The Black Crowes’ Chris Robinson discusses his upcoming tour with the Brotherhood
After the Black Crowes decided to take yet another hiatus in 2010, singer Chris Robinson and keyboardist Adam MacDougall began working on a new project. Instead of heading straight to the studio, they assembled a band and toured the country first, dubbing themselves Chris Robinson Brotherhood. Now, the band has just released its a debut, Big Moon Ritual, a collection of ’60s and ’70s-inspired psychedelic rock songs that recall everything from the Byrds to the Stones. We called Robinson at his Los Angeles home for a story for Scene magazine. The paper will print a much shorter of our Q&A so we decided to run a longer version here.
You traveled some 13,000 miles with these guys while road testing the band.
That was only in California, dude. That was just the first six weeks. That was 44 shows. Then, we decided we would continue on, and we hit the rest of the nation. We ended up doing about 118 shows.
Who was in charge of picking the music you listened to and what album or albums were in heavy rotation?
It was just us in the van. We had no entourage. We are the farm-to-table psychedelic American rock group. I took over the DJing, and I was in the navigator seat. That being said, we’re all obsessive music fans. We listen to such a myriad of different things. It’s everything from Invitation to Openness by Les McCann to the Byrds’ Dr. Byrds and Mr. Hyde. We’ll get down on some Can and some Stanley Brothers. Charley Pride live, that is a big one. Eric Dolphy records, John Abercrombie records. Hank Williams.
The Black Crowes were often compared to the Faces, but your taste in music runs the gamut, from the Dream Syndicate to Dylan. Were you ever frustrated by the way that critics have described your music?
I thought about this the other day. People are so impressed with themselves for the most transparent comparison. Oh yeah, Faces. OK. I’m proud of you. Your knowledge is from these lofty heights. I still get the Faces’ comparisons. With this record, people are like, “The ’70s.” To me, I always thought, “What is Green Day?” They look like late ’70s or early ’80s hardcore. Are they anachronistic? What is a band like Nickelback. If that’s what today is, I would gladly be considered some archaic dinosaur. I have 7000 vinyl records. It doesn’t stop. I have to sneak records in the house when I come from tour. I love the Faces and in the late ’80s when there wasn’t any sort of rock music like that. The True Believers came out of Austin and had a bluesy swagger to them and we opened for the a few times. There were some bands pointing us to rock and roll out of our Replacements and R.E.M. ’80s thing. It’s the same with the Stones. We thought, like millions of people, that they were the fucking coolest thing. I got into them because I was into Gram Parsons and the Byrds. I got into Bob Dylan as a kid the same way that I listen to Jimmy Driftwood records or Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs records. Musicians are into music. As a kid, I loved the way Rod Stewart sang, but I was more into Anne Peebles or Tina Turner and Sam and Dave. I thought Paul Rodgers and Steve Marriott were better singers. Joe Cocker even.
Of all the bands you’ve put together over the years, where does Chris Robinson Brotherhood rank?
The Black Crowes are its own enigma. In terms of my other solo groups, I’ve been very lucky to have a lot of talented people around me who understand the aesthetic of what we’re searching for. Musicians have to a great knowledge of all these things we’re talking about. The difference with this group is that I had two albums in cycles of solo stuff to learn from. The Black Crowes exist on their own island. In the last year of the Black Crowes, Adam MacDougal and I started formulating what we were going to do. We had to get the right people and the right vibe. Ideally, it is a fragile thing but if you’re open to the present, those things will show themselves. I thought it was important not to make a record or bring too much shit into it too fast. This day and age is an exciting and unique time to have an idea, especially if you have a vision. The main goal is freedom. I talk to young kids all the time who point out that I had hit records. But my hit records came at a time when people really weren’t paying attention to us. It happened quickly. We made [the 1992 Black Crowes’ album] Southern Harmony in eight days and didn’t have time to go to a board meeting so that someone could tell me who to be and what to sound like. After that, time caught up with us and that’s exactly what the music business is. Freedom is a whole other level of success. I tease when I say that this is our farm to table organic farm business, but it’s a cool business model. If you can make something without the accouterments of excess, people will come. We’re all about the low dough shows. That’s why we stayed in California in Visalia playing three hours to 150 people. We have this joy and we’re listening to it and it’s telling us where to go and what to do as opposed to trying to make it happen.
But if you can’t make a lot of money selling records does it make sense to sell your music to Target?
I guess. It’s just a point of preference. I don’t have a relationship with corporate America. I don’t think the money would change my life enough. What do you make at the most after you pay everyone? Ten, twenty, thirty grand? Instantly, you gave something away. I think still lurking in the pineal gland in our minds is this feeling that music should be from a place other than strictly commerce. That’s just me, man. I have kids, too. But I don’t know if that helps. I have to make some decisions based on money, but I’m surrounded by people and friends who understand that we’re searching for something deeper than that.
