An Interview with Chris Robinson Brotherhood: Chris Robinson On Crowes, Spinning Records And The Philosophy Of The Brotherhood

An Interview with Chris Robinson Brotherhood: Chris Robinson On Crowes, Spinning Records And The Philosophy Of The Brotherhood

—by , July 20, 2016

 

©Jay Blakesberg

©Jay Blakesberg

If you’ve ever attended a Chris Robinson Brotherhood show expecting to hear The Black Crowes, by the end of the night you’d been taken on a different trip entirely. The two bands are mutually exclusive. Leaving the best of the Crowes behind him, Robinson set out to simply jam with a few cool people such as guitarist Neal Casal back in 2011. Meanwhile, the friendships and music grew into the fluid psychedelic jam that would become the Brotherhood. The band planted seeds of potential jam-band greatness keeping it loose and embracing their California vibe. By simply tending to this musical garden, Robinson may have unearthed more than just four subsequent albums worth of blissful psychedelic grooves. The former Black Crowes singer seems to have, inadvertently, created one of the most impressive band models to date. Not striving for the holy grail of rock band stardom—fame and money—CRB eschews the material rewards for an authentic high derived from creating a joyful experience, all the while hoping the audiences will dig it, too. This organic philosophy permeates their lengthy live shows as well as the experimentally expansive psych-rock tunes on each album right up to their third successful effort, Phosphorescent Harvest.

The Brotherhood’s first band-produced album Anyway You Love, We Know How You Feel, is set to be released by Robinson’s record company Silver Arrow Records on July 29. This fourth album resonates tones from the relaxed environment from which they recorded in Northern California, and it is also the first featuring new drummer Tony Leone. Fans of CRB will likely find themselves immersed in tracks like the psychedelic gospel of “Narcissus Soaking Wet” and the ethereal “Give Us Back Our Eleven Days.”

In addition to releasing the new album and touring the East Coast this summer with newly-added bassist Jeff Hill, Robinson has been enjoying his new gig as DJ for SiriusXM. Spinning tracks from his personal vinyl collection, he hosts his show, Gurus Galore, on the Jam On station (Ch. 29) for those eager for a taste of something new and different.

Here, Robinson discusses the Crowes, the beauty of small ideas, and the only thing that could “f*ck up” CRB…

So you guys are getting ready to play a festival out there in California, right?

Yeah, High Sierra Festival is this weekend, the best festival in the United States. I think if you ever traveled to High Sierra for a weekend you would be like, ‘I have to move out West’ (laughs)…It’s so cool, you know what I mean? It really is one of our favorite festivals to just be and to get to play.

In 2011, after our California residency was up—which was like a nine-week thing where we only played up and down California—that was our biggest show to date at the time. We played a late-night stage at High Sierra, and we felt that was our first summer job after we got out of school…which is a cool feeling when you’re getting older. It’s rad…people in California really like to have a good time after dark.

Is there a vibe you get from the East Coast, too, that inspires you?

Well, it’s alien to me on a lot of levels because I grew up in the South. I moved to California in 1991ish…Yeah, we’ve been there many many times, and I like, like anywhere else, I like it when people are happy to be someplace, you know? Neal, our guitar player, he’s from New Jersey—I’m surrounded by people from New Jersey it seems sometimes (laughs)—so for us it’s like the last time we played The Stone Pony we just had a blast. It was super packed, people were singing along, you know what I mean?

When you work hard at something like our band, something that we’re focused on, passionate about and interested in, it’s nice to see when it’s like, ‘Oh, wow, we’re not on the radio, we’re not doing these things.’ It’s kinda like you have to figure out what we are. So, for us, it’s cool. The first time we were there, there were maybe like 250 people or something, and then it’s packed out. So it’s like, cool, people are listening and hopefully it means something to them like it means to us.

