Interview: Steve Gorman on the Old Black Crowes and the New Trigger Hippy

Dean Budnick on October 17, 2019
Interview: Steve Gorman on the Old Black Crowes and the New Trigger Hippy

The longtime Black Crowes drummer leaves it all on the court in a new memoir tracing his tumultuous relationship with the Robinsons.

“It’ll be intense,” is how Steve Gorman describes a three-week stretch from late September to early October, in which he’ll release both a memoir and an album. Hard to Handle: The Life and Death of the Black Crowes, written with Steven Hyden, tracks the longtime Black Crowes drummer’s early days with Chris and Rich Robinson, through the band’s final gigs in 2013 and eventual split. Gorman will follow that personal history with Full Circle & Then Some, the sophomore record by his current project Trigger Hippy. The record represents a fresh beginning for that group—whose lineup has included Joan Osborne, Jackie Greene, Jimmy Herring and Audley Freed, among others—as founding members Gorman and Nick Govrik are now working with singer-guitarist Ed Jurdi and singer Amber Woodhouse.

You’re both a basketball player and a basketball fan, and were even all-district in high school. In your book, you describe going one-on-one with Chris Robinson. Who are some of the best musician ballplayers?

I grew up in a small town in Kentucky. I moved there when I was 10, and the one thing I embraced was basketball; I spent the rest of my time just trying to get out of there. I was the guy who played until I was like 35. I turned into one of those guys in their 30s that I used to love to play against when I was 20, when I’d think, “Look at that old fool.” One day, I realized, “Oh, no, I’m that asshole. I better stop now to save my own dignity.”

So I always took it pretty seriously. I did the Rock N’ Jock game for MTV and I was such an idiot—I was training ahead of time, thinking I was gonna impress these NBA players. I took it so seriously and, of course, it was just a shit-show for fun.

I can only pick people that I’ve actually played with, but off the top of my head, the original drummer in Wilco, Ken Coomer, has a solid game all around. Jeff Ament from Pearl Jam has a super-solid game. Chad Smith of Red Hot Chili Peppers can play ball. Another great player is Bruce Hornsby. The way he plays is fascinating. When we toured with the Furthur Festival in ‘97, Bruce and his band were on the tour, and he would always find a gym on our off days. [His drummer] John Molo had a good game, and his bass player at the time [J.V. Collier] was pretty good. They would play three-on-three or four-on-four. It was always full court and only three-pointers. They were way ahead of the rest of the world in that regard. The whole thinking was: “We’re gonna run full-court so everybody gets a good wind. And we’re only shooting threes, which means no one is gonna be blocking my shot and smashing my fingers.” So it made sense for them and it was actually a really fun way to play.

You mentioned being on Furthur tour. In your book, you point out a moment when Chris wanted to bring in some Grateful Dead elements and you bristled at that.

I’ve never had an issue with the Grateful Dead as a band. I only saw them twice—I had a great time both nights. There are periods of the Dead that I really like, and periods that I don’t. But I definitely put up a wall when someone is shoving something down my throat or insisting that I listen to something repeatedly. Whenever Chris was passionate about anything, he was insistent that everybody else share that passion. That’s amusing for a while and then, you’re like, “OK, yeah, great, whatever.” It’s not that I was upset with incorporating elements of things—that’s what every band always does—but we crossed lines that went away from the strengths of The Black Crowes.

We had tremendous inherent strengths that were not planned or forced. We had a vision for what we were trying to get to, and we made a really good first album. I look at it now and it’s like we fired up a flare that said, “We’re trying to be one of these kinds of bands. This is how we hear it; this is how we feel it.” Then we went out on our first tour and we became that band. We grew into those shoes and went far beyond them. By the time we were touring on the second album, we weren’t so much trying to steer the ship; we were more like, “We’ve just become this thing now.” We figured out who we were as a band.

But, a lot of the things that we started doing musically from ‘94 onward went away from that, and it was often a knock-down, drag-out fight in real-time. I kept thinking, “Why are we doing these things that don’t suit who we are as a band?” I used to say, “We are a basketball team. Why are we trying to play rugby?”

I’m a fan of a lot of different types of musicians. I’m inspired and take daily refuge in the music of many artists, but I never would have thought, “Let’s incorporate some of that into The Black Crowes.” The problem is that Chris thought that he was The Black Crowes. I don’t mean that in an angry way. He legitimately thought, “This is all my vision; this is an extension of my musicality and my taste and my vision.” That was never the way any of us saw the band, but he just can’t help but see things that way.

But even though he might have loved the Grateful Dead and thought that we should incorporate as much of that as we could into The Black Crowes, it didn’t feel authentic to the rest of us. Again, I could easily put things into a sports context: If you put a basketball team together and you decide, “Hey for fun, let’s have the point guard post up and let’s have the center bring the ball up court,” they can still do it. They can still play, and they might still play well and you can interchange the roles. But they’re not doing the thing they should be doing.

Stepping back, was there a particular moment that led you to write the book?

For years, starting in the early ‘90s, it was a throwaway line people would say: “Whatever happens, Steve, you’re the one who has to write the book.” I would always say, “I’d write it, but nobody would believe it.” That always got a laugh and it was just a shtick that was repeated over and over again.

