Rich Robinson Interview: "The Crowes Are Always up in the Air"
Image attributed to Alysse Gafjken
Rich Robinson is best known as the guitarist, songwriter and founder of The Black Crowes. Born in 1969, Robinson formed the group with his older brother Chris in Atlanta in the 1980s. At the age of 17, Robinson began writing the music for the songs that would land on the band’s 1990 debut album, Shake Your Money Maker, which sold 7 million copies. Over the next 10 years, his songwriting evolved into the musical engine that powered the band to sales of more than 25 million albums.
Before taking a hiatus in 2011, the Crowes catalog included classics like The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion, Amorica, By Your Side and Live at the Greek: Excess All Areas, a double album that captured the teaming of Jimmy Page and The Black Crowes for performances of Led Zeppelin, Crowes and blues and rock standards.
“I just love being in the studio, and I love writing songs. The Crowes are always up in the air. We never know what’s happening, and it’s just something I love to do. It’s something I need to do, you know? It’s just in me, twenty-five years of doing this, so whenever I get the opportunity be it for me or for the band or whatever, I love to do it.”
In 2004, Robinson began his solo journey with the release of his first album Paper. It would be 7 years before his second solo album, Through a Crooked Sun, and an accompanying EP Llama Blues, were released as the Crowes reunited in 2005.
A worldwide Black Crowes tour kept Robinson busy in 2013, but he found the time to return to Woodstock to record his third solo record called The Ceaseless Sight. The album will be released June 3, 2014, and the Rich Robinson Band will tour through the year to support the music.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Rich, you were recently answering questions from fans on your Facebook page. I think it’s great to have that interaction with them on social media.
Rich Robinson: Oh cool.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I thought the most interesting question was, “Why do you keep your private life private?”
Rich Robinson: Yeah (laughs).
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Hence the word “private” (laughs). But do you ever get tired of the limelight with photographers hanging around everywhere?
Rich Robinson: Well, I think actors and actresses have to deal more with that than bands. The Crowes … we don’t really have to worry about paparazzi or being followed around or anything like that. To me, music is music, and we get to live our lives and do what we do. I really do enjoy my private life. I think it’s essential to living to be able to have some sort of sanctuary.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Absolutely. Why did you feel it was time to record another solo album?
Rich Robinson: I just love being in the studio, and I love writing songs. The Crowes are always up in the air. We never know what’s happening, and it’s just something I love to do. It’s something I need to do, you know? It’s just in me, twenty-five years of doing this, so whenever I get the opportunity be it for me or for the band or whatever, I love to do it.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Did you have any particular ideas or inspirations before you hit the studio to write?
Rich Robinson: For this record, I didn’t. I had less than normal, but it was more a conscious decision. I didn’t want to go in with a bunch of songs, pre-conceived notions. I kind of wanted to have it a little more free. I had sketches of songs, a verse and a chorus or a verse here or whatever it was, but I was like, “Let’s just get in there, see how it goes and just wing it.” I like working like that sometimes. It was just like that. We went in, and if I needed a song, I wrote it, and that’s what it was. It was great.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): How did you end up with the title The Ceaseless Sight?
Rich Robinson: There’s a song on the record called “Down the Road,” and it’s just about moving forward. There’s a line, “Ceaseless sight on the horizon,” and I just liked that idea of moving forward, to quit looking backward and quit driving while looking in the rearview mirror, to move forward in life and everything.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Was “One Road Hill” written for your son?
Rich Robinson: No “One Road Hill” is just a love song. Its just people meeting and falling in love and what it means. It really is just a love song.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What are the differences between where you were personally on Through a Crooked Sun, your last solo album, and where you are now?
Rich Robinson: Crooked Sun was a little bit different. Crooked Sun was coming out of dealing with a bunch of divorce issues and other things. My dad had cancer. We had a lot on our plates. It was just more of like seeing where you were and what you felt and kind of inviting it in to process it and be done with it.
This record is more like the after party of that. That’s all done … this is what it is now. You let all of that go, and you just move forward. That’s really what this record was about as far as a more free album. It’s getting out there and feeling free, not trapped by your past or any kind of bullshit you have to deal with. In a sense, that’s how I recorded it as well.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): To just celebrate the future.
Rich Robinson: Exactly.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You formed Hookah Brown and Circle Sound. What makes the current Rich Robinson Band work?
Rich Robinson: I’ve been playing with the same drummer since 2003, so we’ve been together for eleven years. He’s a good friend of mine, a great musician, so for that, I’ve just been playing with him. I felt like I wanted to add a different element until I brought on another friend of mine who’s a really cool guitarist and pedal steel player and great singer.
