It doesn’t take a lot of prodding to get Chris Robinson to elaborate on his thoughts, philosophy and the thing he does best, which happens to be making music. Then again, with over two decades of touring, recording and generally living life in true rock star form, he’s had no shortage of anecdotes and expertise from which to draw. Had he done nothing more than stand at the helm of the Black Crowes, the spirited, retro-sounding ensemble he cofounded with his brother Rich in 1989, he would have still assured his musical standing. So it’s to his credit that in the years since the band’s initial break-up early in the millennium, he’s continued to explore new plateaus, starting with a solo career that eventually morphed into two equally adventurous outfits, New Earth Mud and his current combo, the Chris Robinson Brotherhood, or CRB for short.
Along the way, Robinson’s freely dabbled in any number of outside pursuits, including guest stints with Phil Lesh and Friends, the occasional collaboration with his brother Rich, belated reunions with the Black Crowes and sitting behind the boards for solo projects by former Jayhawks Gary Louris and Mark Olson, and essential efforts by such bands as Truth & Salvage Co., The Kinsey Report and Thee Hypnotics. He gives the impression he’s a veritable whirlwind of activity, a musician who’s constantly moving, still exploring and never content simply to rest on his abundance of laurels.
“Chris has a wide range of knowledge and the world around him,” Mark Olson recently remarked. “He has business smarts and he’s also tough. He loves music and he’s a positive force. He knows his stuff and relates to the beauty of it all. He is always leaning forward into music and into life.”
CRB’s latest release is Betty’s Blend, Vol. 2, a limited edition release offered in a choice of vinyl, CD or download due out June 2nd, 2015. Recorded live at various venues and produced by Grateful Dead archivist Betty Cantor-Jackson, it’s the band’s fifth album to date and a successor of sorts to the out-of-print Record Store Day release Betty’s SF Blends Vol 1. Like most CRB’s efforts, it’s a hazy, slightly psychedelic blend of free-flowing instrumentals and expansive atmospheric anthems.
We recently caught up with Robinson the morning after a gig in Salt Lake City, the latest stop on a tour that extends well into September.
You strike us as the essential rock star, in look, in sound and especially, in attitude. So are you living the rock ‘n’ roll dream?
It’s a gift. I say it all the time. I know people sometimes say that and it’s a lot of bullshit, but I this is really the only world I can navigate. I was just this nerdy kid growing up in Atlanta who didn’t want to be a good old boy, who didn’t want to be just the fat kid down the block, you know what I mean? This life meant something really gratuitous to me. It had my name written all over it. It isn’t just about being a bunch of hippies. It’s the way we do our business, the way we see our bottom line. And to have an audience that appreciates what we do makes me feel humbled. The fact that people are interested in what we do is a gift.
Still unless you’re Bono or someone like that, it doesn’t come without its challenges. We’re not a hugely successful band, comparatively speaking. I just go out and do it because it’s my job. But I am lucky. I did want to write songs, and I did want to play music, and I did want to have a family. And I do get to do it all in a way that’s satisfying, in a way that keeps the music my main focus without the trappings of fame, which is what people seem particularly obsessed with these days.
The Black Crowes seemed to be one of those bands that were clearly influenced by earlier forebears like the Stones and the Faces, but who also, in turn, passed that insurgent attitude forward and informed a generation who didn’t necessarily experience that music the first time around.
When I meet people in airports and in restaurants, the thing that always stands out for me is when someone who says, “You turned me on to the Flying Burrito Brothers,” or “I didn’t know who Syd Barrett was,” or “Thanks for introducing me to the Incredible String Band. I didn’t know who they were until I read something you said about them.”
And yet, you guys seemed to enjoy a kind of outlaw image.
I always liked the way the Stones looked in 1972, and I thought that’s the way our band should look. When you’re young, it’s important to make people understand that you’re doing something different, even if it’s just about the way you look. Any serious person ought not to simply sit there and pat a lot of this stuff on the back. How many shit bands are out there singing “Satisfaction” every night.
It’s true. We were very open about stuff. We were very open about our chemical intake. I remember reading something about me where the writer said, “This guy thinks he’s the first person to get stoned.” I was like, no, that’s not the point. My point was, why can’t I get stoned? I wasn’t afraid of talking about it, But it was the early ‘90s and we were like anachronisms. I felt like we were a part of Woodstock Nation. It felt a bit unreal.
In light of the current legalization movement, you were actually ahead of your time.
(Laughs) Yeah, we definitely were. We definitely put ourselves out on the front line. In 1992, we had a backdrop behind us onstage with the picture of a giant pot leaf. The cops would always threaten to pull us over as we were leaving town. They hated us. I’m so happy that it’s a changing world, especially out here in the west.
Mark Olson paid you a great compliment. He said you were an excellent producer — very focused, very involved and very supportive.
