Chris Robinson Discusses New Album, Future of Black Crowes + Mountain Jam
There are few frontmen in the history of rock and roll who can combine an animated on-stage presence with a killer vocal range. As the leader of the Black Crowes and the Chris Robinson Brotherhood, Chris Robinson has definitely earned his place among the greats. Only 23 years old when the Crowes’ debut album, ‘Shake Your Money Maker,’ dropped, Robinson’s skills as a frontman are complemented by his enthusiastic passion for the music he creates.
Gearing up for a brand new album with the CRB as well as a tour to support it – including a stop in upstate New York at the 4-day Mountain Jam festival – Robinson took a few moments to hang out with Ultimate Classic Rock and chat about all things music-related. His stream of consciousness only serves as an indicator of his genuine approach to his craft.
Right off the bat, how are things going with the next Chris Robinson Brotherhood album, ‘Phosphorescent Harvest?’
Really good, man. It never ceases to amaze me, the power of the soul and your music. You never know, you know what I mean? You just never know. The Black Crowes, you’re blessed and cursed on one level with early commercial success. That lends you to other worlds, I guess you would call it a career. But to have a band like the Chris Robinson Brotherhood sort of fall into your lap at this time, it’s very unique and special to all of us. Everybody’s been through the cycles and made the records and done the tours and had the good times and the bad times, you know what I mean? Everyone is on an even-balanced place as individuals and musicians. We’re super psyched, it seems like it’s been a long break.
This will be your third CRB album. How does it feel to continue growing as a musician and frontman with this band?
The average music listener is only hearing producer-driven pop things, the album format, you know it sounds like rock and roll is gone. It’s funny, I go to these concerts and there’s lots of people there. How can rock and roll be gone? I kind of think that’s the most unique aspect of where we are right now. It’s awesome, we can live and create and play and go to concerts and do these things without having to be hit over the head by the corporate mallet where success is only determined through the amount of money you generate. That’s just not the case with something as special as music.
When Rolling Stone debuted the brand new track, ‘Shore Power,’ you said that it is “a sonic snapshot of a typical day in the heads of all of us on Planet Freedom.” Besides the song, what does “Planet Freedom” look like to you?
On Planet Freedom, everybody definitely has a smile on their face. I think it’s just one of those things, when I say that, it’s kind of about being open and honest with cosmic vibrations. People don’t like it when you talk like this. [Laughs] I don’t do that many interviews anymore. I love talking about the CRB, though! When you say something about having some sort of cosmic resonance, these vibrations, people tend to say it’s new age or hippie s— or whatever.
No, man, the inter-connectedness of the universe is important and if you’re hip to that stuff and you’re interested in that, that’s going to impact everything: who you hang out with, how you raise your children, what do you think about the environment, what do you think about anything, you know? Philosophical things, esoteric things, metaphysical things, and where all of that kind of coalesces into the daily reality of life, that would be a band like the CRB and the people that are interested in our music and are interested in the experience. The good people, the kind souls who are open and available to an experience and positivity, you know?
Absolutely, and it seems like the CRB is far from just being a side project, perhaps thanks to those kind souls who have embraced the band. When you focus on those cosmic vibrations and the inter-connectedness of the universe, you don’t waste time worrying about outside perceptions. How does that play a role in your life, especially considering the fact that you’re still making new music when your very first album, ‘Shake Your Money Maker,’ turns 25 next year?
If anything, it’s hard for people to understand. It’s almost as if the Black Crowes became something you just go and do every once in awhile and the CRB is something so focused. We are in love with this band, the people in this band, so we treat it like that. You know, man, you see what people say and what people do in music. A lot of times it’s an act or just lip-service. “Hey man, I’m in it for the music, blah blah blah,” and it’s like, but none of the things you do add up for the equation to come out correctly. It’s an easy thing to manipulate. I would like to think that the music makes people feel something or want to be a part of it. The other part of it is that I’ve always felt you are a part of your music, so I have nothing to hide. Even in the early-’90s, we were different than the other rock bands. In the mid-’90s, the things we were saying and what we believed in were different than what was happening.
To me, that was always my license to be an artist. I chose music and a band and rock and roll, you know? It’s kind of like your duty in this great tradition of what the real life of the artist is. Think about it, you’re 23 years old and you sell 6 million records and you make these corporations and business people way more millions of dollars than you ever saw. What is the first thing out of their mouths? They start telling you what to do and continue that for them, to make them more money, to make records for them. I always felt, from a very early age, them and us, them and us. They’re not at these parties that I’m going to. I don’t see them at the used record store, I’ve never seen them at the book swap, I’ve never seen them out at Big Sur dancing under the full moon tripping their face off. It is us and them. I’ve always felt that way, for better or worse. Music has to be pure and that’s how you can keep it pure in my estimation.
