Chris Robinson of The Black Crowes
When The Black Crowes frontman Chris Robinson launched the Chris Robinson Brotherhood in 2011, he had one thing in mind: getting back to the "grass roots, farm to table, psychedelic band mentality."
Greg Prato (Songfacts)
This mindset certainly carries over onto the CRB's massive, limited edition, quadruple vinyl box set, Betty's San Francisco Blends Vol. I, which was curated by Grateful Dead producer/engineer Betty Cantor-Jackson, and assembled with what she felt were the best performances of the band's five shows at San Francisco's Great American Music Hall in December 2012.
It was with The Black Crowes that Robinson first made a name for himself - a band that he is still very much a member of to this day. Along with his brother/guitarist/co-writer Rich Robinson, drummer Steve Gorman, and a rotating cast of characters (Jimmy Page even joined forces for a spell), Chris and The Crowes had an instant impact with their groovy retro rock, scoring four hits from their 1990 debut album Shake Your Money Maker: "Twice As Hard," "Jealous Again," "She Talks to Angels" and a cover of Otis Redding's "Hard To Handle." They eventually transformed into a jam-heavy live band, following the Dead in the tradition of letting fans record their shows.
With the launch of the CRB, Robinson was able to somehow get even looser and jammier musically than with the Crowes, as evidenced on the standout track "Rosalee" - a composition Robinson says would never make the cut with the Crowes, since it's a "happy" tune.
Robinson was up for discussing why the once-popular "live album format" met its doom in the '80s, how his songwriting approach has changed over the years, and the stories behind several Black Crowes classics.
: How would you say that your songwriting has changed over the years, if you look at some of the early Black Crowes albums compared to today?
: My imagery and what I want to convey is far more subtle and less angry. When you're a kid and you're in a rock band, that's your life, and there are a lot of walls put up for you to bust through. We really weren't an angst-driven band, but on the early Black Crowes records you feel our youthful exuberance and our anger at the system. "The system" could be the music business, the system could be antiquated drug laws, it could be anything.
As you move on in time, you get older, you have relationships. Some of them are good, some fail. Friends. Drugs. Life. Death. People come, people go. It's a completely different emotional response to your life and to what it means to in some poetic nature, put it out there.
But my process is still the same. I never wrote songs in a way that I thought people would listen to them, because I wrote songs almost out of some necessity, like bats sound sonar to get around at night. Just culturally living in the South, writing was the reason to get into music. I wasn't a performer, I wasn't a singer yet, so the writing was the thing that interested me the most.
Great songwriters don't necessarily have hit songs. There are a lot of horrible hit songs. The songwriting was a real intimate relationship with really crawling across that cave floor. Who am I? Where am I going? What does all this mean as I traverse through life and experience? However I found my way to that, that's what it has always represented. The best perspective I have on what's going on in my life - good and bad - is what comes out in the songs. I don't think I had that exact same thing as a kid, because you write your first 10 songs and that's your first record, then you write your next. 25-30 years later, you've written hundreds and hundreds of songs. So it changes.
The essence is, you write songs because that's how you communicate.
: Do you think that you would ever write a song like "She Talks to Angels" now compared to when you did back then, or do you think it was more relative to the era that it was written?
: Well, exactly. It has to be. "She Talks to Angels" is a funny song in that so many people resonate with it. The dark details like drugs and things like that would be a part of growing up and being in this world, but when I wrote that song I had no idea - I hadn't done any of those things. I hadn't lived that - everything was in my imagination.
There are things in that song, and even earlier songs when Rich and I were starting out, that are certain tendencies or nuances that I've always liked about writing, and those would be the same. But to go back in time or to a place or a feeling, that just doesn't exist when you're trying to be here now, man. Music is about being in the moment as opposed to, "Hey, we did that, and what are we going to do?" I like to be as present as I can with what's happening.
: Who would you say are some of your favorite songwriters?
: Oh, dear. It's like everyone else, it starts with Bob, you know, Dylan, as a kid. But everyone from Alex Chilton to Syd Barrett to Townes Van Zant. There are so many, that's super hard. Robin Williamson and Mike Heron from the Incredible String Band are two of my ultimate favorite songwriters. I could go on and on and on and on.
And then you have composers. You have Thelonious Monk, you have Herbie Hancock, Miles Davis. Those are songs, too.
: I remember seeing an interview with you, I think it was on MTV back in the early '90s, and you were saying that you thought Kurt Cobain was a good songwriter. So I'm curious if you still think that his songs resonate today.
: I said that because all people talked about was him blowing his brains out and being a junkie. They were comparing him to people that he didn't have a comparison to - he's not John Lennon. He doesn't get to be compared to John Lennon. I feel he was a junkie guy that blew his brains out. He wrote a couple of albums' worth of songs.
I'm 47 years old, so when I was a kid, Jim Morrison was still like this thing
or whatever. I don't think Cobain is like that.
