Chris Robinson Interview: "The Black Crowes, to Be Honest, Became a Very Tedious Scenario"
Image attributed to Chris Robinson Brotherhood
Although the rock group the Black Crowes has had a high turnover rate throughout their history, the driving force behind the band has always been brothers Chris and Rich Robinson who initially formed the band while going to Walton High School in Marietta, Georgia, in the 80s. The band has since sold over thirty million albums and is listed at number 92 on VH1’s “100 Greatest Artists of Hard Rock.” The Black Crowes are currently on hiatus.
Chris Robinson’s solo project, Chris Robinson Brotherhood or CRB (as they are affectionately known by fans), played about fifty shows in California in 2011 before introducing themselves nationally the next year with the release of two sprawling studio albums: Big Moon Ritual and The Magic Door.
“Other singers go on the road with their solo bands, and they just play the same shit they play with their other fucking bands. It’s like, what’s the point? I don’t need this shit. I don’t get it. This is something else that I’m feeling that I want to say that we all do. That’s kind of how and where it comes from.”
The band released its third studio album entitled Phosphorescent Harvest in April 2014, and Try Rock ‘N’ Roll – a limited edition 12” vinyl exclusive EP featuring four cover songs (“Hello L.A., Bye Bye Birmingham,” “Goodbye Wheeling,” “Shake Rattle and Roll,” and the title track) was released on November 28, 2014. The 2015 Winter Tour kicks off January 17 in Florida, followed by Midwest and East Coast dates in February.
Chris Robinson: How are you feeling today?
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I’m good, Chris. Thanks for taking the time.
Chris Robinson: Where are you from?
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I’m in Birmingham, Alabama.
Chris Robinson: Well, I’m the first person who escaped the South after four hundred years of white male domination (laughs). I escaped all the way to California.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): (laughs) I do like the song, “Hello LA, Bye Bye Birmingham.”
Chris Robinson: I told someone the other day that I’ve always been a huge Delaney Bramlett fan. I knew that song from this John Randolph Marr guy who did it. I’ve been a vinyl collector for a long time, but we were goofing around, and I found a version of the song by Mac Davis of all cheeseballs to find (laughs). It’s funny because we play a lot of different songs, but we have to find one that fits in our vibes, you know, like in the groove. The Mac Davis version was the funky like where all the music kind of combined itself in the South.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Let’s talk about the formation of the Brotherhood and how you chose those particular guys for the group.
Chris Robinson: It’s funny because there’s a whole impetus around what you do especially for someone like me. I don’t do frivolous things with music. The Black Crowes, to be honest, became a very tedious scenario. It was the best of times. It was the worst of times. The worst of times was winning out in this Charles Dickens-themed imagination of mine.
After all that and all the things you go through, you can put together a band, call up the best dudes, do this and do that. I was lucky because Adam MacDougall had been the keyboardist with the Crowes since 2007 and a close friend and confidante and someone with whom I was writing songs. I found my way for better or worse to where I am today just because I decided to write songs. I used to write songs with my brother, and I’ve written songs by myself. That’s the work, you know what I mean? That’s the music. That’s where it starts.
I was writing lyrics before I could even realize I could sing in key. Then I was writing songs before I knew what a performer was, so I think the material is the other member of the band (laughs). I kind of had those things going. Then we needed a drummer. We needed George (Sluppick). I needed someone who knew where the shuffle still was because that’s a lost art, someone who has a unique shuffle that wasn’t trying to just play Chicago blues or someone trying to be country because rock and roll is a beautiful mutation of all the music. That’s the freedom of the thing.
Luckily, George would be the only person outside of California as well. He subsequently moved to California. That was the other idea. How do you start a band in an age of a corporate morass of producer driven shit? I didn’t want to rely on something that I did before because it’s not indicative of who I am now, and I’m not selling that to people (laughs). It was a quandary, at least for me, because I’m not interested in getting money from a corporation and doing what they tell me to do or looking the way they want or saying what they want. I’d much rather be a fringe element, obscure person in the big scheme of things.
I had Adam, which was a great feather in my hat, and then I had George. Luckily Neal Casal and I had known each other and played and jammed and hung out, and we were friends. Always in the back of my mind, Neal’s playing is so beautiful and he’s an accomplished songwriter on his own accord and has made many records and been in a lot of situations. When it turned out that Neal had the time and could commit some time to it, then things were like, “Ooh.”
Things really have to work in a vibrational sense for me. There have to be some working parts other than just pragmatisms. There has to be some sort of mysticism whether it’s a light spray of mysticism around the whole thing so that things come together because that’s what they do. I think if you’re into music, and you’re into vibrations, if you follow those things, then they’re going to lead you to things that mean something. You don’t mind if I speak Californian to you? (laughs). But I learned about mysticism from living in the South … African mysticism growing up. Seeing music in shapes and colors coming out of people was pretty heavy.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Did you try to get the sound of the Brotherhood so different from the Crowes that it wouldn’t be thought of as just a side project?
