Reel Time: Chris Robinson and Neal Casal on the Next CRB Album
Photo by Allison Bridges Robinson
Chris Robinson is lounging on a sofa near a studio cat, wearing socks (but no shoes) and sipping tea, while mouthing the words to a song whose lyrics he hasn’t finished. “We were looking for a change in our recording situation,” Robinson says as he strokes his trademark beard, which seems to distinguish the psychedelic mystic who’s spent the past decade exploring cosmic- Americana from the bluesrocker who came of age playing with The Black Crowes in the early ‘90s. “In so many ways, the aesthetics of this place offer that— even the vibrations of the house. It helps you clear your mind.”
It’s mid-January and The Chris Robinson Brotherhood are two weeks into the recording of their fourth, currently untitled studio effort at their adopted home studio in a corner of Marin County they’ve dubbed Unicorn, Calif. The band’s namesake recently relocated to the area from Los Angeles, and the rest of the Brotherhood have spent most of the calendar year living out their Big Pink fantasies in a mansion-cum studio just steps away from the Dead’s mail-order kingdom in Stinson Beach, Calif. The house is literally composed of San Francisco’s bedrock—built by hand in the 1960s from Frisco stone and jettisoned wooden ships—and offers huge picture windows that overlook the Pacific Ocean and its quintessential golden road, Highway 1.
Most of Robinson’s compadres have been living at the studio— guitarist Neal Casal scored a crash pad nearby through his Hard Working Americans associate, Widespread Panic bassist Dave Schools—and at least one band member loves the space so much that he’s considering renting it via Airbnb when they’re finished recording instead of going home.
The mansion’s living room has been repurposed as the tracking room where the group has already laid down over 15 songs—many in varying styles and lengths—and a few tapestries and an oversized CRB flag are used to partition off a makeshift vocal booth. The CRB always travel with a turntable and a vinyl collection that rivals many indie recordstores, so it isn’t surprising that a sizable portion of the room is reserved for the stereo setup.
“We’ve always felt more like a San Francisco band than an LA band, which is what we started out as,” says Casal, who, after years on the hipster rock-club circuit, is finally getting credit as a forefather of the modern post-jam scene, thanks to his work on Fare Thee Well’s setbreak music Circles Around the Sun and his association with Robinson. “This is where we were embraced first—we have most of our closer musical, artistic friends up here.”
Though the Brotherhood has logged in hundreds of dates on the road and countless hours in the studio since forming in 2011, these sessions feel like the group’s first true band record—mostly because it’s their first self-produced album. It’s also the first release to feature their new drummer, Ollabelle co-founder and Levon Helm bandmate Tony Leone, who joins Robinson, Casal and latter-day Crowes keyboardist Adam MacDougall. Despite their surroundings, so far, the sessions have taken a slight turn away from Deadhead country and moved deeper into psychedelic soul, folk balladry and Holland-era Beach Boys.
“We all sit at this table together, we have lunch together,” Casal says. “Chris, Tony and Adam make food for everyone—the joints are rolled right there. And the writing happens right there on the couch. It’s been an authentic process.”
“We’re of a certain age where we think, ‘I want to hear the studio version,’” Robinson adds as he bops around in front of a recording console and describes the origins of a song tentatively titled “Give Us Back Our Loving Days,” which is based off a soundcheck jam. “At my base, I’m a songwriter. Records are still representative of a period of time in our lives. You head out into the pasture and you bring them all in, and then you check them out. If other people think the album format is antiquated, then so be it.”
CHRIS ROBINSON: A little before the end of last year, we needed to make some changes. So when Tony came on board, we all looked at each other and said, “We’re not going to really have new material, but we’re gonna roll up our sleeves and hit the road. Let’s stick it out there.” We accomplished a lot of things that we set out to do, and not just musically. In a weird way, we saw this as the harvest: “Oh, my god, it’s ripe. Let’s get in there and pick it off the tree.” It had been a while since we’d been in that type of situation and, honestly, it’s important. If we had been in a rehearsal space in Los Angeles, I don’t think we would have had these mystic vibes, those magic moments where everything just flows and it’s not work at all. We’ve changed our set, our setting and our scene—a lot of stuff has changed in our world since our last recording.
CR: It’s just lip service. Everyone has a company line, but if you’re an athlete, you don’t have to see it or hear it to prove it. In our weird case with this band and how our year ended, putting in that hard work meant that the audiences got bigger and more people were listening to what we had to say with our music. That was the initial concept—“How do you get to more people?” For us, it was never going to be, “We got [our music] into a car commercial.” You have to have deep music, a
soulful experience, because we know the trip, man. We know the vibe. That’s our manifesto.
NEAL CASAL: It crossed my mind a couple times when we decided to produce this album as a group: We’re going to be making decisions on tape. Who knows what that can turn into? But it’s another testament to this group of people and the time that we spend together—how well we know each other, how we’re all on the same [wavelength] and know what we’re after. We’re playing multiple takes of songs and we’re writing them on the spot. There’s a lot of work that is going into this creative process. And you could easily get caught up in disagreements and differences of opinion about picking the “right” take of a song. But there’s this collective feeling. It might take us a few listens to bat it around a little bit, but it doesn’t take too long for us to generally feel the same way about what we’re doing.
CR: A lot of my perception in life—my dyslexic perception—is about the duality of things, and I’ve been trying to find the duality in my lyrics. Ultimately, our main goal is to make the vibe and the music that we would be happiest to hear, as opposed to an entire industry that’s still pointed toward: “I can get you in the door. I need you to sound like this and wear a yellow hat.” If you look at it as a prism of being super free, then we have this luxury. We only have to answer to our own criteria—what we think is deep, what we think is interesting, what we think is dynamic, what we think has great emotional commerce.
BRINGING IT ALL BACK HOME
NC: We were working on a song [in the living room,] and Chris was throwing his ideas out at us. We were getting close to finishing it, but we needed another part. Chris left the house and went outside to a bench under these trees to work on some lyrics. I didn’t know where he had gone, so I went out to the other side of the house to the deck with an acoustic guitar, trying to come up with this part. When I came up with it, I came in and I said, “Where’s Chris?” Somebody said, “He’s out there.” So I walked out with my guitar, found him and said, “Check this out.” He said, “I like it.” We came in and finished the tune. That’s what you get out of a place like this. You get to walk outside into your little stand of trees and just work on your ideas and bring them back together.
CR: We’re recording just down the road from the spot where Jerry was really at his best. But, in a weird way, this album is the least that we have been influenced by him.
NC: To help start the band, the Grateful Dead model helped get us on our feet conceptually. But now that we are on our feet, and we’ve developed our own identity, it’s not as necessary a touchstone for us. It’s there in our fabric because the DNA of the band was built through that. We’ve all been doing our time—Tony, as a Deadhead kid, has seen more shows than any of us, but I saw my share and Chris saw his share, and we’ve been playing with Phil.
CR: Our ambition—what we are doing musically and what we’ve bitten off—is expansive in nature. That’s part of what was interesting about [the 2012 releases] Big Moon Ritual and The Magic Door, and what we were trying to do with that situation. Conventional wisdom would have said, “Take the best songs from both records and make one record, blah blah blah.” If you’re Adele, then you only get to put out one record every three or four years because so many people are trying to get their Christmas bonus off of her singing. We have the luxury of being free from that. So, that also gives us this great place to be super creative with not only what we release, but how and when we release things. It’s art-driven. We’ll see what lies on the horizon. It should be equally as creative as we are with the music, equally as creative as how it’s put out there.