On a recent afternoon, Chris Robinson is in Atlanta, the city he was living in 25 years ago while working on The Black Crowes’ 1990 multi-platinum debut, Shake Your Monkey Maker. That album featured Robinson belting out rooster-strut hits like “Jealous Again,” “She Talks to Angels” and a guitarified cover of Otis Redding’s “Hard to Handle.”
On this occasion, Robinson, a California resident for more than 20 years, is playing a sold-out show at Atlanta’s Variety Playhouse with a completely different band. The Chris Robinson Brotherhood is a psychedelic country-rock outfit with whom the singer has released three studio albums, an EP and two live collections in just four years. In addition to Robinson on vocals and guitar, CRB features guitarist Neal Casal, bassist Muddy Dutton, keyboardist Adam MacDougall and drummer Tony Leone.
The Black Crowes, which Robinson co-founded in the late '80s with brother/guitarist Rich Robinson, broke up in January. A former Santa Monica and Topanga Canyon resident, Chris now lives in Marin County. When he calls in for this interview from the CRB tour bus, he’s drinking English tea and listening to a Syd Barrett album. Excerpts from the conversation are below.
Chris, there’s a distinct ease to your vocals on the last two CRB albums, the live Betty’s Blend Vol. 2 and studio Phosphorescent Harvest. Do you feel you sing better these days if you aren’t trying as hard?
Well, definitely. I mean I don’t think it’s about the issue of trying hard — in all honesty, at least from my perspective, The Black Crowes were always a contest. Meaning the vocals were never the ceiling. We laugh about it all the time, “I’m supposed to be famous for being a singer but very few people ever got to hear me sing.” [Laughs.] So that was built into the architecture of this whole idea.
I love to sing. After being on the road for 25 years it’s kind of time to make the vocals the main element here.
There’s a lot of analog synthesizer on CRB tracks like “Shore Power,” an aesthetic that may surprise Black Crowes fans.
Our initial concept was what if Buck Owens and the Buckaroos mixed with Daevid Allen and Gong. Something where you could take these rootsy things that have a connection to things in the past and then you have this electronics, spacey element as well — if it can all fit in a soulful context.
That word, “soulful,” has also been used to describe your vocals. To you, what makes a singer's voice soulful? Is it just that we believe what they’re singing or something more than that?
I think it’s got to be that a little. Of course, that’s why Frank Sinatra is so beloved. It’s the way he sells the song, you know? But in my mind that’s why Bob Dylan’s a great singer at his best, on the records that I love. It’s the same thing.
In terms of soul, you like to be in a place where the connection is made. Sam Cooke and Marvin Gaye are two of the best singers of all-time and I love their singing. … But then I hear Otis Redding sing and those guys are kind of on a pedestal. They’re kind of like doing acrobatics and you’re supposed to be amazed. And Otis Redding — he’s digging a ditch for you. He’s getting it done.
And there has to be a lack of thought to it. There are so many trained singers now. I run into people occasionally, “Well my kid wants to sing. Should I get him voice lessons?” And I’m like, “If you want him to sound like everybody else.” [Laughs.]
Your lyrics, from the Crowes to CRB, often have a translucent quality to them. What inspired the “Shore Power” lyric, “It must be hard to play a lonely guitar when no one remembers anyway”?
It’s a little bit in reference to our modern culture where everybody wants something from music. They need to be famous. They need to make money and they’ll water down who they are, what they have to say, what they look like. There’s no sense of self or identity in just trying to get over. The thousands and thousands of albums I own, the thousands of downloads; most of those people aren’t in the fucking Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
In the early '90s, when your career began, there was an abundance of powerful rock singers. Did you have any kind of camaraderie with any of those people, whether it was Axl Rose or Kurt Cobain or whoever?
Not really. People were always into rock music and then I was a little acid-head weirdo getting into other trips. Instead of Axl Rose I would seek out Joe Cocker and I became friends with Joe. I was pretty easily unimpressed with whatever the exclusive rock-star club was in the ’90s. I was kind of searching out other stuff, other sort of wisdom. So I didn’t really hang out. I really wasn’t on that scene.
“I was never into ecstasy. At all. Or MDMA or whatever they called it. Did not agree with me.”
The first four Black Crowes albums are scheduled to be reissued on vinyl, cut from the original analog masters, beginning Dec. 4. The third Crowes LP Amorica, recorded at Sound City and originally released in 1994, is scheduled for a Dec. 18 reissue. What’s the craziest story you have from making Amorica? Those sessions have a particularly druggy reputation.
We filmed a famous promotional film for the European record company where everyone had to take loads of psychedelic drugs and you dressed up in costumes. It was basically a mix between Russ Meyer's Beyond the Valley of the Dolls and The Magic Christian, the Terry Southern book and the film of the same title. [Laughs.] That would have been the cherry on top of the Amorica hot-fudge sundae definitely.
Your fondness for certain substances is well-known. Was there are a drug you liked the least?
Totally. I was never into ecstasy. At all. Or MDMA or whatever they called it. Did not agree with me. Why would you do that? Just take acid and do a big line of coke if you really have to. And definitely that last comment was not my future. It was definitely the dark past. My forays into the wilderness.
Is your brother’s guitar playing an influence on your own guitar playing now?
Maybe not in the way that we should discuss. [Laughs.] No. Not really. Because I’m coming at it from such a late in life sort of view of the thing. You know, my thing is Neal is so accomplished and I’ve always been around such accomplished guitars that I’m always sort of playing catch-up. I just hope my playing is expressive.
At a 2012 CRB show, you and Neal both got the chance to play the custom, Doug Irwin-made “Wolf” guitar formerly owned by Jerry Garcia. Was there a moment of panic like, “Shit, what if this thing falls off my guitar strap, hits the ground and breaks?”
Of course. It’s Jerry’s raddest guitar and there it is in your hand. I’m just as torqued out as anyone would be to get to handle one of the holy relics. Neal killed on that guitar. But then I get that guitar and it’s like, I should stick with my student model. [Laughs.]
When the Crowes opened for Grateful Dead in the mid-'90s, you didn’t end up meeting Jerry Garcia, one of your musical heroes. If you could go back in time and talk with Garcia, is there anything you’d like to ask him?
I don’t know what I would have said because my behavioral issues don’t allow me to kind of have that kind of forethought. [Laughs.] I would have just been, “Hey man, you have any rolling papers?” or whatever.
But he looked so unhappy and didn’t want to be bothered. Why would I do it? I would just see the guy duck behind a curtain with his medicine bag and just try to go somewhere and get his bliss on and find his peace and play guitar in the melee of what the Grateful Dead world meant when he was alive. So to me, just to have access and have the opportunity to see him at all or be at those concerts and have access to any of it was a gift.
CRB is going back into the studio in January. What direction do you see that material going?
I definitely think we’re in an even more experimental mode. The music’s a little moodier. More dance and groove oriented. Maybe staying a little bit more away from the rootsy element and finding our way toward a more progressive stage in terms of where our rock & roll vibe is. But then again, I say that and I’ll be in there with fucking mandolin and pedal steel and fiddle. You never know. [Laughs.]