Guitarist Rich Robinson creates hard Americana

Rich Robinson poses with some of his favorite guitars. Photo by Alysse Gafkjen.

By Mike Greenblatt

With the new “Flux,” the Rich Robinson renaissance is in full swing. After four solo releases where the guitarist/composer/vocalist used a Crowes base from which to flower upward to expand the work that he and his brother Chris planted, “Flux” takes a giant step away from his former band’s signature sound. As a result, he’s made one of the better rock records of 2016. Call it Hard Americana.

Goldmine: You’ve put out some damn fine music since the demise of the Black Crowes. “Flux,” though, really caps it all off. But that first reissue, “Paper,” was built back up from scratch, no?

Rich Robinson: Yeah, with new vocals, different sequencing, remixing and remastering. I lived up north for 12 years, way outside of New York City, but the Crowes, and me personally, stored all our gear in New Jersey. When Hurricane Sandy hit in 2012, it flooded everything I own. I lost 60 guitars, all my amps, other instruments, the “Paper” master tapes and everything else, as did others in that rehearsal space. We were able to get most of the information off the tapes. A friend of mine dried them but the vocals weren’t on there. I’d always wanted to remix that record anyway, so while I was out making “Flux,” I was in the studio when the tape showed up with no vocals. So I sang the whole thing over and got to tweak what I didn’t like before. During remixing, there was a bunch of other tracks on there, two of which I finished and added. It was cool, man, so good to be able to do that. As far as the other three re-releases — “Llama Blues,” “Through A Crooked Sun” and “Woodstock Sessions” — we added new tracks and remastered the three albums without having to remix everything. “Paper” was the only one taken apart and put back together.

GM: You even wrote your own liner notes. How was it espousing your emotions in print instead of music? How’d you find the process of writing? Was that your idea, or were you forced kicking and screaming into it?

RR: (laughs) Someone suggested it to me and I readily agreed. I won’t say it was easy, but it was still cool to be able to do it. Also, to be able to explain yourself is always a good thing.

GM: I heard you paint, too.

RR: I’ve been painting for about 20 years.

GM: There’s certainly a link between painting and music: Joni Mitchell, Tony Bennett, John Lennon. Well, John did drawings.

RR: He liked to sketch.

GM: So you go from the printed word to the recording studio and stage to the canvas on an easel. Do you approach all three basically the same or is it a totally different mindset?

RR: They each for sure fill a different side of the brain, and that’s what I like about it.

GM: I particularly like “Llama Blues.” The Stones hipped me to blues when I was 13. Despite not really paying a whole hell of a lot of attention to blues in your catalog, you nailed it!

RR: I grew up on the blues. The blues is where Chris and I came from. We grew up loving Furry Lewis (1893-1981). I like country-blues, rural-blues. We were both big on Mississippi Fred McDowell (1904-1972) and Mississippi John Hurt (1892-1966). I never got into Chicago blues, urban blues.

GM: Although, that’s the style of blues that’s closer to rock’n’roll. When the Stones covered Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf in 1964, that’s where I first heard their music.

RR: I just think it’s too formulaic. Fred McDowell, on the other hand, with his eccentric timing and phrasing, is like a symphony to me.

fluxGM: I know exactly what you mean. John Lee Hooker (1917-2001) refused to play the standard I-IV-V progression. He wouldn’t even rhyme his lyrics. And his timing was oddly syncopated in all the “wrong” spots. That’s why his best stuff is without a band. I remember seeing him up close, his gold tooth winking, at those Greenwich Village nightspots in the ‘70s, marveling without quite understanding what he was puttin’ down … but loving it nevertheless. So what brought you around to do something like that on “Llama Blues”?

RR: I had songs that just wouldn’t fit on any other record but I still wanted to record them so I thought it cool to record a little EP. We put an old ribbon mic into the vocal booth with guitar and drums. It was really lo-fi because that’s what it was about.

GM: I dig how in “Flux,” the first three tracks are so powerful. It really makes the listener want to listen to the rest of the album. Isn’t that the whole purpose of proper sequencing?

RR: That’s what I used to think. I mean, that’s the purpose of a full-length. You bring someone on a journey. You set it up to make the listener think, “Wow, can’t wait to hear what’s next.” And that’s what I’m getting around now to thinking again because I miss that aspect in this era of cherry-picking tracks for your mixed tape. The last “Flux” song is “Sleepwalker” and it really looks at those who basically sleepwalk through life, who aren’t experiencing life, who either don’t realize or don’t care that there’s more out there. With the kind of technology and social media today, what’s coming to us is just what we want but it’s not necessarily what we might need.

GM: The tech aspect is a whole other debate, man. I just saw Santana. People would rather record it to watch later on their phones than experience it live.

