Interview: Chris Robinson


Singer Chris Robinson and The Black Crowes seemed a bit of an anachronism when they burst onto the music scene nearly twenty-five years ago, when hair bands were on the verge of being swallowed up by grunge, and the Crowes being in neither camp. Their sound instead was reminiscent of the Faces, or Exile on Main Street-era Rolling Stones, but with a dose of soulful Southern attitude. Their first album Shake Your Money Maker featured songs such as “Jealous Again”, “She Talks To Angels”, “Twice as Hard”, and a smoking cover of Otis Redding’s “Hard to Handle”. They went on to release other well-regarded albums over the next two decades, and built a reputation as a solid live act.

When the Chris Robinson Brotherhood (CRB) came along in 2011 during a Black Crowes hiatus – here’s a review of one of the first CRB shows – it wasn’t clear what the future held. Fast-forwarding to the present, it’s safe to say that the CRB is where Robinson’s heart and soul is at. The band now has three albums out, most recently this year’s Phosphorescent Harvest, and they’re still doing what they arguably do best – playing live shows full of cool original and cover tunes.

This interview was for a preview article for the CRB’s concert at the Lobero Theatre in Santa Barbara on 11/29/14. It was done by phone on 11/14/14. (L. Paul Mann photo)

Jeff Moehlis: I’m glad you’re coming back to Santa Barbara.

Chris Robinson: Yeah, yeah, me too. We feel we had a great show with Bobby [Bob Weir] at the [Santa Barbara] Bowl, but we were kind of gipped on time, so we want to come and do our whole thing.

JM: I saw you guys at one of the first shows you did as the Chris Robinson Brotherhood, back at SOhO in 2011. Do you have fond memories of those early shows in Santa Barbara?

CR: Yeah, completely. Because, you know, the whole idea when we put the project together, I was really fascinated with how do we get somewhere without having to do it in any sort of more conventional way. You know, like, you write some songs, you demo them, you send them to a guy who says, “We’ll do a deal”, and then you make a record, and then you put a band together. I’m not going to do that. That doesn’t work any more either, especially for people like us.

So the idea was to do this nine week California residency tour where we could play Tuesday nights at little places like SOhO for very little money, and kind of hone our shit, man, you know, like get it together. Get the tunes together and see if we’re going to be a band. Before that pressure is thrust upon you, we would go through that stuff as ourselves.

And as I’m sure you well know, living in beautiful Santa Barbara… [laughs] So we played Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, and San Diego every other week for nine weeks. We must’ve done, I don’t know, four or five nights at SOhO over that period of time. Los Angeles, classically, is always a bummer [laughs]. You know, it’s cool for us now, but we’d play this club on a Monday night, no one’s dancing. It’s like, whatever. It was cool, but then we would pop up to SOhO and it would be packed out, and people dancing and partying all night. It was, like, wow, know you? Between Santa Barbara and San Diego was where we found our stride, to be honest, especially SOhO. That was when we realized, oh wow, people are here, and people are responding. You know what I mean? It was a great laboratory for us to sort of start to get our shit together.

JM: I remember you commenting that you were surprised that on a Tuesday night there were people dancing in Santa Barbara.

CR: I know. Well trust me, man, when you’re out in the rest of America [laughs]… The only other region where people kind of get down at all on a weeknight is down south. But it’s funny – I always laugh, I’m like, “But they’re drunk. They’re not on other stuff.” You know what I mean? But it’s true, man. People have a hard time finding a weeknight to let loose and be a part of something, just for a little bit of time.

We played the Lobero a couple of years ago, and had a great gig there as well. Santa Barbara looms large for the CRB.

JM: That’s great – we happy about that! Those early shows were before you had any recordings out. What was it like to “grow up in public” like that as a band?

CR: Like I said, I think, maybe unlike some other people my age who are in the music business, or whatever it’s called now, I think this is a great time. The machine is dead, you know? It’s gone, at least for rock music or whatever you want to call what we do. What I mean by saying that is I appreciate that now I can get to the real essence of the idea. I don’t have to go to dinners with douchebag dudes from the record company anymore. You know what I mean? I don’t have to do that stuff. You know, when I say essence, it’s the same thing as being as authentic as possible. I want this to be unadulterated music, what’s coming out of our heads and our souls right into your head and your soul.

And I think that in this day and age, we spend a lot of time working on these songs, a lot of time writing these songs, and how do you get them out there, because they’re not going to play old hippie stoner music on the radio or anything. So the best way to do it for people like us, and the kind of concert culture we’re used to, would be to just be recording shows, writing songs, and getting them out there. And it’s funny because SOhO, the second time we played there, or maybe the third time, I noticed some hardcore fans coming from the East Coast. They were like, “We were just reading the shit online and heard the tapes, and we had to come see.” It might be a small scale, but that worked in my mind. So you had to get on an airplane? I like that.

