Chris Robinson: "I Think Anyone at Any Show ... Filming [on a Cell Phone], Looks Like a Douche Bag."
Chris Robinson Brotherhood
The Black Crowes are known to go on hiatus. In 2011, after a couple decades of much success with the Black Crowes, singer Chris Robinson decided to use that particular sabbatical to do something new. He formed the Chris Robinson Brotherhood, and it since has become his primary musical focus. The group has just released its third album called Phosphorescent Harvest on the independent Silver Arrow label. The recording features a more eclectic range of styles than the blues-rock driven Crowes and definitely exudes the spirit of a hippy-gypsy caravan. We caught up with Robinson as he was sitting in traffic on the way into Manhattan during the band's current tour, which stops at The Pressroom on Tuesday, June 24.
Up on the Sun: So, tell us about this new record. Were you doing or listening to anything special as part of the process?
Chris Robinson: I think for musicians, just being involved with the music is such an inspiring relationship -- it creates mood alterations and an overall vibrational therapy. In general, as a band we wanted the writing and the poetry and imagery of the lyrics to come from our exploration and be something everyone could put into their conscious or subconscious. To them, it could become something different or even more important than it meant to me while writing it. We all just wanted to make expressive music with a lot of dimension, whether that's folk music, electronic, jazz or 1950s mid-century rock 'n' roll -- wherever we found something that's alive. This album, as compared to the first two, is a progression toward that. Every time we write, we have a group of songs that provide a new way to add to the ongoing pursuit. I like to call it "hippy baroque."
The band often gets tagged as a blues band but it really encompasses a lot of styles. It doesn't make me think blues. I heard a lot of psych, jazz, and both '60s and '70s influences.
That's funny people say that because there's very little blues in our music. We always hear stuff like "with the bluesy swagger of the Rolling Stones," and I'm like, "Um, you got your bands mixed up."
Do you think that it's more so that people are always going to slap the blues tag on you?
At 47 years old and with the amount of music and musical education I've immersed myself in, I find very few people writing blurbs and reviews for magazines that even know remotely about music, not just my music, but they don't know about music, overall. Though, I'm sure if I wanted a dissertation on the life and times of Bruno Mars I could get one though [laughs]. There's a lot of funny paradoxes that occur in the music industry. Plenty of people call themselves a certain style, they run their mouths and then what comes out on the other end doesn't seem to make sense in relation to how they're labeling themselves.
So after being in such a long running, successful band, how did you approach this new project?
We definitely didn't want to go the conventional route, you know -- get songs, get a band, get a record deal, make an album that someone else owns, go on the road and hope that someone plays it on a radio station, or I guess if you're under 30 you hope you can sell a song to a commercial, and that's your career. No matter what I have done in the past, when we decided to put this together, we just didn't want to take that route. We just wanted to make it real. We wanted to start as a local L.A. band. Granted, we got to jump ahead in line a little bit. It's like any lifestyle that you want to be the antithesis of the corporate shackles of class structures and status -- if you're going to remain outside of that, you have to prove it and just do it. Music is always something that will have an element of being connoisseur driven and for the person who just likes to see a band run through some familiar songs and say stuff like "We love you, Scottsdale" or whatever showbiz stuff they say, that is not our trip. We want deeper affiliations and authentic experiences. That's the psychedelic part of it, as well. Psychedelic is something that is deep and dimensional, not superficial. A lot of people will call their music psychedelic because they have a bangs haircut and a reverb pedal. Psychedelics help in terms of it being psychedelic music, too [laughs]. That's just me wearing my critical hat, but I mean, look -- guys like John Mayer and Beck are making psychedelic records. Really? Like, get the fuck out of here.
Did you have a long-term plan when you started this band? Did you think that you'd get to a third record?
Well, yes. Definitely by the end of the whole California residency thing we did in the spring of 2011 where we went out for nine weeks, did close to 40 shows in little tiny places all around California. While we were doing these shows in these small venues, I would never let the Black Crowes name be associated in the advertising. We didn't do any photographs, interviews, anything, because I really feel that if have something to prove musically, you do it. This band, culturally and musically, exists on its own outside of whatever the Black Crowes were or are, or however you want to look at that. It was important for us, the Chris Robinson Brotherhood, to have our own people, our own scene, and our own culture.
Do you think people came expecting to hear Black Crowes songs?
We didn't advertise that. If you came expecting that, we didn't tease you with that.
And you don't do anything from the Black Crowes catalog with this band?
We don't play that. It's completely two different worlds and my point was if we went out as a signed band with any label, they'd be like "We should tap into your Black Crowes market." But the deal is, I was in a band called Black Crowes and if I wanted to be doing that, I would be doing that, and I'm not going to put a completely different band together to play Black Crowes songs, that would be asinine. I don't play music because I don't have anything else to do; I make music because it's my work and my life. It's passion. It's how we find our way in a world full of anxiety and fear and confusion.