You’ve done an amazing job of getting CRB’s music out there to the people who care without needing the machine behind you…

Well, cool, I’m glad that you would’ve noticed. I mean, for me, it’s not a snobbery thing, but there is a difference between someone who is a connoisseur and a tourist. A tourist will go eat at the TGI Friday’s on the Champs Elysees in Paris, you know what I mean? A connoisseur will know exactly what restaurant he wants to eat at. And I kinda feel like music should be, in a weird way, the same way. There is plenty of music for the musical tourist, and like you said, the powers that be have played their hand…anything that’s just a product…a corporation is in it to just to make a profit. So how do you do that? You have to bend to their will and do what they say. I guess the big banana is, ’You get to make a lot of money, too!’ Hurray! Okaaay, but…for me, I’m kinda like, ‘Doing what? Being someone else?’

I got into this because this is one of the last free places for the individual—art. In my case, I believed rock and roll could be that. It incorporated a lot of stuff, the songwriting and then, later, performance. I didn’t know I could sing and perform, I just wanted to write songs…and then my interest in graphic arts, designing album covers, guitar picks, stages…whatever, you know, all of it, even the most minute detail. I mean, again, I’ve been super lucky because if you’re a freak and a weirdo, and you have these kinds of interests, you’ll find someone else…and this was before the internet!

Luckily, I met Alan Forbes, our poster artist who did our very first Black Crowes’ Heckle and Jeckle logo back in 1989, and 27 years later or whatever, he’s the sort of visual and mythical engine of our band…our iconic stuff that we’re into, our Captain Nebula, that stuff gives life and power to our band, the art that goes along with the music. For me, it’s got to be this kinda living thing where everyone is involved and happy. It’s not all about making a profit.

How does it feel being in the Brotherhood as opposed to the Crowes? The music sounds looser, more open. Does it feel more open and liberating for you?

Definitely. It’s no secret…I speak how I feel now, and people will be like, ‘What the f*ck?!’ It’s so funny how people get so bent out of shape (laughs). Not to diminish The Black Crowes—the best of The Black Crowes I’m really proud of—but there were always inherent problems…and The Black Crowes you hear all those years is a reluctant collaboration. I’ll put it that way (laughs). Because some people didn’t want to collaborate. But, what you hear now is kinda like what you said.

The other part of it is the reality of anyone’s life and business because we have to deal with that. It’s just us and my family. My wife is the manager. There isn’t anyone who can say yes for me. ‘Yeah, we’ll do that’…’No, I didn’t say yes to that…I don’t want to do that.’ You know what I mean? And because we set it up in a way where the real reward is the hard work, because with the hard work hopefully, the music is deeper, and the music flourishes and the music has great texture and emotion, that is ultimately the goal—to have the best musical presentation that we can.That’s the only thing we truly can kind of control. That, to me, equals a certain level of freedom, and I don’t have to pray or prostrate myself in front of the temple of former success and money because other people can be on whatever trips they want about their money. To me, it’s a pragmatic thing, a necessary thing in life, but money doesn’t give me joy, experience gives me joy, you know? Experience gives me joy and all of the more progressive, positive things. I’m not denying it. So the only thing that would really f*ck up this band is if we started to make some real money, probably (laughs). We all say that as a joke, but last year we didn’t have a front-of-the-house guy, this year we do…So you just have to be pragmatic about your baby steps, too. Like, this is our family business, this is how it’s going, and we’ll all know if it gets more successful…

The best thing is we haven’t gone backwards. It keeps going forward…if you’re a farmer, tend your garden and don’t worry about the other stuff. That’s kinda how we see our music. It reaps rewards, and the music is better. If the music is better people will want to be a part of that, come to that and let that flow through them.

You guys are known for doing three-hour shows. What’s happening up there on stage…?

Well, of course, but I think that’s pretty typical of—if you want to call it—“the jam band scene.” Most all of us do long shows, the Grateful Dead being kind of the blueprint in a way, but there’s also the jazz kind of thing behind that…each night we play every set is like two halves of a book…‘How’s the first half? …Oh, I really didn’t like the first half, but the second half really socked it to me!’ (laughs)

It gives us the opportunity to stretch out, too. We have a lot of songs, and we also have a lot places where we like to improvise. We didn’t just set up all that stuff for it to sit there and look cool, we want to be playing…So, yeah, we like to play a long time.

