By Brian F. Johnson
Rich Robinson doesn’t smile casually. An insincere smile is not his default setting.
The quiet “other brother” and co-founder of The Black Crowes has spent his whole life and nearly three decades of his musical career, under the shadow of the loud, boisterous personality of his older brother, Chris. But now, with the Crowes officially done — the result of an attempted money grab by Chris, according to one side of the story — Rich is happy as he settles further into his solo career, but that doesn’t mean he has to walk around with a smile on his face.
“’Sleepwalker,’ the last song on my new record talks about our society’s incessant need to stamp out anyone feeling anything other than joy,” Robinson said during a recent conversation with The Marquee. “‘You gotta feel happy!’ It’s unnatural to feel happy all the fucking time, and I don’t mean to quote myself, but ‘It’s o.k. to feel low sometimes. Low is a tool’ [he sings on the song]that can show you when you need to stop and evaluate. When you feel low there’s more introspection. When you feel low you look at yourself and that’s how you shift for the better. If everything you do is great, if every experience you have is great there’s really nothing that’s great. You have no contrast and that’s the thing that’s fascinating.”
Just reading those words, without hearing the inflection in Robinson’s voice, might lead one to think that there’s some sort of bitterness behind those statements. In reality however, Robinson is rooting for more from society, with the spirit of ‘we deserve better’ and ‘we can do better than this.’ And as an artist he takes the responsibility of that quite seriously.
“Look at ‘Music That Will Lift Me,’ [a song off his new album Flux]and the power of music and the relationship of creation. I think it’s the duty of the creator, whoever that may be and whatever medium that person works within to try to shoot for something grander for the sake of humanity, for the betterment of humanity,” he said. “I’m preaching indifference and humanity. Quit trying to erase humanity. It’s the humanity in music in particular that moves me and realistically it moves other people. No one gives a fuck about some of these pop songs that are huge right now. Is anyone going to give a shit in 10 years? The majority of pop music is so insincere. You know, we assume that technology is somehow facilitating creation, but ultimately what I think technology is doing is crushing creation, because all technology seems to do — at least how we use it — is turning art into commerce and when something becomes specifically earmarked for commerce, there is no creation. As that puddle shrinks, like in a desert, all the fucking animals in the desert come to the watering hole to drink and we sink deeper and deeper into this cycle of dumbing everything down. Everything is packaged and homogenized to the point where it’s anti-creation and anti-culture because we’re racing as fast as we can to the fucking bottom.”
So, maybe Robinson isn’t beaming a huge smile, but he’s not a crank either. He’s just focused on creating. Creating is something Robinson just knows in his soul. He was 15 when he wrote the music that would become “She Talks to Angels,” one of the band’s first singles and a track that would set the course for he and his brother’s first band Mr. Crowes Garden to grow into The Black Crowes and start them on a path to selling 30 million albums as the famously tagged “Most Rock and Roll Rock and Roll Band in the World.”
As Robinson approaches the third anniversary of the Crowes’ final show [December 14, 2013 at the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium in San Francisco] the guitarist has signed with Eagle Rock Entertainment to release his latest album Flux this June, and the label has re-released and re-imagined much of his solo catalog. Leading up to Flux Eagle Rock put forth a slew of offerings including a couple Record Store Day 7” titles, expanded and re-mastered versions of his recordings The Woodstock Sessions, his second solo record Through a Crooked Sun, the rare EP Llama Blues and a completely re-envisioned version of his debut solo album Paper.
During Hurricane Sandy, Robinson had a storage unit flood which wiped out a slew of his vintage guitar collection, and also among other things, destroyed portions of the masters of Paper. Robinson has often said he’s not the kind of artist who dwells on his recordings after they are completed, and he said that had the Paper recordings been fine he would have re-released them pretty much as-is with Eagle Rock. But when given the opportunity to get in and change some things, he welcomed the challenge. “I always hated the mix and always wanted the opportunity to remix that record,” he said. “I did that with my engineer at the time and we didn’t really know what we were doing and I wasn’t happy with it. So when the flood came and wiped out all the tapes I was able to give that record the due it’s deserved. I re-sang all of the vocals and we added like three songs. It was a really cool opportunity to re-examine it.”
With Flux Robinson reaches further into the themes of shedding baggage that he presented on 2014’s The Ceaseless Sight. “The Ceaseless Sight was something that cleared and Flux is now something that is what I see after all of that is cleared out,” he said. “Flux is a sense of clarity. By letting go of a bunch of shit, you have space to look around and see. What’s left when all is gone is some clarity.”
Letting go also makes room for connections or re-connections and while Robinson has made it clear that he’s not interested in playing with The Black Crowes again, he has recently reunited with Black Crowes alumni guitarist Marc Ford (1991–1997, 2005–2006), keyboardist Eddie Harsch (1991–2002, 2005–2006) and bassist Sven Pipien (1997–2000, 2005–2015). Pipien is part of Robinson’s current touring band, but Ford and Harsch were part of Robinson’s Woodstock Sessions 2016, held at Applewood Studios in Woodstock, N.Y. in August. The sessions, Robinsons’ second, are special performances set inside the recording studio featuring two separate sets that were meticulously recorded and will be released “sometime next year. “Playing with them again was great,” Robinson said. “With Marc it’s funny, because we always knew each other within the filter of my brother. Chris was such a big personality and he brought Marc on board for the Crowes and although Marc and I had a deep connection musically, we never really got to hang out, oddly enough, as just two people and get to know each other without someone interfering. It was really cool to be able to do that with him and really hang out and clear the air — not that there was really much air to clear. He and I really both let go of a lot of shit,” Robinson said.
Again, the theme of clearing and of clarity comes into play, surrendering to the ebbs and flows, and the highs and lows of life, which Robinson sings pointedly about on the song “Surrender.” “It’s all part of the game/It’s all part of my life/When you skirt and skate within your fate/surrender up your side,” he sings. “That’s about trying to control our lives because we can’t deal with the unknown and we think that we can control it and we can’t and there’s a fucking battle to deal with,” he said. “At some point you have to live for the day and say ‘I’m fine. It’s cool.’ It’s all part of this journey and this life that we live and quit trying to fucking control everything.”
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