“I Never Believed in Background Music”: Rich Robinson of the Black Crowes

[24 July 2014]

By Michael Franco

When the Black Crowes first crashed onto the scene a quarter century ago, there was nothing else on pop radio that sounded anything like them. Rock ‘n’ roll was still stuck in its hair metal malaise, with schlock like Poison’s “Unskinny Bop” and Jon Bon Jovi’s “Blaze of Glory” riding the charts. Even Guns N’ Roses—the one band lazily lumped into the hair metal subgenre that rose above the pack—had reached its peak and had, in retrospect, started its long downhill slide into absurdity. Mostly, though, FM radio was a jumbled and horrific blend of Wilson Phillips, Vanilla Ice, Mariah Carey, Michael Bolton, and Milli Vanilli. Things were dire.

And then, out of nowhere, came the Black Crowes: skinny white kids from Atlanta who were barely old enough to drink a beer but sounded like they had been singing and playing for decades. They looked like throwbacks, strutting around with aplomb like Mick Jagger and slinging their guitars low and dirty. Suddenly, gritty, inspired rock ‘n’ roll was back on the radio. Even more impressive, the Black Crowes did it with, of all things, a remake of an Otis Redding song, scuffing up his classic “Hard to Handle” and outfitting it with a raunchy guitar solo. These cats were for real.

The Crowes’ immediate success was due to the one-two wallop of brothers Chris and Rich Robinson, whose respective talents as singer and axe-slinger can only be attributed to Fate wanting to bring the Black Crowes into existence. Together, Chris’ voice and Rich’s guitar encapsulated the history and roots of rock ‘n’ roll, from the blues and soul of the Deep South to the R&B just up the Mississippi to the shambolic, boozy glitz of what the Brits offered via the Faces and the Rolling Stones. The band’s debut album, Shake Your Money Maker, was practically a survey course in rock, loaded with gems like “She Talks to Angel”, “Twice as Hard”, “Jealous Again”, “Seeing Things”, and “Thick n’ Thin”.

Over the next two decades, the Crowes would release more classic albums. The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion, their sophomore album, both kept their signature sound intact and expanded upon it, stretching out the music to allow for more experimentation. By the time the band released Amorica, their third LP, they had confidently and seamlessly incorporated jam elements into their music. But within that musical evolution was a source of tension between the brothers Robinson, with Chris interested in taking the band down a more hippy, trippy path a la the Dead while Rich was more interested in keeping the band firmly rooted in classic rock and its direct ancestors.

This artistic tension can be heard throughout albums like Three Snakes and One Charm, By Your Side, and Lions.There is no shortage of classics to be found on these albums—“Girl from a Pawnshop”, “Kickin’ My Heart Around”, and “Soul Singing” are but a few examples—but it often seemed as if the band were trying to tread down two paths at the same time, their creative legs stretched too far apart to stay upright.

Eventually, the Crowes decided to give things a break in 2002, with both brothers embarking on solo careers that extend to the present. But the rare spark that exists between the Robinson brothers and their rotating cast of bandmates was too enticing to resist and the band reunited in 2005 for a show at the iconic Fillmore, a glorious event that was captured and later released as Freak ‘N’ Roll ... Into the Fog. Since then, the band has released a few new LPs: 2008’s Warpaint (which displayed a more relaxed Crowes that seemed to find a way for their myriad influences to coexist) and 2009’s Before the Frost/Until Freeze (a live double album that was released partially through traditional channels and partially via download).

The Crowes haven’t released an album in this decade, though they toured as recently as last year. At present, Chris Robinson is busy playing with his own band, the Chris Robinson Brotherhood, on a tour that will take him through the rest of 2014. This, of course, suggests that the Crowes are on a lengthy hiatus at best, on an indefinite (let’s hope not permanent) break at worst. Rich seems to confirm this uncertainty; when about asked whether the Crowes will regroup to record or tour, he replies with a question of his own. “Who knows?” he asks, his voice and inflection revealing true uncertainty. “I don’t know what’s going on.”

With Robinson unsure of the Crowes’ status for the foreseeable future, he has turned his attention to his solo career, which is now a decade into its discography. He released his first album, Paper, in 2004 and followed it up with 2011’s Through a Crooked Sun. Just this June, Robinson released his third album, The Ceaseless Sight. Reflecting a more positive and peaceful point in Robinson’s life, the album is also his most artistically accomplished LP, the songs lean, focused, and assured. Notably, the album also reveals Robinson finding his voice as a singer. At occasional moments, such as on “The Giving Key”, his voice approaches the gritty and soulful grandeur of his brother’s—quite a feat for any singer. Robinson and his band are currently touring behind the album and look to keep the momentum going by heading back into the studio next year.
PopMatters recently talked to Rich about his new album and his career with the Crowes. In a fascinating and extensive conversation, he also elaborates on his musical influences (including some surprise ones), the state of the music industry, and his views on creating art.

