Chris Robinson interview: Black Crowes singer finds new Brotherhood
October 8, 2012 by Bill Palmer
by Bill Palmer
“Show business is a very glamorous lifestyle,” chuckles Chris Robinson as he wanders a Walmart parking lot in rural Arkansas while trying to find cellphone reception. He could be at home right now, if he had decided to treat the indefinite hiatus of his longtime band the Black Crowes as time off. Instead the singer has found himself smack in the middle of a new band called the Chris Robinson Brotherhood, once again living on the road, touring just as heavily as ever and releasing two records already this year. The music is perhaps more ethereal than ever, as is Chris himself when he talks about it.
“Tulsa’s a mythical music place,” he says in reference to Tulsa Yesterday, the opening track from Big Moon Ritual. “It starts as a song about the road. ‘I was in Tulsa yesterday, tomorrow’s forever, and today I think I’ll take my own sweet time.’ Meaning time is an abstract concept and space is an abstract concept. There is a bit of a nod, whether it’s Jesse Ed Davis or Leon Russell, Carl Radle, Jim Keltner, there’s so many great musicians that we love. Tulsa has a good music scene. It was mythic Tulsa. It’s in the place. It’s a song about movement and it’s about time.”
The song is twelve minutes long with no vocals until the two and a half minute mark, and is typical of the Brotherhood’s output. Rather than trying to carve up typically lengthy live jams into four minute radio friendly studio tracks, the albums are simply a representation of what you’d get from a live gig. Despite drawing sizable live audiences and an invite to the Tonight Show, there’s no attempt at commercialism this time around. Not that there ever was…
“I’ve always been one of those people, we always have an extra dinner for you if you show up,” Chris says of his attitude toward potential audiences. “There’s always an extra seat at the table. But the reality is I see super talented sensitive people and they throw away their gift so they can appeal to the middle. And I don’t think that the middle has anything to offer me at this time in my life. It never did. If the Black Crowes found themselves in a place of commercial viability in the 90s, that’s a fluke as far as I’m concerned, because we definitely weren’t trying.”
Despite being named after its singer, the Chris Robinson Brotherhood is a five piece band and the heart of its music lies in the connection amongst the quintet. The members came together through various avenues. Some of them didn’t have to travel far. Adam MacDougall, longtime keyboardist for the Crowes, was the first in. “We’ve been making a lot of music together and sitting on the back of the Black Crowes bus formulating and getting into what it might be sonically, more philosophical and esoteric musical conversations. So I knew I had Adam, and I knew where that sound was possibly going to be taking us.”
Guitarist Neal Casal almost joined the Crowes himself twelve years ago, instead settling on a solo career. The fact that he’s a singer in his own right made it a “no brainer. It’s like being in the Everly Brothers with him. I can go anywhere with my vocals and he’ll be right there with that close harmony.”
George Sluppick is the drummer who holds the fort down. “The one thing I knew was I’m not afraid of outer space,” Chris says of what he was looking for, “but the fuel we’d have to get us there would be a pretty stiff backbeat shuffle. Not a lot of people can really shuffle anymore. I guess it’s not what most modern rock is based on,” he says with a laugh. Once again proving to be a small world, Chris was turned on to George by Crowes guitarist Luther Dickinson.
“The last piece of the puzzle was Mr. Muddy,” he says of Mark Dutton. “It was super funny because bass player is kind of like finding a goalie, you know, for your Stanley Cup run. You don’t want him to let one through.” Oddly enough, the two had first crossed paths decades ago when the Crowes hired Marc Ford away from Dutton’s band Burning Tree…
Perhaps the cosmic connection the musicians all shared, despite mostly not having played together before, tilted the odds in the band’s favor. “Once we got everyone in a room,” Chris says of the first jam session, “as a musician I think you know instantly. Everyone’s listening, everyone’s musical, and everyone’s completely coming from a different freaky place. So I’m very, very lucky. The main part of putting a band together, for me it just can’t be a project. It can’t feel like that. There has to be some cosmic reality involved in it. This feels and sounds like what I have in my imagination and my heart and my soul. Everyone connected on that, and that’s what got us through our first forty-six shows in a van just in the state of California. 13,500 miles. Just the band and Brian, our tour manager. And about two or three weeks into that, we kind of felt like this is a band. This is our life. This is our music. This is where our heads are. And when you have that kind of trust and that kind of fertile creative place, everything is good. The shittiest dressing room, whatever they can throw at you, bad P.A., no accoutrement, no crew, no ego prizes of success that rock and roll brings you. It was just the music.”
Big Moon Ritual was released in June, its companion album The Magic Door last month. The touring continues, with the band in the south in October, the northeast in November, and out west in December. Could Chris have imagined that his decision to take an extended break from one touring band would lead directly into another? “I’ve always been a person who thought if you have good ideas and you’re creative and you can figure a way to stay, I’m always looking for ways to exist outside the box. In this day and age it worked. On one hand I’m surprised. On one hand I’m doing it. Do you know what I mean?”