Keeping it pure is not just picking up the record and listening to it. It’s also seeing the live show. Part of the CRB’s next tour is a stop at Mountain Jam in upstate New York. You have some history with the area, specifically recording ‘Before the Frost…Until the Freeze’ at Levon Helm‘s Barn in Woodstock. What does it mean to you to be playing Mountain Jam?
Number one, it will be a great opportunity to see lots of friends and great musicians. That’s always at the top of the list. Upstate New York, mythical vibes are there for a reason. To be that close to New York, the yin and yang, for better or worse, the greed and status and money. You know, all the things in Manhattan and then you pop up 100 miles or whatever and it just becomes beautiful and pastoral mountains. Between working ‘Before the Frost’ and having that experience at Levon’s, my wife and I used to vacation there and she spent tons of time up there. It’s just become a part of our Robinson family mythology as well. It’s based around friends and music and lifestyle.
And as you mentioned, Mountain Jam will be a great opportunity to see friends and experience that lifestyle.
Yeah, first and foremost. I’ve been on the road 25 years or whatever, even before ‘Shake Your Money Maker.’ Somehow I survived that many winters and that many miles, it’s always amazing. As obsessed and interested as I am about making music, I’m equally obsessed and interested about listening to music. That not only includes older records or rare records or whatever, but new artists and new music and my friends, people I respect.
With your third CRB record on the horizon, I’m curious what the future of the Crowes look like.
I don’t know. It felt like, in my mind, that my Black Crowes tour of duty ended on December 14, 2013 and I probably won’t deal with it for awhile. We wanted to see if it would work, we took a hiatus three years ago. Again, the CRB didn’t start out as a side-project, but we started it in a very specific way, to stay in the state of California, to play a lot of very small shows and do our California residency and get the music out there. You throw your line out there and you wait to see if your bobber starts making waves, you know? We sunk everything into the CRB. We found ourselves a van, and in that van we did 15,300 miles in the state of California. Just us in a van with our gear and tour manager. When everybody is there you start off at a snail’s pace and you finish that first part of nine weeks in a rocketship, that’ll really turn your head around. And your soul, as well.
I feel like the Black Crowes, we really had a great time. But I can’t think about it because I’m really so focused and we’re so excited to get back on the road and we’re really excited about ‘Phosphorescent Harvest.’ You search for something, like what are we going to say with this album, this collection of songs, how do they fit into our repertoire, where do we take them, how do we expand conceptually and musically, you know? My heart and soul is full, it’s a full tank on CRB. I don’t really know anything about the Crowes right now.
No one can be disappointed if your heart is 100 percent in the CRB. One thing I’ve always appreciated about you and your music is the vinyl experience. Part of that experience revolves around the art. Can you talk about the art for ‘Phosphorescent Harvest?’
Part of the reason for me being in rock and roll is because it encompasses a lot of my interests. The performing is like the last stuff, it was always about the writing for me. I was a lyricist before I was a singer. Then I was singing, then I was writing music, and the whole time I was always, always into making the albums and putting the artwork together to the most minute detail. That is one of the perks of doing this. I really want the art to be a part of the experience of what’s happening in the music. The artwork won’t have any writing or labeling on it. I didn’t want to mess up how beautiful I thought the art was. We have to have our most iconic symbol, of course that’s Captain Nebula, our resident and inevitably stoned space gnome. And of course our owl, whose name is Possible Dust Clouds. I have to say about Alan Forbes, you know, I’ve known him since 1989 when he did the very first Black Crowes Heckle and Jeckle logo, so we’ve been working together for many years. The main outside cover, though, is this psychedelic painting by an artist who might live somewhere in upstate New York actually. His name is Larry Carlson. We’re moving onto more rounds of psychedelic goodness.
Alan Forbes did such great work on your 4-LP release on Record Store Day, ‘Betty’s S.F. Blends.’ That was the first volume, so does that mean there are future releases planned?
We’ll see about the next volume of Betty’s Blends. We’re starting this tour on the West Coast and ending on the West Coast, so we have more access to Betty and she’s going to start taping many, many more shows than she has in the past. We’re super stoked about that.
Before we call it a day, I have to ask, as a fan, have you ever considered putting your story down in a book?
I think it might get interesting when there’s a third act, but I’m still on my second act, you know, man? I think I’ve got a good 50, maybe 20 years in me before my life gets really interesting!
The Chris Robinson Brotherhood’s third studio album, ‘Phosphorescent Harvest,’ hits record stores on April 29. Pre-order your copy here.
The tenth annual Mountain Jam festival hits Hunter Mountain in New York June 5-8. Haven’t picked up tickets yet? Get all the details here.