With Anyway You Love… set to be released at the end of July, how will you be incorporating the new songs into the setlist? How excited are you to get those out there?

Oh, yeah, we’ve already done a couple. We did a West Coast leg, and we’ve started playing stuff already from the EP that’s coming out in November, too…So, yeah, we have no real rules, you know? (laughs) I’d like to play some new songs this year even…after the record I got home, and it seems like I’m sitting on another seven or eight pieces of music. That’s the cool thing about us, like I said, there’s no rules, no record company, no big pressure and giant money, so we can do whatever we want kinda when we want, and that’s what appealed to me in the first place about rock and roll, you know? So if we’re here, and we have that luxury, let’s abuse it (laughs).

What is your writing process on the road? I know your process is loose, but do you write a lot on the road?

I do…I find when I’m home there just isn’t a lot of time. It’s mostly just taken up by parenting and things like that, so my life is…like my road time is that time. I mean I do a lot of writing at home, too, and stuff…My life changed. I used to write at night when I was younger, and the last decade and half or so I write in the mornings. I’m also like when it’s time to buckle down is when I focus, ‘Oh, we’re going in the studio in three weeks?’ then I’ll really be working (laughs). I kinda have a bad habit that way…But I’m working all the time in little bits…constantly writing and little things and playing guitar. The smallest idea can sometimes turn out to be the most glorious thing, you know? At least in our minds (laughs).

So there’s a sort of magical, celestial reoccurring theme in your albums and songs. Do you see this entire experience as a spiritual journey you’re on?

I mean you could definitely find the correlations. If you have the spiritual leanings you could find the spiritual context in it about work hard at something, love what you do and you’ll reap the benefits, never look at something as a chore or work whether that’s doing the dishes or being almost 50 years old and doing five nights a week on the road still, three hours a night. I just think in terms of us trying to be conscious about our business, about how we do things, how we treat each other, what the audience means, how we run the whole thing, there has to be a progressive and positive aspect to it. I guess there is an esoteric spiritual air about the thing, but nothing in practice or too heavy. I mean, I think most everyone has read Yogananda and stuff (laughs). We’re into the positive.

Can you talk a bit about the new single, “Narcissus Soaking Wet”?

Well, you know the famous painting of Narcissus…he’s looking in the water at himself, like you love yourself so much you just drown in your own self-love (laughs), which happens a lot. But on one hand, again, the song is also about liberating yourself from those selfish or destructive attitudes…however you want to look at the character. Be more self-aware and, again, just more present with what is really happening.

What about the fourth track, “Give Us Back Our Eleven Days”? There is this cool, trippy echo effect going on…

I guess at some point last year at a sound check…Adam was probably playing that weird progression on the keyboards, and Tony just started playing. It’s really rough. I have it on my phone still. I just pressed record on my voice memos, and I recorded about two minutes of it. Those guys didn’t even know that I did it, probably, and then we were sitting around one day…I really liked it, there was something about the piece of music. I didn’t know if it needed to be a song, like a more conventional kind of arrangement, so we just started sort of jamming on it and kind of dialed it in and then just sort of wailing over it. Then I wrote these kind of strange lyrics, and Neal read some of them…It’s more of like a little meditation than a song really, you know? A psychedelic gospel sort of vibe. It’s not so much a composition per se, but it’s cool to be in a place where we feel that’s something we want to say on our record…That piece of music is kinda cool, we thought. And it’s different for us, but I mean…there’s a lot of stuff on the record we haven’t touched before.

There’s definitely an eclectic mix on this record. I hear some Jerry-esque guitar work on “Ain’t It Hard But Fair”…

There’d better be (laughs). I don’t know…in this world, everyone’s obsessed with the Grateful Dead, f*cking indie bands playing Grateful Dead, f*cking celebrities playing Grateful Dead, and I’m like, what about Jerry? Did everybody forget about Jerry?! (laughs) I said this before, and I’ll say it again, I’m really into Jerry (laughs).