There's always disenfranchised youth. The thing about Nirvana is 20 years have gone by, and it wasn't really ever about the music or the songs; it was about the angst and about the drama. I don't really think music was the main focus of that scene or that group, as time's gone on.
He obviously had a gift to write a pop song. You could call it grunge or whatever, but he could write a good pop song. It might have been about depressing, dark things, but a good pop song is a good pop song.
The Chris Robinson Brotherhood is comprised of Robinson (vocals/guitars), Neal Casal (guitars/vocals), Adam MacDougall (keyboards/vocals - also a member of The Black Crowes), Mark Dutton (bass/vocals), and George Sluppick (drums). Harkening back to the days when rock bands seemed to issue as much music as quickly as possible (and did not take multi-year breaks between albums), the CRB issued their first two studio efforts only a few months apart: Big Moon Ritual (in June 2012) and The Magic Door (in September 2012). While Robinson is listed as the CRB's chief songwriter, a handful of tracks on each album were co-composed by the singer and Casal. They've also recorded a cover by Hank Ballard ("Let's Go, Let's Go, Let's Go"), an original credited to Robinson-Casal-MacDougall ("Sorrows of a Blue Eyed Liar"), and the tune "Appaloosa" - credited to the real "brotherhood" of Chris and Rich Robinson.
: You covered the Dylan song "Crash on the Levee" on the new album. What sticks out about that song?
: Well, everyone does Bob Dylan songs, so for us it was about finding a different way to sing one of Bob's songs. We found our way into an arrangement that I think is really different than any other "Crash on the Levy" that I've heard, so that instantly would appeal to where our grooves are in the CRB.
That is one of my favorite Dylan tunes. Funny enough, Chris Smither on his first solo record does a great version of "Crash on the Levy."
: What about the song "Rosalee" from the first CRB album [Big Moon Ritual
: Songwriting in the CRB has also progressed, and to me one of the most progressive parts of the whole thing is my relationship with Neal Casal and our songwriting partnership. The first songs I brought to the group were ones that I'd been working on by myself, and then Neal helped. But now our partnership is more 50/50.
But it's funny, because "Rosalee," it was Neil who said, "We have to make something out of this." Because I was like, "Well, it's happy." And the Black Crowes don't really play happy songs. So the CRB, we can play happy songs.
It just fell together very quickly - it was something that had to be light. Except for the apocalyptic acid cult middle section where everyone goes to the edge of the sea or the end of the world. But other than that part, it's a very joyous little flirtatious love song.
: And then going back a bit, what about the song "Remedy"?
: "Remedy" is a song that essentially is about freedom. We were into the whole idea that the "war on drugs" was just silly - it was this asinine concept to me and millions of other people. So that song to me is about freedom, plain and simple, just put in a rock & roll framework.
: Let's discuss the new album Betty's San Francisco Blends Vol. I
: Well, the first year we were doing the Chris Robinson Brotherhood, we did a full year on the road without any recordings - no interviews, no publicity at all for anything. It was kind of important to begin in our grass roots, farm to table, psychedelic band mentality. But during that stretch, when we were doing our residencies in California to start, we played Wavy Gravy's birthday up in Marin County, and Betty [Cantor-Jackson] was in charge of the sound and she was sort of supervising the stage and everything. And I hadn't met Betty prior to that.
So after, it was a big party, it was a great time - the whole prankster, Grateful Dead enclave was there. And Betty introduced herself. She was like, "I'm going to record your band." I knew who she was, of course. I'm a massive Deadhead, you know. So I said, "Okay." We didn't really have to do much negotiation. So that year it actually worked out. We did three shows at the Great American later that fall and she recorded those. We're still sitting on those.
Those crazey crowes you see on the band's album covers are the work of Alan Forbes, who also did the Betty's Blend
cover. Based in San Francisco, Forbes has created eye-popping artwork (usually of the psychedelic variety) for Sonic Youth, Pavement, Wilco, and the Melvins. On October 21, 2013, Forbes was attacked in the Lower Haight neighborhood of San Francisco, suffering two skull fractures and damage to his right eye. With no insurance to cover his medical expenses, a pair of local benefit shows were organized, which also included silent auctions to raise funds. You can check out some of his work at Secret Serpents
So subsequently our relationship and our friendship grew, and Betty became a real part of our inner family. We had five nights from the last night at the Great American, and we felt that would be the perfect venue to start having Betty record things and kind of make it special for her, as well.
She's been a part of such great music, not just the Grateful Dead but also Jefferson Airplane and all sorts of recordings of artists in the Bay Area. We felt that was a great lifting-off for all of us.
