AS THE CROWE FLIES: RICH ROBINSON ON THE BLACK CROWES AND GOING SOLO
By James Calemine
At the moment, Rich Robinson prepares to go back out on the road with the Magpie Salute to promote High Water II. His solo album Flux hit the streets June 2016. Robinson released his solo catalog, starting with expanded editions of 2004’s Paper and 2011’s Llama Blues EP, with 2011’s Through a Crooked Sun and 2014’s The Woodstock Sessions in April. His solo debut Paper, features new vocal tracks.
This interview was conducted with Rich Robinson four months before the Black Crowes regrouped in February of 2005 to tour for their “All Join Hands” tour. After twelve years, many recordings and tours transpired since this vintage interview. -JC
Fifteen years ago Rich Robinson and his brother Chris left Atlanta, Georgia, to tour the world behind the Black Crowes debut classic, Shake Your Moneymaker. In 2002, The Crowes went on a hiatus after a well documented—turmoil fueled—history including seven records, various band member departures, millions of albums sold, and thousands of miles traveled.
Rich Robinson remained in the shadows these past several years while his high-profile older brother Chris settled down with actress Kate Hudson, released two solo albums, and toured during the Crowes hiatus. Robinson, the younger, now promotes his formidable first solo CD, Paper.
Rich released Paper this fall on his label Keyhole Records. These 14 songs reveal Rich as the musical heart of the Black Crowes. His self-produced collection of songs invokes country, blues, jazz, middle-eastern influence, and his trademark gritty rock and roll riffs. Rich played all the instruments on Paper except the drums.
Rich spoke about his time away from his brother and the Crowes while pursuing his own musical vision. Dust of rumor contends the Black Crowes will regroup in March 2005 for rehearsals, but that’s another story…
Tell me how long it took to record the songs on Paper.
It took about a month to record. I turned it around pretty fast. It took me two weeks to mix because I recorded 20 songs. It took me about a month to record. So overall, it took about two months. I started in February or March.
You played most of the instruments, besides the drums, right?
Yeah, well a lot of times with the Crowes—like on Three Snakes & One Charm, Johnny (Colt) didn’t play bass on the record, and on Lions I played some bass. A couple of the Crowes records I cut with just Steve (Gorman) and I as the rhythm section. We became used to that. That’s sort of how I did this solo thing. I played the song with Joe Magistro, the drummer, and then I’d go back and overdub all the bass.
Where did you find Joe Magistro?
A friend of mine recommended him to me——he said, ‘hey this guy is great, you should check him out’, and I was like okay, and he just came down and played. He’s a cool guy and a great drummer. Joe is the Frank Zappa archivist——he works for the Zappa family and archives all Zappa’s shows and videos. There’s a huge vault out there. He has his thing and he plays around. He played on the record and got signed on Capitol, so he’s making his own record now.
So Keyhole Records is your label, right?
Yeah that’s my label.
What has Paper allowed you to do that you couldn’t do in the Crowes?
The only difference that I see is singing. But it’s not something I ever wanted to do in the Crowes. I never felt stifled in the Crowes. Doing the vocals was a little different, but I got to do a lot of things with harmonies that the Crowes never really did—or didn’t do that often. Just approaching the vocals like an instrument and have them fit the track was something I tried to do. I tried to juxtapose more melodic harmonies over some raucous music. I mixed these big riffs, a real visceral kind of music, with certain. Some vocals are sort of droney like Pink Floyd or something like George Harrison, but then you back the choruses up with these Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young harmonies. That was what I wanted to do, create a tension. I was basically allowed to hang out in the studio and do whatever I wanted, and that’s what I did.
You recorded in New York?
You painted the album cover. Talk a little bit about your painting because not many people know you paint.
