Interview: Alabama 3

15/11, 02 ABC

For a band that mixes traditional country and blues with pounding acid house techno beats, Brixton’s theatrical 9-piece Alabama 3 have enjoyed surprising longevity on the worldwide music scene.  Qmunicate’s Ciaran McQueen sat down with frontman Rob Spragg (AKA Larry Love on stage) backstage at the O2 ABC before the Glasgow date of their UK tour to talk about the state of modern country techno, the difficulties in creating the genre, and feminism in music.

Just to start off by talking about the band’s actual sound:  I wouldn’t have thought that the fusion of country, blues and acid house would work but somehow it really does. Can you explain where the idea for that mixture came from?

Rob Spragg: I come from a working class mining community in South Wales, and was brought up on my country and western, that was part of our culture there but we always loved acid house as well.  And we thought, at the height of Britpop, what better way to fuck off Oasis and those wankers in Blur by going “We’re American”?  And we’d piss them off more by saying “We make country and western techno.”  So as you say, correctly: on paper it looks like a piece of shit – what a stupid idea, putting country and blues and techno together.  And bear in mind, this must have been around 1991 or 1992 we were doing this – the era of house music – the house people thought we were wankers and the country people thought we were even bigger wankers!  But we’re still standing, and we were very much anticipating what would happen technology-wise: with sampling technology, inevitably you end up sampling your grandparents’ records.

That’s something that’s really happening a lot in popular music these days, isn’t it?

Exactly, it all becomes relevant. It’s that kind of mashup thing. It can end up a… you know, a kind of fucked up pepperoni pizza if you get it wrong; but if you understand and respect the genres, like with Alabama 3 doing techno and blues and country, you can even play them all individually and it works.  So I’d say we’re still standing.

You say people in both genres thought you were wankers – how has the reaction been to your music in very country-dedicated parts of America?

They’re equally confused – we’ve gone through four major record labels, ‘cos they don’t know how to market us.  You know I remember this little fucking poxy A&R cunt going [adopts Southern American accent] “Rob, we’ve just had Ricky Martin – just sold five million copies of Livin’ La Dolce Vita’ – you’ve sold 17 copies of your new album. Where the fuck do we market you, man?  You in dance?  You in rock?  You in country?  You’re a record label’s nightmare, we cannot commodify you!”  So there’s always been that confusion.  But after about 20 years they’re finally getting there – you know Kris Kristofferson’s been a champion of our stuff- Carly Simon as well; Buffy Sainte-Marie’s on the new album – she’s just done a cover of ‘Power in the Blood’ [Alabama 3 song and album from 2002] and called her new album that as well.  So we’re definitely in that kind of area now, but I knew it would be a long journey in terms of getting respect because, as you say, it doesn’t look good on paper: a Welshman and a Scotsman doing country and western techno blues.

What about the EDM crossover in America, with artists like Avicii?  What do you think of that?

Fucking Avicii?  Little fucking cunt, goes “I made 12.5 million fucking dollars in one week, I invented country house music.”  Little fucker.

Have you found that, since country and blues can be quite inflexible in terms of songwriting, adding house and techno elements can expand it and give you more scope to develop the sound?

Totally, yeah.  When we did it, there was no one mixing the songs together – then you heard Steve Earle’s albums from about ‘99 onwards where he’s using bits of electronica, and since then a lot of country artists are using electronica, and vice versa.  So it’s definitely a challenge, because if you’re not careful it can sound like a fucking charity record, like a house beat with a fucking banjo on top.  It can sound really fucking ‘Granny’s Worst Christmas Nightmare’, so you do need to do it with some amount of grace.  But we’ve had B.J. Cole who’s DJ’d on fucking George Jones albums, and we’ve got some proper country players on our records so we’re obviously doing something right.

How does the material on the new album differ from your previous work?

It’s called Alabama 3 Present: The Men from W.O.M.B.L.E. W.O.M.B.L.E. being an acronym for ‘World Of Militant Beat Liberating Executioners’.  We’re very lucky to have a studio in Brixton where a wide variety of artists from rappers to guitarists can just drop in to play – we have this sort of revolving door policy there.  So we’re doing a succession of mixtapes: Volume 1: Men from W.O.M.B.L.E. and Volume 2: Women from W.O.M.B.L.E.  The ‘Women’ mixtape idea came out of – and excuse me for being a man talking about what women are – the way women are a lot more savvy since the Internet has developed this whole new level of misogyny and fucking waves of online rapists and pervs, and I think the girls are getting a lot more like “fuck you” and organising again. It’s very interesting to watch young women now going “Yeah, I’m a feminist” – and I don’t think feminism is a dirty word because whatever you want to call it, if it’s women gathering together, being strong and going “fuck you, you have no right to fucking stalk me on the net or try to ‘virtually’ rape me,’ then that’s always a positive thing.

So the Women from W.O.M.B.L.E. tape is a way of combatting online misogyny through the music?

Yeah, we’ve got loads of different women on there – we’ve just sort of chucked them all in ‘cos I don’t think there are enough women in rock and roll.  We need more women in producer roles, engineering roles; I think that’s coming through now but for a lot of years it’s been a male bastion of ‘boys and their toys’ and now the girls are going “fuck you, we can do it on Logic [music production software] or on our fucking phones”.  It scares the fuck out of the old fellas – the smell of yesterday’s fucking testosterone wind; they’re reclaiming the gadgets from the geeks, you know, it’s important.

[Ciaran McQueen – @_delareine]

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