Chris Robinson: Totally. That’s the thing. A side project sounds so boring. That sounds as boring as a talent contest to me. I know the Black Crowes are not going to turn around and be something that I think is super amazing again and fun and vibrant with the energy I’m looking for. So yeah. The other thing is you give the Black Crowes their due. I’m super proud of it.
The only reason I went out and did the tour in 2013 is because I’m just like the people who love the Black Crowes. Music affects me on a cellular level, and it has always been that way. I listen to music at the most joyous occasional, and I listen to music when I’m threadbare if you will. I did it because people love those songs, and that’s a deep connection. But if I’m gonna do something else with other people, that was then, and this is now, and that was another exercise in a different sound. That’s not necessarily me. That was a group of people that made that sound just like this is.
Other singers go on the road with their solo bands, and they just play the same shit they play with their other fucking bands. It’s like, what’s the point? I don’t need this shit. I don’t get it. This is something else that I’m feeling that I want to say that we all do. That’s kind of how and where it comes from.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I read that some people are calling the Brotherhood the “new Grateful Dead,” which I think is a pretty good compliment.
Chris Robinson: It would be a huge compliment to us. We’re all obsessive fans. Neal, Adam and I are pretty much officially tie-died Deadheads. To be a part of the Grateful Dead extended family and to play music is just a big part of our seed. It’s the seed or the egg, if you will, like where all of this other stuff comes from.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Did you know Jerry Garcia?
Chris Robinson: No. I was at concerts and stuff. There was something about Jerry in the 90s there when I had access to backstage at Grateful Dead shows (laughs). There was something about him that seemed he didn’t want to be very social with some stupid twenty-five year old kid in a fucking blues-rock band from Georgia. I’m sure he’d been cool. But I’ve been playing music with Phil (Lesh), and I’ve known Bob Weir since 1997 and started jamming with him then, and I’ve played with Phil since 2004 now.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): In a recent interview with Bob Weir, he stated that he would dole out Jerry’s dope to him every day in a certain amount.
Chris Robinson: (laughs) I don’t know where that story starts sounding shit to me, but Bob was there, and I wasn’t, so I have to give it to him. I don’t think Jerry was the kind of guy who had the same amount anytime, but that would probably just be my druggy, romantic notion from another life that I had before I was a dad.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Besides just being much younger, how is life on the road in your 40s different from your 20s?
Chris Robinson: Being on the road in my 40s is about to be over for fuck’s sake! I don’t know. We’re building this band on a brick by brick basis until the temple is complete. I set up my own gear everyday. We still live on the bus. We only have hotel rooms on days off. We still don’t have any crew guys. It’s not for the nice hairdo rock set. This is a musician’s gig. People always ask, “How long are you going to do it?” I’m like, “Until you die or people stop coming.” There’s a great mystery.
I’m around Phil who’ll be seventy-five in March. We’ll do nine or ten hour rehearsals. On his seventieth birthday, we rehearsed a soundcheck for two or three hours, and then the gig was five hours, and there’s a guy who has survived all those things. There he is with this limitless energy to be a part of these vibrational realities and this sound and what that means to all of us.
I’m a lucky, lucky person to get to still be involved and feed my family and take care of them the best I can by living out my creative wits and hopefully making a sound, a soulful, dimensional thing that some people like. It has never been hard for me to lose sight of that. Let’s put it that way. That kind of makes it difficult because the music business is definitely more business than mysticism.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Do you believe that artists nowadays care more about the image and persona than the music, and is that encouraged by reality shows like American Idol and The Voice?
Chris Robinson: Completely. Otherwise, what would the response be to our age of violence, anxiety, fear, ignorance and racism? The earth is crying out. Our bodies are sick and blistering. The earth is sick and blistering. So let’s let kids get their teeth whitened and have these fucking people who haven’t gone a day in fucking decades without having a meal, tell them what to do. It’s about assimilation. There’s no art there. Gwen Stefani, you can say art if you want. I don’t mean to say her. Isn’t that a person that’s on television, the girl from No Doubt? I don’t mean to pick on Gwen Stefani. Now you’ll write that, and it’ll be on the fucking Internet like I hate Gwen Stefani, like I give a shit.
My point is, I get it. You can’t say anything without people needing to make it something shallower, making a sound bite. You can tell by the way I fucking ramble on that I don’t do sound bites too well. I find the same thing with music. There’s nothing interesting in it. If it makes you feel better to consider yourself an artist, or if that’s what you have to call it, good. But you won a contest, man.
For those of us that see music in a far different perspective, I didn’t win any fucking popularity contests (laughs). I’m from Atlanta proper, but in 1976, my parents moved out to the suburbs. The way I felt about real art, the way I felt about poetry and life, the things I didn’t like about it would inevitably help me become a real artist. I’m proud to say that it had nothing to do with assimilation. That’s why I find it funny because I see them.
Those kids are still out there. People are involved in gratuitous bohemia. We’re still around. Not everyone looks the same. It’s not a youth oriented thing. It’s always going to be there. The esoteric is available. You just have to find it. If you’re watching TV, and if you think those people have something to offer you, then you’re probably just a tourist anyway, and that’s a good experience. Tourists like to get on the bus in New York and see all the spots. That’s a great trip for them, but some people need to venture into the catacombs.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Chris, have you seen the list of this year’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees?