You know, I had to really kind of grow up in front of people as a kid in The Black Crowes, so this to us… This is just a real harmonious sort of pursuit. There’s a lot of progression and positivity around our band and our family and our business. And that’s something that we want to maintain and nurture as much as we can. You take care of that and then the music… As with any other thing. The more we just focus on the music and the gigs, that’s really the only thing we can control, you know? I think that’s what makes it seem that everything is just kind of alright.

JM: I had the pleasure of interviewing your guitarist Neal Casal before your Santa Barbara Bowl show. What a great guy, and such a good fit musically. What, in your view, does he bring to the band?

CR: Well, number one, he’s just a gifted guitarist, with an amazing ear for melody. Neal’s also a great singer, and he’s also an accomplished songwriter. I think, if you look around at people’s strengths, I tell people Neal’s and my songwriting partnership is really exciting. Great songwriting partnerships, at least on paper, everyone’s kind of an opposite. My method of working is way more like a muppet of something – “Waaah!” you know. I have a lot of stuff coming out all the time. “Hey, we can go over here! Oh, this is purple! Let’s make this silver! This should be gravel!” Or whatever. It could be anything – textures, colors, lyrics, sounds, whatever. And Neal is more reserved. I think where our two worlds come together is perfect, because I’m free to be untethered, and the trust and communication level makes it so that Neal is supportive. “Yeah, go in the cave, go down there. Tell me what’s down there.” You know? Maybe there’s some treasure, maybe there’s nothing. Either way, Neal’s writing, like I say, he will step back more and have a little bit different perspective of it. So we have the best of both worlds there.

It is funny, too, because the singing is really important, and Neal’s a great singer. But for me, as a singer, to have someone to sing harmonies with… I mean, we all sing as a band, and I think that’s one of the things that sets us apart from a lot of the bands in our scene, or whatever you want to call it. In the jam band world, the vocals usually aren’t on the top of the list. But that also gives a great place for melody, a great place to have more harmonies in your music. That, again, is like, wow! That’s unbelievably exciting for a singer, that we can go to those places and do those things. That gives you even more color, even more choices when you’re writing and you’re expressing.

JM: Your third album came out about five or six months ago. How did your approach to that album differ from the previous two CRB albums?

CR: Well, it’s funny because, like I said, the way the business sort of works now or whatever, I really like it. I like seeing how do we make this work. We know the creative energy is there, and we know that sound is there, but now how do we make it work?

At the end of 2012, I had committed to this Black Crowes year so I knew we were going to have some time off. So within then and there, it’s built into the architecture of the production of the record. We went into Sunset Sound here in Hollywood, we tracked for two and a half weeks everything we could. And then, Adam [MacDougall] and I went on tour with the Crowes, Neal was with Phil [Lesh], Mark was doing this, George was doing that. Everyone was doing their own thing. But as the year progressed, Thom [Monahan] our producer has an amazing studio in his home as well. The Crowes are home on break, Adam would be at Thom’s for three nights or four nights, Neal would come home and go to Thom’s. The sessions kind of were built and changed, we added and subtracted and put it all together over a nine month period, with a lot of overdubs in different sessions with everyone just going in and doing what they want. I had never made a recording like that, but by the end of it I couldn’t have been happier. I couldn’t have been more pleased with the energy of the record. It doesn’t sound like a heavily overdubbed album, which, you know, you could make arguments for both ways, but I think conventionally if you put too many overdubs on something you start to lose maybe the magic or focus of the live performance. But I don’t think that happened in this case, which again is a great testament to our energy as a band and what we want, but it’s also to Thom Monahan as well, to keep it vibrant.

JM: In addition to originals, you guys do a lot of cool cover songs. How do you decide which songs to cover?

CR: It’s funny, really. Well first, it has to be something that I want to sing, that I like singing. I mean, in this band I think a big part of where we’ve been in these three cycles is the old rock and roll songs, you know, Hank Ballard, Bobby Mitchell, Fats Domino, The Everly Brothers, Eddie Floyd, whatever we’re doing. I mean, roots music obviously plays a big part in all of our lives. But I like the idea of taking the real birth of rock ‘n’ roll and those fucking amazing songs and grooves and updating them to our cosmic California idea of what nice evening is – you know what I mean – or a good concert. To me, when you play a lot of different songs and you improvise every night, it’s a different story. Which songs you choose to play, those are obviously main components of the story. So I think we also pick songs that kind of lend themselves to our story that night, or to whatever sonic adventure we want to take.

JM: What advice would you give to an aspiring musician?

CR: My advice would be never assimilate, never sell yourself short because somebody doesn’t believe in you, or somebody doesn’t hear it, or somebody doesn’t see you. And never take the easy answer, and never listen to anyone who tells you that you’re great [laughs]. Work. You have to work.

And you have to realize if you want to be in show business, that’s different from being a musician. Show business is putting on a show. Playing music is a deep, deep well of tradition that reaches as far back as our human consciousness can take us, and shoots forward as far as the realms of consciousness can take us. Not to get too fucking crazy, but that’s the way it is.

JM: What are your plans, musical or otherwise? Obviously you’re doing a tour right now. Is there another CRB album in the works?

