SOUTHERN HARMONIES WITH CHRIS ROBINSON

“In the depths of our being, in body, mind, and spirit, we know we are created to love and be loved. Fulfilling this imperative, responding to this vocation, is the central meaning of our life.” -Sam Keen

I have always been struck by the word ‘vocation’ in the above quote. The notion that there is work to do when one chooses to answer the call to love seems fitting to me. A conscious decision is required to make good and caring things happen during our time on this earth. And like all work, even the most mundane of jobs, we offer up our time and energy in exchange for something we do not possess. Except with this work the dividends are not gold but something finer and far less tangible. Faith doesn’t just happen, it must be found in between the stones in the road.

Chris Robinson knows a bit about this kind of decision. After more than a decade as the lead singer of the Black Crowes, he has embarked on a solo exploration of music. During what is being termed a hiatus for the band, Chris has recorded an album called The New Earth Mud, tentatively slated for release in October. The first taste of these new songs came in late May when Chris and guitarist and co-conspirator Paul Stacey played a series of acoustic duo gigs around Europe and then the Eastern U.S. in early June. Infused with a clear eyed positivity, delicate, utterly sincere and resonant with the echoes of earlier times, the new music spoke to a profound change from the songs on the last two Crowes albums, Lions and By Your Side, both brash and forceful rock platters.

As a vocalist Chris Robinson has always brought to mind the best of the Muscle Shoals soul shouters combined with the strut and rock 'n' roll grit of Free-era Paul Rodgers. But lurking beneath the bravado was a singer-songwriter evocative of early ‘70s southern California legends like Joni Mitchell and Jackson Browne yet layered with the gorgeous abstract impressionism that is the hallmark of Chris’ best Black Crowes work. The cover tunes Chris and Paul have been playing provide a few clues to the general feel of the new songs; Traffic’s “Evening Blue,” Fred Neil’s “Dolphins,” Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter’s “Comes A Time,” and Bob Dylan’s “You’re A Big Girl Now.”

Within this new music is an overriding sense of hope and a belief in the power of love to genuinely change people’s lives for the better. It seems that the man who once sang “I hate myself, doesn’t everybody hate themselves?” had stumbled upon one of those pockets of faith. In gospel-inflected songs like “Sunday Sound” and “Safe In The Arms of Love” Chris sings of finding a way even when there seems to be no way to be found. Having spent the better part of 11 years listening intensely to the words of Chris Robinson I am thunder struck by the freshness and light of this new direction. There had always been the internal battle in his lyrics to keep an open hand from turning to a fist but now that seemed like less of a struggle. Some new rock had been found to pat his foot upon.

In the short time I had to speak to Chris, I found him to be frightfully articulate, bright, and possessed of a restless energy that made the conversation lively but a bit like riding a wild mustang. One holds on and hopes they develop some rapport before they get bounced onto their ass. He seemed utterly devoid of calculation or strategy. When he spoke he spoke from the heart. I never once got the sense that he stopped to consider his words before they spilled forth. As Kris Kristofferson said in the film Chelsea Walls, "He gives 100% and what people take away from that is their business." More than anything he seemed to be on a mission to find what was true and real these days. As one of the best new tunes says, “Like the chaos of the angels and a song to ease the soul, I’m not interested in fables anymore.”

JamBase: How’s it going so far?

Chris Robinson (CR): It’s really good. I just finished the record and got the mastered CD back on Saturday.

JamBase: That has to be exciting, to see a record that says Chris Robinson and not the Black Crowes.

CR: It’s funny because I think sometimes there should be some sort of decorum as if somebody’s died or something. That’s the kind of person I am. It’s the way I feel for better or for worse. And this has this has nothing to do with the Black Crowes. When I got it, I just looked at the songs. It’s just the thing from the mastering lab with the titles typed out and the times and the sequence but I go ‘Yeah’ (his voice has this warm happiness to it when he says the word but there’s also a sad undertone).

JamBase: It does sound like you’re a little ambivalent about it.

CR: I’m the type of person who’s a bit lackadaisical on the surface about other things in my life but this has just opened up a door. I’m pretty much ready to start another record if I wanted to.

JamBase: I can hear that there’s a difference, even in your demeanor on stage. I don’t know if it’s just the acoustic versus electric thing or what.

CR: Always in the Black Crowes being the front person it depended on my mood and again my feelings. I was talking to my wife the other day about these acoustic shows. I’ve been a little nervous for some of them so I tend to talk too much.

JamBase: I don’t think anyone else feels that way.

CR: The shows have really started to take on a life of their own in terms of the sets. I think from the first New York show which was kind of a hassle with the talking (interviews & promo work) because this isn’t really about that.

JamBase: Yeah, in some ways it would be nice to sit down on stage and just play the songs and not have anything else get in the way of that.

