A decade before Jack White had been known for revitalizing blues infused rock and roll of generations past with the White Stripes, Rich Robinson had been doing such torch bearing as part of the Black Crowes. With the release of 1990’s Shake Your Money Maker, the Black Crowes made the old sound new again, and they blew up the music charts and became a must-see live act while doing it. Follow-up albums like The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion and Amorica solidified a devoted fan base that would pick up every new release and kept coming out to catch the band on each tour until their breakup in 2015.
With or without the Black Crowes, Robinson has been a consistent deliverer of musical euphoria and sonic exploration, while always living his truth and following his muses. His has been a journey that’s found him in bands with Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin, Robby Krieger of the Doors and most recently Bad Company. The road has led to legendary music venues, including the Fillmore, Madison Square Garden, the Ryman Auditorium and the clubs of the Sunset Strip, as well as summer festivals such as H.O.R.D.E., Bonnaroo and Lock’n. With the Black Crowes, he’s opened for the Grateful Dead and Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, co-headlined tours with Oasis and Lenny Kravitz, and jammed with Trey Anastasio, Warren Haynes and Ben Harper. He’s lent his musical talents to socially conscious events including Tom Morello’s Joe Hill tribute and historian Howard Zinn’s The People Speak stage production.
Over the past couple of years, Robinson has joined other electric alchemists like Billy Cox, Jonny Lang, Zakk Wylde and Kenny Wayne Sheperd at select Experience Hendrix shows, the All-star touring celebration of the music of Jimi Hendrix. Through all of his adventures and experiences, he continues to write and record vibrant, soulful music and release collections of songs that make the album format feel like it still means something.
In the recent years prior to the Black Crowes’ breakup, Robinson had been ramping up a solo career that had begun in the early 2000s, and on June 24th, he released his fourth solo album Flux. He spoke to Glide Magazine about the making of his new album, as well as his current tour as a member of Bad Company, the rock scene of the early nineties and reuniting with Marc Ford and Sven Pipien of the Black Crowes. Also discussed was his adoration for vinyl records, folk music, recording in Upstate New York and the Black Crowes’ song catalog.
You’re at the tail end of a North American tour, playing with Bad Company on their co-headlining tour with Joe Walsh. Any stories from the road that you’d like to share?
You know, overall it’s pretty mellow. It’s really cool to hang out and see everyone. Joe Walsh is amazing, and playing with Bad Company is such a cool thing. Paul (Rodgers) is great and sounds better than he ever has. Simon (Kirke) is really cool to play with. Everybody in the band is great. It’s really cool, you know?
So have you always been a fan of Bad Company? Any particular songs, albums or performances that really struck a chord with you while growing up?
I mean, I heard Bad Company on the radio growing up all the time, but as a musician, I was really into Free. They were one of my favorite bands and such a unique band unto themselves. So yeah, really between those and… Growing up and listening to Bad Company, you really couldn’t avoid it. They were on the radio all the time.
So how did this tour come to be?
Well, last November, I played at a tribute to Jimmy Page in Seattle, through the Experience Music Project. So a friend of mine asked if I wanted to be involved and so I was like “Yeah, of course.” A lot of great people were involved; Duff McKagan from Guns N’ Roses and Kim (Thayil) from Soundgarden. Rick Nielson and Jerry Cantrell and some other people were all very involved and it was a really cool thing to be a part of. Paul was there, I got to meet him and he was really cool and when we met, he asked me to play on the two Firm songs that he did. And that was it, and it was cool, and Jimmy was there and at the end he got up and played. It was a lot of fun, and then a couple of months later, they had booked this tour and I guess Mick (Ralphs,) for whatever reason, wasn’t able to do it. So Paul called and asked if I’d do it and I said “Yeah man, that would be great.” Just kind of filling in temporarily for a few shows. It’s really cool.
Speaking of the Jimmy Page event, I saw some of the photos you shared of it on social media from it, and when I saw the pictures of you amongst the architects of Seattle grunge rock like Krist Novaselic of Nirvana and Kim Thayil of Soundgarden, I sort of had a flashback to the first half of the nineties, when all of your bands were in constant rotation on MTV and rock radio stations. Back then, the Crowes really seemed to have stood apart and stood alone from the grunge and alternative rock of those days, doing very much their own thing. But in hindsight, perhaps there was a lot more commonalities than there appeared to be at the time. The early nineties was the last time rock music really conquered the music charts, and rock bands as well as the Crowes were really a big part of all that. Did you feel any sort of comradery with the alternative rock acts like Jane’s Addiction or the Chili Peppers back in those days?