RR: (laughs) I know, right? They’d rather watch this grandiose production of a live rock band on their small-screened phones with lousy sound? And you don’t realize you just missed the whole f**king concert? That sums it up in a nutshell to me. But because of the way this technology is, everybody has a smartphone. Even I have one! I don’t have a computer. I don’t like computers. I use my phone for emails. I can’t stand it. We’re missing out. We really are. We’re missing out on the world with all of this documentation of events for later that you should be experiencing in the now. We’re sleepwalking through life, man. What a bummer!

GM: Thirteen “Flux” songs. It’s a satisfying trip if you just let it work its magic. It’s also a surprising album in the sense that it doesn’t even sound like it’s from the same artist who made the four earlier records. It’s so different, man.

RR: Funny you should say that because while we were recording it, everyone in the studio was saying that exact same thing. Look, I just write songs that move me. That’s all I can do as an artist. It self-multiplies and it goes off into little tangents and ultimately there’s a cool song somewhere in there. I just have to find it. I’ve always done it like that. If you look back at the Crowes, the musical growth we experienced from “Shake Your Money Maker” (1990) to “Three Snakes and One Charm” (1996) crossed a lot of boundaries and covered a lot of ground. To me, that’s what’s cool about that. To be able to take that into what I do, which is just normal to me, makes “Flux” sound, as you say, totally different. So you go with it. You can’t fight it. I’m not trying to be anything, uh, let me put it this way … I’ve always felt that if you try and coerce something into being, or push something toward a direction for the purpose of change solely for the sake of change, it becomes forced instead of natural.

GM: But it’s a gamble doing it that way.

RR: Absolutely. But the guitar is still the guitar. My voice is still my voice. Hopefully, people will come along with it. To tell you the truth, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

GM: True artists always change. Except if you’re The Ramones, AC/DC or Motorhead, I guess. The thing that surprised me is that you’re a hell of a singer. Being in a band with Chris, who is one of the great lead singers of his generation, you had to take a back seat, of course, in the vocal department. That was the sound of the Crowes, I understand that. But this has unleashed your inner frontman, so to speak. I have to label “Flux” as Hard Americana.

RR: Now that is really interesting. I’ve never heard it described as such but now that you say it, that’s exactly what it is, yeah. I agree with you. It touches on those roots for sure. Absolutely. I admit “Flux” is a left turn. For the first four solo records, people who loved the Black Crowes would want to listen. Conversely, people who hated the Crowes certainly wouldn’t want to listen. “Flux,” then, for the first time, has nothing to do with the Black Crowes. It’s contextually different. And that’s what I like the best about it. I mean, sure, for the first four records, you hear the sound of the Black Crowes, but you don’t hear that singer. For “Flux,” I feel I took it so far left that people should give it a shot unrelated to their stance on the Crowes.

GM: You’ve de-Crowed your music!

RR: It’s tough, man. Chris has this phenomenal voice. I can’t try and sound like him.

GM: That’s key. Chris is a soul singer. You’re a rock singer. He’s Otis Redding.

RR: He’s Otis alright, but he’s also Rod Stewart crossed with Steve Marriott.

GM: Do you remember opening for ZZ Top at Madison Square Garden?

RR: Yeah, in ’91.

GM: That’s what turned me on to you guys. I loved every minute of that set. It galvanized me, especially Chris, his onstage movements, his voice, he was everything I’d want in a front man. I don’t even think I stuck around for ZZ Top that night and I love ZZ Top. I realized that the Crowes were a live band more than anything else. Then I loved what you did up in Woodstock at Levon Helm’s place. But what’s up with the brother hatred? Hell, The Kinks, Oasis, Black Crowes … damn.

RR: Brothers have a family dynamic they can’t escape. It’s always there. There’s always going to be an older brother and a younger brother. We just don’t see eye to eye. You want to know what it really is? Chris fell hopelessly in love with the Grateful Dead. He’d been pulling the band toward that direction for the last 20 years starting with “Amorica” (1994), our third record. No one else in the band wanted to go there. So we’ve been pushing and pulling for a long time. Chris broke the band up three times over it, yet we’d always reconvene. The last time, though, the fourth time, was a bit too contentious and uncool for (drummer) Steve (Gorman) and myself, so it just wasn’t going to be anymore. It was too much of a fight. It was too much of a constant fight. And I think that stems from brothers in general.

GM: What about one more tour?

RR: Well, it’s hard to say. I do agree with you in that there should have been a string of shows for the fans to say goodbye. We should have gone out and done it. The way this was handled by certain people didn’t allow for that. Steve and I both think it’s a shame. We could have at least had a show not unlike “The Last Waltz” of The Band.

GM: What chance is there of a reunion?

RR: Probably not very good. You never say never but…

GM: But where is that negativity coming from? You or Chris?

RR: (long pause) Hmmm, that’s a good question. It’s been almost three years now. No one really wants to have to deal with that right now. It’s just all so negative still.

GM: What’s your relationship with your brother today.

RR: We don’t really talk. 

Chris Robinson’s new Brotherhood

About Mike Greenblatt

A longtime music journalist, Mike Greenblatt is a contributing editor with Goldmine magazine.

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