Interview | Chris Robinson Talks CRB, The Crowes & More
Chris Robinson would be the first one to tell you that the Chris Robinson Brotherhood hatched with no expectations: the Black Crowes began yet another hiatus after 2010 and, as Robinson remembers, it was time to “start an L.A. band.”
But in three years, what began as a lark among pals wanting to play some cosmic Americana has become a full-time, deceptively potent psychedelic blues-, country-and folk-rock band. Not only that, but one whose strength grows with every tour and, in what’s seemed like the blink of an eye, has created a massive repertoire, a nourishing live show and a fanbase ready to saddle up as the Crowes are once again shelved.
We note “deceptively potent” because the CRB can be an acquired taste. Rather than the hot-skillet, hard-rocking, spirit-lifter vibe of the Crowes, CRB shows are deliberately paced – not to be confused with slow -serving up lengthy improvisational segments that favor adventuresome wandering over a more concise solo-and-out delivery.
But there’s magic in that, whether it’s Robinson’s soul-drenched howl carrying a tale of woe, or Neal Casal’s skywriting guitar powering a sun-dappled jam in the best tradition of Jerry Garcia, or Adam MacDougall spewing keyboard filigree just left of twinkle and just right of fuzz-out, or the rhythm section of Mark “Muddy” Dutton and George Sluppick ensuring there’s a foundation to it all.
With the CRB about to release their third album, Phosphorescent Harvest – and ready for a national tour -Robinson gave JamBase a few minutes on what’s next for the band, what’s next for the Black Crowes and why the current music industry is a “sci-fi scenario.”
JAMBASE: The Brotherhood seemed to come to life quickly and then there were long strings of shows in California that became long strings of shows nationally and we’re now three albums deep for such a “young band.” I guess it’s cool now to lift the side project tab and call this your main pursuit. Why do you think this band has been so prolific?
CHRIS ROBINSON: Ha, you know it’s true, we got back to rehearsal when the Crowes [tour ended] and on day one, the first day back in the room when we started playing, we looked and there are, like, 200 songs in our repertoire. We were like, holy shit!
So, where do we start? Well, I think the energy, and the creativity, and everything that’s gone into it comes back to, yeah, there’s this group, and all of us, no matter what we’ve done previously as musicians, still see music as something’s that alive. We all want to be part of it. And if you juxtapose that against what I think is going on with the mass culture or the mainstream in music and the broken business model, I think we can equate being alive to being free.
We all have that utopian idea for this: the scene, and the vibe. Some people wouldn’t get that. If I said that to, I don’t know, USA Today, they’d tell me that it’s a bunch of new-age, psychedelic whatever. But I can say that to a publication that understands improvisational music and that scene and what that’s supposed to be.
JAMBASE: For sure. I know when I see you guys live, the word that keeps coming to me is “unhurried.” It’s not that the songs are downtempo or dragging or anything like that, but you really take your time, whether it’s a song like “Star or Stone” or something else where the band can wander a bit and whether it’s five minutes or 20 minutes it feels like it deserved to be that way. Do you think I’m capturing that fairly?
CR: Well absolutely. I do think we understand that and whether we’re listening to, I don’t know, stuff that [evokes] Golden Gate Park in 1975, or Miles Davis, or live whatever…music in general, none of this is hokum to me.
It’s a great deal of luck that I’ve tapped in with people that can share this, and after, what, 25 years on the road, I can be in a place where I can go out and play music and we can get people interested and move them. That’s an incredible, unique gift. What is our goal when we play? Our goal is to have those moments like you described, and those are moments that can’t come at the expense of show business. The showy stage thing – that’s not our trip.
I’ve thought a lot about how to go about this, and it’s like, I don’t want to make a record just to make a record. I don’t want to be a part of the music business where people are still thinking that works and there are people telling you what do so they can all make a little money. I don’t work that way as an artist and it’s just not interesting to me. I mean, hey, I’m just the singer in the Black Crowes. It used to be different, but that’s what it is now. It’s not a big and brash thing. The Black Crowes is the Black Crowes and it’s a different energy.
For this band, though, we weren’t going to put a burden on ourselves or on other people if they didn’t like it. That’s why we stayed in California for the first few weeks of playing, and did like 40 shows. But it was cool, the next time we’d come to these places with the band there’d be twice as many people. We knew we had to have this tangible thing that was worth doing – I mean, can you still go out and be a band? It happened for us, though. You plant the seed, you sow the seed, you harvest the seed.
