“I used to say what we do is ‘hippie baroque,'” says Chris Robinson about the music he makes with the Chris Robinson Brotherhood – a stew of rock, blues, country, funk and soul sounds topped with a healthy smattering of spacey psychedelia and wrapped in a jam-band aesthetic. “Because we want something that’s expressive and sensual and beautiful. It’s like a garment that feels really comfortable, but it has all these, like, magic symbols on it.” He pauses. “That maybe other people can’t even see …”
These days that magic-symbol-adorned garment, as it were, is getting plenty of wear. Since the Black Crowes played their final show in 2013 (they split for good, under acrimonious circumstances, in 2015), Robinson and his band, which includes guitarist Neal Casal, latter-day Crowes keyboardist Adam MacDougall, bassist Jeff Hill and drummer Tony Leone, have been operating in overdrive, averaging upwards of 100 live dates a year and releasing two new CRB studio efforts – Any Way You Love, We Know How You Feel and the EP If You Lived Here, You Would Be Home By Now – in 2016 alone. They’ve just finished up another full-length, their fifth, titled Barefoot in the Head, due July 21st via Silver Arrow Records. Today, Rolling Stone is premiering the video for the album’s leadoff track, “Behold the Seer,” a jaunty funk & roll number accented by Casal’s quicksilver guitar licks and MacDougall’s burbling electric piano work. Robinson’s words, meanwhile, offer up something of a musical, if not a lifestyle, mantra: “If you want to keep your engine humming,” he intones, “keep your eyes wide ahead and don’t look back.”
“I had to humble myself once again in front of the muse and start over,” the singer, now 50, says of throwing himself wholeheartedly into the CRB. “But what a unique and amazing thing to do.”
Fresh off cooking a breakfast of eggs and soldiers for his young daughter, and catching up on some light reading (“I got through the hashish chapter of the Pharmako/Poeia, which I haven’t read in a long time”), Robinson called RS from his Marin County, California, home to discuss Barefoot in the Head. He also opined on a wide range of topics, from why he’s open to playing Black Crowes songs again – but not with the Black Crowes – to the unique philosophy that fuels his creativity and career with the Chris Robinson Brotherhood.
“Our business model is based on the soul more than anything,” Robinson said, staying true to his hippie-baroque principles. “And that’s tough going in the ol’ corporate U.S.A., you know? But, it is what it is.”
Was there anything in particular you set out to do musically on Barefoot in the Head?
Definitely. We finished the last record and we were really on a high. We were really into where we were. That was our first self-produced album and it was an awesome experience. And then after that I came home and just kept writing. I found as the year went by I had a lot of what I call “little songs,” things with maybe just two parts. I was writing on acoustic guitar a lot, and we’ve had very little acoustic music on our recordings in the past. And I was coming up with stuff like “If You Had a Heart to Break” and “Blonde Light of Morning,” these songs that were more kind of country-esque. So there were different sounds, different approaches. By the time we got together, my only thing that I said to everyone was, “Listen, no one bring any instrument to the studio that we played on previous records or that we played live.” So Neal brought a different rig. I brought a different rig. We brought every stringed instrument that we could get our hands on. And that’s how we started.
You recorded the album not too far from where you live.
It’s a studio right here in Marin where we’ve made the last two records. Neal had worked there on a session, I think it was a couple summers ago, and he called me. He was like, “Dude, I’m at this place, next time when you’re home you have to see this.” It’s the type of place that’s maybe not for every band, but I think in the big scheme of things it works for us. I was talking to a friend of mine just yesterday and we were talking about being dyslexic. I’m a dyslexic person. And I think one thing dyslexic people do is they build their environment around them. In my case, that environment was built out of daydreams, imagination, the inspiration of roots music, that experience. So you manifest this thing. You get to do that with your band, too. A band is just an idea, you know? And to be outside of a conventional studio setting and in a place where everyone’s living together, where it’s communal, you can keep out the outside influence of what’s going on and really focus. And this’ll be six years of us being on the road together, seven years of us being a band. We’ve never had any feathers ruffled, there’s never been an argument. You know what I mean? We don’t have an agenda.