Being a producer is a new role for me in a sense and I do love it. When I was making our earlier records, I was never completely satisfied with the results. I was young, I wasn’t a great singer… But now I have the experience of dealing with budgets and things like that. I also know how to set the tone and the vibe in the studio and things like that. Making records shouldn’t be as difficult as people make it out to be. To me it’s very simple. You get the best material you’re working on at the time. And then you get the best sound and performance you can from the musicians. The producer’s job is to facilitate all that in one fell swoop, to work heavily on the songs and make sure the material is all ready to go. I think I have a knack for putting the right people together to help these artists get what they want.
On the other hand, you don’t seem to be afraid of shaking things up, or establishing yourself as the one in command.
With CRB I have it easy. Part of what makes this band so interesting is that I never tell people what to play. I don’t have to tell them that’s a ‘g,’ that’s a ‘b flat,’ whatever. I’ve never done that in this band. I’ve never turned around and said, “Why don’t you play something different?” But with other bands, that might not necessarily be the case. With the Black Crowes, it was like we all started learning Mandarin Chinese together, so we only had each other as our tutors. We may have made some grammar mistakes, but we used them to learn. I learned a lot about bands, and dynamics, and how things have to work. So that gave me a lot of freedom. These days, I’m not out here leaning on what I’ve done. That’s the last thing I would do.
Do people still insist on associating you with the Black Crowes?
When I started in 2011, I would have never have tolerated a Black Crowes poster at the venue, or a Black Crowes reference on the advertising. If we had pulled up to a venue and saw that the promoter had done that, we would pack up our shit and go. The promoter might have wanted to do that to sell a few more tickets, but that’s not what I’m selling. I’m not asking Black Crowes fans to come to CRB shows. They’re certainly invited to come out, but I’m not going to encourage them to come under the pretence that they’re going to hear something that has something to do with the Black Crowes.
Was it hard at first for you to etch an identity of your own?
It was especially hard in the first two years because of I was taking that hard core stance. I used to see people in the audience wearing their Black Crowes tee shirts, but they would probably leave before the second set because it was such a different type of presentation. So I definitely felt it was important to put my name on this. As many people as there are who liked the Black Crowes, there were probably just as many who didn’t like the Black Crowes. Today, as a songwriter who’s in his late 40s, I’m more interested in melody. I’m more interested in the group dynamic. More of a folk influence. Less blues, less rock. It’s still rootsy, but there’s more jazz in there as well.
So you feel like you’re establishing new parameters?
I originally got into music because it was more tangible; I could feel my way through this. I didn’t have to rely on being rated or having a boss tell me what a great job I was doing and shit like that. For me, the greatest gift was never having to conform. If you know anything about rock ‘n’ roll, whether its Iggy Pop or Jerry Garcia or Neil Young, you know the job of the artist is to push the boundaries. I have a responsibility to express myself and I accomplished that when I first started writing. At age 48, I’m certainly not the same person I was at 26. So I can’t make the same kind of commercial records that I made in my youth.
The music on the new album sounds so spontaneous. Is it hard to translate what you do in concert to what you do in the studio?
It’s funny. Everyone said that our last album sounded so live and spontaneous, like we were making it up right there in the studio. In truth that was the most overdubbed record I’ve ever been involved in. But it’s true. We are a live band. We don’t use auto tunes. We don’t use any samples. We still play live. I never thought that would go out of style, but I guess it has. When you get down to it, it’s abut the players, the material and the person listening and the way the material translates.
Would you consider yourself restless? Ambitious?
I’m not unduly ambitious, but naturally, I would like the CRB to be more popular. I wouldn’t say I’m restless. When I’m at home, my life is really different. Luckily for me, my wife is our manager, so our home houses our family business. When I’m at home, I’m just dad. I actually turned down some outside productions I would have really loved to have worked with just so I could stay at home longer. I’m on the road so much as it is When I’m at home I get ti drive my tyrants – that’s what I call my kids – to school. It’s funny in that way. Sometimes I do wish I could do both, but there’s nothing more fulfilling than hitting the bed at the end of a full day of parenting. I have my outer space life on the road with the band and then my inner space life at home with the kids.
How are things doing with your brother? Are the two of you planning any projects together?
No. My brother’s laid his cards on the table. The people I started the Black Crowes with, I don’t know those people anymore. And they definitely don’t know me. I’ve been running my mouth off for 25 years and I don’t think they want to have put up with that anymore. It’s just the way it goes. At the end of the day, I just didn’t feel like anyone had anyone else’s back. I didn’t feel like the band had done everything it was destined to do musically, so it was relegated to greatest hits tours. I didn’t want to give any more energy to something like that.
We weren’t really asking about a Black Crowes reunion. We were simply curious about the possibility of you and your brother working together again.
I’m just talking about the situation in general. My brother and I never really talk about things unless we’re on tour together. That’s the way it’s been since 1992. I kind of live my life, with my family, with my kids, the way I wanted it set it up. And Rich does the same thing. Life is like that.
Live photos by Paul Citone