Yeah, Johnny Colt actually bought me a bunch of paint back in 91. He knew I was showing interest in it. When we got home from the Shake Your Moneymaker tour, y’know you go through that sort of thing with that group of people, and you get home and you’re like where is everyone? That first Christmas we all got home and we had money for the first time and everyone was in a good mood because we’d all been part of something hugely successful and it was a cool thing. Johnny was getting into photography, so I bought him a camera. So, one day he just showed up with canvas, brushes, paints, and everything I’d need to get started. That was really generous and cool, and I was like ‘all right’. So I sat around for 6 months not doing anything with it. I refused to ruin a canvas because I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. So I painted on paper first. It was cool and I started doing it more and more and more. It became very therapeutic. There’s something really cool about touching paint to canvas. The potential in it is just amazing. I sold almost half of my paintings at a recent show. I’ve got about four commissions from specific people. One of em’ sold really quickly and this woman was like would you do one for me, so I did that. This couple bought a new house and they have this massive wall and they want this huge painting. So when I get off this tour, I’m gonna go over there and look at the wall. I’ll probably do a series because the wall is so big. I’m gonna do two or three painting in a series.
Will you do any shows in the south for this tour?
I was talking about maybe coming down there in the new year. Right now, I just did this one-month Mid-west and northern tour with a couple shows in the southern markets like Virginia.
You’re operating on the road as a trio, right?
Yeah, it’s been great. It’s really cool. It’s just been me, Gordie (Johnson-Big Sugar), and the drummer. Being in a three piece gives you so much freedom to do what you need to do, and they sing so we can cover most of the harmonies.
How did you face the lyric writing aspect for all of this?
I had a song I started with…I had the subject matter for it, and I wanted the song to be—I had a phrase, “when you will love me”, which is a song on the record, and it’s sort of a George Harrison-ish approach, but it was like when you will love me you will see.” I wanted it to be this guy or girl, but coming from my standpoint, falls in love with this beautiful girl in some public place—this chance meeting—and he sees this girl and he’s in love with her. The song is about what it’ll be like when she sees him or they fall in love. “I see you and when you will love me/I know this is what it’s gonna be like/loneliness will be broken/or I’ll catch you when you’re falling.” And so I started with that, and I felt really good about it, and then I wrote “Enemy”. Then there was a song that was actually on iTunes—because iTunes has an exclusive song that’s not on the record called “Hold You”. That’s like one of the first songs I wrote. It had a string quartet.
For these new songs, you could probably get away with doing a lot of acoustic stuff.
I could do a lot of acoustic stuff, and I’ve done that. Y’know, acoustic stuff, people judge you for what you do in front of them. If I just go out and play acoustic it won’t be representative of the record.
Tell me about the guests on the album, the Crowes’ Eddie Harsh and BR5-49s Donnie Herron. Will they make any appearances on tour?
Ed hasn’t. He’s been in Toronto when I was in Detroit, and when I was there he was in Detroit. He was in opposite places when I was in those places. And Ed sort of blew me off. He wasn’t there when I played my residency gigs in the summer. He was supposed to be there, but he didn’t show. So, it is what it is. I’d love Ed to sit in one time when he’s feeling up to it, but we’ll see what happens.
Last summer I saw Johnny Colt’s (original Black Crowes bassist) band Asphalt Blaster. Have you heard any of that?
I’ve heard of them, but I haven’t heard the music. Someone told me it sounds like weird Motorhead.
He was the lead singer, wearing face makeup and a cape doing this electric pagan cabaret thing. If it ever came up, as far as playing bass in the Crowes…is there any contact with him? Any possibilities of him being asked to rejoin?