It's got to be a bit of a bummer to have fans that love you but aren't interested in seeing your music evolve past something they already know and like.
Yeah, totally, but also, I've never done anything expecting anyone to like it [laughs]. Nowadays, that concept might seem hard to some younger person because there are people who get in bands just to be liked. They want to get on TV and be all "vote for me, look how clean and cute I am" and that's just not what it was to be an artist, it's just a matter of fact that being liked or adoration had nothing to do with being in a band. It was like being with the only group of socially weird misfits that would have you -- at least in '80s in Georgia, that was the case. We are motivated by the fact that there's a love and respect and humility in being able to call yourself a musician and to be in the great line of people who have come before us and someone who's coming up. It's a pretty remarkable thing, and we take it pretty seriously. We do it with lots of buoyancy, but it's a serious thing.
Is there a more collaborative songwriting process with this band for you?
I kind of bring the root of stuff. Neal [Casal] and I's songwriting relationship has definitely grown into something really open. Rather than me asking if anyone has parts for specific areas of songs, there are just pieces in the songs that come out of each of us, and the entire band was that way from day one. I'm not a control freak with music. If someone needs an idea or a direction, it's there, but in this band especially, it's been like everyone's here because of the sound we make. Plus, we've all been in the business a long time, done a lot of gigs and a lot of sets -- between all of us there's like 96 years of touring on stage, so that makes it easy as well, in terms of trust. It's a band, living breathing, like an old sci-fi creature, "It's ALIVE," so why mess with it? Everyone has a unique language about their playing, and music is just a conversation anyways. And I think it's an interesting conversation. And even though I talk a lot [laughs], I don't wanna stifle what everyone else is saying. That's kind of where our sound comes from -- us seeing how far can we take this. For me, the only reason to do the Black Crowes is because people love those songs. As we've moved on, I look at the Black Crowes as some other band and the Brotherhood is my main band and where all my creative energy is going. Being in the now helps you see where you're going to end up or what could happen.
So no current Black Crowes plan but possibly in the future?
Yeah, I think for me a lot of things would have to change in the Black Crowes for me to be interested in doing it. That being said, the work we did last year was a great experiment, but it's turned into something I don't have any control over which is fine, life and music are that way. You have to follow the muse and listen to what it's telling you. I find music to be a very singular sort of thing. Music it will allow you a life away from it but you can't get too far away from it or it will curse you [laughs)].
So, lately, and since you've been playing for awhile, how do you feel about the cell phone as an audience member?
I think anyone at any show, in the front row or back row, filming, looks like a douche bag. And I think that you're ruining it for everyone around you who is there to listen to some music. It's sad if you're that excited about your fuckin' phone. Take a picture, get it over with, that would be fine, but people sit there on their fucking phones all night. It's annoying. It's insulting to the band. I'm sure there's young bands or people that like it but I'm not that way. And some drunk person in the front row with their camera out, it's distracting to musicians and everyone around you. If anyone ever asks me what we think about it, we think you look foolish. You're taking those moments away from the band and the people around you. But people won't listen.
I think the person is also ruining it for themselves
It's insane. It's like people are saying, "Oh my God, I love this song so much, I'm actually going to film it and remove myself from the experience immediately." People do it all night. It's just selfish. I had a guy last year in the front row at a show and told him "Hey, enough with the phone." He was embarrassed. But I ran into him months later at a different show and he told me he felt like a jerk and that he hadn't taken his phone out at a show since. He said he has such a better time now. I was like "Yeah, I know" [laughter]. It's crazy.
Are you guys listening to any new music and if so, finding anything that has wowed you?
Oh yeah, that's all we do, try to check out as much as we can. As far as new music goes, the best record I've heard in a long time is this project called Morgan Delt from Topanga, California. Super rad, beautiful, dark, kaleidoscopic music. I also like this band from England called Sound Carriers who are Ghost Box Music, a label from England. I like all the Ghost Box stuff; it's very esoteric. I think the new Temples record is pretty rad, they have good songs. And White Fence is my favorite L.A. band. That's just some of the newer stuff I've been listening to.
What else do folks need to know about the Chris Robinson Brotherhood?
I think our music speaks for itself. Our whole thing is just kind of us fumbling along in this hello, here we are, fashion. It's kind of like Moroccan food. Some people might not want to try the Moroccan restaurant but people who like it, really like it and they go once a week. We're really interested in melody -- we're all bringing things we like about music to it and there's no pressure, no one telling us how to sound or asking "Where's the single?" No one's playing this on the radio, no one's selling an iPad or Prius because of a song we wrote. We don't fit into a corporate structure. We have our little utopian cocoon that we live in and we're supper happy in there. And leave your cell phone at the desk and everything will be fine.
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