By Mike Greenblatt
The Chris Robinson Brotherhood will be coming to your town soon supporting the Psychedelic Americana of “Any Way You Love, We Know How You Feel,” which should be an easy entry on any rock critic’s 2016 Top 10. Always amongst the best of his generation’s vocalists, Chris has delved deep to create an album sounding like Faces-era Rod Stewart fronting “Blonde On Blonde”-era Dylan. The lyrics are impressionistic, oftentimes surrealistic unfathomable poetry that sinks in on or about the sixth or seventh listen…like “Blonde On Blonde” itself. Totally stripping himself of his own history in The Black Crowes, and his own family history with his brother Rich Robinson (whom he hasn’t talked to in years), he is, as he says, “reinventing the wheel” with what they call The CRB; starting from scratch, and truly, just now, according to him, first getting started. Would he accept millions to reform The Black Crowes for that typical rock event, The Farewell Tour (which they never had)? The answer might surprise you.
Goldmine: Your mission statement, as it were, has to be opener “Narcissus Soaking Wet.”
Chris Robinson: Yeah, that’s the command center where all the other stuff shoots out from.
GM: You’ve said it’s about “false idolatry” and “the same mythic mistake tragic heroes make.” Care to elucidate?
CR: If you say music is your muse, and you wind up abandoning the music, the muse abandons you. It’s the greatest sin an artist can make. But it also can be taken in any other field. It’s a word of caution.
GM: As one of the finest singers of your generation, on the new CD you almost have different voicings depending upon the track. You maintain your Otis Redding soulfulness but have added a new kind of folk-whine.
CR: I think part of my disillusion with what was going on and where I’d been was trying to find a place, within hard rock vocals, for aging gracefully. Hey, I’m fine with getting older. I’m not on some show-biz trip where I get plastic surgery, have a weird hair-do and wear funny clothes. I look funny enough. One’s music has to represent who you are. I think what you’re hearing in the CRB and how we’re moving and progressing — both myself as a songwriter and the group as an entity — is just becoming more nuanced. The vocals, lyrics and imagery all get equally exalted places within each composition, as opposed to fighting amongst themselves. Ideally, what we’re interested in is melodic content. For me, that’s why writing songs still interests me. It’s still a viable way for me to connect with what’s going on via more than one dynamic level.
GM: Reading these lyrics, man, they’re poetry, sometimes obtuse, sometimes romantic, oftentimes surrealistic, complex, different and totally Dylanesque. First listen, I caught a phrase here and there but was inundated with the mix and the music’s totality, the hard-driving Psychedelic Americana of its vision. Then, upon deeper inspection, as is always the case with great albums, lyrical meanings make themselves evident. I assume this is a creative device of yours to draw in the listener.
CR: Yes, that’s why I used the word “dynamic.” There’s a lot of these things happening on a lot of different levels simultaneously. I mean, I hope there are! (laughs) As a songwriter, I feel that I’m just starting to get someplace. That’s been the whole pursuit: writing songs that you think people will like to hear and that will mean something to them, y’know? To able to do it in this group is crazy! I’ve never been inspired, I must say, by the conventions of roots music. That’s how other people do things. So one side of me is going, “If we put in the energy, time and focus, that’s when you create magic, true magic when mystical things happen…but only if you’re available to that.” To be in such a fertile environment where we have all this stuff going on is funny because we recorded 15 pieces of music. We’re back on the road. We’re on the airplane and I’m talking to (lead guitarist) Neal (Casal) about how I already have seven new songs that I’m ready to show the band as well! When the music is good, why wouldn’t we have something to say right now? It doesn’t have to be political or conceptual in any way. As long as it’s soulful, it would benefit the trials, tribulations and anxieties of our modern age.
