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Black Crowes singer Chris Robinson rediscovering his love for rock 'n' roll

Scott Mervis, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on

Published in Entertainment News

When it was announced The Black Crowes would reunite in 2020 for the 30th anniversary of “Shake Your Money Maker,” it was hard not to think about that 1990 show at The Pavilion at Star Lake in western Pennsylvania when the brash young Southern rock band gave old veterans Aerosmith a run for their money. That night, the 20-somethings from Georgia, on their maiden tour, seemed like the more dangerous band.

That album, loaded with such keepers as “Jealous Again,” “Twice As Hard,” “Hard to Handle” and “She Talks to Angels,” sold 5 million copies and established The Black Crowes as one of the premier bands harnessing the freewheeling energy of 1960s/’70s rock and soul.

A Rolling Stone poll declared them “The best new American band.”

That was a lot to live up to, especially with the wave of grunge that was about to hit us, and while The Black Crowes continued to feed its following with five more albums over the next decade, nothing quite matched that first spark.

Since the first hiatus in 2002, The Crowes have been off and on, depending on how brothers Chris and Rich Robinson are getting along and what side projects they have going. The latest split, in 2015, regarded ownership of the band.

With the 2019 announcement, the Robinson brothers had worked through those differences and were ready to go out and play “Shake Your Money Maker” in full, with longtime bassist Sven Pipien and three new touring members.

The pandemic had other plans.

A year and change later, The Black Crowes are one of the first major bands back on the road, now celebrating the 31st anniversary of that debut album. We checked in via Zoom with frontman Chris Robinson, who at 54 is looking every bit the rock star with long hair, beard and silky white clothes.

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Q: What was it like getting back together, announcing this tour and then having to shelve it?

A: I have to say that so many millions and billions of people had the same scenario, so in some ways that kind of helped. You know what I mean? I'm not a Buddhist, but universal suffering, I get that, and I just chalk it up to typical Black Crowes things. We've never done anything the way other [expletive] in show business works, so it really is a soulful thing — for the good, the bad, the sane, the mad. So, the team we put together, Rich and my relationship, the band we put together, the way that everyone put the project in order, just the idea of the “Shake Your Money Maker” thing — which never appealed to us till now, and it makes so much sense — and then, boom!

We just sort of laughed it off, like that's the way the world works for the Black Crowes. But it solidified Rich and my relationship even more. We wrote 20 new songs over the break. We were on the phone with each other three, four times a week. I feel like we could conquer anything together now.

Q: It seems like this either brought families together or just exploded things.

A: Yeah, yeah, I've heard both. I'm blessed to have my amazing wife and our Jamaican street dog that we adopted, but I miss my kids. We had great days, we had amazing days, and then we had the worst days. I just think the whole thing magnified that. I think sometimes as a creative person you're in touch with that anyway, whether it's depression, joy or whatever.

Q: A bunch of bands moved their tour dates back to 2022 or further into the fall. What made you decide “late July, we’re doing this,” and how did you prepare?

A: It's kind of like when you're on an airplane and you have to circle around Newark for like four hours. You’re already on the list to land, so let's land this thing. I'm sick of sitting on the plane, I'm out of peanuts and the old lady next to me just farted. Let’s land. We had all the pieces in place and everything ready to go. The tour starts in Nashville, we rehearse in Nashville, we have an amazing band, they are raring to go, everyone's learned the material, Rich and I are pretty good with the material after 30-something years …

Q: Although there might be different songs that you haven't played.

A: There were. When we announced the tour in November ’19, which sounds bizarro now, to play “Shake Your Money Maker,” a song like “Strutting Blues,” we were like, “Wow, we maybe only played that song twice.” I can't even remember the ancient reasons for not doing it. We were at rehearsals, and I was like, “Let's try this.” Oh my God, Rich and I had giant smiles and the band was like, “That's the coolest song.”

The one thing The Black Crowes did, especially in the 2000s and onward, we played lots of different songs. I get that there's a certain part of the audience that wants that. I think the idea of focusing on the first record and the subsequent hit songs and stuff, for us, it works. We spent so much time searching for this energy and these sort of musical statements and feelings by having all this different stuff. Now, it’s been a long time since we were really just focused on rock ’n’ roll, and that's really where my interest is right now and the way I feel. I think maybe that's just part of the attitude of having to deal with the last 18 months or whatever. The frustration and anxiety and anger, those are all great ingredients, even when you're in your 50s, for rock ’n’ roll.

