The Black Crowes: Thick N’ Thin

Dean Budnick on August 30, 2021
The Black Crowes: Thick N’ Thin

Photo credit: Marc Millman

“We been offered tours every year since we split up. Someone would call and say, ‘Hey, there’s money on the table—a lot of money.’ But we didn’t want to do it,” explains guitarist Rich Robinson, as he describes the mutual, longstanding reluctance of his brother Chris and himself to reunite The Black Crowes. However, the Robinsons eventually relented, following a personal and musical reconciliation and, this summer, they will finally take to the road together with a new incarnation of the Crowes—nearly eight years after the group’s previous tour.

In November 2019, the brothers announced that they would join forces once again for a summer 2020 run commemorating the 30th anniversary of their debut record, Shake Your Money Maker. Chris noted at that time—despite the brothers’ tension and turmoil over the years—they were both still very fond of the George Drakoulias-produced album, which features enduring originals such as “She Talks to Angels,” “Jealous Again” and “Twice as Hard,” along with the Crowes’ signature cover of “Hard to Handle.”

After performing some acoustic dates in February and early March 2020 on their Brothers of a Feather tour, the Robinsons’ summer outing was sidelined due to the pandemic. Now, just over a year later, they’re finally heading out again to mark Shake Your Money Maker’s 31st birthday. One major shift from the original plan is the return of longtime Crowes bassist Sven Pipien, who had not been part of the announced lineup (former Tedeschi Trucks Band bassist Tim LeFebvre was initially slated to tour with the group). The roster also will include Earthless guitarist Isaiah Mitchell, Once and Future Band keyboardist Joel Robinow and drummer Brian Griffin, who replaces Once and Future Band’s Raj Ojha.

“We’re feeling great about where we are now,” Rich continues. “We just weren’t ready to do it for a few years there. We were each doing our own thing. And then over time, for all of these reasons— including my kids not knowing their uncle and his kids not knowing me—things shifted. But, when we finally came back together, it felt really natural.”

When you released Shake Your Money Maker in 1990, it didn’t sound the music being created by your contemporaries. How conscious were you of that at the time?

We’re from Atlanta and the music scene that we grew up in was the alternative world. R.E.M. kind of ruled our scene, and we were pretty insular. Also, we never really liked popular music in that sense. At that time, it was mainly heavy metal, like hair metal or whatever.

So Chris and I always just wrote what felt good to us. While growing up, some of my earliest musical memories were of my dad playing his records. He loved everything from Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young to Joe Cocker, Sly Stone, Mose Allison and Bob Dylan. That’s what we grew up listening to. Then, in a typical fashion as we got older and started getting into our more independent years, we started seeking out our own stuff. We delved into the punk-rock scene and kind of went through that, which eventually led us to bands like R.E.M.

I can still remember the first time I heard “Radio Free Europe.” I was listening to 96 Rock in Atlanta, and it hit me as something truly unique at the time. There are certain things in life that kind of strike you that way. The same thing goes for Nick Drake. The first time I heard Time of No Reply, before Fruit Tree had been released, it just kind of knocked me on my heels.

So, ultimately, I never thought about how relevant we were being while we were making Shake Your Money Maker. Chris and I just wrote some songs that meant something to us. I feel like, with every musical wave, the people who are authentic and sincere about what they do come out first and then the labels see that as a money maker—not to quote Elmore James. [Laughs.] Then, they run it into the ground. So by the time the end of that wave comes, it’s just watered-down crap invented for the sake of making the people who work at these labels a lot of money. That’s what was going on in music at the time. So when something truly sincere and authentic comes out, people stand up and notice.

With the rerelease of Shake Your Money Maker this year as a box set, some bonus tracks surfaced from the sessions, including the original tune “Charming Mess.” Did you remember recording that one?

When I heard it, I was like, “Oh, shit, I totally forgot about that one.” But then it kind of came back quite quickly and I was like, “Wow, that was a cool song.” It’s one of those things where maybe we played that song a few times before the record came out, but we never played it on tour as far as I can remember. It was pretty interesting, with this box set, to be able to see all these things that were kind of frozen in time that I had totally spaced on. I remember doing “30 Days in the Hole” but I didn’t remember that we did it for Shake Your Money Maker. I thought it was for another record. And I remember playing “Jealous Guy” live but I do not remember recording it. So it was pretty interesting.

When you revisited Shake Your Money Maker in anticipation of those initial shows in November 2019, did any of the songs surprise you or strike you in a new way?

“Struttin’ Blues” surprised me. It was a song that we never really played. I don’t know why. I think we attempted to play it once or twice, but it never felt right. So we just kind of abandoned it, and then didn’t listen to it for years and years. I personally hadn’t listened to Shake your Money Maker in 20-25 years. We were on to other things. So, by the time that we put the box set together, I was like, “Damn, that song is actually really good.” So to me, that would be the one that kind of emerged as something that I had a new appreciation for.

