Posted August 2017
Chris Robinson has been rockin’ for over thirty years. Atlanta residents have loved him since the 1980’s when he and his brother, Rich, conquered their city – first as Mr. Crowe’s Garden, then as The Black Crowes. It was that last band name that the rest of the world became gleefully aware of them when their album, Shake Your Money Maker, was unleashed.
In 2010, Chris and Rich put the band on an indefinite furlough and began to work on their own projects. Chris’s is The Chris Robinson Brotherhood and has been described by some as what you would get if you blended the Allman Brothers with The Grateful Dead. Chris would say they’re just making music.
The CRB is hitting the road in support of its latest CD, Barefoot In The Head. It was about that album and supporting tour that I recently chatted with Chris
In preparation for the interview, I had watched a documentary about Chris and the Black Crowes entitled, Who Killed
That Bird On Your Windowsill. In it, Chris said that the question he hated most usually involved being asked if it was hard working with his brother. The film then went on to show Chris a ration of you-know-what each time he was asked such a question.
Since Chris is now a solo act, I mentioned the documentary comment and asked if there was a similar question that I needed to avoid asking. He laughed and said, “No! No! No! No! Are you kidding? I think, at this point, that question is moot. I mean, you know what I mean? I mean, I’m a solo act, too. The Brotherhood definitely is a band. We just put my name on it to jump in line, occasionally, when we have to.
“It’s so different. I hope it sounds right. The one thing is about the Black Crowes is the way I see it at fifty years old compared to how I saw it when I was twenty-two. We worked hard. We loved music. Believed in rock and roll, art, and writing. All of that sort of outsider culture appealed to me. You did it and things happened and, hopefully, you were talented and you were lucky and all of the above. But that stuff happened to us, you know what I mean? You can try all you can and you put your coin in the slot and it either comes up three cherries or whatever, right?
“The one difference about where we are and what we’ve built and the kind of time and patience but also fulfillment and excitement about what the CRB is we’ve built this, you know? It might not be a lot on the outside but, for us, to start from absolutely nothing and not relying on any sort of – I didn’t put the Black Crowes on anything because it had nothing to do with that presentation or what I did in that band. I wasn’t going to ask people for their hard-earned money for something that they weren’t gonna get.
“So, on one level, it’s funny, answering the same questions every day when you’re twenty-four years old. Then, I went for years when I didn’t need to talk about anything. So, for the CRB, it’s a totally different mindset, unlimited energy and imagination and feeling about what we’re doing.”
Obviously, the Black Crowes was incredibly fulfilling to Robinson as an artist. I asked him in what different ways does the Brotherhood fulfill him.
“In one way, the Black Crowes were like marrying your high school sweetheart and then everyone changes, you know what I mean. But it’s completely different. Again, life is different. The scenarios, the people, the energy, locations. For me, I’ve just been trying to position myself however way I can; to make things. Be creative. Everything has its paradoxes and its relations to the negatives and the positives.
“So, what a unique and unbelievable opportunity to be in a band like the Black Crowes. But, it also limits you in terms of the idea of, ‘Well, no one wants to hear your new music.’ That’s kind of the idea people have with classic bands. It’s like, well, I’m just crazy enough – I love the Black Crowes music. I plan on performing it again at some point. But I also have all these other stories and all these other songs – you know, as a singer, I love to sing! So, when these songs kind of begin with my ideas – melodically and musically – and then the rest of the band take them. They’re malleable things. From point A to point B, hopefully, we can create something beautiful like a palm tree or a walrus or whatever it’s going to be.
“So, to be honest, that was the kind of relationship and magic that I was looking for as a youth. And that’s where I am, now. That’s where I feel it’s come full circle, in a sense.”
Early in our conversation, I mentioned the Allman Brothers/Grateful Dead analogy and asked Robinson if that was a fair assessment.
“Well, I think the Allman Brothers and the Grateful Dead probably listened to a lot of the same records growing up just like the Rolling Stones listened to a lot of the same records that the Beatles did. As much as music has influenced and is an inspiration – I grew up in Atlanta, Georgia, where my father was a folk singer on ABC/Paramount. I grew up in a house full of roots music. So, on one hand I think it’s a broader influence or can you find inspiration in the tradition you work in and take that and sort of turn it inside out and then find a place that’s ultimately big in the now or being in the present.