CR: We do have a Record Store Day release coming out this next Record Store Day, next week or something. Yeah, then we’re back on the road in February. It’s full tilt CRB boogie. I’ve taken care of all my responsibilities, personal and contractually, in The Black Crowes, and CRB is where my heart and soul and my mind all coalesce with this group of musicians. It’s our family, and it’s our family business, and that’s what I’m interested in, that’s what I feel gives me the most joy right now. I think we’re in a fucking short supply of joy on this planet, you know?

JM: [laughs] Seems that way.

CR: [laughs] Well, I find it funny. We live in such time of trial and tribulation, great anxiety, and all kids want to do is I guess listen to DJs. It’s funny. Sometimes somebody has to be able to say something in some sort of form about the way people feel. Music, to me, has always been the things that transcends the anxiety of the modern world.

JM: I’m a big fan of Kids in the Hall, and you had that great cameo as a rock ‘n’ roll angel in what I think was their last episode.

CR: Yeah, that was their very last episode.

JM: How did you get that gig?

CR: I was good friends with the Kids, man. They would do their live show at The Bottom Line. I was living in The Village – it was 1990 – and I went to the show. If you’re a big Kids in the Hall fan, do you remember The Doors skit?

JM: Oh yeah.

CR: They’re like, “What about this band?” “Oh, they sucked.” Well, they saw that I was in the audience. It was Kevin [McDonald] and Bruce [McCulloch]. They were like, “Oh, what about The Black Crowes?” Bruce goes, “Well, they suck.” Kevin broke character and looked at me and my table and was like, “You know, we’re just kidding!” It was very funny. Ever since then we’ve been good friends. That was my only theatrical performance as a rock ‘n’ roll angel. “Rod Torfelson’s Armada Featuring Herman Menderchuck.” “She’s a tramp, she’s a tramp, she’s a trampoline girl.”

JM: You know, maybe the CRB should cover that song.

CR: Yeah, don’t get me started. We could do some some Kids in the Hall songs. Or I’m really into… do you know a TV show called The Mighty Boosh?

JM: No, I don’t.

CR: Check it out, man. You can watch it on YouTube. There’s three seasons. The Mighty Boosh – it’s English. You can find an episode online called “Old Gregg”. It might change your life for the better, or you might just say, wow, that [unintelligible cursing, laughs].

JM: Talking about The Doors skit, the CRB could cover Bruce’s Doors song [“Doors Fan”].

CR: Did you ever hear Bruce’s album Shame-Based Man?

JM: Oh yeah, that’s a great album. I guess that’s not quite the vibe you’re going for, but it’d be good to keep that music alive.

CR: The thing is, if we did play it, it would sound like the CRB, oddly enough [laughs].

JM: I don’t want want to go down the Black Crowes road, but Shake Your Money Maker came out almost 25 years ago. Back then, did you have any idea that you’d still be rockin’ and rollin’ 25 years later?

CR: No, not me, to be honest. At the time we made that record in the summer of 1989, released in 1990, you know, I was just jaded and probably cynical enough… which probably benefited me in some sort of survival instinct. I just kind of thought for people like me that are so passionate and so us-versus-them…

I didn’t like the business people. I didn’t like the idea that these “adults” were telling me what to do with my life, and they had no idea who I was, where I was from, or what I had to say. So with that as a sort of backdrop, yeah man [laughs], I thought, OK, you maybe get to make a record, you get to tour around the world a couple years, and then you work in a used bookshop or something. I still feel that way, in a weird way. I’ve never really been a nostalgic person, which is probably one of the reasons why I listen to so much old music and it never sounded old to me. I don’t have the same memories that other people would have, associated with their youth or whatever. And I’m that way with The Black Crowes. You know, where I am is far more interesting than where I’ve been, and I can’t figure out where I’m going if I’m not in the headspace of where I am now, because you’d just be too confused and make a bad decision. Just like music, I want to stay in the moment. Back then? No way. I didn’t think stuff like that was possible.

JM: Well by now you’re in for life, right?

CR: [laughs] Well, yeah. I mean, I threaten my wife and family that I’m going to quit and go back to school, and be an archaeologist and move to England. One of my obsessions is pre-Roman Europe and pre-Roman Britain. But other than that, yeah, I guess I’m gonna have to keep doing it [laughs]. You think I’m teasing about what I just told you? I’m not at all.

JM: That’s cool. You know, the guy from The Teardrop Explodes is into all that sort of stuff. Maybe you could go hang out with him.

CR: Oh, Julian Cope. He’s deep into neolithic Britain, yeah. His shit is deep. Actually, I like his stuff he’s doing there more than I like his music these days.

JM: For the article, where are you speaking to me from?

CR: I am speaking to you from the CRB’s home base in Unicorn, California.

JM: I don’t know Unicorn… I guess that’s the point.

CR: If people think it’s hard to find Belinas, it’s really hard to find Unicorn.

JM: But once you’re there you don’t want to leave, right?

CR: That’s a fact. Yeah, once you get access.

[Conversation ends with a bit more chatting about The Kids in the Hall]


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