CR: True. I guess we’re a little spoiled because we started in Rotterdam and the first night Paul and I looked at each other and were like, "Wow, we said we were going to do this and we’re here." We rehearsed at the house in Paris and shit, we learned a few cover tunes and went through the songs we wanted to play. We left a lot of stuff open because we’re both those kinds of musicians. We don’t rehearse that much, you know (both of us laugh). There’s a certain thing you can only do when you’re playing in front of people.

JamBase: There’s the sound of the back porch in all this music. My only experience of this new music is the live shows but you get the sense of two guys woodshedding and having a blast.

CR: By the end of that little run on the East Coast we were really taking it to some cooler places musically. Which made me think this thing has a life of it’s own. (pause) Talking about Rotterdam the stage was on the floor and everyone sat above you like a little indoor amphitheater except it’s a techno club in Germany. It was really cool. Everyone was super respectful and really into it and that’s a lot to ask.

JamBase: That shouldn’t be too much to ask but it does seem like it is.

CR: It’s turned into that.

JamBase: You made a comment at one of the shows about this where you took a pause to work out some kind of problem with a guitar. You said in America somebody would be screaming ‘I didn’t come to watch you tune.’ I think that’s really true, that there’s an innate impatience in a lot of American audiences especially for something new and different than what they’ve heard from you before.

CR: Totally. And in musical terms in general. Granted, there are people who are into music, into it on a deeper level than background music or to be up on the hippest thing. But the pop music most people have been listening to is not very sophisticated at all.

JamBase: It asks nothing of them. That’s the big thing. It’s designed to be devoured.

CR: That’s not the way of great pop music when you look back to the past, whether it be the sixties or the seventies. They were closer to a tradition of people who were really interested in music. It wasn’t enough to just buy a guitar and learn how to play like Blink 182. You know what I mean? Most musicians should be well versed in a lot of different genres and styles. But I think it’s totally cool whatever motivates you. That’s a punk rock aesthetic still. Then again, for me even when I was a kid and got into the Gun Club and X, my short foray into punk rock, one thing I thought was weird was musically it hit a ceiling pretty quickly.

JamBase: There’s a real limitation when you decide you’re not going to push it as far as you can as a musician.

CR: With this new material I thought about being a kid and about what music meant to me growing up. I want this stuff to convey that feeling. This is what’s truly happening whether there’s any commerce involved or not.

JamBase: There’s a resonance to this new material that harkens back to some of the people you’re covering like Fred Neil. There’s an echo of Fred in a lot of this material. How’d you get into Fred since I’ve been a fan for years and you don’t even hear most people mention his name most of the time despite his being nearly as big as Dylan at one time?

CR: I’ve always listened to so much folk music. One thing musically about this record is people will find out more about really who I am as an artist because the Black Crowes are sort of a schizophrenic collage of people’s interests and influences.

JamBase: A little bit of soul here, a little bit of rock 'n' roll there, some Funkadelic over in this corner...

CR: Yeah, but this is easier for me because this a lot of things I like and a lot of the influence I brought to the Black Crowes in a more concentrated, focused thing. That kind of folky tradition and singer-songwriter thing has...

JamBase: ...always been in there but you’ve never really had a chance to bring it out.

CR: No one's really heard my compositions before. I never wrote songs musically in the Black Crowes. I wrote lyrics and arranged Rich’s music for him a lot of times. I was involved with instrumentation and all those things in making records but really all I did was write the lyrics.

JamBase: It’s not the same as shaping the whole thing.

CR: Not at all.

JamBase: It was such a trip the first time I saw a picture of you with a guitar in your hand. The immediate reaction I had was this is so cool. I felt like something had changed dramatically. What was it like learning to play guitar?

CR: I’ve played a little bit for a while now since I’ve been writing songs for a long time. I look at it this way, now I can play my songs. I don’t think I’ll ever really be a guitar player. I know too many really really good ones.

JamBase: One of things I like best about the new material is it seems to bring you into some new places as a vocalist.

CR: It’s just the mechanics of this music. It’s being born from a more intimate place. Where in the Black Crowes, even ballady type numbers, by the time you’re into the chorus you’re competing with electric guitars and drums, organs and whatever else we have going on.

JamBase: The whole wall of sound.

CR: Which is big and it’s just a different dynamic when it’s my thing and I hear it in a room when I’m writing it. I’m lucky that vibe translates to the album which is a full band but a very different dynamic than the Crowes.

We break into a long rambling discussion of the venues Chris Robinson will be playing in the SF Bay Area. When talk turns to The Catalyst in Santa Cruz he tells us a bit about what went on behind the scenes of a legendary canceled Black Crowes show.

CR: We were going to play the Catalyst once but then the power went out.

JamBase: Don’t I know it. I was there for hours.

