By Timothy Dwenger
Chris Robinson is a rock star, whether he likes it or not. He has a swagger at the mic that comes from playing in front of millions of people worldwide, he’s sold tens of millions of records with The Black Crowes, and his private life has been tabloid fodder multiple times over the years.
That said, when he lets you into his world, the person that Chris Robinson emerges as is the antithesis of the rock star you might expect. He is personable, down to earth, and humble. In short, he’s shed most of the pomp and circumstance of being a Black Crowe and acts more like a local musician than someone who’s sold millions of records.
The music Robinson has been involved with over the last 30 years has made an indelible mark on the patchwork of American musical history and it’s also had its colorful controversies. The Black Crowes were infamous for the infighting between Chris and his brother Rich, line-up changes and break-ups, and the excessive use of substances. But Robinson pushed most of that aside when discussing the darker side of The Crowes. “To me the darkest things about The Black Crowes experience would be the flirtation in the late ’90s with trying to be more commercial than we should have been,” he revealed during a recent interview with The Marquee from his home in Santa Monica hours before boarding a red-eye to Florida to jam with Soulive at The Bear Creek Festival. “It’s funny, people say the drugs and the alcohol and the money are what’s decadent. I think real decadence — as the writer Paul Bowles once said — is over commercialization. Dumbing down what you do to make more money is not something that’s gonna get me anywhere. There’s no traction in that in terms of why I want to write songs and why I like to still play music.”
Black Crowes’ drummer Steve Gorman recently told Rolling Stone that “right now, the likelihood of us doing anything again is as low as it’s ever been. We could obviously all see things differently in a year, but I’ll be surprised if the Black Crowes do something again. Ever.” But while the band that Robinson and his brother birthed in the late 1980s might not be on track, Robinson is indeed still writing songs and playing music, and doing so with a perspective that few artists ever get to experience.
Robinson’s current project, The Chris Robinson Brotherhood, is a philosophical band of brothers that got its start while the Crowes were on “indefinite hiatus” in 2011. To date CRB has released three studio records, the most recent of which, Phosphorescent Harvest, focuses more on the roll rather than the rock, through a Grateful Dead influenced psychedelic space that is as heady as anything that came out of Marin County in the 1970s.
“I think the songwriting’s a little bit different on this one,” Robinson said. “When we did the first of the recordings that became Big Moon Ritual and The Magic Door, we didn’t really know what this was going to be. In the grand scheme in my mind I was like, ‘How do we start a local band?’ I didn’t want to do the conventional ‘I made a record and I’m releasing a record, and here’s interviews and pictures, and we’re going on the road.’ That first year we did none of that. We just played and wrote and played and jammed.”
Not surprisingly that playing and jamming is what solidified this group into the “if we weren’t so tight, we couldn’t sound this effortlessly loose” band that they have become. Featuring Robinson backed by guitarist Neal Casal (Ryan Adams & The Cardinals, Hard Working Americans) keyboardist Adam MacDougall (The Black Crowes) bassist Mark Dutton, and drummer George Sluppick (JJ Grey & Mofro), the Brotherhood works hard to put forth an air of nonchalance.
Robinson has solidified an incredibly tight songwriting relationship with Casal that was in it’s infancy when the songs on the first two records were being finished. This fruitful partnership yielded most of the songs on Phosphorescent Harvest and Robinson remains excited about the future of their collaboration. “With Phosphorescent Harvest Neal and I were on an incredible wave-length in terms of being a songwriting team. That is only growing more and more, which is what’s so exciting about this next batch of songs that we’re starting to work on,” Robinson said. “In an archetypal, classic, successful — whatever that means — songwriter dynamic I think opposites — two people who are really different — work together the best. Neal and I might not be that different in a lot of other respects, but I’m the kinetic energy when I’m writing and working and it’s like ‘Ba ba ba this and that, purple, silver, furry!’ You know, whatever. Neal, in the best way, is much more reserved. Neal will take my energy and all this stuff that’s coming out of me and be like ‘Yeah, let’s keep going, more, more.’ But he’s also sitting back and taking stock. He sits on stuff longer. So I think with my spontaneous combustion take on it and his more reserved take on it we have the best of both worlds.”
Despite Robinson’s massive rock pedigree, he said that Casal takes the reins on a lot of the organizational work of their collaborations. “Once we’re in a song and we figure out what the vibes are I would say he’s more like a cowboy on a cattle drive; you just can’t let some of them across the river. They have to stay on this side of the river. He’s rounding ’em up. He’s rounding ’em’ up! But he’s also contributing his own ideas as well. So it goes back and forth. It’s super exciting and dynamic between us. Like I said, here we are just finishing our third touring cycle and I don’t see any ceiling to where Neal and I could go as a songwriting partnership.”
That’s great news for fans of Robinson and The Brotherhood and while he didn’t sketch any details on timing, he said he is excited about the band getting back to the studio for another album soon. “You know, we live in a world where people are saying ‘albums are passé or ‘they’re obsolete.’ Well, you know, people still drive around in old cars don’t they?” he said. “I don’t want to be forced into not having something we enjoy. The recording studio is fun and it’s still exciting. We definitely feel a real privilege to be able to make records. Here we are getting towards the end of our third year and for us it’s just like ‘Where can we take this.’ This music is taking us places that we all enjoy. And the conversation that we have musically with this group — I’m not tired of that conversation. There are still new topics to be reached every time. We’re very happy and all we do is focus on the music. So, we’re just gonna stick with that.”
Years ago in a radio interview Robinson hilariously said that he puts way more stock in musical suggestions from his pot dealer, than any of the suggestions he ever got from label executives, and the Brotherhood seems to be his final commentary to the business side of the music business. It’s a commentary that doesn’t require actual words, it just requires that he play music that is true to him.
“My goals have never been to be famous and make money. I’m an obsessive, obsessive music listener and I make music. And I just want the work to be good work. I want it to be expressive and dynamic and I want it to touch people in its own way. That could be subtle, it could be in-your-face, it could be a number of things. Overall, it’s been a pretty good run either way.”
Chris Robinson Brotherhood Cervantes’ Masterpiece Ballroom December 30 and 31
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