After some technical problems with our Zoom, I am pleased to see the laidback frontman of Alabama 3 Larry Love (Rob Spragg). Despite his chilled demeanour, the Brixton collective has been through it these past few years. Not only have they battled havoc and instability caused by covid restrictions but they also lost their frontman and founding member Jake Black just months before restrictions began. We discuss how their current touring album, Step 13, has provided an outlet and encouraged a regeneration.
The band’s formation is surrounded by the haziness you would expect from rock n’ roll natives. Meeting at an all-night house party in the 90s – either in Peckham or Italy (it’s debated amongst the band) – Love and Black connected over music whilst tripping on LSD. Describing themselves as “pop band, a punk rock, blues and country techno situationist crypto-Marxist-Leninist electro band”, Alabama 3’s sound is distinctive. Their music is hard to define, and this dubiousness is continued in how each band member adopts a performing persona. Larry Love is the alter ego of Rob Spragg, whilst the late Jake Black performed under the guise of The Very Reverend Dr. D. Wayne Love.
Their hedonistic career is evident when chatting with Larry. Asking if he’s had many interviews that day, he tells me he had a 1 pm meeting which “was a bit early for me” as he’s “never gotten over being in tour mode”. Despite his poor sleep, Love is relaxed – the sort of person who puts you at ease. Asking about his upcoming tour, he’s open about his apprehension and excitement.
“We’ve only had 6 gigs in 3 f*cking years so everyone is a bit nervous but it’s a good vibe”
Though looking forward to performing again, touring with the escalating events in Ukraine sits uneasily with Love. It is clear he genuinely wants to service the disadvantaged. He worries about being “a bit of a prick” touring during turmoil, but tells me how he was discussing with a friend how “maybe now the world needs music more than ever…anything that brings people together is good, you know what I mean?”
“I know we might only have songs but if we can get people together dancing… I’m not saying it will stop the war but it might bring some peace for the night.”
Despite these high hopes, Love admits his anxieties about being with so many people again. After restrictions ended last year they performed four gigs in their regular Brixton club. He says it was was “rammed with 700 people” and that it was “was sort of freaky [being] up close and personal”. Yet watching the band’s new drummer be affected by the large 10,000 person crowd at Beautiful Days festival, which happened just after these gigs, spurred Love on. Having been used to smaller gigs, the crowd excited and scared the drummer, which helped make the performing more exciting for a veteran like Larry. As he says, “It’s nice watching other musicians get really scared. I’m like a vampire feeding off their paranoia!”
Though an accustomed musician, Love reiterates his respect for the audience. “We are blessed to not be on building sites at 7 in the morning freezing our bollocks off. You’ve got to honour the audience, you’ve got to keep it funky.”
Written during lockdown, the idea of using this tour to enable people to come together feels poignant. Surprisingly, Love enjoyed the process of writing during this time. “I enjoyed it for the loneliness and how much I missed people. I got a bit sick of them after a while…20 years in rock and roll you get a bit sick of people spitting at you. It made me miss humanity in a good way.”
With his signature ambivalent approach, Love is careful to also highlight the challenges of writing through this time, referencing Gal Gadot’s infamous celebrity cover of ‘Imagine’ as he describes how ” I was conscious writing it I didn’t want it to be too John Lennon, but hopefully it would have some resonance beyond the pandemic.”
“I hope as it doesn’t come across as maudlin ‘we are all sad in this’ bollocks. Hopefully, the album is about adversity and the strength of adversity.”
The album is energetic and rich despite how much its production was influenced by death. Jake died just 6 months before the record was written, meaning “they are thinking about how to deal with mortality when the whole world was dying with covid”. Somehow, Love manages to find the positives in this, as he suggests his “mournful state” made him more adjusted to the death he witnessed during the pandemic. Three people close to him died from covid.
For Love, the album provided catharsis from grief. The vocals Jake recorded a week before he died are included on the album. As Love says, “we still want him to be very much part of it, we still want him to be part of the fun”.
On their last tour, just before the first lockdown, the band took a life-size manikin of Jake to keep him involved. Yet this isn’t something the band is planning to do again.
“It was horrible! The only way it would fit was sitting in the downstairs lounge area. It was disturbing people coming down for a piss in the night. He had his hands and everything – as the bus was moving his hands would be moving around it was fucking freaky! It was quite macabre but at least he was with us.”
This time, the band have toned down their efforts to keep Jake involved, but only slightly. Love tells me they will take his ashes on tour and that they have a “death mask” of his head which will remain on the bus “looking at us all the time”.
This effort to keep Jake involved seems to be underpinned by the band’s spiritual mission.
