The Core: Chris Robinson
photo by John Wisdom
The charismatic singer/guitarist opens up about revisiting The Black Crowes catalog, parting ways with keyboardist Adam MacDougall and figuring out the future of his Brotherhood.
CRB’s Weird Year
[Our new record, Servants of the Sun,] was completed last July, so we were sitting on it for quite a while. CRB [Chris Robinson Brotherhood] has had a weird year—Tony [Leone] took time off, Neal [Casal] needed some time and, given at how things have panned out with Adam [MacDougall], there was obviously stuff going on there. But the cool thing about the record is that, despite all that, when we got into the studio and I showed everyone the new songs I was working on and we were sequestered away, we just focused on the task at hand. And, this band is always set off of what’s new and how that new thing fits into the trajectory that we’re on.
The last few records had a lot of acoustic elements—mandolins, banjos, vibraphones. But, with this one, I didn’t want any acoustic guitar, piano or Hammond organ. And that adds to the rock-and-roll vibes on the album and brings it back to the sound of the first couple of CRB records, where we purposely stayed away from more traditional blues-rock elements.
Our Fillmore runs have always been a highlight of our year and, when a song is cooking along in the studio, I can visualize everyone—from the back of the hall to the front of the room—dancing and I know we are on to something. Even though we were in SoCal at first, our scene starts here in the Bay Area, where people breathed life into it.
Summer of Love and Loss
We did this record at the [aforementioned] studio in Marin that we’ve used for the last few albums—it’s the best fishing hole around. And, making a record in the summertime brings a different perspective to the whole thing. We’ve made records there when it’s cold and raining and moody. It will storm, the electricity will go out and the trees will come down, and I love that moodiness. But this record was the first time we had a party while recording—a barbecue that people came to—and things were a little more uptempo. Ultimately, these lyrics are about love and loss. They’re about dreams—and the inspiration of nature. I want to create scenes and paint these images. The band went through a lot of turmoil last year. Personally, I went through a rough patch, a divorce, but I also found great love in my life. There’s always a lot going on. We’re people. I’m not sitting around making pop records. What I am trying to do is find some emotional connection through the poetry within the songs. That’s why we write songs—joy and sorrow are all part of the human condition. I’m just lucky enough that I have the opportunity to write, to express myself. There’s multiple dynamics, multiple dimensions going on all the time. It’s your perception of things that dictates how you deal with that and what it looks like.
You have to be secure and happy with what you put out there. And it makes it easier when you have a talented band that’s worked so hard and knows the language. I’ve never come in there and told anyone what to play, and that’s been the social experiment.
The GM of a Great Basketball Team
We wish Adam the best, but [in terms of] Adam and us asking him to leave, it was time for him to move on. It doesn’t diminish his contribution to the last record or the last eight years. So, hopefully, he’ll find something new. He’s a talented guy, and I’m sure he will be busy. We had Pete Sears, who plays with me in the Green Leaf Rustlers, come and play keyboards with us in May, and he’s not only a wonderful gentleman, but also truly the finest musician I’ll ever share the stage with. You get goose bumps the way he plays—the music that he brings, the rock-and-roll, the architecture, is just a dream come true. I’ve been friends with Barry Sless since 2004, when we played together in Phil and Friends, and we all live in Marin. That’s how the Green Leaf Rustlers started: I’d be taking some guitar lessons from Barry and, inevitably, we’d jam on some of this Johnny Horton, Merle Haggard, Waylon stuff, and we all love The Byrds, The Burritos and The New Riders. So I’ve gotten to play with Pete a lot during the last couple of years.
And we have Joel [Robinow] on keyboards this summer. I had Joel play in As the Crow Flies last month—Once and Future Band are probably my favorite band on the planet that didn’t make records in 1973. [Laughs.] He’s a legendary East Bay character. Ideally, we’ll play the new music a lot since we only have a handful of shows so that’s probably going to be the basis of the presentation, and then we’ll augment or supplement as we move along. I feel like the GM of a great basketball team who gets to put together his starting five.
The Crow Flies Again
What I took away from As the Crow Flies was the connection people have with The Black Crowes’ material. That’s a no-brainer. You see how it affects people when you meet them, talk to them. People who like that band really love that band. It’s an American rock band, so it made me feel like, “This is good. This makes me feel good.” It made people happy to see me sing those songs so it was all a win-win.
To put together a band of great friends and great musicians like that just made it feel really warm and fuzzy for me. And then to have someone like Marcus [King], who I didn’t really know that well, who I had just met at shows, but whose talent you can obviously recognize, was [amazing].
We don’t really have anything booked. We did a show at Redondo Beach, Calif.’s Beachlife Festival in May. I knew that Marcus and Audley [Freed] were busy, so I had Jackie [Greene, another former Crowes guitarist] and our friend Benji Shanks and Joel play with us. So it was a little bit of an experiment, just to do something different for the one-off and see how it works. It makes me feel like I can do these different things, like, “Wow I can get this guy!?” As long as that vibe and that flow is going, things take care of themselves.
It was cool to have Jackie on that As the Crow Flies gig. Things keep swirling around and, when they fall into place, it’s serendipitous. Music never lets me down; music never fails to be the great catalyst and the great bond between people and experience in this life.
Putting the Brotherhood on Ice
We needed a break. I’ve been working on some music for a solo record so I want to get to that. It will probably be just simpler. I always have four or five folky, country songs sitting around, and I want to make a record that you can listen to while you have your last drink on a Saturday night and you can also put on that Sunday morning. It would also be fun to do some recording in England and use some English musicians. And I want to take the spiderwebs off my old friend [and Crowes collaborator] Paul “Strange Boy” Stacey and see what he’s doing.
At the same time, Green Leaf Rustlers has a lot of things happening that allow me to stay in California. But, really, it’s just about taking some time to not do things. I just need a little bit of time to not to be on the road like kooky. The real deal is that this is the first time in a couple of years where I’ve had a few weeks off to be with my love, to relax, to read and to see my kids—normal stuff. But the CRB is there, it’s not going anywhere—we’re just putting it in the garage for a little bit.
This article originally appears in the July/August 2019 issue of Relix. For more features, interviews, album reviews and more, subscribe here.