JAMBASE: To be fair, though, you have a certain gravity fronting the Black Crowes and this band has your name in the title, as much as it’s an ensemble approach. I wonder, did you have to explain that to the Brotherhood early on – that it’s intended to be a band and not just your vehicle?
CR: I think we took a page from Jerry, in a sense, that yeah, every band has to have a leader, but the best way to be that person is really to not tell anyone to do anything. That’s what makes it coalesce. Whatever, I mean there are some strokes, if you will, in terms of well, we’re not going to do that, we won’t do this, but we had the songs, and like I said, it was very much, let’s try this and see where we are after nine weeks.
We bit off that California residency – it was, let’s get in a van, let’s play together, let’s get high together, let’s share our lives. That’s really what we did, and it’s taken care of itself to grow. I think it is different now in one way, and that’s that we’re all older. Except for Adam, we’re well into our 40s and some of us are leaving our 40s, man. So I think you bring your knowledge into a situation like this and know what will work and what won’t. Every one of us has been in good situations and bad situations.
JB: You brought up the Crowes. What was your take on the past year’s tour?
CR: I really enjoyed myself. Jackie brought a great energy, and at a pragmatic level, the Black Crowes are a soul-driven rock ‘n’ roll band. I was super overjoyed to do it and be in front of people – it was super positive.
JB: I’ll ask the question you always get: what’s the future of the Black Crowes?
CR: Yeah. I have no clue. People do ask or whatever, but two years into the Chris Robinson Brotherhood definitely made me see the Crowes in a different light. Right now, there is a lot of immediacy in the [Brotherhood] – there’s an energy and space that we can feel. I don’t want to leave our garden unattended. All my passion and energy and focus are going into the CRB and we plan on being back in the studio again in the future.
JAMBASE: Staying on the Crowes for a minute, why did you guys decide to go with a changed lineup for the 2013 tour?
CR: Luther [Dickinson] quit. He called me out of the blue and he said he didn’t want to do it. So that was that. I’d been playing with Jackie. I’ve been playing with Phil [Lesh] for a long time and knew Jackie for a long time, and Jackie’s in Trigger Hippy and my brother’s played with him. My thing was, Jackie wants to be in a rock ‘n’ roll band and it was a good fit.
JAMBASE: I wanted to ask you about New Earth Mud, which had a little cult going and didn’t return after the Crowes reunited in 2005. Some of that music survives in the CRB, but would you ever revisit that?
CR: [Pause]. You know, to know one’s fault but my very own…well, I think there are positive things to take from that experience. We didn’t have the perspective we needed with New Earth Mud, and I think we were disillusioned – we looked at doing records and didn’t look at why people would want to be there to see it or what we or they would want to get out of it, all while trying to throw something together with the pressures of business and a lot of other people’s expectations.
I learned from that experience what not to do. And basically when it was time for Adam and I to look ahead in the last couple of years of the Crowes, 2009 and 2010, we were talking about getting an L.A. band together. We wanted to do a group together and just start the whole thing. It wasn’t ever, let’s go make a record and think we can tour behind it for a year. It was, let’s go backwards, turn it inside out.
You have to find a way to make it work. The best part of the music business being in shambles is that…well, you know, I like the sci-fi scenario of it. It’s like we’ve crash-landed in an alien environment and our machine doesn’t work anymore but we can still salvage parts of it to survive. You can still have good ideas and people will come out for them.
I think the other part of it is putting in the work. I like psychedelic inspiration. I like handmade things. I mean, shit, people used to live in the woods and build houses on stilts. I can’t drop out of society, I can’t be a maniac – I have a wife and kids and I have to be around. But I can drop consciously away from as much corporate culture as I choose. I can choose not to watch news run by corporations, or too much TV, even though – don’t tell anyone – I watch basketball. But that’s my business. There are a lot of creative, alternative ways of getting through this life, so with this band, it’s, let’s get into it.
JAMBASE: Switching years, Chris, you’ve been in the Phil Lesh orbit for a long time now. But I wanted to hear how that surprise birthday celebration at Terrapin Crossroads came together.
CR: I told Jill [Lesh] that out of all the places in the world and things I’ve seen, I think that was the only time in my life anyone has ever really kept a secret like that. I mean, it was so stealth-driven and undercover. We actually surprised the maestro!
JB: So it was Jill Lesh who pulled that together?
CR: Yeah, I mean, we’re always in contact. Any time I can play with Phil or be a part of what’s going down with Phil or at Terrapin, I’m always there. I love the man to death, and love the family. We’re only a few hours down the road from him.
JamBase | A Wiser Time
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