GM: So after three such progressive folk-rock tracks, “Give Us Back Our Eleven Days” is a tune without being a song. I liken it to the pickled ginger you eat at a Japanese restaurant to cleanse your palette before the next course. No words, just a cool riff…
CR: Those first three tracks were born out of necessity to get this framework up and running. Part of our commitment to how we record is to be free and open. No time constraints. The only constraints at all that we face, in fact, is our own imaginations. “Give Us Back Our Eleven Days” is a good example of how the band works. (Keyboardist) Adam (MacDougall) and (drummer) Tony (Leone) were just warming up playing that song’s riff in an even more unkempt way. So I hear this thing and find it really interesting. I record two minutes of it, and it unfolds into the more sophisticated groove you hear on the CD. So instead of sitting down and turning it into a proper song, we just let the vibe take us, and we kinda got into this other thing. Again, it’s the freedom of our group that allows that. I’m not answering to corporate entities anymore who profit from my habitual creative outbursts.
GM: So the listener’s palette has been cleansed before the abject poetry of “Some Gardens Green.” I cannot yet fully fathom its meaning, but, that’s the fun where repeated listenings bring out its essence. Now, it’s just a mash-up of surrealistic words like beat poetry.
CR: I had the verse/chorus part, a little melody, but the imagery was weird, I’ll admit. I think a lot of my lyrics, and a lot of the stuff I’m interested in, seems to feature a certain duality. In this case, I think it’s a metaphor for “careful what you wish for.” It also touches on desire, greed and avarice. People will sell their soul nowadays for easy answers or comfort. I try not to be preachy, though. But there are some things that cannot be bought and sold. Not everything has a price on it. And we can, as sensitive people, live inside that.
GM: Then comes the very first CRB single, “Leave My Guitar Alone,” a 2016 update of the Carl Perkins directive not to step on his blue suede shoes, complete with hand claps and doo-wops like the DNA of rock ’n’ roll itself.
CR: I never wanted to edit any of my music for radio and that’s why we’ve never had a single until now. Yeah that early rock’n’roll was when the music was at its most cosmic, drugged-out and deranged, which makes it, to me, like a magical potion. It exploded because of a certain set of circumstance and ingredients. We love to play old rock ’n’ roll and R&B songs by Bobby Mitchell (1935-1989), Fats Domino, Rick Nelson (1940-1985) and Chuck Berry because we feel the Calvinistic message of rock ’n’ roll is so deeply imbedded in those early tunes, more than in any other generation’s. That’s why we recorded and still perform “Let’s Go, Let’s Go, Let’s Go” by Hank Ballard (1927-2003) and The Midnighters. One thing I think people miss in our rhythmic structure is our fascination with The Beach Boys, especially late-‘60s/early ‘70s Beach Boys. So while we’re boogying along, just know this boogie is coming at ya from cosmic California U.S.A.
GM: “Oak Apple Day” is like a Small Faces walk through “Itchycoo Park,” so unique, different, dreamy, druggy, a real hippie anthem, my man. And for this aging hippie, who used to look like you before he became a fat old bald dude, it’s positively transforming!
CR: (laughs) Well, thank you, but hey we’re all on our way…
GM: Nah, I see pictures of you guys and you haven’t lost an inch of your hippiedom.
CR: I hope not. “Oak Apple Day” is about our band. “The cobblestone kids are back again throwing colors on the wind.” Our archaic juxtaposition of the “cosmos and the plough look who’s smiling now” is us on the road.
GM: The plough representing the work you put into it…
CR: …and how much fun and fully rewarding it’s been for all of us.
GM: Well, it’s a change-up from anything, I dare say, you’ve ever recorded.
CR: I think so, and I would say the same thing about “Forever as the Moon.” We have no temple of success to bow down to anymore. We have no hit records that we’re chained to perform for people for the rest of our lives. This is something that has invented itself. It’s new to itself. It’s called freedom. We’re exercising our human right to be in-the-moment as much as we can be. It’s all in the design of what we’re trying to accomplish.
GM: I like the line in the closing “California Hymn” where you say “It’s time to spread the news though my good words may sound profane to some.”
CR: Well, y’know, I’m a dyslectic damaged rock ’n’ roll-head weirdo art-school drop-out freak. No one wants to hear from someone like that.
GM: I do! Hello?