Q: I was thinking about that album, when it came out, and placing it in its context. We had just come through punk and New Wave and a lot of bands were rejecting the ’70s roots at that time

A: Oh, yeah… Looking back now, we kind of started our foray into music in the American hardcore punk scene and the indie rock scene of the late ’80s, so a band like X is really important to us. The Replacements. R.E.M., them being just up the road from us. Pete Buck is playing a Rickenbacker. They are new, they are part of today, but there’s little glimpses there of why I love the Byrds and Buffalo Springfield and the ’60s music that we love.

Coming from those roots, there was an us-vs.-them that was really worn on our sleeves, and in a way the ’70s rock ’n’ roll part of it was as punk as we could be because everybody thought it was horrible and they hated it. Everybody’s listening to Jane’s Addiction at the cool pizza place where we all hang out, and I come walking in with an AC/DC patch on my jean jacket and like two guys in another band wanted to fight.

We all came up in that world where no one watched MTV — maybe “120 Minutes” or “The Young Ones.” No one was into the popular rock music of the time. That would be the uncool thing. Then, you talk about Humble Pie and The Faces, people were like, “Whoa, whoa.”

Q: So, yeah, labels weren’t looking for that ...

A: George Drakoulias was our producer who saw us in New York one night. We sounded in a way more like The Gun Club or The Paisley Underground bands. That night we played a lot of our songs, but we also played “Down in the Street” by The Stooges and “No More, No More” by Aerosmith.

We didn’t even have long hair or anything, and George was the one who was like, “You guys did really cool versions of that.” My thing growing up in Atlanta, having my entire life inspired by the African American experience — not in close proximity but around that kind of energy and wisdom and strength and pain — was really influential in the music that I listened to.

 

My dad was a folk singer and early rock ’n’ roll singer, so we had a lot of blues and folk and country and bluegrass and jazz. That music didn't really play into the punk/indie vibes but the one thing I liked about when I got into the Stones deeply, it was “Exile on Main Street” because, oh wow, there's Gram Parsons’ idea of cosmic American music, boom, right there, where all those elements make something really dynamic. And so me finding my voice, it was all the Sly and the Family Stone and Parliament Funkadelic records and all the soul records, whether it’s Slave or the Ohio Players. Prince was huge in my early days — “Dirty Mind.” My mother wondering, “What are you listening to?” That's what kind of changed us. Getting into rock ’n’ roll was letting those things come into our vocabulary.

Q: Early on, I saw you open for Aerosmith at the venue where you are going to play. I have to hand it to Aerosmith because they weren't afraid to let a hot band play before them. What was that tour like coming early on in your career?

A: I remember the first show with Aerosmith, and we all have our laminates on. It's the first time we had a tour bus, and we were walking into the venue in Pennsylvania and a security guard let us in but they wouldn’t let Joe Perry in. He was standing there with no shirt on, in leather pants. It was like “[expletive] Joe Perry, dude!” They were like, “He doesn't have a laminate!” [expletive] Spinal Tap [stuff]. I was like “We get to walk in, but Joe Perry is standing out there, with no shirt and his leather pants? What a weird thing.” Also, they were like super sober, and we were WILD kids. They didn't really let us around them. I think they wanted to fire us a few times but they just couldn't.

Q: So, that first album blowing up, what were the ups and downs of that instant success?

A: Obviously, the upside of that is that now you're in the game. It gave us the freedom to keep the wolves at bay, meaning that punk attitude and our indie sort of attitude didn't bode well with showbiz Hollywood music industry. But because we had that kind of success initially it gave us a little bit more muscle.

Rich and I have always been played off each other, too. It’s as if that's the only thing we had to offer, sometimes, back then. But Rich is like me. We’re stubborn, and it's music and it's our music, so we'll take our lumps with the good and the bad. We both have a sincere love of the mythos of rock ’n’ roll; we both have a sincere perception of how cool it is that we spent our lives making music. And the thing back in the ’80s that made you a weirdo and separated you from all the cool kids was that rock ’n’ roll was an outsider's medium in some ways.

The bad side is that we didn't have the opportunity to learn any of the rules of the game. We were thrust in. And what's the name of the game, man, in music? It’s not about your creative content, it's not about your talent. It’s about selling units, at the time. We were up against the gun, initially, because how are you going to top that? And, by the way, you didn't have time. We weren’t going to sit down with the hottest producer and make some record that didn't sound like us. I think it would have been cool to have one record that did OK, one that did a little better and then the third or fourth kind of breaks you. But you get what you get. The reality is, it’s amazing. We wrote songs in an age where rock ’n’ roll meant something much more important than now and people attached themselves to the music we were making, the live experience, and that's the greatest gift of all time.

