If you lived here, you’d be home by now: A conversation with Chris Robinson
Life is good.
That’s the vibe one gets when chatting with Chris Robinson these days. Former lead singer for legendary rock-n-rock act The Black Crowes, Robinson has spent the better part of the last five years dusting off his feathers as he takes flight into the heavens above with his popular melodic odyssey — The Chris Robinson Brotherhood.
With the CRB, the ensemble takes a more scenic route than one might expect. Instead of three-minute cut and dry rock selections‚ there are elongated ballads and progressive rock melodies‚ where stretching into double digit minutes isn’t uncommon. There’s a healthy mix of late 1970s Grateful Dead-inspired numbers‚ but also a few other ingredients along the lines of The Band and The Flying Burrito Brothers (both of which were musical crossroads that defied and defined the eras they resided in).
And yet, at the center of it all remains Robinson, a musician who continues to aim his eyes forward, only to occasionally peek over his shoulder at the professional chaos and rock star shenanigans that became more of an albatross than an ideal path (creatively and personally) before he pulled the plug on commercial success in hopes of regaining the most important voice he knows — his own.
Smoky Mountain News: What does the landscape of CRB look like these days?
Chris Robinson: We’ve had a good strong chi and a steady crop of potential. We love what we’re doing and it’s fertile, creative ground for us to express ourselves. To be part of our lives and the lives of others — it’s a harmonic resonance in a place of chaos. I mean, you’re back hurts, too, don’t get me wrong. It ain’t all peaches and cream. It’s hard work, but it’s nice to have the freedom in our lives to do what we want and not have some sort of corporate deity having reigns put on us.
SMN: It feels like you’re in a place where folks are either on the CRB train or they're not, and you’ll keep doing what you’re doing, regardless.
CR: I’m the luckiest person in the world to have had any commercial success early. But, yeah, you’re right, I didn’t set out in my life to build a wooden ship. We’re at the end of five years touring, and now that we have our rhythm section down, I think we feel we did build a table, and now we need to get the tablecloth, the candles and the chairs. With this new record, we kind of discussed it being a little more laid back, acoustic and earthy. But, it’s funny, because I think the more earthy we go, the more outer space we get. And I’m always writing or working on some song. If you stop paying your due respect to the muse, the muse will leave you, and you’ll have nothing to say.
SMN: It’s like that Steve Prefontaine quote, “To give less than your best, is to sacrifice the gift.”
CR: I totally hear you. At the end of the day, I don’t take it lightly. And what I mean by that is, I respect and I understand and listen. I like songwriting and it’s important to me. Being a musician, being part of this tradition, is a deep humbling experience because of the people who have moved me in great times of joy, and in great times of pain. That continues to be part of my life, which is besides making music, I also continue to be inspired by it.
SMN: And with The Black Crowes, the band did slowly shift more towards to the jam scene as it went along. But now, with CRB, it seems you have been completely embraced by that scene…
CR: For me, it was about more music. I could see as I was getting older, I didn’t feel like that person I was in my 20s, or even in my 30s, with what I wanted to do with my music. You know, one of the main things that inspired me about the Grateful Dead was the ability to exist outside the mainstream. They were like a tribe that had good relationships with the conquering people. But, they made their own decisions and did it their own way. It was a place they invented — in the physical world and in their minds. Their music and message was a way to get away from those depressing things, and for me back then it was living in big suburban Atlanta.
SMN: One of the great things with CRB is that it has really increased the spotlight on guitarist Neal Casal, an incredible performer who is really getting some overdue accolades lately…
CR: We’ve been friends for a long time. We jammed together. He was in a band that opened for the Crowes, and we have a lot of mutual friends in New York and Los Angeles. I don’t think when we started this we thought we’d have all these songs and playing hundreds of shows in five years [Laughs]. If you’re a musician or an artist, when something comes that works, and is available and good, you just recognize it and you don’t even think about it. We started out with four songs. That first day we worked incredibly well together. I’m a little more all over the place, where Neal’s editorial skills rounds in everything.
SMN: This is a whole new chapter in your career with CRB. What’s this journey been like?
CR: We work hard. And it’s different, going from a big band grossing a lot of money to something really small. But, it’s our family business, part of that makes it even more enjoyable. It’s always been a bumpy ride here and there, but we’ve always had the power to say “no,” where nobody can say “yes” for me. I feel I’m really in a place where I’m being taken care of, surrounded by people I can trust, who are nurturing — it’s fulfilling. No ego trips or money trips or anything, I mean we don’t make anything. Hopefully, one day we’ll all be successful enough to hate each other over money. [Laughs]. Now, it’s about this music that we love.
SMN: What has a life immersed in music taught you about what it means to be a human being?
CR: To me, it has taught me about being full circle. It reinvigorates my initial belief that we’re all part of the same sort of cosmic consciousness. We’re all part of this living organism that is the surrounding universe. Even on a rainy night in Davenport, Iowa, with not many people there at the show, you can have your own moment of sweet bliss.
Want to go?
The Chris Robinson Brotherhood will perform at 9 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 9, at The Orange Peel in Asheville. The band is currently touring their latest album “Anyway You Love, We Know How You Feel” and companion EP “If You Lived Here, You Would Be Home By Now.” Tickets are $20 in advance, $22 day of show. www.theorangepeel.net or www.chrisrobinsonbrotherhood.com.