Chris Robinson: Once a Crowe…now a Brother

It's been years since vocalist Chris Robinson left the Black Crowes to join a new Brotherhood. Another well-received album, "Servants of the Sun," proves the career move a major success.
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 The Chris Robinson Brotherhood. Publicity photo ©Jay Blakesberg

The Chris Robinson Brotherhood. Publicity photo ©Jay Blakesberg

By Mike Greenblatt

The former Black Crowes vocalist Chris Robinson has led his own band into being an A-List act. The Chris Robinson Brotherhood are a righteously rockin’ psychedelic, post-Southern Rock, folk-jam band led by the charismatic singer-songwriter whose voice on the new self-released Servants of the Sun sounds better than ever, with its jagged edges and Georgia-Soul proclivities on lyrics that, if not quite autobiographical, are personal, idiosyncratic and thought-provoking. It completes this wholly satisfying package.

The choice of the word ‘Brotherhood’ in itself can be seen as ironic as Chris Robinson has not spoken to his own brother (and Black Crowes guitarist) Rich Robinson for many years. But we won’t bring that up this time around.

Goldmine: This has got to be the best CRB album yet! Your voice really carries it, and the musical bed upon which it rests. You’re right up with early Rod Stewart when he was with the Faces.

CHRIS ROBINSON: Thank you, really. The architecture of the CRB has always been the vocals. The Black Crowes would be more like the rain forest with all these plants trying to compete for the few rays of sun. It was all youthful rock and roll. Now I’m more interested in the harmony. When I write on acoustic guitar and show it to the band, the vocals are uppermost in my mind. So I’m glad you say that. The vocals are the story. It’s the meat of the matter.

GM: No doubt! “Some Earthly Delights,” for instance, is organic, natural, soulful. Plus, there are so many songs with so many great lines: “Listen to what the night has to say/it’s like a prayer” or “sometimes a dream is to be believed.” This stuff makes you dance and think at the same time!

CR: Well, I hope so. You know, I mean, my entrée into any of this came from my father who was a singer when I was in high school — even had a Top 40 hit, then became a ’60s folk singer signed to Paramount. I loved my dad. He’s not here anymore. He always said I was a horrible singer but I was crazy and arrogant enough to know early on that I could write lyrics. I even considered myself a poet.

GM: You are a poet.

CR: I live my life in some sort of poetic construct, I think. But yeah, thank you. Words were my whole life until I found all this other stuff. I’ve always wanted to create scenes. It has to be multi-dynamic. It has to have a cool groove. And then, if lyrics can be profound enough to be understood on top of all that? I mean, yeah, I felt that way when I listened to an album like Close to the Edge by Yes. True, we’re not a progressive band like Yes so how can we do that in our kind of folk rock context? That’s the fun of it all.

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GM: I thought “Let It Fall” was rather Allman-esque.

CR: Yeah, yeah, I know what you mean but thought it more like Little Feat with Lowell George. Hey, after eight years and a thousand shows, that’s the vibe. Yet “Stars Fell on California” is completely different. Everyone can jump into that kind of more straightforward rock. “Let It Fall” is strange in that it contains a funky swampy kind of New Orleans vibe in the verses, and then you kind of have this early ’70s Beach Boy thing going on in the chorus. It’s fun, though.

GM: What was that 42-second “Madder Rose” all about?

CR: I write the songs, the band helps. Once I show them the song on acoustic guitar, I’m done, and then everybody gets to play all these amazing overdubs, change their parts, sing and jam. So this time, after listening to a bunch of stuff, I was in the control room, and I said, “Y’know what? I’m going to put out all my overdubs on one little piece of weirdness.” So I layered guitar, voice, other sounds, drums, all mashed up in one little intro to “A Smiling Epitaph.” At 42 seconds, you can’t say I’m self-indulgent!

GM: So eight records in eight years for the CRB. It boggles the mind. I think at this point you’ve eclipsed the band that brought you fame.

CR: Well, uh, definitely in the first 10 years of each band, yeah, I guess you could say that, because the Black Crowes only made three records after that. I guess when you think about it, it’s pretty wild. The coolest thing, though, is that, finally, I’m the f**king record company dude. I can approach this whole thing from a more creative level. What’s the criteria? I never in a million years would’ve tried to replicate the Crowes. That band still fits big, y’know? So I had the unique opportunity to start from scratch. That was the whole thing, man. If I was really going to do it, I had to sink all my energy and creativity into it. And hopefully it’s in the work. I know it’s been in the way we’ve done it or tried to do it. I know it’s been in the way I feel and deal with the look of everything from acting as my own art director, and even being my own merchandise man. It’s all-encompassing.

GM: You went from being a charismatic frontman who sang up a storm and shook his ass to a more studied musician with a guitar who didn’t really move around a lot.

CR: That, right there, was rough. I hoped people would accept the change. And they have. Hey, when you’re famous for dancing around like I used to, and then you try to perfect a totally different presentation, one that’s not so visceral, doubt sets in. I was an aggressive blues-based frontman vocalist. Then I asked people to accept me as a guitarist basically singing his own kind of folk songs. (laughs) I’m so proud of my band these days. A lot of people do not like what they perceive as hippie music. At first, they’d stand in front of us, see us, and I just know they were thinking, “Hey, that’s not what I thought this would be.” But this is a f**king rock and roll band. That’s what it’s about. I’m one of those guys who still thinks rock and roll is cool.

GM: It’s been 50 years since Woodstock. You were three years old. But did you go back and discover the magnitude of that event for yourself?

CR: It’s our culture. I’m such a scholar of the era and of the counterculture and where it comes from, that, yeah, I get it, y’know, its origins, what it means today. Hey, Sly & The Family Stone at Woodstock is still one of my earliest heaviest musical inspirations since Ifirst saw that movie. I’ve seen it so many times now. The weird thing is that it’s mercurial. It’s so much more than “there-was-Woodstock-and-there-was-Altamont,” end-of-story. Hey, I’ve met people who had fun at Altamont. That’s weird, too. The Stones played great until that kid was murdered. And some of the biggest bands at Woodstock are the most obscure to the average listener now, like Canned Heat and Country Joe.

We recently had to replace our keyboard player and we’re using the fabulous Pete Sears (aged 71) now. He played on all those old Rod Stewart records. He was friends with Nicky Hopkins and Ian McLagan. They all come from that school. He’s given us a lesson every night in rock and roll 101. It’s f**king beautiful.