Rich Robinson has come of age in the last few years. And if that sounds implausible, given his two decade-plus tenure as co-founder of the Black Crowes, not to mention the burgeoning solo career he’s established, listen to the clarity of thought and expression during his conversation with Doug Collette.
The first inklings of his growth (spurt) may have come in later months of Luther Dickinson’s tenure with the Crowes during which Rich’s lead vocals on the Velvet Underground’s “Oh! Sweet Nuthin’” (from Loaded) grabbed attention in the group’s extended sets during that period. Flash forward to the final tour of the defunct band back in 2013, where, in an appearance at Burlington Vermont’s Waterfront Park, with his hair tied back in a ponytail, the younger Robinson sibling’s body language communicated the confidence of a man who knew had found his calling–or at least realized his destiny within his chosen vocation.
In the meantime, the guitarist and composer continued a string of increasingly potent solo efforts, begun with Paper in 2004 and continuing through The Ceaseless Sight, ten years later. The collaborative musicianship and production of those works (three of which were reissued in 2016) effectively set the stage for the coalescence of the Magpie Salute, so, it is no wonder whatsoever to hear Rich Robinson speak in slightly awed, but nonetheless authoritative tones, as he depicts the sequence of serendipitous yet exacting steps he followed in forming the group, then recording their first full length studio album of original material- High Water I. For Rich Robinson, following his feelings is not an act of fatalism, but a purposeful act of will.
I’ve had a chance to listen to the new album a little bit, so I’d like to chat about that, but first of all, I wanted to take a step back and ask you about the first Magpie Salute album. The impression that I got the first time I heard it—and one that grew the more I listened–was that it was set up to demonstrate the chops of the whole band, but also tell a story through its choice of cover material—am I too far off the mark?
Well, the thing about that record is that it wasn’t planned. I had a show that came up which was an opportunity to record a live album in Woodstock in front of an audience and that’s where it all started. In order to try something different and change things up a bit–and also to play with some people like guitarist Marc Ford and (the late keyboardist) Eddie Harsch as well as (drummer) Joe Magistro, those I’ve been fortunate enough to play with over the years–I decided to reach out to Marc and say “This is what I’m doing would you like to be a part of it?” And his response was “I don’t care what it is, I will be there” And I instantly felt like that’s where the two of us were.
You must’ve take that as a sign (laughs)?!
Yeah!? So, then I reached out to Eddie (Harsch, the late, long-time keyboardist of the Black Crowes) and said “Hey you wanna come down and play with me and Marc?” and he was “I don’t care what it is–I will be there!” And so it was a really cool thing and ultimately that’s what evolved and what I enjoyed most about it: that we were on a very similar page and that I could bring those guys into the context of my solo work.
So, when we made the record, those were songs I was doing with my solo band. Then, when Marc came on, I thought we’d throw on songs we had played before and things I’d like to hear Marc on. And when I chose the (late jazz vibist) Bobby Hutcherson song, I thought it would be amazing to hear Eddie and (keyboardist) Matt Slocum play it. Then, the Pink Floyd song “Fearless” was one I had always played and so had Marc when he was with the group Blue Floyd (which originally featured bassist Allen Woody and drummer Matt Abts of Gov’t Mule). Then there were the songs Marc and I had played with the Crowes, so I put ’em all on a tote board and tried to pick songs I thought we could all bring something to and would be cool to play.
It was never meant to be a Magpie record, it was going to be one of my records. But when everyone came down and began to play these songs, we all realized how special it was. Then we put a (Salute) show up for sale and it sold out, so we put up three more and then we decided to do a tour and then we said “Oh, we recorded that record last summer, let’s put that out.”
It sounds like the intent was to re-establish everyone’s musical roots as well as your connection as musicians. I was surprised and excited to see the Hutcherson song–he’s one of my favorite jazz players–and when I put the album on and heard you and Marc wailing guitars on the Delaney & Bonnie tune “Comin’ Home,” my curiosity was piqued about the selection of material.
I am also curious about the gestation of the new album High Water I and its sequel due out next year: can you give me some insight into how the material came to be composed, whether it was group effort(s), individuals bringing ideas in and in particular if you played any of the songs live before you went into the studio to record it?
