I’m a terrible procrastinator. Alabama 3’s publicist contacted me weeks ago, saying that Step 13, their new album, was out 24th September and asked if I’d like to interview them. (For the uninitiated, Alabama 3 are probably most famous for Woke Up This Morning, The Sopranos theme song).
I’ve lived in South London and worked in the music scene since the ’80s and know most of the band – primarily through drinking in The Prince Albert in Coldharbour Lane and the other late-night watering holes around Brixton. Unchanged by fame, as far as I can see, they’re a great, down to earth bunch of loveable and articulate scoundrels. The late Jake Black in particular could talk the hind legs of a donkey, drink everyone present under the table and possessed the rare combination of being incredibly entertaining, dazzlingly intelligent and yet hugely generous and gracious in conversation.
But despite being quite close with some, I’d never passed more than the occasional “All right, how y’doin’?” in the pub with the enigmatic Rob Spragg, co-founder and frontman of the band. So when the publicist offered me the opportunity to meet and talk with him, the answer was “Yes, I’d really like to interview Rob”.
Since then, he’s been pushing me to get the article written in time for the album release date which is fast approaching, but it’s taken me about three weeks to find the time to sit down and start distilling the conversation. I know there’s something unquestionably important scribbled in my tatty notepad that really needs to be said.
But now I see that The Many Saints of Newark is out in cinemas and I have to go. It’s imperative, I really do have to go, I’ve been waiting patiently since The Sopranos prequel was announced some three years ago, and I immediately buy a ticket with a few clicks online.
Instantaneously my writer’s block is broken, I write these first few paragraphs and rush off to the West Norwood Picturehouse where I sit wide-eyed, ears pinned back, drinking in the
huge-screen, cinematic experience, soaking up every line, every image I can.
The movie ends as the young Tony Soprano, played by Michael Gandolfini, reaches maturity. The camera is close up on his determined expression as the familiar heartbeat of the Alabama 3 track that opened every episode of The Sopranos TV series pours out through the cinema speakers.
The implication is that this is the very moment Tony decides upon the career path that would eventually lead him to become head of the DiMeo crime family. Camera pans out, “woke up this morning, got yourself a gun”, roll credits, and I head off home, my Soprano cravings fully satisfied for now.
As I wake up this morning – Thursday, and sit down to continue the article – there are already two emails from the publicist asking when the piece might run as ‘the album is out tomorrow’.
I read through the scrawled notes from my interview with Rob Spragg a few weeks back at Brixton Jamm – a music venue once synonymous with sticky carpets in an area perhaps still synonymous with race riots.
Rob greets me with a warm smile and a firm handshake – offering me a drink before we sit down at one of Jamm’s well-worn, outdoor picnic benches. It’s a scorching, bright afternoon, and as he sips cold Peroni beer, I sip bottled water and attempt to peer through the dark glasses to see who I’m talking to.
Rob formed Alabama 3 with Glaswegian Jake Black in the early ’90s in the South London squat and party scene, together delighting local club promoters like myself with their sardonic debut single Ain’t Going to Goa. It’s over two years since Jake died, and although his vocal is featured on three tracks of the new album, I’m not sure if Rob will really want to talk about his deceased friend. So I approach the subject tentatively.
We chat about local people and pubs we have in common: “I was the very first in the queue for The Prince Albert after lockdown” he grins, his rich Welsh baritone resonant. I believe him 100%, his street-savvy is indisputable, but I wonder how he continues to square the band’s firm South London roots with its manifest connection to the Southern US States. “I’m blessed to be surrounded by a rich and multi-cultured community”, he begins “in my mind, we’re reporting what comes off the street, and if our brothers and sisters in the US or in other parts of the world are suffering the same or similar tensions, then we have to show solidarity”.
I scribble frantically, impressed by his sentiment. “Music is a vehicle to dance”, he’s in full flow, “but also a wide variety of things. With music we can ask ‘Why is that tension there?’ and offer hope. Music was the first thing to be locked down”, he is saying when suddenly a siren, screaming in the road next to us cuts the train of his thought. We both jump. “That one’s an ambulance”, he tells me as we slowly settle.