* * *

Certain themes appear repeatedly throughout The Ceaseless Sight: optimism, faith, positivity, unity. There’s also a lot of imagery of moving forward and looking ahead, such as in the album’s title. Did you want to create an album that was thematically consistent or did things just turn out that way because of where you’re at in life at this moment?

I think a lot it happens because of where I am, you know? When I write a record, I try to have it fit musically and thematically, but it’s not necessarily like a specific concept for a whole record. But I think that ultimately where you are as a person is going to come out in your art and what you’re creating. And so I think that that’s more of where I am as a person right now.

Each of the songs creates a very particular vibe. “I Have a Feeling” sounds like a Sunday morning; it’s so wonderfully languid. “The Giving Key” sounds like a summer night; it’s very sultry and soulful. And “One Road Hill” sounds like driving through the country—very spontaneous and free. Do you envision a specific scene or conjure a certain mood when you write a song?

What happens when I write a song, it’s more like, how does that song make me feel? And it can be sparked by anything. It can be sparked by a sound of the guitar, a specific chord that I play, or whatever. And then as that song is kind of being written, it brings to me a feeling, you know? I remember this one Furry Lewis song. It’s called “Falling Down Blues”. Every time I hear it it reminds me of this very pastoral setting—summer in the South in August, you know? Under a tree and by like a cool stone wall. I don’t know why. It just brings me there every time I hear it. And I think music can evoke those things on a subconscious level.

And it’s interesting because everyone has their own relationship to whatever song they hear. Whatever I might hear, whatever I might get from “I Have a Feeling” or “Trial and Faith” or “One Road Hill” is totally different from what you might get or from what anyone might get but the interesting thing is that there’s that connection—that we all have this connection. It’s like the spokes on a wheel: we’re all looking at the center from a different angle. And I’ve always approached writing that way. It’s feeling based. “This makes me feel X. This makes me feel good. This conjures this feeling and that feeling.” And that’s how I’ve chosen to write.

In addition to being a musician, you’re also a painter. Does one influence the other? Do you sometimes think like a painter when you write songs? Do you think in terms of visuals?

No, I’ve always felt like it’s two totally different things. Sometimes I’ll get into painting and I’ll be doing it for a few months and I won’t play guitar at all or write. And it just seems like that side of the brain is activated a little bit more. And then sometimes I won’t paint for like three years, two or three years, or not really feel inspired to and I’m mainly into music. It seems like it’s two different sides of the brain and it kind of fulfills two different things.

You went into the studio with sketches of songs for this album. Do you find that that allows the music to take you where it wants to go and gives it a more spontaneous feel—rather than trying to nail everything down before going into the studio?

I’ve never been the type to go in and just play the same shit over and over again. I always go into the studio—even if I have set songs—and I’ll mess around with the arrangement or I’ll mess around with how they sound. “Let’s change the drum pattern. Let’s do this. We’ll figure this out. Add percussion. Take away percussion. Add keyboards. Take away keyboards.” Whatever it may be. But this one in particular, I kind of used that spontaneous creative spark to really help with the songs and finish the songs. So it was kind of like I used it a little bit more this time than normal. Or used it in the songwriting process as well.

I really like the idea of spontaneous creation because, you know, you go into the studio and one thing leads to another, this thing leads to something, that drum beat changes this—you know what I mean? Whatever it may be. And it shifts and you can use it and it’s exciting from a creative standpoint.

“The Giving Key” is a killer track. Everything about it is amazing, from the music to the lyrics to the singing to the push and pull between the players. What was the genesis of that song?

That was one I wrote in the studio. There were two or three that I just said, “We need a song like this” and one of them was “Trial and Faith” and one of them was “The Giving Key” and the other one was “I Know You” and I just wrote them, like right there. Sometimes songs really flow and they just work, even in the Crowes. Like I remember when I wrote “Sometimes Salvation”—it just came. It took two minutes to write that whole thing. 

That just seems insane to the average person. Is it kind of like when John Lennon said that the songs simply came to him—that it’s as if they already existed and were channeled through him when the time was right?

Yeah. Sometimes it happens and sometimes there are songs that are more of a, you know, take a little more love and care. Down the road, a song where I’ve had the verse for a long time, you know, and I kept trying to match it with other things and it never really panned out. And then, all of a sudden, I’ve got it. And then it’s like, “Alright, this is done.” And I don’t think that one song is better than the other or that one process is better than the other. But I do think that sometimes when you just, when you hit that flow, it just comes.


You’ve been asked ad nauseum about your musical influences, both with the Crowes and solo. But what about your lyrical influences? Are there certain lyricists whose work shapes your own, consciously or not?