Yeah, absolutely. I would say more in attitude than anything, you know? I mean the Grunge movement really started in ’92, the end of ’91. I remember when Nirvana first put their record out. Our record came out in ‘90 and the only thing that was on TV and on the radio was heavy metal. I mean we were the only rock and roll band, let alone, like, a classic rock band. We were drawing from influences like the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin. We were the only band doing that at that time, and because of our success, it really started the downfall of all that hair metal shit, you know?
And then Nirvana came up and made such cool records and what they were doing was so stripped down, and the same goes for all of those bands. I think we shared a common lineage of where we pulled our music from. I would say Soundgarden and some of those heavier bands were definitely into Zeppelin, AC/DC and Black Sabbath and those kind of bands. And the way that they approached the music wasn’t some showy rock bullshit. Their music was as authentic and cool and heartfelt as ours was. It wasn’t cynical and it wasn’t written for the sole purpose of trying to sell records. It was still a human expression, an expression of what these guys wanted to show, and how they wanted to express themselves, and in that, we definitely had a comradery with them.
So while your first solo album Paper came out in the early 2000s, you’ve really ramped up your solo music output in recent years. Your fourth album Flux was released this past week. Was there any sort of concept that you had in your mind before heading into the studio?
No, I mean, I really just… The music that comes always dictates how the record is going to sound. That’s just how I see it, so, when I go in, I’ll have a couple parts… There’ll be this, and then one thing will lead to another and lead to another and lead to a tangent and then I’ll change this and that’s how it really unfolds, as I’m writing these songs. Being in the studio, writing all these songs and fleshing them out really dictates where it’s going to go and that’s such a cool process, and such an inspiring process, because… You can have an idea, and you can have maybe a song and you’re putting it together and it sounds cool, but then you turn around and say “Ah I’m not into it anymore” and then something will shift and it’ll like “Wow that’s my favorite thing.” That’s what’s so cool about it. That’s what basically inspires me to go out and do it, and to keep doing it.
Lyrically, Flux is an offering of 13 songs that come off like meditations on matters of the heart and soul. Would that be an accurate statement? What is that you feel drawn to write about and say to the audience?
Yeah, absolutely. They all touch on my experience and what I see, things that I see. As I travel around the world, or if anyone does, if anyone, what they watch, what they eat. They have kids, they don’t have kids. They get married, they get divorced. They travel. They lose a parent. They have fights with their friends. They experience joy. They experience love. You know, all of these things, adds through the filter that’s in your system. They add through the filter you see the world through… That stained glass, or whatever, you know… A metaphor to see how your world is, and it really colors it. All of these things color the way you see the world and ultimately it lets you create in the way that you create. Ultimately, if there’s one theme that runs consistent through the record, and also the last couple of records, is just humanity. I mean I record on ProTools because it’s a great tape machine, but I don’t use Pro-Tools to like, take all the… You know, sometimes my choruses speed up. Sometimes they slow down. Sometimes we sing a little flat. You know what I mean?
That human element of it is what’s really most important. It’s what’s most important in music. I feel like our society, through computers and through constant editing and through pills… Like anybody who feels down a little bit, “Well let’s give him a pill to feel happier,”… All of these different things suck the humanity out of our experience and sucks the humanity out of our creation. I used to listen to the Beatles. Well, the Beatles would speed up going into the chorus, and then they’d slow down. So would Led Zeppelin. You know, John Bonham would play these huge backbeats and sometimes Andy Newmark, who played with Sly and the Family Stone, would play on the upbeat. You know, bass players would pull it back and so on and so forth. That’s what I loved about it. I love the uniqueness of it. I love the uniqueness of those bands. It’s what I’m drawn to, and I think the world has shifted to, because of computers, everyone can sound the exact same and it’s not a big deal, do you know what I mean?
I hate to say it, but come on man. It’s John Bonham’s kick drum that’s squeaking and sounds the best. John Paul Jones, only plays like him. Nobody sounds like Jimmy Page when he plays. Keith Richards is a really unique guitar player. Neil Young is an incredibly unique singer and guitar player. No one sounds like him. Those are the human qualities that should be celebrated, and pop music is all about sounding exactly the same. Same content, same horseshit, and people are really missing out, you know?