So owning a large vinyl collection has parlayed into a DJ gig with your own show, Gurus Galore, on SiriusXM’s Jam On station…how’s that going?

It’s really funny, I mean, it’s fun for me. The cool thing is, the first couple of episodes were done in my hotel room in Paris. We were there in February…you can kinda do it anywhere. I do the playlist and they put it all together. And now my records feel even more loved. My friend who produces it at Sirius, he’s an awesome dude…all I have to do is—I mean this is all we really do on the tour bus anyway—it’s like, ‘Hey, I’m going to play records for a couple hours.’

It‘s funny how I’ve had random people stop me at the airport or whatever since it started like, ‘Yeah, I really liked that Gong track, I haven’t heard that since…’ It’s super fun…I love my friends and random people can get turned on to new music all the time. I’ve been curating my record collection for many, many decades. It’s super easy and fun, so I guess I’ll keep doing it until they fire me or whatever (laughs).

Most of the stuff I play is fairly obscure, so hopefully someone will hear something and be like, ‘I never heard that…I really like that.’ Now there’s a new band, more records and recordings, and hopefully more stuff you can incorporate into your bohemian existence.

I think it’s refreshing to be exposed to new music when we are so programmed…

Exactly. Well, I mean part of the reason radio failed is how many times do we have to hear f*cking “Radar Love” in our lifetime, seriously? I mean, seriously. No offense to Golden Earring and their families. But, you know what I mean? It’s like Head East! You know that song, ‘Save my life I’m going down for…(singing).’ Okay! We get it! You had one record…they still play it every day on these f*cking rock channels, like really? (laughs) There could be more inspired f*cking songs…and they wonder why they’re going out of business. I don’t know, listen to what you’re playing! (laughs)

…boredom?

Complete boredom! I mean, jeez, algorithms and f*cking marketing people…I don’t know how we got anywhere.

Is there anything new that inspires you? New artists or bands you’ve been listening to?

Yeah, yeah, my friend’s band Heron Oblivion has a really cool record, don’t know if you’ve heard that…and Ethan Miller. My favorite, really, in the last few years is this guy Tim Presley in Los Angeles…album called White Fence. I really love his records. But, I listen to so much weird stuff. I love this—it’s older but they were just reissued on downloads—these new age cassettes this guy calls the things Sun Path (laughs). That’s really what I’ve been annoying everybody with lately (laughs).

So is that what you’ve been playing on the bus?

Well, yeah, that gets played, but when we’re stationary—we probably have like 400-500 records on the bus—we just listen to records, and whoever is sitting next to the turntable gets to man the turntable…

So you do allow others to DJ on the bus?

Oh, yeah, of course…well, I mean, maybe don’t ask anyone else in the band (laughs). I may be DJ-fascist sometimes, but I’m good. I’ve changed my ways, anyone can play records. We all have, again, eclectic tastes. We like a lot of the same stuff, but Adam is the one who turned me onto all these ’70s records and cool things that I wasn’t into. Tony is a big jazz dude, so it could be anything from Charlie Parker records, Oscar Peterson records, to Radiophonic BBC Workshop Stuff to the Louvin Brothers. You get the whole gamut in a 24-hour period on the CRB submarine.

Cool, sounds like you could do the show (Gurus Galore) from the bus.

Yeah, we probably will!

 

The Chris Robinson Brotherhood hit The Stone Pony in Asbury Park on July 26 and The Newton Theatre in Newton, NJ on Aug. 7. The band releases their new album, Anyway You Love, We Know How You Feel, on July 29 with Silver Arrow Records. Chris Robinson’s SiriusXM show Gurus Galore plays on (Ch. 29) Jam On. Check out the CRB at chrisrobinsonbrotherhood.com.


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