I think, yeah. Paul Westerberg wrote some great lyrics. Obviously Bob Dylan, you know? I mean, as far as where you start and stop, I think Dylan’s it.  I always really liked the simplicity but it was also very sort of multi-leveled lyrics, like Neil Young, what he wrote about. And then also, even Chris, my brother, the way that he used to write his lyrics early on. You know, things like “A Thorn in My Pride”, “Under a Mountain”, certain songs that he would write. “Bad Luck Blue Eyes Goodbye”, “Girl from a Pawnshop”, I mean sometimes I think he really hit it. And obviously those are going to have influences on me.

But ultimately, it’s being able to tap in and say and express what I want to express in a way that kind of suits the music.  The way I do lyrics is I finish the whole song musically—drums, I mean everything. Overdubs, everything. And then I just sit and listen and it just brings to mind what that song in particular makes me feel or what sort of expression it brings out.

From the outset, you guys were shoved into the Southern rock box, but your influences have always been much more diverse. Did you all try to resist those labels or other comparisons—such as to the Stones—that just seemed too convenient and lazy?

Sometimes we get a label attached of Southern rock but we never considered ourselves Southern rock. I mean the only Southern bands that we listened to in that category were the Allman Brothers because I just thought that they were so, I mean, musically brilliant. But we never really grew up listening to any of that. We grew up listening to Sly and the Family Stone, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, the Who, and then in our teenage years we got way into R.E.M. When Murmur first came out it was like ... you know I remember the first time I heard “Radio Free Europe”, it was a big deal. It really struck my brother and I and also the people around us as something that was different from the South and how it had changed.

It was something that wasn’t this specific kind of thing and kind of what this Southern rock scene, this kind of narrow genre that people try to place on it was. And so we kind of came from that place, you know, because rock ‘n’ roll is rock ‘n’ roll. If you look at the South, you know, shit—you have Little Richard, you have James Brown, you have Otis Redding, you have Gram Parsons. Even if you want to come up to Atlanta, then The Allman Brothers, then R.E.M., and The B-52’s and bands like that. It’s a really broad spectrum of music that came from that relatively small geographical area, you know what I mean? And so it was so broad that I felt like just to kind of label something like Southern was always just kind of like, that’s a little silly.

It’s a bit too reductive. It’s sort of like scrolling through the channels on SiriusXM and there’s a new wave channel and an indie rock channel and a grunge channel.

Yeah. What does [grunge] mean? You listen to Soundgarden, you know, and their influences are fucking Black Sabbath and, you know, Led Zeppelin, and anyone and anything in between. And so we grew up listening to everything and through R.E.M., we got into the Replacements, we had a full punk rock background of X, this band X from L.A. that we loved, the Dead Kennedy’s, and the Cramps, but then also like Let’s Active and the dB’s and out west they had like the Long Ryders and Rain Parade, and part of that Paisley Underground and so we always loved music.

There was a pretty broad spectrum of music that we loved. And so we never tried to limit ourselves in that sense, you know, and tried to put labels on it. And I think it’s cool that we were that way because then just music comes. It doesn’t matter the categorization. Now it seems more like it’s for commerce more than anything, trying to categorize something so that they put you in a hole as some sort of buyer of some kind of music. “Well are they indie or are they jazz? Are they metal or are they this?” Well, no: we like music.

You started playing guitar at the age of 15, right?

Yeah.

So you started playing guitar at the age of 15 and, a mere five years later, Shake Your Money Maker came out? That’s a stunning progression, to go from picking up an instrument to creating a fully formed masterpiece in the space of five years. That’s really hard to comprehend. How does that happen?

I don’t know. We started out, you know, we got our guitars. Chris got a bass and I got a guitar and our cousin got drums and we started playing. And we weren’t very good because we just started playing. But we could write our own songs. We immediately started doing that because trying to learn other people’s was kind of hopeless. You know, my dad taught me three chords, you know—D, C, and G—and then he was like, “Alright, I’m done. You can figure it out.” He didn’t have much patience for that, but he gave me the framework to work from and that’s where we went and, you know, things happened.

You play in a lot of open tunings. Even on Shake Your Money Maker, you’re playing in open tunings on songs like “She Talks to Angels”. How did you learn to play in open tunings so early on as a guitar player? Where did you come across them?

Well I was way into Nick Drake and I always wanted to hear how his guitar would go so low. Like when he would play his guitars and what that meant—like how is he getting that sound off of that guitar? Because it was unbelievable to me, when I first heard all those songs—“Voice from a Mountain”, “Hanging on a Star”, “Black Eyed Dog” and those kinds of things. I was like, “What the fuck is this, man?” It was so different from what I was used to although, as I got more into it, you start seeing all the people that used open tunings.

