Why Chris Robinson Stays Focused on Moving Forward: Exclusive Interview
Imagine you’re in the audience at the Fillmore and your favorite jam band is onstage. It’s a Saturday night and a carefree feeling hangs in the air.
That’s the vibe Chris Robinson was going for on Servants of the Sun, his Brotherhood band's just-released sixth studio album. But he's not thinking about long-ago times. As always, it's important for Robinson to keep his eyes – and the Chris Robinson Brotherhood – fixed on the future.
“We play Saturday nights at the Fillmore, and we have for the last seven years. It’s not like the Fillmore of old; it’s San Francisco 2019,” Robinson tells UCR. “That’s where our band starts, that’s where our band had its first popularity, and its kind of cultural congruent thing. It’s like, ‘Oh, it happened here.’
In Part 1 of UCR's exclusive interview, we spoke with the former Black Crowes frontman about keeping his independent spirit alive, the art of sequencing songs and how music continues to provide a shelter for him. When we first call Chris Robinson, we get his voicemail – and it has an entertaining Parliament/Funkadelic-themed outgoing message. Of course, we had to ask him about that.
What’s the story on your voicemail message?
[Laughs] That’s my daughter when she was about six or seven, and she loves the P-Funk! So she’s just reciting all of her favorite George Clinton stuff. She had a karaoke machine with the echo on it, so we were just fucking around in the house. I’m making sure my daughter is a funkateer as we move on into the future.
I didn’t have to try very hard, by the way, for her to be a funkateer. It kind of came naturally.
It just kind of comes in the DNA, right?
I think so. It’s funny, my 15-year-old grew up in the Pacific Palisades in California and he only wears [Atlanta] Falcons and University of Georgia [clothing] and pretty much only listens to Georgia hip-hop. It’s like, all right, that’s cool too. [Laughs.]
It’s always interesting to see which way they go. Especially if you’re a music fan or, in your case, a musician. It’s interesting to see musically which way the kids go.
Yeah, it’s funny. My son, I remember when they were little, he’d be freaked out by a Stanley Brothers record – and I get it, it’s kind of scary-sounding. It’s lonesome and foreboding that music, sometimes. Now he likes it, but it used to freak him out, like roots music.
Listen to Chris Robinson Brotherhood's 'Some Earthly Delights'
The start of an album sets an important tone and I love how “Some Earthly Delights” launches your new album the way it does – almost like you might have dropped in on the rehearsal space to find the band already jamming. It sets a really cool vibe.
Sequencing is another one of those things. I don’t think I’ve ever made a record that I didn’t sequence. Maybe [the Black Crowes album] Shake Your Money Maker, because that was before we could be the terrible children and do what we wanted to do after that. [Laughs.] You want to be able to tell a story. All of the songs themselves mean something. How many times in your life [on] one of your favorite albums, you could hear a song by itself and you know which song came before it and what song was about to come on after it?
I love it when the segues translate to the live set. You’ve been playing “The Chauffeur’s Daughter” and “Dice Game” back-to-back at some of the recent live shows. It’s really a pretty perfect segue on record: the melancholy shift into “Dice Game.”
II’m not comparing them at all, but that’s the way Blood on the Tracks flows. That’s the way Sticky Fingers flows. That’s the way R.E.M.’s Reckoning flows, or whatever. I mean, the real inspiration behind the last decade of my life and all of the CRB is just to kind of have the freedom to do what we want to do -- to sound the way we want to sound, to make the kind of recordings [we want to]. It blew my mind in 1989 when we made Shake Your Money Maker [to see] how many people had a say in your art. But then I was naive, and I’m still naive because that’s the business, isn’t it? If you take investors and open a restaurant, they want what they want on the menu. So, it’s always been a pursuit to keep the independent [spirit], and the great experiment has been the CRB. I’m the record-company asshole.
The idea that you knew you were going to play each of these songs live seems to have governed how you approach them in the studio. Some folks might find that idea kind of restrictive. How do you navigate that? Is it just a discipline, being able to say, "Okay, this is done"?
I think it’s more intuitive. There’s discipline in the work. By the time I’m in the studio showing everyone the songs, some of them [are] complete, some of them I need an idea here. I leave some things open for interpretation, of course, and there will always be a few lines. But for the most part, you’re seeing the architecture of the thing. Now, my life has changed. I used to write songs in my youth in the middle of the night, and now I write them early in the morning. [Laughs.] It’s funny, as I move into my mid-50s soon here – I’ll be 53 this year -- I look back 30 years, to the summer of 1989 and the months leading up to that. Our first producer, George Drakoulias, the best lesson he ever taught me: We would write songs and send them to him and he’d be like, “Eh, it’s pretty good, but it’s not good enough!” I think that the discipline comes in, but it’s also just to have a good self-editing system.
I don’t know how to quantify that, but I know when I feel a twinge, especially with the lyrics. It doesn’t matter how obtuse or obscure the image or the plane or whatever, if it opens up something and makes me feel something ... To me, it could be tongue-in-cheek and funny, maybe darkly so. But then I kind of know, "Okay,I would allow this." I’m up for people to check this out. I could take the slings and arrows.
Listen to Chris Robinson Brotherhood's 'Chauffeur's Daughter'
You’ve taken enough slings and arrows that you build up a hardened skin to it.
Yeah, I mean, fuck, are you kidding? At the end of the day, it might be a used record store but my records are in the same store as all of my heroes and my contemporaries that inspire me. I think a great part of where we are today is that we’re not ... I mean, there are people making commercial records. But this is a great time: [There's] a great freedom for artists to do what they want. I was just on the phone with the wondrous Paul Stacey, who I’ve made many records with. He’s a musician and a producer, one of the best ones, a fantastic engineer. [We were talking about how] young bands, they don’t need a room to cut drums in. You can do it all [wherever you want]. It sounds shitty, but I get that. That’s freedom and I get that we’re older and we like craft. But I think the fluidity of it right now is interesting, and ultimately leads to a lot of great ideas.
You mentioned presenting your songs to George Drakoulias, who pushed back and said, "These are good, but they’re not good enough." For you as a songwriter at that point, what was it like to have that material handed back?
It was great for someone to say no. It was great for someone to say “almost.” But then again, those songs have stood the test of time and they were hugely, commercially popular. It’s funny, the difference between also being 21 years old and how many songs have I've written in 30 years. I saw it happen and I see it happen with people, especially groups. If you’re a popular group and you’re lucky and blessed enough to have that, it’s just much easier to play the songs everyone is familiar with in a commercial sense. With the CRB, it was like, I don’t even start [playing huge Black Crowes hits]. Even though I’ve written a lot of songs, I feel like that’s how I interact with the world around me is through my [new] music – not in an egocentric way and not even in a cathartic way, just in a real pragmatic way. Especially in the world today, full of so much hate and so much vile ignorance. It’s horrible, so why wouldn’t I retreat into my own sort of world? I think that’s the other reason we’ve made so many records. But I also think it’s why this record, to me, there are a few melancholy, lessons-learned kind of lyrics and moments texturally in the songs. But for the most part, it’s a really up record.