Zac Cockrell could be forgiven for having a hell of an ego. Six years ago, Alabama Shakes was just getting started in a rural Limestone County garage; the band’s 2011 self-titled EP caught the attention of NPR, 2012’s Boys & Girls was a critical success, and the most recent album, Sound & Color, debuted at the top of the U.S. charts. If anyone had a reason to crow, it’d be him.
True to his humble and easygoing nature, though, Cockrell remains unfazed. It’s no surprise, then, that as a bass player, he excels at being integral and supportive while casually inserting fills and variations the way that one might slip witticisms into a friendly conversation. And just because Cockrell is a down-to-earth kinda guy doesn’t mean that he didn’t take risks on Alabama Shakes’ latest album. Thanks to the band’s producer, revered guitar and studio wiz Blake Mills, Cockrell stepped outside his comfort zone on Sound & Color, summoning uncharacteristically aggressive tones on songs like “Future People” and “The Greatest” and experimenting with alternate tunings on the album’s title track and “Gemini,” where he tuned down a full step to DGCF. But most of all, Cockrell excels once again at doing what he does best: laying down thick lines that make the music of Alabama Shakes so downright soulful.
How did you approach your playing differently this time around?
My playing is a little all over the place on this record. Aside from making sure that what I was doing was interesting to me, I didn’t go with any one particular mentality. I wanted all my lines to fit into the songs naturally, so I wrote a bunch of different things until the ideal part hit. I wanted everything that I did to be for the good of the song.
Sounds like you experimented with new tones, too.
I always want my bass to have a really full-bodied tone, even if I’m muting, but we tried a few new things on this one. I usually like round and deep tone, but on a few songs, we dialed in a more aggressive sound, which was new for me. But when I listened back I realized that it worked really well for what we were doing. Blake always wants to try crazy stuff, and I was up for it.
Did you stick with one-finger plucking like you did on the first album?
I find myself using my thumb a bit more for these tunes. I used to use my index finger mostly—and I still do, a lot—but I just love the sound and feel of playing with my thumb. It gets a warm and round tone and it allows my sound to be more consistent in any kind of room that we’re playing in.
What are your ultimate goals for bass in Alabama Shakes’ music?
I try to make things interesting and stay out of the way. Sometimes, it’s hard to marry those two, but I love hearing things on records that are super cool but not really out front—subtle things that make a big impact, little things you might not catch until the tenth time you hear a song. I tried to put a lot of those little things into this record. I hope it worked.
Alabama Shakes, Sound & Color [2015, ATO]
Bass Fender Custom Shop Pino Palladino Relic Precision, made-in-Mexico Fender ’50s Reissue Precision
Rig Ampeg SVT-VR head, Bergantino NV215 2x15 cab
Strings La Bella 760FS Deep Talkin’ Flatwounds