Stephen Stills used some great tunings, Joni Mitchell, you know, Keith obviously. And then also blues guys that we started delving into. But, at first, you know, when I first heard Nick Drake, it was so gorgeous to me and so interesting that I was kind of like, “Where is this coming from?” And a friend of mine showed me open E tuning and I got started with that and just kept going from there.

Going back to The Ceaseless Sight. You end the album with an instrumental, “Obscure the Day”. As you were writing it, did you envision it as an instrumental? And was ending the album with just the music itself a statement of some kind?

I wrote it and then, like all the other songs I had, I was listening to it and I was writing lyrics for it and I didn’t think that the lyrics added anything. And I didn’t think that the singing necessarily added anything. And I don’t believe in adding things that don’t bring something to the song. If it’s not going to help the song, then it doesn’t need to be there. And so I just listened to it and I’m like, “Man, I don’t think I really need to sing on this, you know?” I think this is cool for what it is and I kind of knew that that would be the last song on the record. I thought it would be kind of cool just to end the record that way.

The album really hangs together as an album. It has a nice progression that moves the listener from one song to the next and then the next. How do you determine the sequencing? Do you scrutinize over it and spend a lot of time arranging and then rearranging the songs?

Just more like a flow. Like how does this song flow into the other? It’s almost like putting together a whole song. You look at the record as a song. How does the verse fit the chorus, how does the chorus fit the bridge, how does the song fit with the rest of the album, and how does the album fit with the rest of the albums that I’ve made? It’s about flow, you know? When I listen to it, this makes sense to be the first song. Let’s go onto the next one, then let’s do this. And just kind of taking you somewhere. That’s how I’ve always approached it. And an album… I think with technology we’ve kind of lost the understanding of what the purpose is. The purpose is not ... what the sole purpose of a creative endeavor or creation is is to express the feelings that the person who’s creating has, you know? This is my expression. I’m creating this to put it out as my expression.

And with the onset of technology and, probably in the ‘80s, when record labels and everything started exploding, I think it was Joni Mitchell that said the moment the music industry went public, the music industry died. Because it became about profit. And then it became about the song as a product instead of an expression. And so then, over time, now with the onset of iTunes, you don’t even have to listen to a whole song. I mean I don’t even know how many young kids get through a whole damn song. And then with ring tones, it’s just a chorus or it’s just this and there’s no artwork, there’s no tactile sort of element to it. There’s no album to hold. There’s no artwork. There’s no liner notes. You don’t pull out and put the vinyl on, and then vigilantly stand by it when you have to change sides. There’s no skipping.

When something requires your attention then it gains your respect. More so than if you walk into a Gap and you hear a portion of a song that you like and then you press Shazam and then all of a sudden you have that song as a track on your phone and you listen to it once and you don’t give a shit. I mean, realistically, that’s what it seems like to me, you know?

Yeah, technology has not only changed the music industry and how music is made and sold, but also how it’s experienced by the listener. Auto-Tune made talent optional, iTunes killed the sanctity of the album, and now social media threatens the music itself by making it secondary to shameless promotion. For someone like you—someone who puts the music first and who has witnessed all of these changes—how do you even approach writing, recording, releasing, and promoting an album? Is it like waking up on Mars?

Well, I mean, you just put it out. You just do it. I think if your intention is good, if your intention is I’m going to make music and I’m going to do it the way I choose to do it and my intention is strong and positive and authentic and sincere, then eventually people will come around. But, you know, you can’t fight the machine. You just kind of got to do your own thing and eventually it will shift. Everything in life shifts. There’s no such thing as permanence. As so, this will pass and it seems like it will always go back to something cool. It’s like a big pendulum: it keeps swinging. And actually I read a statistic that this is the biggest year in vinyl sales since like the early nineties. So vinyl is making a strong comeback.

It is. Like you said, there’s something about listening to vinyl that makes listening to music an experience. When you have to be by it and live with it while it’s playing, it becomes more than background music.

Well, absolutely, and I never believed in background music. I always believed that you should give your attention to something. 

What are your plans after the tour?

I’m up to it through December. We’ll probably start again next year and maybe go in and make another record.

Michael Franco is a Professor of English at Oklahoma City Community College, where he teaches composition and humanities. An alumnus of his workplace, he also attended the University of Central Oklahoma, earning both a B.A. and M.A. in English. Franco has been writing for PopMatters since 2004 and has also served as an Associate Editor since 2007. He considers himself lucky to be able to experience what he teaches, writing and the humanities, firsthand through his work at PopMatters, and his experiences as a writer help him teach his students to become better writers themselves.


Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/183840-i-never-believed-in-background-music-a-conversation-with-rich-robins/