Interview: Chris Robinson On The Brotherhood’s Future, New Album & More

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It’s been a very eventful few weeks in the orbit of Chris Robinson.

The prolific Chris Robinson Brotherhood has a sparkling new album, Servants Of The Sun, set to release on June 14, once more chock full of the kind of unhurried cosmic Americana the CRB has long favored, but with a healthier complement of uptempo, concert-ready tunes this time around compared to some previous CRB albums.

But earlier this month, CRB also announced an indefinite hiatus starting this fall and that longtime keyboardist Adam MacDougall — a stalwart of Robinson bands for more than a decade including The Black Crowes, CRB, As The Crow Flies and some Phil Lesh & Friends lineups — would leave the group immediately.

As Robinson tells JamBase, the CRB will still be a priority, even if it has to be “put in the garage for a while.” CRB finishes out their spring and summer dates with first Pete Sears and then Joel Robinow on keyboards, and then Robinson himself will enjoy a slower schedule for the rest of 2019 that, after years of aggressive, non-stop CRB touring and mixing that in with other commitments, will seem downright mellow.

Still, he said, there’s maybe more As The Crow Flies in the offing, along with more gigs from his scrappy country band, the Green Leaf Rustlers — a collection of Bay Area staples like Sears, John Molo, Barry Sless and Greg Loiacono that play primarily well-known roots and Americana tunes just for the freakin’ fun of it.

And as always with Robinson, the subject of The Black Crowes — and his estrangement from brother Rich Robinson — is never far from view.

JamBase: So the CRB has been out for a handful of shows with Pete Sears on keyboards. Seems like it’s going well.

Chris Robinson: Yeah, it’s been fantastic. Fantastic with the legendary Pete Sears, man. I knew it was going to be fun and be so good. Pete’s language is just so deeply based in rock ‘n’ roll and blues and R&B and it’s just been a kick in the pants in terms of where our groove is. The audience is eating it up, actually. We’re like a giant banana split — they’re eating it up with a spoon. I’m lucky to play with Pete in my country group, too — he’s such just cool, man, with super, super good vibes. We’ve also, I should note, had The Texas Gentlemen out with us these shows. They’re one of my favorite bands — just great younger people.

JamBase: Were you concerned at all that the audience wouldn’t eat it up? It’s a pretty big change in keyboards.

CR: I don’t think so. I don’t see why anyone would be — I don’t think our band is like that, you know? People see AC/DC with Axl Rose singing. I don’t know that a lot of people are going to give a fuck if it isn’t Adam on keys. If the band is good, that’s what it’s about. Everything changes. Change is inevitable. The CRB changes. We change from record to record, year to year. I’m just trying to stay the moment, and accept that it’s always going to be a little different. When you’re lucky enough to have great musicians around, and you can make a connection with people, you can be different and understand that it’s different but still should be soulful. I don’t think I would have gotten this far if that wasn’t the way I thought about it from Day One, 35-whatever years ago.

JamBase: For the June and July shows you’ll have Joel Robinow on keys. He’s more of an up-and-comer.

CR: Joel, yeah, and he’s pretty well-known in the Bay Area. He has the Once and Future Band, and I can’t say enough about how much I love their music. I’ve known him for a while, he was in Howlin Rain, he was around for the early days of the CRB, and I had him play keyboards in As The Crow Flies, the show we did down in Huntington Beach recently. He’s another incredible, gifted musician. Definitely different than Pete. He brings his own thing; he’s a great singer and a great composer, too. He’s going to help us keep it dynamic and musical. We have kind of our little dream teams here for these next few weeks.

JamBase: I want to get into the record, of course, but is there anything left to say about Adam?

CR: We just wish Adam the best. It was time for Adam to go, you know what I mean? For me, and for him. I mean, that happens in bands. I don’t have any ill will, no bad vibes. It’s just how it plays out sometimes. The record, man, for us to be out playing the whole new record pretty much is something that’s cool to me. I definitely wanted this record, when we made it last summer, to be more uptempo. I wanted a record where we play every one of the songs live. We’ve had a few records with musical pieces that we loved creating but just were never going to be a part of the repertoire, you know? So with Servants Of The Sun, the architecture of the thing was to just go out and play it. It’s just been super exciting to see how the songs go over — that’s why we write these songs, and we’ve been playing them all pretty much. It’s pretty simple if you think about it like that. We’re not making records to be on the radio or so record companies can make millions of dollars, that’s all over. We can be as expressive as we want.

Comin’ Round The Mountain

JamBase: You mentioned earlier how the band changes album to album. What do you think is the biggest difference, aside from personnel, between how the material on Servants came together and your earliest CRB records?

CR: In the beginning, you’re just like, is anyone listening. But each one is what life is like at the time. Life doesn’t stop because you want to slow down and make records. All of our life is on those records — they’re all symbolic of where we were at that time we made them. This record contains a lot of stuff: feelings, textures, sounds, lyrics … it’s about love and going through an intense divorce [in 2018], and having a new love in my life, and also about the band going through its struggles last year.

Then there’s the state of the union in general. I mean, whatever, there’s weird stuff out there, man. But I try to maintain a positive and progressive attitude, just in general, because there’s so much fear and regression around us. But all those things too are the fuel to writing songs. A lot of people in their careers, if they have had the success I was lucky to have in The Black Crowes, new songs aren’t seemingly what it’s all about at this stage. But I’m not finished. I’m interested in new songs. Things fall out of the sky when you’re just there, playing guitar. I’m sitting on another four, five new songs right now. It’s just about the work. I don’t make cabinets, but just like being a woodworker, you see a piece of nice wood and you want to make something beautiful from it.