CR: But you know what happened that day? I went to the Mystery Spot (laughter from both of us). And I’m not kidding you, it threw everything out of whack. I’m not taking the blame for everything but we got there and the car broke down we were in. I felt horrible all day. We got to town and everything was weird. I was like, "What did that place do to me?" It put the zap on me.

JamBase: It makes sense when you say that because the power outage was for that block of downtown Santa Cruz only. The rest of the area came right back on a few minutes after the blackout hit.

CR: We hung around for a couple hours. I was like 'this is weird.' Nothing worked that I touched all day. It was the Mystery Spot and I’m never going back.

JamBase: There was a comment you made at the recent Amsterdam show that I wanted you to talk about. You said you’ve never been interested in anything to do with the business of music.

CR: It’s hard because everything is lip service now for bands in the media. (Chris lowers his voice to imitate mainstream rock star) ‘It’s all about the music and we just do it for this.’ It’s like the Barenaked Ladies. They had a thing on TV that they sold another song to a different commercial company.

JamBase: Christ (weary sound to my voice)

CR: Fine but don’t say this: Their quote was (lowers voice again for mainstreamy feel), “We don’t want to be the kind of band that sells out but it’s just so hard not to.”

JamBase: Like that’s some kind of excuse.

CR: Man, the point of my thing, and there’s no right or wrong, but if it comes up in conversation I choose to make that choice. I know it’s hard not to. Everyone needs money but you wonder why people don’t listen to your records or take your music very seriously.

JamBase: You wonder if this is the kind of record you’ll pull out in ten years and still be happy to see in a decade.

CR: In two decades hopefully.

JamBase: Knock on wood, man.

CR: My ambitions are if it’s a hit record then good but I’m not catering to formats, not catering to a system of a way people do things because I believe that formula of A plus B equals C is really hurting us culturally. And by culturally I mean on every level that we live. And it starts with things like musicians and it starts with filmmakers and it starts with writers and painters and that’s where we get our cultural information. Not from what the government gives on the news.

JamBase: I think it’s more nefarious when you begin to edit yourself, when you begin to change your own work as a writer or musician to cater to something, when you start to do it almost unconsciously.

CR: Yeah. Do you know the writer Paul Bowles (The Sheltering Sky)?

JamBase: Yes

CR: Paul Bowles had the best definition for decadence I’ve ever heard. Because when people say you live this decadent life they mean you drank and did drugs and had lots of women or whatever. He said the true definition of decadence is over commercialization and incompetence in what you’re doing. That’s true decadence especially when it’s in your control to do otherwise.

JamBase: It’s gathering more than you need simply for the gathering of it. It’s bringing in this wealth because it’s there and not because you’ve thought about what it means to bring it to you.

CR: Or it feeds your ego. That’s one of the reasons I’m so proud of this record being different. It’s nice also to be in my place where there’s some people that want to hear what I’m doing and I think there’s also a lot of people who could get into this music that couldn’t get into the Black Crowes maybe.

JamBase: It has the potential to reach people who didn’t have an appetite for the multi-headed rock beast that is the Black Crowes. If you’re not in the right mindset it’s hard to digest.

CR: Yeah you really have to kind of buckle down. But this is really very easy and satisfying for me because it is me. And it’s very easy when it is me and I’m not editing anything. I’d like to think I’m doing things in my life that will help me continue to make music the rest of my life. That’s really all I want to do. Like you said, I want to make my statements artistically and I want them to last. I want to make them with conviction and with honesty. So, within that there’s a large dynamic to work with.

JamBase: But a lot of people are afraid to commit to that as artists these days because there’s a little fear to be honest about what you’re gonna do because it’s going to take you to places you can’t predict. You can’t structure it doing it this way.

CR: Completely.

JamBase: One of the best pieces in all the new stuff is “Fables.” It seemed to me a song dedicated to growth, stepping beyond what is comfortable to you and not buying into the way that everyone tells you it should be. I was just floored by it and had to listen to it a few times when I first encountered it.

CR: It’s definitely a song about realization through some dream like imagery. I think that’s an underlying theme for the whole record in a way.

JamBase: That waking from a dream but still being able to work with the images of the dream.

CR: And realizing that this sort of take on reality, in the question of what is illusion and what is reality, in that dream state, there’s a place where life in its most mundane can be so surreal.

JamBase: I think the song “Mint Tea” is that little frozen moment of those two things.

CR: It’s funny ‘cause the record is just bigger. Like “Mint Tea” didn’t make the record but I like playing it in the context (of Paul and I). It works better when you’re playing it with just two people.

JamBase: It’s like an invitation to an intimate conversation which is the way I feel about a lot of the new songs.

CR: I think intimacy is a way to strip away a lot of rock 'n' roll pretense. I think that is rock 'n' roll also but I think people are so busy dressing up and hiding and I’m just not interested in that now.

Dennis Cook
JamBase | West Coast
Go See Live Music!

[Published on: 8/15/02]

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