Q: You were talking about you and Rich being played off each other. Did you ever talk to the Davies brothers or any other sibling group about that dynamic?

A: The only other sibling groups we had access to were [expletive] Noel and Liam [Gallagher of Oasis]!

Q: Why is the dynamic so much different with brothers in bands? It's usually pretty insane.

A: I think in our case, there’s a lot of money there and whether it’s management or record companies ... divide and conquer. It’s the oldest military tactic. Rich says it in interviews all the time. One of our former members said, “The scariest thing to everyone was when you and Rich got along.” But, also, I don't mean it in a weird way, but rock ’n’ roll was a tough life.

Now, in this age of sensitivity, we’re all super sensitive. We’re all “My heart can break over a matchstick.” That’s why we’re creative, that’s why we found this medium. You're not escaping the pain. And by the way, the depression of realizing that it's only about what you sell and not about what you have to offer as an artist, you have to find your own power — or you just go with it, which is cool, too, man. There’s lots of successful groups and people where that's their path. Our path was a little bit more rocky road, in that way. But, in that first 10 years, there was no time ever to stop and take inventory. You're on the carousel, and you don't want it to stop.

Q: Tour, record, tour, record, then you’re worn out.

A: Yeah, I was a more flamboyant person in my presentation when I started and by the mid-’90s I’m kind of tired of that, so I want it to be about my lyrics and my vocals. But people who need you to be a certain way so they can make money start to tell you you’re an [expletive]. Like every day. It’s almost like being a pro athlete in a way except we don't keep stats.

Q: So, I want to hear about these 20 songs.

A: It’s a funny thing. Rich and I, we definitely had our issues. We’ve argued in the studio; we’ve argued backstage. Occasionally, that spilled over onto the stage. We argued at an Italian restaurant in Berlin one time — whatever. But we don’t argue when we’re writing, you know what I mean? I think that’s why we made a lot of records. Anyway, we were sitting around during the pandemic, and Rich just started sending me stuff, and two or three things turned into five or six things. That’s just how we work. He has a little home studio, so he can send me rough sketches. I’m not that technologically advanced. I’m like with a pencil scribbling on an old piece of paper.

Q: What will come of that?

A: I think we want to write more. We’re in no hurry to get to the studio. The tour is our focus. Next year we’re going to be on the road, so we just want to get as many songs as we can, and we’re working with George Drakoulias again, our producer, which has been fantastic. [He’s] one of the real last of the great ears for the essence of these songs, what they can be, how they live. A great song lives outside of the time it’s made. He has great vision that way, and he understands our strong points as writers and our talent as musicians. So, it’s super exciting. I know we’re going to make a record. We could make one tomorrow. Again, our focus this whole time has just been the tour.

Q: You must be able to look at people like Neil Young and the Stones, who are like 75, and think, “Well, there's not that much urgency. We have a lot of time to make an album.”

A: Like I said earlier, we’re wrangling something that was wild and woolly, and we’re focusing on “How do we take all our energy and put it into playing ‘Shake Your Money Maker’ every night — and really crush that?” When we were talking about opening for Aerosmith, they are a great band, no one loves Aerosmith more than me — the early Aerosmith — but they were already drifting into having people write their songs for them. They’re like a pop band, and we come out and we’re definitely more snotty, loud, and no safety nets. And that's what we’re doing this year. There’s no in-ear monitors. We’re moving air with amps. We want that energy. That’s rock ’n’ roll to us, and we’re old school about it. I don't think there’s a lot of bands with that same type of presentation. I hate to say that we're like one of the last ones but what we truly are.

Q: And now you're going to have this audience just starved for something like this right now.

A: We're like one giant gravy ladle of rock ’n’ roll. You can have as much gravy as you want.

Q: Any thoughts about the vaccine passport idea?

A: I would just hope that everyone would. … I get that we live in a time when governments lie to people. But in this case, can we please just get back to life? The reality is, this virus does prey upon a certain demographic of people, so we need to protect our neighbors and friends. I get that if people are going to lie about their taxes, about their age on dating apps or whatever, they're going to lie about this. Again, man, I don't know. I drink French white wine and read Russian literature and listen to jazz records when I'm not doing this. This is for the states and counties and Live Nation to figure out.

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