The opening tune on your album is called “Tulsa Yesterday.” Why Tulsa?
Tulsa is a romantic notion. The romance fades once you’re there for 48 hours. I do love Tulsa. There’s something about it. The idea is first and foremost a thought from a notebook. I write constantly and I think had played Tulsa and moved on to the next town and my random thought was “Tulsa yesterday and tomorrow forever.” It’s a musical city, and it can be a bit of a story about wandering and dreaming. Tulsa also is the home not just of great country artists but also Leon Russell and J.J. Cale, stuff that’s really important to the language of American music that maybe people aren’t hip to all the time. That all interweaves with some myth of Tulsa.
The ending of “Rosalee” is super-trippy. Were any drugs consumed during the recording process for that track or was the performance all natural?
Well, some drugs are all-natural anyway. If you can find your way, there are plant technologies that will give you great results. For us, as I was saying earlier, it’s about the culture of what we’re trying to make and who we’re talking to. People who can get into a trip like that, for us, we find it easy to communicate and get into those spaces. We take those moments of nebulous inspiration and then you find yourself there.
I thought it was cool that Jay Leno had the vinyl version of your album when he introduced your recent performance. Did you have anything to do with that?
Of course. The only reason to make records these days is for the vinyl. The Black Crowes are one level of that involvement in what things look like. In this band, it’s even more important. The art involved in the look of this record to the next record, The Magic Door, is all pieces to the puzzle.
You’ve described your new group as classic California space boogie. You are from Atlanta, so what is it about California culture that appeals so much to you?
I don’t know. There’s a tradition of people finding their way to California, whether they were people forced to do so by the Depression. There’s something mythic about California. Most of the people I knew left for New York but there was something innocuous and strange about Los Angeles. It’s as much an idea as it is a place. This is the place where modern spiritualism was born and the Bay Area has been such a breeding ground for philosophy, music, art, theology and literature. That coupled with what you have in the natural environment gives you access to some of the most pristine places in the world to be inspired and pick up the vibes. From Humboldt County to San Diego, there is a lot of beauty. It’s a funny, weird little place. I understand it’s not for everyone. But there’s great adventure and inspiration here.
I know you’re not a fan of American Idol. Do you watch any music-related music reality shows?
No. I don’t watch any TV like that. What’s the interest in that? Happy clean people who want to be liked and be popular? That has nothing to do with the way I’ve become an artist for the last 20 years. It was never a popularity contest. It was never, “Like me! Look at my smile!” Yeah, you had your teeth whitened. I don’t care what you have to say.
|Thu||6/14||Milwaukee, WI||Turner Hall|
|Fri||6/15||Minneapolis, MN||Varsity Theatre|
|Sat||6/16||Chicago, IL||Taste of Randolph Street|
|Tue||6/17||Grand Rapids, MI||The Intersection|
|Tue||6/19||Toledo, OH||Frankie’s Inner City|
|Thu||6/21||Columbus, OH||A & R Bar|
|Fri||6/22||Cleveland, OH||Beachland Ballroom|
|Sat||6/23||Cleveland, OH||Beachland Ballroom|
|Sun||6/24||Concord, NH||Granite State Music Festival|
|Tue||6/26||Pittsfield, MA||Colonial Theatre|
|Thu||6/28||Asbury Park, NJ||The Stone Pony|
|Fri||6/29||Brooklyn, NY||Music Hall of Williamsburg|
|Sat||6/30||Wilmington, DE||World Cafe Live|
|Tue||7/3||Wilmington, NC||Greenfield Lake Amphitheater|
|Thu||7/5||Alexandria, VA||Birchmere Music Hall|
|Sat||7/7||Sioux City, IA||Bandshell Free Show|
|Fri||7/13||Denver, CO||Cervantes Masterpiece|
|Sat||7/14||Alta, WY||Targhee Fest|
|Sun||7/15||Salt Lake City, UT||The Depot|
|Wed||7/18||Crystal Bay, NV||Crystal Bay Club|
|Thu||7/19||Chico, CA||Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.|
|Fri||7/20||Santa Barbara, CA||Lobero Theatre|
|Sat||7/21||Pioneertown, CA||Pappy & Harriets|
|Tue||8/14||Little Rock. AR||Revolution Music Room|
|Thu||8/16||Chattanooga, TN||Track 29|
|Sat||8/18||St Louis, MO||The Pageant|
|Sun||8/19||Cincinnati, OH||20th Century Theatre|
|Tue||8/21||Buffalo, NY||The Town Ballroom|
|Thu||8/23||Ridgefield, CT||Ridgefield Playhouse|
|Fri||8/24||Bearsville, NY||Bearsville Theatre|
|Sat||8/25||Amagansett, NY||Stephen Talkhouse|
|Sun||8/26||Amagansett, NY||Stephen Talkhouse|
|Thu||10/18||Live Oak, FL||Magnolia Festival|