• Text size      
  • Send this article to a friend
  • Print this article

The Black Crowes spread their wings across Europe

Before finally coming around to the question of why he's bringing The Black Crowes out of mothballs, Chris Robinson has a few things to get off his chest.

"The world has become too systemised," says the band's singer and co-writer. "Everyone is seeking to bow down to The Great Middle and worship these popularity shows where you vote for the person with the whitest teeth. Famously, poets actually have bad teeth and questionable hygiene."

I'm not quite close enough to determine his poetic credentials using this criterion, but one thing is for sure: if The Black Crowes' brand of ripe, rootsy, unashamedly retro rock-and-soul was an anachronism even during their commercial heyday in the 1990s, nowadays Robinson feels even more like a man out of time. "I don't hear any deep expression and soulfulness in modern pop music," he says. "It's amazing to me that we live in an age of such anxiety and confusion and psychic pain and violence, yet where is the mirror? I'm surprised we don't see more musical reflection other than Bruce Springsteen going [adopts gruff blue-collar growl]: 'We'll get through this altogether, as long as you can pay $125 a ticket!' I'm starting to find that s*** kind of silly."

Somewhere in the middle of all that lies a partial explanation of Robinson's reasons for taking his old band back out on the road after a lengthy hiatus. A middle-class suburban kid from Georgia who long ago put his faith in velvet loons, pre-punk virtuosity and the "occult energy" of cosmic rock 'n' roll, Robinson is the kind of guy who talks earnestly about the "vibrations of music" and the need to "stay true to the source, man". He may share Willie Nelson's keen interest in certain natural herbs, but this is no mumbling space cadet. Robinson is sharp, ferociously articulate, funny and self-deprecating. Thirty million albums sales into his career, he remains genuinely humbled that "we sold more records than John Coltrane. How can that be?".

So obviously happy does he seem operating on the fringes these days, it's easy to forget what a massively mainstream proposition The Black Crowes once were. Formed – as Mr Crowe's Garden – in 1984 by Robinson and his younger brother Rich, their debut album, Shake Your Money Maker, was released in the first month of 1990 on Rick Rubin's Def American label. Propelled by two huge hit singles – Hard To Handle and She Talks To Angels – it has gone on to sell more than five million copies.

According to Robinson, the commercial appeal of their revivalist blend of southern rock, Stones-meets-Faces raunch, soul, blues, country and gospel was simply an accident of the times. Having hits, he says now, "was never really a part of our thing. I was always mistrusting". Of what? "Well, I always held the idea that true success was the freedom to make records and write songs and express yourself the way you wanted, not be in a room with executives and stylists and video directors, and having these assholes telling you what to do."

He admits that in those days the band "were terrors to deal with", but apparently not without good reason. "It's like everyone decides that they want to go down that garden path together, and when you get there you realise you're surrounded by poisonous thorns. True story: Rick Rubin told me that he didn't believe Shake Your Money Maker was any good. Then of course it sells a million copies and his name is all over it. That's the music business. That's just the way it works."

Robinson's experiences at the sharp end of the industry, not to mention his time as one half of a celebrity couple (he was married to the actress Kate Hudson for seven years), mean Robinson has been through the fame thing and has no great desire for an encore.

"I see people do stuff all the time and I think: really? Is it showbiz that made you do that? Money? Ego? Dignity is an amazing word in this business. I've always been considered retro, but the real inspiration from an earlier time was more about the aesthetic. At the height of the counter-culture as an artist there was a demand for you to pick a side, and the part of that era that always rang true was believing in the importance of the work, not being a star. Certainly, I don't need the adulation. My thing on stage is that we're all sharing, it's just someone is the conduit and someone is the receiver."

Robinson and Hudson married in 2000, divorced in 2007 and have a nine-year-old son, Ryder. He has since remarried and has a young daughter, Cheyenne. As a result, "writing nowadays is a little different, because my life is a lot different. In my mid-forties as a father of two I do speed writing. I have to muster up that occult energy a little quicker, but I'm even more obsessed and passionate than I was at 20. Music has always been my sonar to get me across the dark floor of the cave. I don't really know what I'm doing as a man, or a husband, or a father, or a friend, unless I'm writing songs."

Following their commercial peak in the first half of the 1990s, The Black Crowes steadily drifted further from the mainstream. As they did so, inter-band relations became increasingly fraught. They split in 2001 in "dire" circumstances, but reunited in 2005 as a more fluid entity, coming together sporadically and then breaking apart again with minimum fuss.

"If we can be in a place where you can get in and out of the band without hitching your ride to the leviathan, it brings more joy," says Robinson. Even so, he acknowledges that by 2010 "everyone was starting to get torn and frayed again". The group dynamic has always been defined by the fractious relationship between Robinson and his brother, the band's guitarist and co-writer. "We've been doing this since we were teenagers – which is good and bad – and it comes with a specific dynamic: give and take, light and dark. With Rich and I, people for some reason think it's an act but, believe me, it's not! It's the same with Noel and Liam [Gallagher]. It's hard to be in a band for decades, and it's hard to be with your family members for decades. The great reward is that we did create a body of work we're proud of, but it's a precarious perch."

Robinson sees the forthcoming tour as an "experiment" to see whether the band is capable of making more music together. Their last studio record of new material was Warpaint, released in 2008. "Rich and I aren't in a place in our lives where we can sit in a room and write an album's worth of songs," he says. "But we'll see how we are on a Black Crowes tour for a year playing the catalogue. If we can do that and be in a good place then it might open the door to see where it could go."

These days Robinson has other irons in the fire. His primary creative outlet is "our little farm-to-table psychedelic band", the Chris Robinson Brotherhood (CRB), a Californian collective that makes music every bit as cosmically unfettered as their name suggests. Last year they released two albums, and Robinson promises that "no matter what happens with this Crowes tour, I'll be back on the road with a new CRB album in 2014".

Like The Black Crowes, CRB's records are released on the band's own Silver Arrow label. In effect, everything Robinson now does as a musician operates far outside the orbit of the mainstream recording industry. The sales may be fewer and the audiences smaller, but he wouldn't have it any other way. "If we had watered it down, if we had listened to other people, would we be more popular? Who cares? We represent a fringe element, and if people like it then they'll find us. Twenty-three years after Shake Your Money Maker, to even come to the UK and have people want to be a part of it – that's the victory."

The Black Crowes play O2 Academy, Glasgow, on Wednesday.

Contextual targeting label: 
Arts and Entertainment

Commenting & Moderation

We moderate all comments on HeraldScotland on either a pre-moderated or post-moderated basis.
If you're a relatively new user then your comments will be reviewed before publication and if we know you well and trust you then your comments will be subject to moderation only if other users or the moderators believe you've broken the rules

Moderation is undertaken full-time 9am-6pm on weekdays, and on a part-time basis outwith those hours. Please be patient if your posts are not approved instantly.

147698