Chris Robinson: Unless it’s some new age suburbia show from the late ’60s, I haven’t seen anything on TV. That’s bullshit. I watched the shit out of some NBAs, so I’m not totally that crazy. No. I haven’t seen it. I don’t really keep up with stuff like that too much.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Just wondering what you thought of the choices: Lou Reed, Green Day, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble, Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, Bill Withers and the Paul Butterfield Blues Band.
Chris Robinson: Well, Paul Butterfield should be first on the list. I guess the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is just like the Grammys or anything else. It’s a popularity contest, and the people who get to choose … what do they know? I’m not being horribly arrogant, but at forty-eight years old and the amount of time I’ve spent obsessively collecting, listening, playing, writing, talking, fucking over music, and then somebody tells you whatever? It’s like, really man? Who are these people? I don’t know them (laughs). They’re not hanging out backstage at my fucking gigs. I don’t know these guys. It’s like anything else.
It’s about being popular more than anything. I think it’s good for the old cats like the 60s dudes and the R&B people who never got anything. It’s good for them. But for fucking rock stars and spoiled rotten motherfuckers that just fly around in jets? But not Lou Reed! To me, he should’ve been in there already! He’s fucking Lou Reed! That’s what I think about the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Why are we even discussing it? He should’ve been in there at week two or whatever. He’s Lou Reed. Jesus Christ! It’s nuts.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): This year marks the 25th anniversary of the Crowes’ debut album release, Shake Your Moneymaker.
Chris Robinson: I’m going to get a teardrop tattooed on my eye (laughs). Yeah, unbelievable.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Was that early success with the Black Crowes basically a blessing and a curse, and was that time a blur, or did you actually get to enjoy it?
Chris Robinson: I enjoyed … it was pretty good. The Shake Your Moneymaker time was not enjoyable. Within twenty-four months, we did three hundred and fifty something shows. That kind of shit doesn’t even exist anymore. I’m a poet. There’s duality in everything, so it allowed me access to a certain level of success at least in a materialistic sense and the kind of things that seem unreal to you as a kid.
I have to say I was pretty bored pretty quick with being a rock star. I didn’t like going to some cool bar to see Keith Richards play. Then it was the Seattle thing, which was cool because we came before that. We were in that middle sort of weird thing. Then you learn a lesson like, “Oh, no one cares about the work. No one cares about these songs. No one really cares if we go away.” I knew that really quickly. I don’t think a lot of people realize that. Maybe it’s too scary or something to know that your manager or your record company really doesn’t give a fuck.
Everyone just wants money, which by the way, I have no regrets. I played the game. I was there. I did the best I could given the circumstances, and I wanted that music to be heard, and there was a big stage and avenue to do it and to make those musical statements. I really believed in rock and roll as a force at that time in my life. It’s funny like how Neal showed me one of the reviews for Phosphorescent Harvest from some younger person. He was so exasperated and confused by our musical endeavors. It’s like they don’t even know what rock and roll is (laughs). To me, that’s the greatest compliment I’ve ever been paid. If I had to want twenty-four years to get it, fucking right on, man!
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Would you be just as happy in your life right now to focus all your creative energies on the Brotherhood and never make any more new music with the Black Crowes?
Chris Robinson: Oh yeah, completely. Like I said, I don’t have any … we’re only responsible for our perceptions. Everyone’s allowed their own reality and their own truth. I dig it. My whole thing is, I’m super proud of what the Black Crowes accomplished and a little bit sad that we couldn’t have accomplished more. Sad that not everyone could get together on the music and be in a groove and figure out the next play. On the other hand, that’s the way things happen.
I think it would be a far worse decision to make to play music because that’s all you have is the Crowes, or there’s nothing else going on to just make some money. That would be super, super sad to me. I understand. I go see concerts (laughs). I want that feeling whether it’s jazz, bluegrass, rock and roll, whatever. Give it to me. I need it because it makes me feel better than what else we’re given through control and capitalism and stuff like that, even though we’re all capitalists. What I meant, I guess, is not capitalism but grotesque consumerism.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Tell me about the tour.
Chris Robinson: We need to keep this band on the road for a while. We’ll get in the studio this year, so it’s pretty much a continuation of this last sort of cycle that started in May. I think by the time we get to the east coast in February, I’m hoping we’ll have a couple of new tunes we’ve been working on, and we have some rehearsal dates coming up.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What fills your time off the road?
Chris Robinson: It’s just so incredibly relaxing to come home from tour because basically I chauffeur kids around at schools and hockey games and wash dishes and walk our pit bull (laughs). It’s so beyond normal dad life when I get home except for the fact that there’s usually some Herbie Mann records playing on the stereo because the kids are trying to do their homework. Other than that, it’s completely normal dad stuff. We’re very much hands on parents, my wife and I. That’s pretty much it. It’s pretty boring once you get over here.
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