No. I haven’t really spoken to him since he quit. Actually, I saw him once in Atlanta. Y’know, Johnny’s a real nice guy—he’s very pleasant—he’s cool. He felt like he wanted to go do his own thing. It is hard, y’know you’re in a band with these people in a successful band, but everyone wants to be the reason for the success…
I think it would be better to take a break cause if you quit, you’ll always miss that chemistry, those glorious memories, and musical victories. The Crowes played with Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, the Allman Brothers, Jimmy Page & Robert Plant, Aerosmith, ZZ Top, George Clinton, the Parliment guys, and the Grateful Dead…that’s band you might miss…
…and they become bitter. I’m not saying Johnny is—I haven’t spoken to him. I know that Marc Ford is really bitter, but it’s like dude, you were a junkie. You let us down as a band, you let yourself down, and even more importantly, you let people who paid to come see us down because you’re fucking wasted. Very talented person, a good guitar player, all that stuff, but that’s what it is. Y’know when Johnny quit—it’s like you walked away. We’re not gonna stop because you walked away. I think Johnny tried to do his own thing and now he’s in a new band, and y’know, I think that’s cool. As far as the Crowes original line-up, if we get back together, it just wouldn’t happen. People get bitter because they obviously care about it, and it was important to them, it was part of their lives. Also, you have to move on and do something else.
Is there more pressure being in the Crowes, or more pressure doing this solo stuff?
I think there’s more pressure with the solo thing. Not really, but the thing is just to get out there and get people to listen. It’s like you have to prove yourself all over again. The weird thing is that the people who are coming to see me are Crowes fans, and Crowes fans are really supportive and really cool, but they’re always gonna like the Crowes better. No matter what Chris and I do. So, you’re at a starting place like that. It’s like starting with this is good, but…
I’ve heard with my solo stuff, this would be great if Chris was singing. Well, he’s not. Just by me doing this has made the way I play guitar improve by five-hundred percent. Being the only guitar player, singing, writing, putting songs together has improved what I do a great deal.
This solo stuff reminds me a bit of Keith Richards’s solo records in the way that the lyrical phrases are built around definable riffs.
Yeah, there’s a lot of movement in the music. I tend to write melodies that hover over everything. I love this droney Middle Eastern music, or a sitar, or the way I play in open tunings—there’s a drone factor to it, and that’s how I approach vocals, a lot of harmony.
Any music you come up with now, does it get allotted for solo material, or, of course—the question I’m sure you’re tired of—are the Black Crowes getting back together?
I know, everyone keeps asking me. I’m like, man, Chris put out two solo albums and did his thing—and I just put my record out and right when I put it out, all the rumors start. It’s weird. I’m like, look, Chris wanted to go and pursue a solo career three years ago and he split up the band and wanted to do his thing. That was his choice. So, I did some things for a couple of years. I scored a movie called Highway. I played, I produced, and I wrote. It took me a while to figure out what I really wanted to do. I put together that band Hookah Brown, and it didn’t pan out because a lot of band bullshit politics. So, I’m really proud of this record. We’ll see what happens in the future, but right now I’m focusing on this solo thing. We’re going to England soon for some dates.
What’s the last book you’ve read?
Kingdom of Fear by Hunter S. Thompson.
I’m trying to get an interview with him.
Really? Also I’ve just read Dude Where’s My Country. I’ve just been in DVD land on tour this last month.
What’s some of the DVDs you’ve been rotating?
I bought this Manassas DVD with Stephen Stills. So much stuff is coming out now like Jimi Hendrix at the Isle of Wight, The Who at the Isle of Wight. We bought Pink Floyd Live at Pompeii. They did this classic album series with video and interviews on Dark Side of the Moon. Gimmie Shelter.
Have you seen the new Tom Dowd DVD?
No, not yet. It’s all becoming really regional. They don’t really sell that kind of stuff up here. Up here you’re getting, you know, different things, but I’ve been looking. I’ve bought some really cool stuff. I’ve got some rare footage of Lightning Hopkins that I’ve found. Roosevelt Sky. Anything and everything…
When’s the last time you visited your old hometown of Atlanta?
I was there very recently. I was visiting my Mom. She just moved, so I went down with my boys and my wife to see her.
Well, we hope to see you down here soon…
Okay, thanks a lot.
Read my 2012 interview with Rich Robinson in Insured Beyond The Grave Vol. 2…