For keyboards and bass, I decided to go back to Atlanta and hire some people from down there. These two guys played with Derek and Susan from Tedeschi Trucks Band and Colonel Bruce Hampton. They have a really cool outlook, and it was a very natural progression for us to play together. The guys who played in my last band, Brian and Steve, are great guys and great players. Steve’s doing his band this year, Particle, and Brian’s busy doing a bunch of stuff. I just thought, “Let’s just get everyone and put this together and have it be cool.” That’s really all it was. It was just a good feeling.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Chris has also recently released new music. Will you and he embark on another Brothers of a Feather Tour?
Rich Robinson: No. Not at all.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Was your dad the main inspiration for choosing a music career?
Rich Robinson: I didn’t start playing the guitar until I was fifteen years old. My dad’s musical tastes were a huge influence on both Chris and me growing up. Dad loved Joe Cocker, Sly and the Family Stone, Crosby, Stills and Nash and anything in between. He loved traditional Appalachian songs and Paul Brady, an Irish folk musician. There was a lot of stuff around that really shaped kind of who we were as people and what our musical tastes were. As far as guitar players, I always loved guitar, but I was always way into writing songs. That really was my main focus, but I wanted them to sound something like Nick Drake or something to that effect.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You wrote music at age fifteen, but did you know then what you wanted out of life?
Rich Robinson: No, I didn’t know what I wanted, but we ran a band, and we just started playing together. We just went, “Okay. We’re in it.” We never really sat down and said, “This is what we’re going to do.” It was more just like we started doing it, and then we never stopped. That’s what I always find really interesting about it that it was just this thing that we did.
We never wanted to do anything laborious. We never wanted anything to be like that in that sense. Musically, with the way I’ve always worked … I work when I feel inspired to work. I write when I feel an inspiration to write. I don’t just sit down and write. I’ll come up with something when it moves me.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You never wanted an eight to five job.
Rich Robinson: Yeah.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Were you mature enough at twenty years old to go on the road with Aerosmith?
Rich Robinson: No, not really. I don’t know who would be at that age. It’s kind of a weird thing to just come from where we came from and then to go where we went on that tour. It was really weird for two kids from Georgia, not in a bad way, just kind of shocking for us to experience that success.
It was amazing, and we all went through it together. There was so much camaraderie and was so cool. It was just great, but there was also a lot that we didn’t necessarily think about or could prepare for because it was so foreign to all of us and our families.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Did your dad warn you two about the temptations on the road?
Rich Robinson: He did. He tried to protect us a little but, but he also knew that we were going to do what we were going to do.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): To what do you attribute The Black Crowes success?
Rich Robinson: I think where it comes from is that it’s authentic. We always meant what we wrote and meant what we played. It was never full of shit (laughs). We never tried to be anything that we were not. We loved the Stones when we made our first record. I was nineteen years old when I made that record. We were unapologetic and wore our influences on our sleeves. I had just graduated from high school and wrote a record based on those experiences.
Then when Southern Harmony came around, we stuck to our guns and went in for a week and made a record. We didn’t pine over it. We didn’t overthink it. We just said, “Fuck it! This sounds good to us! This is what we’re gonna do, and this is the record we’re gonna make.” We always lived our lives that way, and if we saw something that we didn’t like, we would say it. I think anytime people are just themselves and truly authentic, it comes across, and people really like it.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Are you and Chris basically in synch with musical styles and songwriting?
Rich Robinson: We do fight. But early on, we were always in synch. We took the song at face value just like saying, “This is what we’re here to do. What’s best for the song?” That’s how we always approached it, and that’s why I think they were really good. Post 2005, there was a lot of push and pull with, “I want to do this, and I want to do that.”
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Tell me about the tour, Rich.
Rich Robinson: I have three solo records and two EPs to play and a bunch of covers. I change the songs every night. I do different set lists. It’s a really great band. We play our songs and have really cool set lists that change every night, which means every time you go, it’s something different which keeps it fresh for us as the musicians and fresh for people who come to see us more than once.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What do you enjoy when you’re not working?
Rich Robinson: I love being at home with my family, and I like to paint. I just had a big art show out here in Malibu, which went really well. It’s just another way to be creative, and there’s no politics involved. It’s just you and a canvas, and you get to create a thing. It’s really cool. I do mainly abstracts, but I’ll do sketches with ink and charcoal and do larger canvases with gold and silver leaf and all kinds of applications.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Upcoming projects?
Rich Robinson: I’m showing my work in Malibu, I think, at this gallery on Labor Day weekend. I’m talking to some gallery owners out here about doing that. I have my own label and just finished producing this guy named Dave O’Grady and just signing other bands and doing stuff like that.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Any discussion about new music from The Black Crowes?
Rich Robinson: I don’t know if we’re doing anything again (laughs). Probably not. I just don’t know. It is what it is with that band.
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