Zac Cockrell is a great bear of a man who can find unlimited nuances of hilarity in the word ‘fracking’. He has an excitable Cavalier King Charles spaniel, a rather imperious cat, two Alaskan skunk pelts on his wall, and a disused country club swimming pool, where he catches frogs, abutting his backyard. He is also a connoisseur of avant-garde architecture and, as we drive around in his truck after lunch, ‘90s R&B singer Tevin Campbell on the stereo, Howard and Fogg in the backseat, it seems he knows a story about most every house in the sprawling area of seemingly unconnected communities that make up Athens.
There in the trees, he notes, is the Greek-inspired mansion that he calls the Parthenon, designed by the illustrious modernist, Paul Rudolph. On the left, that place used to have a morgue in the basement, and was supposed to be haunted. A third reminds him of Tombraider. A fourth, Heath Fogg chips in, had every stone allegedly dipped in buttermilk before it was built. “A house with oak trees in the yard,” pronounces Fogg, “is already a good house.”
Near the town centre, a low grey building, looking as much like a warehouse as a home, sits on a patch of waste ground. This is where The Alabama Shakes used to rehearse and where Howard, for a time, lived with her mother. It was built by her great-grandfather, a man with no formal construction skills. “They would build rooms every time they had babies,” says Howard, “until there were, like, five weird-ass rooms, some of them sunken into the ground. He had nine kids of his own and then they adopted four more – back in those days, in the aftermath of the Great Depression, people couldn’t take care of their kids, so if you had a good income you could take care of someone else’s kids. It wasn’t like an official adoption.”
When her great-grandmother died, Howard moved into half of the house – now split in two and, to a degree, renovated – with her mother; her parents had separated when she was eight. Howard was in her mid-teens, and had spent most of her life living in trailers. “If you had a ball, it would roll to the corner of the room,” she remembers. The layout made no sense, a “weird labyrinth of doors,” as Fogg describes it. It was also, Howard swears, haunted.
“I moved back to my Dad’s cos I couldn’t live there anymore,” she says, “it was crazy. There was a crackhead neighbour, plus it was extremely realistically haunted. If you were in the kitchen and you were trying to make some dinner, pop some popcorn or something, something would fuck with you. When I was asleep, something would fuck with my feet, ‘cos I’m tall and my bed wasn’t long enough, so my feet would hang off the end.
“My room was so creepy, I wouldn’t sleep in it. I slept in the living room for years, on the floor on a little pallet. One night when I was going to sleep, I saw this flash of colour, it was really weird. Then the lightbulb in the living room dimmed, the air conditioners popped on and the power surged. I went to put my pants on and then the phone rang and I knew that something was really wrong; my Grandpa had died.”
Some way out of Athens’ centre, we come to the area where Howard spent most of her childhood; a succession of car lots and windswept yards that were once filled with trailers. “We used to live in a single-wide,” she says, “and then we moved to a double-wide right down the street, and life was good. I thought we were rich when we moved down here, cos we had so much land. I was four or five.”
Here, it transpires, is a woodland glade, with a house standing where a trailer used to be. Surrounding it are cars, hundreds of them, in various picturesque states of disrepair; her father sells used vehicles, and is a bail bondsman in his spare time. “My dad saves up cars ‘til February and then he sells,” she explains, “’cos that’s when people get their tax cheque. There used to be a lot more cars, stacked on top of each other – it was like a little city. I used to have so much fun playing on them, not knowing that they could collapse on me and kill me.”
A small girl, who Howard calls Porkchop, is running among the wrecks. “I don’t know why she’s called that. She’s a super-cute little tomboy, always dirty. She reminds me so much of me ‘cos I was the same way, hanging out with mechanics and eating sauce on crackers.”
Back down the road, a new gym has sprung up near another vacant lot, where a “cool couple” used to sell cigarettes to underage kids at a mark-up. Athens was a farming town, but now it is increasingly reconfiguring itself as a suburb of Huntsville, 25 miles away, where jobs proliferate in the military and in defence corporations. “When I think about home, I think about how slow and quiet and comfortable it is,” says Howard. “I love the south because people tend to be kind here. When a tornado comes and one of the neighbours needs help, if they’ve got a tree on their house, I know somebody with a chainsaw. Everybody just comes together. I’m proud of where I’m from. I mean, everybody has that; it’s a community.”
“If my family and my friends weren’t here, I guess there would be no reason to be here,” says Fogg. “It’s not like I’m in love with the landscape: it’s pretty generic, and there are a lot of other places in the world that look really similar. It’s just where I feel like I need to be and want to be.”
Cockrell parks the truck outside the bleak-looking fitness centre. Howard looks out of her window, and is briefly wistful. “Everything’s moving so fast on this road, everything changes. There used to be fields. Breaks my heart a little bit. I used to have a motorcycle when I was young, and this is where I used to take it.”
A few days earlier, The Alabama Shakes had travelled over to Athens, Georgia, to play the first shows of the Sound & Color campaign. Alongside the four of them, their extended lineup features two keyboardists, and three backing singers. Soon enough, they will play a show in London that previews all 12 of the album’s songs – raucous, transporting, mystifying, rousing – but not, audaciously, “Hold On”, their signature song from Boys & Girls. Another week later, they bring the house down on Saturday Night Live with “Don’t Wanna Fight” and “Gimme All Your Love”. Not for the first time, Howard dances with her guitar like Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Her earrings are in the image of Prince’s face.
On the drive to Georgia, Howard says, she listened to Bjork’s new album, Vulnicura. “She has a really interesting way of mixing the record,” she notes, “where songs usually start off very quiet, with her voice very small, but they build and suck you in. Before I knew it, I was in another space.”
It was dusk, she remembers and, as she tried to work out the lyrics, there was something about how the string arrangements married up to the glare of the headlights on the freeway. It took Howard out of her situation, she says. “Wow,” she says. “It was really ethereal,” she laughs. “I mean, I swear I can hear Iceland…”