CR: I’ve never been very preachy but no one wants to hear about the connectedness of love which is aligned in our planet in the universal sphere of our conscience and subconscious. That’s the funny part of the song. As a species, we’re really only interested in love and all its manifestations. Isn’t that what music represents? But, to some people, that’s the worst thing you can say.
GM: I will never forget seeing The Black Crowes open for ZZ Top at Madison Square Garden. You blew me away to the point where I remember it like it was yesterday: your every move, facial tic, phrase, it was classic rock-star front-man heroics. I couldn’t take my eyes off you. It had its element of being Messianic like what Springsteen does every night. Your performance was everything I subscribed to as a singer in a local cover band. I stood there in awe, after which I was so drained, I left not seeing the headliner. And I love ZZ Top!
CR: Well, thank you. I think that was a three-nighter at the Garden. The thing I most remember about that particular gig was I busted my trousers. I ran out and, yes, my presentation back then was much more energetic than it is today. Plus, I do believe, that at that time of my life, the thought of wearing underwear was much too bourgeois for me. We were still pretty green, man, we had only been on the road about 10 months.
GM: What’s the difference between the Chris Robinson who blew me away back then and the Chris Robinson of 2016?
CR: I’m not that kind of front-person anymore. I play guitar and sing. That kind of energy and that kind of public persona just doesn’t really suit me now. I was so young when I first did The Black Crowes and felt that’s the kind of performance that the material demanded. The focus now is on the music, these songs and the vibe. Our music now is more folk-based as opposed to blues. We’re coming from a more cosmic folk place. We don’t do The Black Crowes, man. That’s never mentioned in our advertising. We’re getting on to six years now of the CRB. You have to reinvent the wheel every time you start a new band. And you have to fully commit to it.
GM: True artists always change. I know that. But that earlier Chris Robinson is not dead! Is there a chance we could yet see that Chris Robinson?
CR: I don’t think so. I don’t feel like that person anymore. I’m super happy. I have a lot more songs to write. It’s been a good run to get to where we are but now it’s time to put in some real work. We’re doing better than we did last year and we want to tend to this garden and see what it brings us. That’s really the only focus these days. I have no interest whatsoever to revisit anything for monetary purposes or nostalgic purposes. We consider ourselves privileged to still be able to record and make music and get that music out there in this day and age. It’s hardly a given anymore. In fact, it’s a rare thing.
GM: Yeah, but let’s get real. If someone offered you millions and millions of dollars to regroup with your brother for what would be the tour of the year for all us guys who freaked out about The Black Crowes back in the day, the one-time farewell tour that you never did, that your brother regrets not doing, you mean to tell me you would deprive your fans the opportunity to witness that one more time? Hell, Rich is open to it. I just interviewed him.
CR: Not today I wouldn’t. Dylan says, “money doesn’t talk, it swears.” I’m quite happy at this time of my life doing what I’m doing. You cannot put a price on the joy of being with a certain group of people where everyone is on the same page.
GM: Sure you can.
CR: Our friendships are deep in the CRB. Our music is deep. Our scene is deep. So, yeah man, we’re just getting started.
GM: Your brother told me that the reason The Black Crowes disbanded is because of your overriding obsession with turning the Crowes into the Grateful Dead. Care to comment?
CR: (laughs) That’s ridiculous. I have no idea what he’s talking about. I haven’t even talked to my brother in years. There’s no reason to speak to him.
GM: What is it about rock band brothers who hate each other from The Kinks to Oasis to The Black Crowes?
CR: When you’re younger, you do something and you don’t really have a choice because you’re doing it with family. Then you get older and you don’t necessarily want to be with them anymore because you or they have different priorities. Time changes people. Like any other person, I want to take care of my own psyche and my own family. It’s my presentation. My band. It was never fun in the Crowes. It was never good. It was always dysfunctional. I’ve moved on. I was never motivated by money. I’m not motivated by it now. Enough said.
GM: So if The Black Crowes didn’t end because of your perceived Grateful Dead obsession, why did it end?