Since lockdown ended, there has been a spike in the number of murders in the area – identifiable by the police ticker-tapes that close the road for a few hours. Most are drug-related, turf-war stabbings or shootings, accredited to the local crews who document their alleged territorial activities via drill music tracks on Youtube.
But recently, one killing resulted in a large blue police forensic screens closing off part of Brixton Hill for over a week. The gossip locally, Rob tells me, is that this murder was about cocaine. It involved the deposit of dismembered body parts, possibly Columbians, not the local crews. “Not their style”, he is adamant.
An eyebrow rises above the rim of his sunglasses as he muses: “I guess drug dealers were in lockdown like the rest of us!” Yeah I guess they were, I agree. “These last two years have been so strange”, he meanders. “For all of us, not just me and the band, but with the whole Covid thing – so many people lost family and loved ones. There was a national mourning, which I think made losing Jake a bit easier, like we were all sharing our loss together”.
He diverts the conversation and clearly, he really wants to talk about his deceased friend: “I think to begin with, I was in denial that he was dead” he tells me. “With him on stage there were no gaps, I’d sing, he’d sing – we worked off each other for so many years – and then all of a sudden there’s this gap, a gap on stage and a gap in the sound where Jake used to be”. I stop writing and for a what seems like a very long moment, we’re both quiet. I try again to peer through the silent, dark glasses.
And then abruptly, as if someone had magically depressed the pause button, the silence breaks: “I dreaded the gaps, I fuckin’ dreaded them, I dreaded being alone”, his rich baritone falters slightly for a second and I realise I’m sitting with a man sharing his sorrow.
“I think we all experienced our own sense of alone-ness throughout lockdown”, he continues. “I knew we had to go on, he’d have been furious if we didn’t, he’d been working up till he died, so I dug out his tapes. And as soon as I heard that Glaswegian voice, from like, beyond the grave, I felt immediately that the singular had become the collective again – I wasn’t alone”.
The band recently played a series of gigs showcasing the new material, and I tried to describe to him the wave of astonished emotion that swept through the crowd when we heard Jake’s vocal coming out loud and clear across the PA. In particular, Night Trippers in a Trap House which not only has Jake’s vocal singing the immortal line: “Don’t cry for me as I lay dying” but the beeps of his life support machine as he actually lay dying.
“He knew exactly what he was doing, what he was leaving us, it was even in the right key – the key of G”, he rises in his seat as he tells me this, hands animated. He cracks open another Peroni offering me one too. When I decline again, he breaks into an imitation of Jake: “Remember Larry, you’re a better songwriter than Bobby Gillespie, you have the right to get wasted on a Tuesday morning”. He does a great Glasgow accent. For a few seconds the Jake-shaped gap in the world is gone and we’re both laughing.
“I hear his voice all the time”, he grins but as the laughter subsides I hear the pain return in Rob’s voice. “Like an amputee, I have phantom feelings in my soul – but how do I filter it”. He looks momentarily at his beer. “How do I filter out the bad bits from the good bits? I don’t know, I try but I can’t shake it off”.
I wonder if with the passing of Jake and the demise of his stage persona The Very Reverend D. Wayne Love, whether Rob Spragg felt it might be time to put the Larry Love persona to bed too?
“It’s been discussed,” he says, very matter of fact. “Yeah I have wondered if it’s time for Larry to go. We did the whole US accent thing from day one for a laugh, and it just grew, we did it even in interviews, we had such good times”.
What’s it like when you get home after a tour, does your partner ever ask you to leave Larry outside the door? He laughs out loud at this, “Ha, yes of course my ex hates Larry, and my girlfriend loves Rob. Larry comes out at midnight and Rob takes over at 10am”. We both laugh again. “But there’s no firm decision on Larry yet”, he rubs his stubble, “I’m not sure”.
What about Jake, is there more material? I ask. “Yes loads, he left so much” he says, “But you know what it’s like – I just need to find the time to sit down and go through it all”.
Step 13 the new album from Alabama 3 is out now.
For more info and live dates visit: https://www.alabama3.co.uk/
Photos of Rob Spragg by Phil Ross
Alabama 3 live photo by Simon Reed.
Photo of Michael Gandolfini courtesy of Warner Bros Films.
Words by Phil Ross. More writing by Phil can be found at his Louder Than War author’s archive.