“So, I think those qualify but I do think – between all of us in the CRB there’s over a hundred years of people making records or have been on tour. I’ve been doing it thirty years and the others have been doing it twenty-five years or whatever – thirty years themselves – Adam (MacDougall) and everyone – Tony (Leone) included, and Jeff (Hill). At a certain point, you just – what becomes you becomes part of the whole. And, to me, that whole is music as a cosmic idea or a vibration.”
In describing Barefoot In The Head for fans, Chris said:
“I think it’s the natural progression of the CRB’s sonic cycle that we’re on. I don’t know. It’s a hard thing to describe. They’re songs and they’re melodies and images and sometimes those images are musical and sometimes they’re literary. Sometimes they’re cinematic and sometimes they’re super earthy and real. Hopefully, the songwriting makes a connection and the band takes the material and presents in an interesting, dynamic way. We’re super lucky in this day and age to even have the opportunity to go into amazing studios and have this time to work and continue doing something that other people find archaic. Hopefully, listening to the record is like an awesome evening of stimulation and conversation and culture with, like, the people you love the most.”
As for how this album was different to record compared to the past projects he’s worked on, Chris said, “To me, that kind of stuff – I mean, I came in making records at the end of it all before everything was dig and the old school way. To me, it’s about integration. I mean, making records is hardly that tricky. You take your best material. You try to get your coolest sound and you get your best performance and that’s a recording session. For us it doesn’t make a difference between this record and the last record – well, one major difference was we had less time. But, also, before we went in, the idea was nobody can bring any of the gear that we’ve used on the road, you know what I mean? It’s our rigs. They sound like the CRB. That’s the guitar and the same amp that I’ve been using for hundreds and hundreds of shows for years now. I haven’t changed.
“So, this time it would be like, ‘Oh, I don’t want to play that guitar or hear that amp. We consciously, I think, went a lot more acoustic and, also, let everyone in the band stretch out. I mean, Adam plays a multitude of keyboards. Jeff got to play cello and some different stringed instruments. Neil’s playing banjo and Tony’s playing mandolin and marimbas. Neil’s playing a multitude of stringed instruments, as well. Even having the great Ali Akbar Khan’s son, Alam Khan, play sarod on the track, Glow, is like one of the highlights of being in the studio for me – of my life. Also, we didn’t have any songs completed. In fourteen days we wrote, recorded eleven new songs.”
Artists don’t like picking favorite songs because it’s like picking your favorite child. So, I asked Robinson which song would he use as a calling card for the rest of the album.
“I’m the worst with stuff like that because I’m so weird. You know what? To me, the song I’m kinda most proud of – the song that I really think is the – I don’t know. In one way, I guess it would be “She Shares My Blanket,” which is the second track on the record. A flimsy attempt at a Robert Altman-esque romance or something. And, in a weird way, my dark horse song that I really love is ‘Hark The Harold Hermit Speaks.’ I think it’s indicative of – it has the genetic building blocks that makes our band but in a totally different sequence. It’s a the muta.”
Because I personally like, If You Had A Heart To Break, I asked Chris the story behind that song.
“You know, it’s funny. Neal is the one in our band who – on the last record, it was a song called Sweet Lullaby. No matter what we’re doing, once or twice a year I’ll sit down and write a sad kind of country song and that song was really like a country song. But that didn’t really fit us – the way I was playing it in my mind. So, I kind of brushed off some of it and Neal was really into it. He said, ‘You need to finish that.’
“So, I put a little elbow grease in it. Yeah, you know, I love a good, sad, bitter, love song – country song. I think of them as stories, these songs. They’re scenes, in a way. How you juxtapose them or place them over something or vice versa, that’s what it is. That kind of vague description hopefully benefits the emotional response that people have by having their own relationship to the words.”
Responding to my question as to whether the CRB has performed any of the tunes from the new CD yet (and what the response has been, so far), Robinson said “Yeah, yeah. Well, the whole thing has started to morph into this – the shortest song on the record will now probably be nine minutes but the time we get on tour. We played ‘High Is Not The Top’ a couple of times on the last run. We played ‘Blue Star Woman’ a little bit. Yeah, I think there’s some songs on this record that – a song like ‘Glow’ I don’t really know if that’s a song we try to add. I mean, we have some of those kinds of pieces. Hopefully, some of these dog eat songs – maybe a little more conceptual.
