Chris Robinson Doesn’t Want to ‘Redo or Outdo the Black Crowes': Exclusive Interview
"Music's not a chore. Music's not a job. It's my life and I love it. It's a unique opportunity to get through this life and explore and laugh and cry and express myself."
That is the mantra by which Chris Robinson has always approached his music, from the birth of the Black Crowes 30 years ago to his always-evolving efforts with the living organism that is the Chris Robinson Brotherhood. There have been ups and there have been downs throughout his career, but one thing is certain: Robinson stays true to his roots no matter where his life takes him, no matter how he decides to express himself.
And for the next few weeks, he'll be exploring life through the lens of the Black Crowes as he tours the country with his new band, aptly titled As the Crow Flies. The tour kicks off on April 17 in Port Chester, N.Y., and wraps up May 13 in Portland, Ore.
"The timing is what it's really all about," Robinson tells UCR. "My life has been so focused on the CRB, even though that Black Crowes question lingers all the time. But now, I have this time. It's been five years since I've sang 'Jealous Again' or 'She Talks to Angels.' I have this spaceship that I've been flying around in called the CRB, but I don't want to forget about the old Model T in the garage — we can take it out for a spring drive, you know?"
Of course, for the cynics out there, it's easy to assume this new tour is all about the money, but Robinson is quick to shut down that conversation.
"I speak my mind about things, but at the end of the day, for most people, they can see my career and see what I am as always being driven by the music, nothing else," he says with a hint of laughter in his voice. "The other day, my 14-year-old son told me, simply, 'Dad, you wrote these songs.' And you know what? Yeah, I did ... except 'Hard to Handle,' of course. It should be about that, it should be just about that."
Listen to Chris Robinson Brotherhood' 'Behold the Steer'
Guitarist Audley Freed — who first joined the Crowes in 1998 and appeared on Lions and Live at the Greek with Jimmy Page — first planted the idea of As the Crow Flies in Robinson's head.
"He and I have been friends ever since he was in the Black Crowes," Robinson says. "Once he put the bug in my ear, it just kind of feel into place. I've been wanting to play music with [bassist] Andy Hess since he left the Black Crowes — what a cool opportunity to jam together. And the same goes for [guitarist] Marcus King. I'm impressed with him and I'm really into his music. [Keyboardist] Adam MacDougall was in the Black Crowes and did great work for all those years. If you start to put it together, really, this is rad. And of course, as a singer, I have to have Tony Leone with me because that's my dude. He's my rhythm, he's my engine — that singer-drummer relationship is really important."
While the CRB have been known to jam a Black Crowes song now and again, Robinson was always intentional about the songs he'd add to the Brotherhood's set lists. "Those songs that I switched from the Crowes to the CRB were from the later albums," he explains. "We never played those songs very much and I felt like it fit our band. Plus, when we started the CRB, we needed the material!"
As for the tunes that this new crew will be jamming, it's clear that Robinson is committed to honoring the institution that is the Black Crowes.
"That's the thing about this whole tour, I want to go out and I want to stay true to the songs," Robinson says with excitement. "But one of my frustrations in the Black Crowes was this idea that nothing could ever be any different. That's not how it should be. After all, we're all changing on a cellular level all the time. Yeah, I think we're going to stick pretty close to the script as far as the songs and arrangements go, but you don't have guitarists and musicians like this and not have some spaces and places to have a little freedom. I've always been that way."
Listen to the Black Crowes' 'Hard to Handle'
When asked whether it will feel strange to take these songs on the road, Robinson doesn't hesitate with his response.
"I'm 51 years old and I've been on tour for 30 years," he says. "I played some Black Crowes songs with Eric Krasno and Soulive and I didn't think it was weird. ... I thought it was rad. That is my music. That is my band. I put that band together as a teenager, and I don't think I should feel uncomfortable playing these songs at all. I mean, it would be different if I was putting down the CRB for a couple of years, but that's not the case. We have a Record Store Day release and we have a Betty's Blends for the fall in the works and we'll be making the new CRB studio album later this year. I haven't played many of these songs in years, and we had the window of time that the CRB wasn't working, so this just made sense."
For fans wondering what to expect from an As the Crow Flies show, the iconic frontman doesn't give away too many secrets, but he does provide assurance that it will be a flat-out rock 'n' roll show.
"This is Black Crowes music. We're playing the songs people recognize and the songs people love and the songs people expect me to sing from the catalog," Robinson tells us. "I'm not out to redo the Black Crowes or outdo the Black Crowes or anything like that. I just want to sing this music. Some of these songs have been written for 30, 35 years — they already exist. I want to unleash two great guitarists and I want to jam."
When he's on the road with the CRB, jamming for Robinson isn't just about singing, but it's about standing behind a guitar as well. With As the Crow Flies, he'll go back to the way he performed with the Crowes. "I'm not playing guitar or anything like that," he says, "so I'm just going to be doing my frontman duties."
As he looks forward to doing his frontman duties with As the Crow Flies, Robinson can't help but reflect on his duties with the Black Crowes, spanning all the way back to the band's debut LP, 1990's Shake Your Money Maker.
"I was at a roller skating rink with my daughter recently and for some reason someone requested 'Hard to Handle,'" Robinson recalls. "The old music video came up. I was 23 years old and my daughter stood there with her mouth agape. She couldn't believe that's how I used to look. If I step back and think about it, man, what a unique blessing to be bestowed upon me that I could traverse this lifetime with the people I've played with, with the people I've me, with the mistakes I've made and all the good parts ... all of it should be some sort of soulful resonance that comes out of me and my music."
Though milestones and anniversaries don't seem all that important to Robinson, there is certainly an acknowledgement of where he's come from, and where he's headed with As the Crow Flies and the CRB. "I mean, what's the difference between 1966 and 1996? Thirty years, whenever it happens, it's kind of weird, you know? But when I look back and think about it being three decades, I just feel really, really blessed, man."