“We represent The First Presbyterian Church Of Elvis The Divine, so Elvis is the Lord. So we are a great believer in coke-like supremacy… D. Wayne has not died but has just moved to another level.”
It’s hard to assess how genuine Love’s belief is in such far-out philosophy. His demeanour is jovial and down to earth, we discuss issues that are rooted within the gritty reality of social inequality. Love for example was vocal in his support for Black Lives Matter, which is shown through the song ‘Yolanda’ on the new album. It’s hard to match this Love with such radical beliefs. However, the band began under the name ‘The First Presbyterian Church of Elvis the Divine’, only changing to ‘Alabama 3’ later on. I am intrigued as Love tells me how their philosophy is “half Scientologist, half Maoist, half Jim Jones”, yet I am left wondering if these extreme views apply to Rob Spragg as much as his alias Larry Love.
Looking at their blog on their website, I see a similar preference for controversial statements and raucous anecdotes. One post is called “How I Got To Kiss Courtney Love’s Left Breast”. This references a nervous breakdown in 1995 which cultivated in the obsession with singer and actress Courtney Love. However, despite the cutting honesty as the posts bluntly refer to drugs and sexual acts, ambiguity runs throughout the writing. The authorship of some of the tales is unclear and the writing style varies from abstractly poetic to brutally candid in a way that calls into question the reliability of the stories. In another post, the author chronicles an encounter with Alex Jones’ girlfriend. The author explains to her how the name ‘Alabama 3’ referenced a civil rights case where two black men, falsely accused of raping a white woman, were killed by the Klu Klux Klan. In this conversation, the author outlines how we “used the semiotics of American popular culture as a means of critiquing the covert ideology within it”. I wonder how much of the band’s views are ironic and deliberately subversive.
This uncertainty is central to the band. The name of Step 13 for example both links to what Scientologist L Ron Hubbard calls the stage after death but is also a nickname “for the weirdos who go to AA meetings to hang around with vulnerable girls and boys and take advantage of them”. Love recognises how this is “a dubious name”, but I find it interesting that the band have chosen such a name to represent a record that is ultimately about how “we’ve got to reframe death as a rebirth”.
Though he jokes about being the “Liberal Democrats of rock n roll” and “just sitting on the fence and not saying anything”, the vagueness of the record is purposeful.
“It’s in the margins where you can come together in the middle almost. Like in how we mix country & western with techno, or cocaine with Maoism. There’s got to be those strange moments of ambiguity because they are what make people think”.
Obscurity has run through all of Alabama 3’s work. Their best known song is ‘Woke Up This Morning’, which was used as the theme music for HBO’s The Sopranos. Though it may feel surprising that this riotous band are associated with such a mainstream show, Love is genuinely “happy to be associated with a cool program”. The band’s connection with the iconic show means they now attend Soprano’s conventions with the cast. Though tempting to imagine such events as structured and commodified, Alabama 3 managed to bring their personality to these events. At a convention in November 2019, Love recounts how the cast “went mad when we were playing, they bum-rushed the stage and started grabbing the mic!”
Though this song is used in a show about American mobsters, it was originally written about Sarah Thornton, a woman who killed her partner who worked as a police officer after years of sexual abuse.
“I like the ambiguity of the lyrics in how they changed from being about a woman enacting revenge upon her abusive husband to being a mafia anthem.”
The song has remained pertinent for Love. He managed to meet Thornton, his inspiration behind the song, recently. That, along with the tragic murder of Sarah Everard which happened just “yards from where I live now” has encouraged him to think about re-recording the track.
“I’m going to get some cool female rappers on it, proper militant, to return it to what the song was about. The Sopranos though has allowed me and our audience to revaluate the song over the years. It’s given it legs.”
Back to Step 13; Larry’s favourite record on the album is the heartfelt ‘Song for Aubrey’. One of the bonus tracks, the song is devoted to his manager’s baby Aubrey, born during the pandemic. After his manager’s partner had an ectopic pregnancy, she discovered she was five months pregnant during the first lockdown. Such lockdown births have brought Love comfort in the turmoil of the last few years. “I want to cry thinking about it…The light in their eyes is the light of hope”.
This undercurrent to the song helps to create the theme of regeneration running throughout the album. Just like how Love used Jake’s vocals in the album, the song features noises made by Aubrey. Parallelism between Jake’s death and Aubrey’s birth only continues in how Aubrey was born one day after the date of Jake’s death, just one ward down from where he died. As Love remarks, “war babies or covid babies are the future. Those babies born in basements in Ukraine now, it’s tragic but they are the future. They are tough”.
Alabama 3 are performed at Manchester’s O2 Ritz on April 16th.