I started to write one in 2010, but after three days I was like, “What am I doing? I don’t wanna write this; I don’t wanna deal with this.” So, I guess it had always been in the back of my head. My buddy Steven Hyden had said over the years: “If you’re ever gonna do it, then let me help you with it.” That’s because the first thing I would always say is, “I can write, but I don’t know how to write a book.” I wrote almost a thousand pages—I wrote the hell out of that thing. That’s the easy part. But since I am not a writer, I sat down and felt like I needed to write the book that Hunter Thompson and Michael Chabon would write together. And I realized that it wasn’t even remotely feasible for me to be that guy.

All this is to say, it was always in the back of my head, but then when Ed Harsch died in November 2016, I opened my Steve Gorman Sports! radio show with a 20-minute eulogy for Ed. I was in New York, and I was flying home that morning. I was sitting at LaGuardia and I knew he’d been unwell and that he was in a coma, and I sat down and wrote this eulogy. Then I got home, did it on the air and, that night, it just suddenly dawned on me: “I think I’ll write this book now.” I knew The Black Crowes were gone, at least in any form that made sense to me. But after Ed’s death, it was like, “In case you forgot, here’s a 10-ton cement block to put on top of that.” I guess there was a piece of emotional finality that I didn’t have yet and that really did kick it into gear.

So many things about the band have always been misrepresented intentionally, and eventually enough time had passed and I was like, “This is my life, this is my story.” I guess I just needed enough time so that it felt natural to write about it.

One question that I suspect readers will ask is, given all that angst you experienced while in the band, what kept you going?

It’s obvious in the book that my codependency is as strong a factor as anyone else’s addiction. I think that’s pretty clear. I mention that the reason I joined the band was because I just thought they needed me. I had a lot of issues on my own and it’s all the good and bad of who I am that kept me there all those years. I was gonna leave in ‘99, but then Jimmy Page brought me back and I said, “Well, I’ll stick around
as long as this makes sense.” It was just the same old story with a different date at the end of each page. In 2001, I did leave [ultimately returning a few weeks into the band’s next tour, which didn’t take place until 2005]. It didn’t take long, intellectually, to realize, “OK, this is never gonna be different—this is just who this band is. We are a 90-yard sprinter in a 100-yard world.”

I never wanted to be anything other than the drummer for The Black Crowes—that has a lot to do with it, too. I would have been thrilled for that to have been the only thing I ever did in my whole life because, to me, being in that band was freedom. It gave me a life and an opportunity to see and do and experience things that no other job I could put together would have done. And it did that for years and years.

It’s a constant balancing act. You’re in this environment that’s initially very disconcerting and alarming, but it becomes very familiar, and then you confuse familiarity with comfort and that’s a huge part of it. When Johnny [Colt] quit in ‘97, I wanted to go and then I had this alarming realization: “Oh, shit, I’ve spent all this time figuring out how to deal with this situation; I’ve really never thought about a different one.” I felt like I was institutionalized—the outside world scared the shit out of me—and I think those kind of things happen to lots of bands. It happens in any endeavor with a group, but, in The Black Crowes, it was especially profound.

Trigger Hippy in 2019: Ed Jurdi, Nick Govrik, Amber Woodhouse, Steve Gorman (l-r) (photo by Scott Willis)

Let’s talk about Trigger Hippy. You’re back with a new version of the band.

I started Trigger Hippy with our bassist, Nick. We had a vision for a band, and this all goes back to when The Black Crowes were still touring pretty steadily. In 2009 or 2010, we were talking and I said, “One of these days, I’m gonna be wide open. Let’s put something together.” In 2011, we did that; I talked to Joan Osborne and said, “Hey, you wanna do something?” And it just fell into place.

Everybody came into it one at a time; it was a loose, fun side-project. But as it developed, Nick and I saw it as a much more than that. It became something we wanted to do full time. So, as much as the members all really enjoyed the band, it wasn’t something they were even able to consider. Starting a new band, and getting it up and running, is a complete pain in the ass; there’s just no way around it. For every two hours you’re onstage having a blast, you’re spending days getting schedules together and all those kinds of things.

So we made a record in 2014 and we were playing shows and all enjoying it, but it was obvious that it was never gonna go beyond what it was for a variety of reasons. The way that band was configured, it was just gonna be a second or third priority, which I fully understand. At the end of 2015, Jackie left and Tom Bukovac, our guitar player, left. So in early 2016, Nick and I asked ourselves if we wanted to move forward. We decided that we did, and I ran into Ed Jurdi, a good friend of mine who’s in The Band of Heathens, and he asked about it. That was the first time I genuinely thought, “Maybe we should put this back together.” So we took our time and found the right people.

Figuring out who the right people are, to us, is about a feeling and a vibe: Do you want to spend time with this person? Do you like what they do musically? Do we share enough common interests that we can start? Do they also bring something unique and different and interesting? So when we found Ed and our new singer, Amber Woodhouse, we said, “This is it. This can be a band.”

Jumping back to The Black Crowes, if the band were ever to get back together, can you imagine playing with them?

I think there’s a chance that the brothers will play together again. I would be astounded if they don’t, and I would imagine that it will happen sooner rather than later. However, I’m not gonna play with them for a variety of reasons. Number one: They’re never gonna ask me because I’m not coming back unless I get my equal share. Even if they were to ask me back, though, the chances of me saying yes are infinitesimal. It’s funny because I have heard people say, “Man, this book is like a stick of dynamite,” and I’m like, “No, the stick of dynamite was Chris blowing the band up.” When this book comes out, people are going to be getting a lot of information for the first time. But the freshest piece of information is six years old. This book can’t do any more damage to The Black Crowes—that’s an absurd thing to think.

This article originally appears in the October/November 2019 issue of Relix. For more features, interviews, album reviews and more, subscribe below.