropriate.
Tony Soprano, as referred to above, played by the actor James Gandolfini, passed after suffering a heart attack on June 9, 2013. He was only 51.
Ironic then that a song Woke Up This Morning should forever be associated with the show, and especially Gandolfini, who died so prematurely.
The song was written (according to Genius.com), when Larry Love heard the story of Sara Thornton, an Englishwoman who killed her husband after years of domestic abuse. She was initially convicted and sentenced to life in 1989, but at a retrial in 1996 was found guilty of the lesser charge of manslaughter and released. The song was co-written by Piers Marsh, Simon Edwards and Jake Black.
“Basically he was driving down the highway at the time,” Larry Love repeated as if he was still having a hard time believing how iconic the song has become. “So there you go, it was a British band doing a kind of… gangster anthem.”
Larry, who is from the tough Welsh mining town of Merthyr Tydfil, started the band with Jake Black, another working class lad from Possilpark, Glasgow, Scotland.
– James Gandolfini, as Tony Soprano © Copyright 2000-2005 Home Box Office Inc. All Rights Reserved.
According to Wikipedia the two met and formed the band at an acid house party in Peckham, south-east London. But Larry’s recollection of the band’s origins is more Brixton pubs.
“I kind of, I don’t know, I’d hang around dodgy pubs for a couple of years when I was young, and became unemployable,” Larry revealed, perhaps with a bit of tongue-in-cheek, and laughed. “You can’t do anything else, and then decided… get a bar tab and then I would have to pay it off by paying the landlord back and then you form a band.”
He laughed as he wandered around the band’s origins, like someone who has lost their vehicle in a supermarket car park.
“Yeah, I think sitting around in pubs in the afternoon exchanging musical ideas,” Larry began again. “We owed a lot of money to this particular bar in Brixton, so we decided we ought to pay it off by forming a band and, so things sort of started like that.”
Both were into the rave scene but had been brought up in harsh working class environments where hope is soon usurped by drudgery and relentless heartache. In a way, the very bedrock of soulful, poignant country and western laments.
“Been a long tradition in Scotland, same as in Ireland and in Wales,” Love remembered. “Yeah where I grew up you have… mining communities, and Saturday night, miners doing country and western songs.”
He hesitates and then announces like the MC of a working men’s club:
” ‘Cowboy Dai Evans playing Merle Haggard songs tonight at the Cwmbach Club’,” He half laughs. “And, all that. The same would happen in Scotland. Jake was telling me all the bars would be full of Scotsmen singing all the really good country and western songs. Then we listened to all the blues music and all those Scottish reels, Irish reels and stuff like that. So, there is quite a connection to me and him. We mixed up country and western with a modern idiom like techno.”
There is playful mischievousness to Alabama 3, as well as undoubted talent, and it is that ability to mix and collide genres like musical sorcerers, which makes the band so unique.
Perhaps it is also these eclectic forces that has made their output so popular with film and TV?
To date the music of Alabama 3 has featured in numerous movies and TV series. Their song Too Sick To Pray, plays on the radio in the film Gone In Sixty Seconds (2000), M.I.A (2004) – one of my favourite tracks – is played in Football Factory, and Ain’t Going To Goa plays in the movie Definitely, Maybe (2008). On TV, as well as Woke Up This Morning, which can be heard on The Sopranos, numerous Alabama 3 songs have been used in soundtracks. Mao Tse Tung Said was used in Torchwood, while Rob Spragg, writing as Rob Love, wrote the theme to Welsh TV series ‘Y Pris’, (The Price). For this piece of work Rob/Larry, along with co-writer John Hardy, won The Best Original Music Soundtrack at Bafta, Cymru 2008.
Having spoken to Larry/Rob, they do mess with your mind, and sometimes it is difficult to know when they are shaping an angle on their unique take on life, the world, the universe and other places.
But maybe that is what makes them so brilliant, endearing and enigmatic…
Alabama 3 play The Grand Hall Theatre, Kilmarnock on September 27th