For a band with no agenda, you have a pretty strong work ethic. Barefoot in the Head is your third record in two years.
Yeah. But, I mean, my entrée into music, my first big prostrate in front of the muse, was writing. But, you know, you’re a young kid, you write songs, you get in a band like the Black Crowes, and now all of a sudden you’re like a racehorse. Your creativity, your life, it resonates with all these other people that are enjoying that music, and that’s a beautiful thing. But, you know, the middle man is a source of frustration. From your creation to somebody’s earhole, the shit it’s gotta go through to get there, you have to remove that. And like I’ve said, I’m not complaining. What happened with the Black Crowes was unique and incredible and we were very lucky to experience it. But like I’ve said too, the Black Crowes was almost something that happened to us. The CRB is something that we’ve built brick-by-brick, and I think that’s the reason we have this kind of freedom and this terrain to explore. Neal and I were talking, and in 14 months we wrote 23, 24 new compositions, you know? Part of that could also be that we live in a strange and unique and anxiety-filled time. And I think sometimes when there’s chaos and fear and sort of ignorance roaming the land, the only positive to it is it takes me back to the power of imagination and emotion and writing songs. Not that my songs are anthemic. I’ve never written an anthemic song. These are images and themes and poetries put to music. And I’ve said it before – they don’t belong in a corporate setting. The music we make, it doesn’t fit with selling things.
“The music we make, it doesn’t fit with selling things.”
At the Black Crowes’ commercial height in the mid-Nineties, could you have imagined that you could exist, musically, in a way that was not so entrenched in the system, so to speak?
Well, it is the system. What is the system but a system of rules and regulations that some other people who have gotten there before you have laid out? But, I mean, I did my best. I was still a kid. Like, in the way Bob Dylan describes youth in, like, the Sixties, you know what I’m saying? Everyone around me had short hair. Even though it was the Nineties, I still felt that. I had long hair and I was living this sorta … I was trying to see everything I could. A mind shown is a mind blown, you know? And I believed in rock & roll as a spirit, almost. This energy thing. So yeah, man, it was tough. To try to make it happen in there you kind of have to be wild-eyed. And they want something more docile. Or at least they don’t mind something wild-eyed as long as it’s, you know, an act.
People often use the phrase “Cosmic American Music” when describing what you do with the Chris Robinson Brotherhood.
I kinda feel like we should sound a little bit like Buck Owens … but sitting in with Daevid Allen and Gong [laughs]. We used to say that if our band’s a covered wagon, our covered wagon has a warp drive. So, yeah, I like the psychedelic idea. It’s all this beautiful music and tradition – and I mean the tradition of the life, too. The dedication of a musician and the outside nature of what we are. We still live outside of the regular confines. Take that and put it through the lens of these five people and what we all like, and you get that creole cosmic-slop American magic.
Earlier you said that you’ve “never had any feathers ruffled” within the Chris Robinson Brotherhood. Whereas the Black Crowes often appeared to be fueled by antagonistic relationships.
Well, the Black Crowes was not only that – that was also used against us. To keep the kingdom unsteady is to have a lot of people in the ears of the royal family, you know? The more cooks in the kitchen, the more people think they have a say about your money. They feel your money is their money. So yeah, the Black Crowes was always … you just always had your dander up. Your shoulders were always up. You didn’t know what was gonna happen.
But I plan on singing those songs again. I just played some of them in an acoustic solo setting. I love the songs. None of this would be possible without the people that were interested in that music and that let that music move them. I’m proud of that band and the music we made. You know, I’m not that crazy.
Your brother [former Black Crowes guitarist Rich Robinson] and some of your old bandmates are playing that music again in the Magpie Salute.