The lyrics on this album harmoniously entwine with the instrumentation to effectively convey the moods of those lyrics. On top of that, your songs have always been tastefully melodic and soulful. Do you have a sort of requirements that you have to check off in order for a song to feel complete?
No, I mean I just sort of know when it’s done. I have to know when it’s done, on my own. And that’s really it at the end of the day. And it really comes down to taste, ultimately. I like this, I like that. I like the way this moves. I like the movement of this song or this music and this is how it goes and melodically, the way that I always write, is that’ll record the whole record musically. Basically everything is done but the mix. Then I’ll sing on top of it. So I’ll listen to it, after it’s finished musically, and I’ll see what it pulls to me lyrically. Like, what does this pull out of me? What does this make me feel? And whatever it makes me feel is what I make that song about. Ultimately, that’s maybe why you’re feeling that music and the lyrics go hand-in-hand. Because that’s direct inspiration from the music.
You’re one of the artists who always makes their albums available in the vinyl format, and you really get into the spirit of events like Record Store Day. What do vinyl recordings mean to you? In this day and age, with the resurgence of it all.
Well I think that anything in life that is easy-come, easy-go. That’s where that statement comes from, easy-come, easy-go. And so, you walk around with your phone, or your ipod, or whatever… Your ipad… You have 15,000 songs on it, and you walk into a store and hear some chorus and you click a button and you can download it for a dollar or whatever. Because it’s so easy to gain access, on a level, you’re getting a miniature level of a broader experience. So when it’s easier to click on this thing and buy it for a buck, you’re not that invested, and really, how much do you give a shit? Maybe I’ll listen to it, and maybe I won’t. But when you go to a record store, or maybe you get a vinyl in the mail or whatever it is, there is a multiple tactile response to it. There’s a multiple sensory response to this. So you get this huge piece of artwork, you know what I mean? You open it up, there’s information. You pull the plastic off, it has a smell. You can read about all the people that played on it and the people who produced it and the people who created the artwork. You can read the lyrics. You can read “Thank yous.”
There’s so many things that you can learn about from the artist. That’s just much more interesting than some dude taking a picture because he went to a subway station and posted it on Instagram or whatever the fuck that shit is. It’s like “Hey, we prepared this and this is what this is, and these are the people that worked on it. So then you have to listen to that record. So in order to listen to it, there’s a process. You have to take the vinyl, walk over, turn your stereo on, put the vinyl on the turntable, turn the turntable on, put the needle on the vinyl and then you have five songs to listen to, and you have to listen vigilantly because if you walk away or you forget, it’s going to make that horrible noise when the needle starts scraping up against the label.
So all of these things subconsciously force you in a sense, to have an experience. It puts you in a position where you are going to be there and have this experience. You’re going to show that experience respect because subconsciously you realize, or maybe even consciously realize that there is a process. And maybe on a subconscious level, once you get past that, you realize that people actually put work into it. It’s not some computer, it’s not some producer playing on an ipad. What it is is a band, or a musician and a band that went into the studio, someone wrote these songs, someone played these songs, someone recorded these songs, someone manufactured the recording console, someone manufactured the microphone and the instruments that are being played. Someone manufactured the tape and the chairs sat on while recording. Someone built the studio… and you expanded it out. Someone designed the artwork, someone went through the process of actually putting together something that you could take home and listen to. Someone shipped it, and that shipment came to the store and I went to that store and I picked it up. Someone distributed it and the label figured out to market this and all these things… And just maybe, hopefully, on a subconscious level, will recognize that there is a process, a collaborative process, that starts with the person who writes the song and expands out to everyone who played on it, or the band that wrote them and played on it. It expands out to the crew that helped load in and then it keeps expanding out, and you realize, there’s much more to it.
To scoff at paying $10 bucks for a CD, or $20 dollars for a vinyl, when we, pretty much as a nation, will drop three, four, five times that at Starbucks in a week for something that will last for three minutes, depending on how slow you drink your coffee. You can have a record for a lifetime and you can have that record and that can be your experience that you have a really deep relationship with and… that you can take on, and maybe twenty years from now that record will stay have value, and you can go sell it if you choose to. Or you can keep it and pass it on to your kids. There’s something about that we are missing as a society. Everything is so instant that, that’s where my passion comes from, when it pertains to music and vinyl in particular.