Apart from “For The Wind,” which is the oldest song and which Joe and I had recorded a demo of, no one had played these songs before. As far as the writing went, towards the end of the tour last year, Marc, John (Hogg, lead vocalist) and I just sat down and started writing new stuff and that provided a good amount of material. Then in January we did something more formal: we got this house for ten days and fleshed everything out. My direction was “Let’s not leave anything on the table, let’s bring everything we have, even if it’s old or just a part of a song and see what happens.”
Everyone agreed and so we ended up with about forty things, all of which were composed in various combinations or by individuals, and we then whittled it down to about thirty-five before we went into the studio, But I didn’t want anyone to have anything in advance because everyone is such a good musician that I think their instinctual first jump into a song is going to be the best, you know what I mean?
What Sven’s going to play first, for instance, is going to be the best because he knows so much. And that goes for Marc, John and Joe too. We use the energy and urgency of the studio: we have to get at least one song done a day, preferably more. And ultimately, what the song needed is what we left with: there was no ego like “I wanna be on that song with guitar;” for instance, there’s a song called “Sister Moon,” that John and Marc wrote and there wasn’t anything i was going to add to it to make it better.
That must be wonderful to work in that atmosphere of healthy humility where everyone involved knows when to step back and when to step forward. And there’s nothing like catching a song or an arrangement at just the right time with a band well-versed in each other’s abilities. Sounds like that’s what you did with this album…?
You anticipated a question of mine regarding the number of compositions you had to work with. My understanding is you have another album already completed, ready to come out next year, so I’m curious to know how you came up with the track sequencing for each of the two records? Did it all fall together or were you more deliberate and purposeful about the process?
We finished all twenty-eight songs we recorded and then I looked into the sequences i,e., how this song leads well into this one, and that song follows that one nicely. In my mind, it’s like writing a setlist, which is such a strong creative moment as well: it’s possible to really create a feeling by changing the order of the very same songs. The same goes for this record and the other one as well. At one time we thought of releasing a double album, but then we thought we didn’t want to start with a boxed set (laughs), We did want to offer people a certain journey and having so many songs to choose from gave us this opportunity.
(laughs) That WOULD be a lot to digest and a lot to support in one fell swoop. I have heard of musicians coming up with many multiples of song sequences.
Well, I’m of the opinion, it’s all too easy to WAY overthink things, as if overdoing and overthinking makes it all more valid. And that’s not true. I go by feeling and what I decided is what felt right.
I would think the sequence of events that went into composing the material is the best possible preparation for the ultimate decision(s) after recording was all completed. How did you decide to go to Dark Horse Studios in Nashville to record?
I wanted something different and I wanted something sequestered away. I’ve made records in LA and NY and it can be such a distraction with people coming by and hanging out; I made my solo records in Woodstock and that pastoral setting is how I prefer to work, in a similar setting away from things. That gave us the focus that we needed.
The one time I went to Woodstock I thought the bucolic setting would enhance creativity and not subject anyone to the sensory overload of a city. So, how did the arrangements come about for the individual tunes? Were there demos from the authors or did the group come up with sketches?
In order to keep it relatively focused, I wanted to keep it to Marc, John and I to avoid having too many cooks in the kitchen, you know?
So, then when it came to recording, did you do basic tracks with the entire ensemble, then do overdubs and ‘punching in’ or a combination of things?
All the basic tracks were done live, with me and Joe and Sven on most of them. Because the way the studio is set up, there’s not a giant room where we could all set up, so we used different rooms for Marc and his setup, then another one for vocals and keyboards–we couldn’t do it all at once. Sometimes John would sing a scratch vocal and some of those we actually kept.
I have heard of recording in a building block process and I have one more question on your method(s) of compositions: I noticed you, Marc and John have done acoustic shows, so I wondered how those went and also if such segments are part of your shows with the entire band?
We do some acoustic segments during the sets. What I like about that approach is that it’s based on the song in its most basic form. And that’s how I’ve always written, thinking if the song will stand in its most basic form, then it will accommodate almost any kind of arrangement. Also, it’s a chance for us to be a little more agile than to fly the whole band and crew around; with the trio, it’s a chance for us to just touch base, like in August, we’re in Europe, first Oslo and Stockholm, then in London the day the record comes out: we can get in and out to establish it, then come back at a later date with the full band. To me, it’s cool to all those different approaches because it also allows the songs to breathe and go in different directions.
It’s a great way to keep it all fresh on every front!
Live photos by Marc Lacatell