Brotherhood gives lead Crowe Chris Robinson a new perspective
:: The Chris Robinson Brotherhood ::
:: The Belly Up :: October 1 ::
By Brian F. Johnson
Chris Robinson hasn’t always had it easy, in the music business. But the 44-year-old leader of The Black Crowes, humbly and graciously admits that the overwhelming success of the Crowes’ 1990 debut album Shake Your Money Maker allowed him to skip a lot of the really tough parts of the touring artist’s typical lifestyle.
However, with the Crowes on another indefinite hiatus, Robinson almost seems to be seeking out that tougher lifestyle and his new project The Chris Robinson Brotherhood (which, for the record, does not include his brother Rich Robinson) is forcing him into environs and situations that The Black Crowes haven’t had to think about since before their debut — back when the band was still called Mr. Crowes Garden. “If my amp blows up on stage when I’m playing guitar with The Black Crowes, a dude runs out and fixes it. If my amp blows up in Felton, California for this, I better figure out how to fucking get it together fast,” Robinson said in a recent exclusive interview with The Marquee. “[Guitarist] Neal (Casal) calls it boot camp. We just piled into a van with all of our gear: no crew, no guitar techs, no sound man, no light engineer, just our tour manager and the five of us. We went out humping our own gear, hanging out, playing three hours a night and working these new songs.”
Robinson had done something similar in 2002 with his band New Earth Mud, when the Crowes were in the midst of their first hiatus. For this project, however, the singer said he wanted to do something with the lessons he learned from that band. “New Earth Mud was an experiment that on some levels was very gratifying and fulfilling, but on other levels was really frustrating and difficult. So, for me, conceptually and philosophically and just logistically, it was time to do something else with a different group of people and a different mind-set, you know?” he said.
Starting with logistics, Robinson wanted a group of people who were near him, physically. “With New Earth Mud I had the Stacey brothers from England. My sound guy was in France, and I mean, instantly we were setting ourselves up for frustration. I wanted to put together a band where we are all in the same town,” he said.
Robinson had already been working on material during the Crowes final Say Goodnight to the Bad Guys Tour, and Crowes keyboardist Adam MacDougall spent a majority of the Crowes final days on the road in hotel rooms with Robinson working on material. “Here I was at the end of The Black Crowes cycle, sitting on a lot of material that was more expressive or expansive and it didn’t really fit into what The Black Crowes were doing. So we kind of had, at least in our minds, some momentum about what we wanted to do, musically, what we wanted it to feel like and the texture and the sound,” he said.
Robinson, who said that he “understand[s]my limitations as a guitarist,” hooked up with an old friend, Neal Casal, who used to play in Beachwood Sparks, before being the head axe slinger for Ryan Adams and The Cardinals. “Back in ’05, when we were putting the Crowes back together, there was a window of opportunity when we all thought Neal was going to be the guitarist,” Robinson said, before continuing on that since then, “always in the back of my mind was Neal’s playing, his singing, his writing.”
In addition to Casal and MacDougall, Robinson gathered together drummer George Sluppick — who had previously played with The City Champs, Robert Walter’s 20th Congress and Mofro, among others — and bassist Mark “Muddy” Dutton of the band Burning Tree. “When I first came to L.A. in ’89 or ’90, Burning Tree [which featured future Crowes guitarist Marc Ford]was like the only other band playing roots oriented rock music. So I’ve known that crazy fucking person for forever,” Robinson said of Dutton.
Holed up in Robinson’s home in Topanga Canyon, outside of L.A., Robinson and crew started to figure out the material, the textures and the how it all fit together. “With New Earth Mud, I think I was trying to do too many things at once with the acoustic part of it and the electric part of it, but this is a groove oriented thing and a more nuanced sort of form of expression,” Robinson said.
When Robinson says “groove oriented” he means it. A recent show by the Brotherhood had a set list of 18 songs, only one of which was less than five minutes in length. Eleven of the other songs were more than 10 minutes in length.
After the Brotherhood figured out the basic structure, then came the decision about how to get the music out there, and Robinson said he’d be damned if he followed the out-of-date model of the music business. “If you have a new project, the conventional wisdom is that you make a record to start, right? But that’s not what we’re looking for. If the music business is really kind of over, like in the old ways, then how do we get an audience? Because, if you go and make an album right off the bat, you’ve already made decisions on some things that will probably change once you’ve played 50 or 60 shows. In my mind, I was like, ‘Let’s go out and see what this band is going to be. Let’s go see who we are. Let’s be a local band,’” Robinson said.
He continued, “In this day and age of just corporate nonsense — this apathy-driven pursuit of the middle — if you want your own ritual you have to make your own temple. And the only way to make your own temple, dude, is brick by brick. You know what I mean, man? I’ve always felt there is wisdom in the hands of the people who build the temple, as well as the people who preach there, or go there to worship. You’ve got to build it from the ground up. We love music and some people don’t get it. They go see U2 or whatever and it’s a nostalgic trip. That’s rock and roll tourism. It’s for tourists, dude. We’re locals. This is our little basement party that everyone’s invited. You’re amongst friends, so get as weird as you want.”
Robinson notoriously knows about getting weird. “I remember in the early ’90s, someone wrote this disparaging article about us. The guy was like, ‘They talk about getting high, as if it’s some great thing,’ and I’m like, ‘It is, dude!’ So you smoked weed in high school and now that you don’t I’m supposed to listen to your opinion? Are you kidding? I always thought that being in a rock and roll band, it was my birthright to be difficult to people who aren’t living like we do. It wasn’t about arrogance or anything. I was opinionated. I just have, like, almost Tourette’s. I refuse to not tell you what I think. I’m all for [the medical marijuana movement]. A more gentle place where people aren’t going to prison? I dig it. I’m there. And people need it, man. I mean as long as you know what’s happening and you can be responsible for your actions, let’s get into it. A few years ago we were fucking outlaws, now we’re just patients. I’d rather be pushed around in a wheel chair made of clouds than be in jail.”
Robinson said that the Brotherhood has already booked studio time in January and will sit down to record with producer Thom Monahan, who has previously worked with Casal, is responsible for Vetiver’s latest, and who also co-produced, alongside Robinson, on 2008’s Vagabonds by Gary Louris of the Jayhawks. “By the time we get there, I think we’ll have a good idea about what these songs are supposed to sound like. I feel like we’ve planted the seed, and at some point, when it’s harvest time, I think we’ll feel good about what we’ve grown,” Robinson said.
:: The Chris Robinson Brotherhood ::
:: The Belly Up :: October 1 ::
:: Boulder Theater :: October 2 ::
Recommended if you Like:
• Grateful Dead
• The Cardinals
• New Earth Mud