My initial idea was to be able to put out the shows in a download format, which would be interesting for Silver Arrow Records to do our first digital-only release. But then we've been making vinyl, so those of us who are addicted to vinyl and obsessed with vinyl and obsessed with music, that's where the Betty's Blend
idea came from. We would take all five nights of her recordings, but have her curate the best stuff and put it in what we felt was a super rad package by Alan Forbes inspired by a Victorian tea tin that I had.
Hopefully it's the kind of thing that we continue the tradition. We have Betty's recordings, and we can put them out as volumes. The vinyl-only part of it is interesting because the business has changed so much, and I really think we have a great opportunity in the CRB to have the freedom to do our own thing.
It's a connoisseur-based idea. The idea of mass anything is not a part of what we're doing. We really do feel this is a real hands-on sort of scenario, and I think having a limited run exclusive special vinyl collection is, to us, what this is all about. It's not about making CDs and thinking about selling millions of things. It's about doing real small run quality that is connoisseur-minded.
: That kind of ties in with my next question, which is did you ever feel that doing a quadruple album may have been too much?
: No. We're not asking someone who doesn't know the CRB to buy this. This is for the 2,000 people who get what we're making of this. They're the people who come to the shows - they know we play for three hours, they know that we improvise a lot, they know there are going to be mistakes. It's not about perfection. It's more about community.
With the success of such live rock albums as the Rolling Stones' Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out!, the Allman Brothers' At Fillmore East, and Deep Purple's Made in Japan during the early 1970's, subsequent rock artists jumped on the format. Case in point, Peter Frampton's Frampton Comes Alive, Kiss' Alive!, and Cheap Trick's At Budokan. Additionally, lesser-celebrated live albums have subsequently garnered acclaim from the era, including the Ramones' It's Alive, UFO's Strangers in the Night, and Thin Lizzy's Live and Dangerous. Years later, quite a few of these artists admitted that their classic live albums were heavily overdubbed in the studio - members of both Kiss and Lizzy admitted as much in interviews.
: Why do you think that the golden era of live albums died off after the '70s? It seemed like in the '70s almost every single year there was a classic live album that came out and then come the '80s and it kind of just died.
: Well, the music changed into the '80s. Most of the live records that we all love were not live records, anyway. Most artists went in and overdubbed the vocals and put on other guitars. So in one sense it wasn't real, and then you get overblown with stuff.
The idea is that every time you set up your gear and every time you pick a certain collection of songs to play in front of people, it's an event, whether there's a lot of people there or very few people there. That's what the Grateful Dead did, and they're a band like no other.
Some people are interested in the work in terms of a body of work. Some people will be interested in the live recordings because they were there - a hint of nostalgic reference or something. But for the most part, when your band pushes itself to improvise and when you have the type of composition that changes nightly even within the structure, that's demanded of you.
We let people tape Black Crowes shows from Day One, and as times moved on I think people are less interested in recording. But it also gives us a chance to record shows and put them out for people. I don't think the casual music person is interested in that, but the casual music person really isn't interested in music. They'll go see Billy Joel or the Rolling Stones or whatever. Big concerts, more "corporate minded," if you will. But something else is going on to counterbalance that.
: You could make the correlation to how today it seems like most pop artists and even some mainstream rock artists don't even play, or if they play it's Auto-Tuned and everything. What do you think of the state of rock music today and also pop?
: The idea of a live album of a band that plays the same shit and says the same shit every night is not appealing, except contractually to somebody who's trying to squeeze some money out of it. I think the best thing about the music business right now is the freedom to do what you want. If you have an idea and you have some talent and you have the work ethic to go make it happen, it's there for you. In the same respect, if you just want to be famous and make some money, you can do what other people tell you to do and you can go make music that can get on an iPad commercial or maybe on a TV show.
The reality is, we live in a world that is dominated and motivated by status and greed, so that the average music person goes, "Well, those kids on American Idol
are good." Yeah, but you have to understand, some of us got into this life because of these songs, because the songwriter blew our minds and made us realize, "Wow."
For me, growing up in the '80s as a teenager in Georgia, I wasn't going to get my teeth whitened and go to a talent show and say, "Please like me, please vote for me." I didn't give a shit. The idea that music is supposed to be something where you bring over like a tray of sweets and someone picks the one they like the best, that's just not the way the world works. And there are just as many people who aren't into it for that reason, but the media and the way we see things is like talent shows: everything is conveniently fit into place and is all squeaky clean. And that's just not realistic.
To me, that's the great divide in the music business right now. You've got these people and these music companies who just put out whatever they think will sell, and you have plenty of people who'll do whatever it takes just to make some money. Then you have these other people who take their work very serious, and they're great, great, awesome young songwriters, awesome young musicians, awesome bands, awesome artists. People with real sincerity and real depth that are doing things. And you know what? Because they're sincere and because they have depth, they want nothing to do with the music business the way other people would see it.
So to me that's the real interesting part of where we are.
December 10, 2013
Chris Robinson Brotherhood website
Black Crowes website