You said that, when you started out, you were inspired by listening to your father’s records. Was there a particular live show you attended that had a similar impact and guided you toward a musical career?

No, not really. It’s hard to explain. I never had an “aha moment” like that. It’s funny because my 11 year old is getting into AC/ DC and I remember Chris got If You Want Blood, You Got It [the group’s 1978 live album] with Angus on the cover where his SG is going through his stomach. And when I heard “Riff Raff,” that was something, sonically, where I was like, “Oh, my God, I’ve never heard anything so cool.” But I didn’t see them live until much later. So I never really had that moment.

What happened was that we got some instruments, started writing songs and began playing around. We never really made a plan. We just went along with whatever came our way. So to answer your question, there was no one show where I said to myself, “That’s what I want to do for the rest of my life.”

The Shake Your Money Maker tour was postponed for over a year due to COVID. Has the intervening period of time led you to rethink the album or how you might present it?

I believe that, at the end of the day, things mean more through struggle. I have the same philosophy about vinyl. When everyone was talking about the resurgence of vinyl, I was like, “Of course, it’s an actual experience.” You have to go to a store or take the time to order it online. You have to go pick it up or wait for it to come to you. You have to unwrap it, you have to take it out. There’s a smell, there’s a tactile quality to it. You have to stand up, walk over, put the needle on, turn on your stereo and listen. And you have to listen vigilantly because it’s only 15-20 minutes a side. There’s a process to that and we, as humans, respect things that have a process because it’s harder work. And, therefore, the reward is a lot more. Whereas, if you have access to 10, 15, 20, 30 million songs, you can just click between them with the touch of a button. You lose the subconscious understanding of what it took to make that music, what it means for a whole song to finish and why the artist wrote a certain verse before the chorus. Also, you overlook who made the recording console or the studio. It’s a much broader collaborative effort.

The same thing goes for this on a bit of a grander scale. We were all set. We would have gone out, and we would have been excited. But this happened and that got taken away for a little while. That’s going to make this tour a lot sweeter because now we have been shocked into the impermanence of things. It’s not a given that bands are going to tour or that certain things are always going to happen. And having to wait and think also puts you in a more reflective zone about what we’re doing as musicians and as humans. So for me, it’s made it all the more rewarding. It’s almost like we climbed the mountain and now we’re ready to get started.

On the subject of getting started, was there a particular moment or precipitating factor that led you to reconnect with Chris?

It was more of a slow roll. The thing is that, from day one, every song that I’ve ever written has really been for Chris’ voice. Chris immediately was the singer when he and I started writing.

We had instruments but we weren’t very good. My dad showed me three chords—a D an A and an E—and went, “That’s all you’re going to get out of me.” [Laughs.] So I kind of went from there. Then we started writing songs.

When I put together this other band, Magpie Salute [in 2016], the singer in that band had a different voice than Chris. So when Magpie was kind of doing its typical band descent into some negativity, I was like, “Man, I have all these songs and I really would love to hear Chris on them.” I just remember missing Chris, my brother, as a person and as a songwriting partner. It had been seven or eight years and there was a lot of bitterness and anger and all that stuff. But there was also a lot more understanding. After getting away from The Black Crowes and that dynamic—and getting into another thing on my own and seeing all the inner workings from a different perspective—I was more open to it.

That’s when I said to a mutual friend, “Man, I have some songs and I would love to hear Chris sing on them.” I meant it more as a fan, like, “Wow, I’d love to hear what he had to do on these.” And our friend goes, “Wow, Chris just said the same thing to me last week.” And that opened up a dialogue, which led to something else.

Do you have plans to record new material?

We don’t have any specific recording plans yet, but we do intend to record. We just don’t know when. I spent the pandemic writing a ton of songs for Chris. I have about 30 songs that I’ve sent him and he’s written some lyrics and sent them back. So that’s been really cool.

Is your current collaborative process the same as when you wrote Shake Your Money Maker together?

It hasn’t changed. I’ll come up with some music and I’ll send it to him, and he’ll come up with some lyrics and then we’ll talk about the arrangements. That’s how it’s always been. The only real difference is how far away we are.

When you write music, are you writing for your live show, for a record or something else entirely?

I just write to write. I write when I feel inclined to and I don’t like to force myself. Some people will set a schedule and that works for them but that’s never worked for me. I write when I feel like I want to pick up my guitar. My thinking is that, when I pick my guitar up, I always want it to be joyful. It never want it to be laborious. I’ve always thought that, if I tried to write a certain way, then it wouldn’t come across as very sincere. Ultimately, the best way to go about it is to stay true to yourself, be sincere and write what you like. I don’t know what a hit sounds like. I’ve written hits in the past, but I never knew why they were hits. I just wrote my songs and that’s pretty much it.