JamBase: The new album is out and you have these dates and then you’ll begin a hiatus. Is the CRB still a priority for you?

CR: Oh yeah. Realistically we need a break. It’s been a lot of fucking gigs, so we need a little space, but yeah, of course. I’ve always said that The Black Crowes is something that even though it was my band and we worked hard, there’s a lot of stuff that happened to us in the ways the music business used to work, where you get picked out of your hometown and you’re like Spartacus, dropped in the middle of the Colosseum, running around. The CRB, though, was something and is something that’s totally D.I.Y. It’s complete grassroots, if you get my drift. To be able to have both experiences has left me full of humility and hopefully some wisdom.

In The Black Crowes I never had the opportunity to write songs like this, things that are all mine or just a little different. I see where the two experiences are connected, but the coolest thing about the CRB is the scene. The people in our band and the people who come to see our band. It’s not the multitudes, but it’s beautiful, you know what I mean? These are some of the best nights of my life. We might put it in the garage for a while, but that doesn’t mean you get rid of the whole spaceship.

Chauffeur’s Daughter

JamBase: What will you focus on this fall?

CR: I have a few Green Leaf Rustlers things, and we’re talking about a few other projects. But I want to be home a little bit. I did about 280 shows last year, something insane, close to that number, and it would be nice to have a little time and not spend it on a tour bus. I definitely have songs, and I may just make a Chris Robinson record with some different people, spend a little time on that. We’ll see.

JamBase: Doubling back to As The Crow Flies and the songs people associate with you and The Black Crowes. Did playing these tunes with As The Crow Flies give you a different perspective on them?

CR: Totally, yeah. It’s funny. In the storm of The Black Crowes — the maddening tempest of youth — I was proud of the work. I’m still very proud of the work, but I definitely have a different perspective having such a positive experience. To be with some of my dear friends who are so talented, and make new friends like Marcus [King], is so fun to do. Marcus and I, we only knew each other from talking backstage at festivals or wherever, and now there’s another person in both of our universes. It’s been nothing but positive.

JamBase: Do you expect more As The Crow Flies shows?

CR: I don’t know. We’re trying to see what everyone’s schedule looks like. I want to finish up this year with these shows, go to Europe, have a rip-roaring time and then come back. It’s just been eight years at this point of constant, constant touring. It would actually like to take some time off, be at home, love up my woman, spend some time with kids.

JamBase: Retrospect is always a slippery thing, but do you think you should have built more time off in for the CRB earlier?

CR: I don’t know. I don’t really deal like that though. Good things happen, bad things happen. I mean, if you hadn’t stepped in shit right before the prom, would you step in it? [laughs] I don’t know, but I stepped in it? I don’t look at things that way. I focus on the exercise of trying to be in the moment as much as we can, especially as a musician. If you’re doing that, hopefully you can look back and say, hey, we did that and it was crazy, maybe let’s not do that again. If anything, you learn. You learn from the joy and the pain, man.

JamBase: Have you always had that outlook or is it something you work at?

CR: Well, no. I think being an artist my main gift is being a daydreamer, and that’s also what makes life the hardest because everything outside your walking dream state can be a thing … it doesn’t matter where you live or what you do, life stuff happens to everyone.

JamBase: Do you have any relationship with your brother these days?

CR: No. We haven’t talked in a long time. It’s a shame, man. When family stuff is all broken like that, it’s sad. But that’s where we are. Ask The Kinks, and the Gallaghers, and the Everlys. And I’m not comparing us to any of those brothers as artists. Rich and I don’t like each other. But our hatred of each other could never outscore Don and Phil Everly, you know? [laughs]

JamBase: There’ll always be that contingent of folks who want to hear you sing Black Crowes songs and be the Crowes. That doesn’t go away. It seems to always come back around, right?

CR: I don’t know, man, you know? I have so much other stuff, you know what I mean. I guess you’re right? Like I said, there’s a pragmatic thing about life. This dude has been in your band for eight years and then he’s gone, and you can think on it, but we have gigs. We have to figure that out right now. So I’m living in the moment, making sure Pete is comfortable and has the material, and Joel has it, and we’re able to work through stuff like the right arrangement of “Stars Fell On California.” Summertime is here, and we have gigs to play. I’m excited that people get to hear our record and that we’re out there playing. And that’s what’s on the list. Well, and making sure the Warriors deliver another championship, that’s big on the list, too. [laughs]

JamBase: Aha, and what can you do to help that along?

CR: I don’t know, but we look pretty good. After watching Toronto and Milwaukee, we look pretty good, K.D. or no K.D.

JamBase: I’m a Boston fan and my team already exited so it’s just fun to watch the matchups at this point.

CR: You guys have some leadership issues on that team, man.

JamBase: True. Chris, I know you have to go but a last quick one: will we see more gigs from the Green Leaf Rustlers, especially on the East Coast where there really haven’t been any?

CR: Yeah. This one’s kind of taken on a life of its own. Everyone loves all those songs and everyone knows all those songs already. But with Barry, and John and Pete, man, it’s so much fun. Greg is a great guitar player and singer. That’s a Marin County band, we all live there, and it’s just like oh well, it’s just about a good time with that band. We’ll definitely be doing more Green Leaf Rustlers.

Elevator Operator – Green Leaf Rustlers Captured by Must Have Media

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