Yeah. I mean, everyone’s gotta feed their families, or whatever. So it is what it is. I wouldn’t have expected any of those people to come up with an idea outside of that anyway. You know what I mean?
So the Black Crowes as a band is not something you have an interest in going back to.
I plan on, at some point, singing those songs. But not with any of those people. Family’s family, business is business. But music is music. And that music has been tainted to me by behavior and attitudes. Actions. You know what I mean? Money’s never motivated me. It’s not gonna start now. No matter what happens. I’ve been very sensitive about that my whole career. But I don’t have any ill will and stuff. I’m too busy with the CRB. And it’s funny, because in the trajectory of this band, we didn’t have a big giant hit record our first time out. So we’ve had time to experiment. We’ve had time to see how this feels and what it’s like. Putting a band together and doing nine weeks in a van and going up and down the state of California and playing in little tiny clubs, that’s a great way to forge an identity. And then to have an opportunity to spend the last six years on the road, we average 115 shows a year, clock in three hours a night with a good two-hour sound check. That’s the kind of stuff that it makes it easy to get the cauldron stirring. So our trajectory is much different. From Big Moon Ritual to Barefoot in the Head, that’s really an amazing six years.
Given how much time the CRB spends on the road, do you view the recorded versions of your songs as the definitive takes? Or is that antiquated thinking?
I don’t know. I mean, Jesus, you’re talking to an archaic being! That’s a great question. There is a definitive thing about the recording. But, yeah, when you’re in a band like ours … I mean, “Behold the Seer” has already changed three times from when we wrote it. By the time we get on tour I’m sure it’ll have changed again. So in one way the album version is a definitive version, but then that version changes. I guess it’s just kind of like the coming-out-party version. The Southern-belle version: “Ahh have ahh-rived. …” [laughs]. Then the live takes twist and turn from there. I like that the songs are “alive” in that way.
It’s reminiscent of the approach of the Grateful Dead, a band you’ve talked openly about your love for. Though recently, in an interview with Howard Stern, you also seemed to criticize their recent activities.
The only thing I would say about that, is, you know, go to the show. Go and have fun. I said what I said because I’ve been doing this for 30 years. And it’s not so much about what’s going on onstage. It’s how it got there. But my personal opinion shouldn’t have anything to do with you going and enjoying yourself. At the end of the day, those guys are … that is a hugely successful tour. Everyone is making millions and millions of dollars. Good. Awesome. … I dig it. I said what I said, go have fun at the shows. That’s it.
The CRB has a new slew of tour dates coming up that should take you through the end of the year. When it comes to the band’s future, how far ahead do you look?
We don’t really have any plans. At least in terms of recording. The one idea that’s been tossed around that we’d love to do is a covers album. We’re all so obsessed with music and there’s so many songs … we play a lot of covers anyway, but there’s so many more we’ve never attempted. But other than that, we’re supposed to wrap up 2017 with three nights at the Fillmore here in San Francisco, which is, you know, that’s base camp for all the CRBeings in the world [laughs]. And we have plans next year to go to Europe, and we’ve talked about going to Japan for the first time, and getting back to Australia. So for right now we’ll probably just continue touring, and by this time next year we’ll figure out what we want to do, recording-wise.
My sense is that this band operates more or less exactly how you’d like a band to operate.
[Laughs] I kind of take the position … the Grateful Dead I love was the Grateful Dead that were outsiders. They were weirdos. They were the ugliest, weirdest, druggiest, funkiest, coolest thing rolling around, you know what I mean? I identify with that. The outsider part. The weirdo part. The CRB, when we’re onstage and everything is cooking and everything is going – and that happens a lot – it’s exactly where I want to be. And like we were talking about before, I could have seen myself like that in 1995. It just wasn’t in focus yet. It would be like this misty vision floating past [laughs]. Like, “Did I fucking see that?” And then it would dissipate. It took a long time, but I finally have broken free and we have this thing that we love.
Better late than never.
Yeah. We love the CRB and the CRB loves you. That’s our trip.