You’ve always been recognized for the blues and rock elements of your work, but there’s always sort of been an unsung folk music influence in your music. I know that Nick Drake has been a big influence for you. Are there any other ways folk creeps into your music?
Absolutely, I mean the first record I learned how to play was a Bob Dylan record, Bringing It All Back Home. That was one of the more important records in our household. My dad was a huge Dylan fan so I remember listening to all of those records… The Times Are-A-Changin,’ Highway 61 Revisited, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan…. And one of the first songs I learned how to play was “Oxford Town.” And also, getting into Nick Drake as I got older, and Crosby, Stills & Nash, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell and Joan Baez, which bridged that gap, and so those sort of things were always embedded in us. There was also jazz and blues and really a lot of music and as we got older and toured more and delved more into music. There were elements of Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis and John Coltrane and all these amazing jazz artists and all of those things creeped into our music over the years.
With the Crowes, you recorded Before the Frost, Until the Freeze at Levon Helm’s studio up in Woodstock, and you’ve recorded recent solo cuts at Applehead Studios in nearby Saugerties. What is it that keeps pulling you back to the Catskill Mountains of Upstate New York? Is there some sort of inspiration you find there?
I mean yeah, I feel connected to that place, for whatever reason, creatively. It’s a beautiful place. I love being there and I definitely feel like I tap into something when I’m there, and I don’t know what it is. It doesn’t have anything to do with 1969 or anything to do with Woodstock or any of the cliché things around Woodstock. But there’s definitely a strong-felt energy up there that make me feel… That I tend to tap into when I make records.
In August, you’ll return to Applehead Studios to record Volume two of the Woodstock sessions, the live in-studio recordings series. What can be expected at those shows?
Well Marc Ford is coming out to sit in on some songs which is great. And also with Sven Pipien just joining my band, which is great, along with Joe Magistro and my band and we’ll have some special guests up there which will be really cool, and it’s going to be three days, they all sold out, which is great It’s just going to be a really cool thing and I’m really happy about it.
I don’t want to be that guy that questions you on a possible full-on Black Crowes reunion. I’m going to accept the finality emphasized in the band’s breakup statements. But I’m curious, what is you relationship with the Black Crowes’ back catalog at this point, through the eyes of a solo artist?
Well I mean they’re my songs and I’m very proud of them and that music, I mean, I can’t be happier about it and couldn’t be more proud of it. Our relationship with our fans, as far as the music goes, and what that meant to people and what that meant to us, it’s such a cool thing. I have nothing but the utmost respect and fond memories of the band and also, I think that music should be heard and played and I will play some of my songs… old songs just as well as new songs.
Top photo by Marc Lacatell
Rich Robinson kicked off his summer solo tour in July and wraps up in September. See below for live dates.
7/28/16 Sellersville Theater 1894, Sellersville, PA
7/29/16 Floydfest, Floyd, VA
7/30/16 The Hamilton Live, Washington DC
7/31/16 Rams Head On Stage, Annapolis, MD
8/02/16 Fairfield Theatre Stageone, Fairfield, CT
8/03/16 Mclaughlin Nocross Memorial Dell, Haddon Heights, NJ
8/05/16 Seneca Niagara Resort & Casino, Niagara Falls, NY
8/06/16 Highline Ballroom, New York, NY
8/07/16 Wolf Den, Uncasville, CT
8/10/16 The Met, Pawtucket, RI
8/11/16 Tupelo Music Hall, Londonberry, NH
8/12/16 Brighton Music Hall, Boston, MA
8/13/16 Club Helsinki, Hudson, NY
8/15/16 Shaka’s, Virginia Beach, VA
8/16/16 Hard Rock Café, Pittsburgh, PA
8/18/16 Iron Horse Music Hall, Northampton, MA
8/19/16 Applehead Studios, Saugerties, NY
8/20/16 Applehead Studios, Saugerties, NY
8/21/16 Applehead Studios, Saugerties, NY
9/08/16 Woodlands Tavern, Columbus, OH
9/09/16 Beachland Ballroom & Tavern, Cleveland, OH
9/11/16 City Winery Atlanta, Atlanta, GA
9/16/16 City Winery Nashville, Nashville, TN
9/17/16 Ferdinand Folk Festival, Ferdinand, IN
9/24/16 Stateside at the Paramount, Austin, TX
9/25/16 Studio Theater at the Tobin Center, San Antonio, TX