That being said, can you recall your reaction when songs like “She Talks to Angels” or “Jealous Again” connected with a mass audience?

I remember being shocked. That doesn’t mean we didn’t want success or for people to like what we did. Anyone who makes a record wants people to like it; that’s the whole point. But to us, it was kind of like, “Wow, this is amazing, man.” I mean, we were thrilled. I was 19 years old when I made that record and I turned 20 when we went on tour. I don’t even know how to describe it. It’s almost like people will ask me what it was like when we toured with Jimmy Page. My response is always: “Well, we had to get our gig done.” We couldn’t sit there and stare at Jimmy on stage; we had to play these songs the best we could.

Back then, we were on this trajectory and it carried us. We took the ride but we didn’t think about it a lot in the moment because there was a lot to do. But I do remember feeling totally surprised, like, “Wow, this is unbelievable. I can’t believe people like this.”

We were just kids. I graduated from high school and, a year later, made Shake Your Money Maker. We played some shows, met George Drakoulias and started writing songs for that album while I was still living at my parents’ house.

Obviously, music is a vibration and that vibration goes out and it either attracts people or it doesn’t. And more and more people wanted to hear that music, especially with what was going on at the time.

But we never really plotted; we just trusted. We trusted George, we trusted our manager, and we trusted our label. They said, “Alright, this is what we’re going to do.” And then two tours in, we were opening for Aerosmith in arenas. We were like, “Wow, this is pretty amazing.” And then it was Robert Plant and ZZ Top. By the time that happened, the record was selling over a hundred thousand albums a week and, within a month, we went from going platinum to going triple platinum.

What images come to mind when you think back on those recording sessions?

There are a ton of things that pop out. We were kids, and we were having fun. I remember ramming Steve [Gorman]’s car into the dumpster and recording it. Our engineer—or maybe it was George— held the microphone over the dumpster. We told him it was going to be for some acoustic guitars and we just kind of rammed Steve’s Dodge Dart into the dumpster, then we put it in front of “Thick N’ Thin.”

I also remember someone busting into the studio right before I got there. I only had two or three guitars to make the record, and this guy walked in and walked out with them. Brendan [O’Brien, who engineered the record] saw him and ran after him. The guy dropped them and he took off.

But, mostly, it was just a fun time. We were kids being goofy and throwing shit around, and I remember feeling a lot of joy just being in the studio. We thought that it might be the only time that we were ever officially going to be in a studio. It was pretty amazing. George and Brendan were hilarious, and we all had a very similar sense of humor and there was a lot of camaraderie and this amazing positive energy.

One major change since the initial tour announcement in 2019 is the addition of Sven. Can you talk about the decision to welcome him back into the fold?

A lot of times, with the Crowes, there have been these negative influences that have come in. The M.O. of some of the guys in the band has been to divide and conquer. That was also true of some people around the band. So, from early on, there were a lot of people trying to keep Chris and I apart in order to push some sort of agenda. Once we had some success, people thought that they could maybe win a little more power or influence or whatever it may be. It’s all petty bullshit, but what that resulted in was Chris and I—as brothers and leaders of the band—paying the ultimate price. And then everyone paid a price. It’s like if you sit around and you poke at a wasp’s nest—eventually, that shit’s gonna bite you in the ass.

Chris and I now are in control of ourselves and know our own triggers within ourselves and each other. But we can’t really account for everyone and whatever agenda they’re bringing, and we don’t want to go down that road again. We don’t want to just be doing this summer tour to make some money. We don’t want to break up again and get into fights and go through all this bullshit. We want this to work for ourselves as musicians and brothers and partners, and we also want it to work for the people around us.

There was definitely a conscious decision to wash away the past. We can’t walk into this with the same patterns from before. So we made the decision to bring in a whole new band.

Then, COVID hit and some of the guys that we had in the band reassessed their lives. One guy was even contemplating not playing music anymore moving forward because COVID really freaked him out. And the other guy had other stuff to do. So it opened up an opportunity for Chris and I to have a great, honest conversation with Sven because we love Sven, and we love his playing. He’s the perfect bass player for us. We still want to protect ourselves and our relationship, but Sven has never really brought that negativity to the scene. So we had these great conversations and we felt like everyone was in the right place to bring Sven back. And that was something that made Chris and I really happy.

There’s so much material in your catalog beyond Shake Your Money Maker, including potentially some new songs. What can folks expect when they see you on this tour?

We’re going to play Shake Your Money Maker—in its sequence and in its entirety. But that record is 48-minutes long. [Laughs.] So that allows us to have this whole other amount of time to come out and play songs from throughout our career. We’re still out to pay homage to Shake Your Money Maker, but we’re also out to play some other songs that everyone will recognize and some songs that only hardcore fans might recognize. The second set will be exciting for people—and exciting for us as well.