“That was kind of the other idea, too: We don’t have to make a record that we feel that we have to play every track every night. We could make some other statements, you know? They’re there to share.”
And the response?
“I think it’s been awesome. Like anything else, songs change tour to tour. The little differences. Then we find little things. Everyone finds their paths. Usually by the time you find your path, we realize we’re in the wilderness again so we kind of start all over. If you’re into that kind of thing it’s an excellent thing.”
As for what can fans expect from this tour, Chris said, ““We’ll keep what we’re doing. I think the more we keep our head down and just concentrate on this music – our scene grows every year. Knoxville is a great example. The first time we played, not that many people. The next three times, it’s like there’s always another one hundred, two hundred more people – another two hundred and fifty people. Like I said, I don’t think we have to beat anyone over the head. It’s not the average jam band experience and it’s not the average rock and roll experience and it’s not this and it’s not that. I think you just have to come see if it’s something that works for you - if you like the sound.
“I’m really proud of the scene that’s around us. Our audience and the people that come to see us is super kind, welcoming place, do you know what I mean? I know that in the jam band scene, a lot of parties have been going on. Panic. Phish. String Cheese. Whatever. Those bands are all great bands and their scenes are huge. So, we have our party going on, too. It’s just a lot smaller.”
I asked Robinson what was on his radar for the next year and the next five years.
“We’ve written a lot of songs the last fourteen, fifteen, sixteen months. We’re just ready to tour and with the record out – and there’s another Betty’s Blend she’s working on. There’s plans for us to go to Japan early next year and go back to Europe and do Australia, New Zealand and we just want to keep playing.
“The other reality is the only way people can really know what it’s about and be a part of it is to come see you. And we get the most out of it, too. That’s one thing, we’ve all be through a lot of scenes and scenarios and bands and ups and downs. But, at the end of the day, musicians want to play and that’s what’s happening and that’s what we want to do.
“We have a little bit of time off. I have a solo show here in San Francisco in a couple of weeks. I’ve been playing some gigs around here. I’ve been lucky enough to have Terrapin Crossroads – which is Phil Lesh’s venue – that’s been going on for a while. I play with Phil. I have my own nights to jam with whoever. You know, here in the Bay Area, live music is what people like to do with free time.”
With some time left in the interview, I shifted gears by asking if Chris thought that the music industry is broken and, if so, what would he do to fix it.
“Is it broken or is it crash-landed somewhere and we’re taking parts off of the mother craft to survive in a hostile environment? To me, it’s awesome. To me, there’s a place for the independent person to work now. You said we made six records in the CRB and not one asshole from a record company has walked through the door and told us the bass is too loud or that he didn’t like that chorus, you know what I mean? That was something I always found hard to stomach as a young man. And, as an old man – or an older man – I’m definitely not going back to that.
“Without the music business being the way it is – if you’re a part of it and you’re in the system and you own the labels and you’re listening to those people and you’re in the producer-driven, kiddie music business, then that’s good. Fame! Money! Yay! That’s cool! I’m into this for completely other things. If you’re creative and have good ideas and you have something to say and people want to hear it with your music, then this is a great time!
“Think about it, man! No one’s doing anything! It’s the best time to do something! I travel around America and kids have nothing to do except play video games. I’m, like, ‘Dude, there’s still bands and records.’ You know what I mean? You don’t need to be on TV. You don’t have to have anything happening. You just need friends that care about the same stuff you like and, then, you’ll see how that changes everything.”
Wrapping up our chat, I asked Chris how he wanted to be remembered and what he hoped his legacy would be.
“Oh, my word. I’m the Draymond Green of rock and roll. I’m sorry, man. We have the best basketball team in the world six miles from my house! I never thought about that. I mean, I would hope that the songs would speak for themselves. I dedicated my heart and soul to the muse. For better and for worse – my opinions notwithstanding about how much I love music – it would be nice – in that pantheon of people who dedicated their lives to their muse – I would like to be put in there. I don’t know what that means except – life is beautiful and strange and sad and there’s loss and there’s hope and there’s madness and, at the end of the day, I’ve been lucky enough to experience all that stuff through the lens of music. As a dyslectic, weirdo kid from Atlanta, I just see it as a gift.”