Chris Robinson Eyes Return to Solo Work After Short Break: Exclusive Interview
The Chris Robinson Brotherhood concludes their 2019 tour in an intriguing position. Servants of the Sun, the group's sixth studio release, arrived following a lineup shift, and some scheduled down time will provide Robinson with the space to consider a solo project. In fact, the former Black Crowes frontman tells us he's already made some progress a handful of songs.
In the meantime, they began playing shows with Pete Sears of Jefferson Airplane fame after the departure of longtime keyboardist and collaborator Adam MacDougall, who exited the lineup earlier this year. Joel Robinow subsequently took over in place of Sears as the group continued dates into Europe. After that, the Chris Robinson Brotherhood announced plans to take the rest of 2019 off.
In Part 2 of this exclusive UCR interview, Chris Robinson also discusses creating new sounds on Servants of the Sun, his country-rock-themed Green Leaf Rustlers side gig, a long-hoped-for return to songs from his old band, and when he'll get around to writing an autobiography. (Spoiler: Not soon)
At the same time we’re hearing 'Servants of the Sun,' there’s the news that Adam has departed from the lineup and then the band will take a hiatus at the end of July. So, how does the record fit into all of that? Because it doesn’t seem like those other two things were necessarily planned, but I don’t know that for sure.
Yeah, you know, 2018 maybe felt like we weren’t going to make it over the finish line last year. Tony [Leone] took time off, Neal [Casal] took time off, I’ve been going through a tedious and painful divorce. But the other side is that the band sounds good. I have great love in my life and a partner. I’m 52 years old and with the gifts and blessings and with the losses and curses, it’s all part of it. [My goal is] just to be available and not to run from it.
Adam, I think it’s best. You know, what a fitting contribution that this is the last record that he played on. It’s beautiful stuff. But again, that’s the way life works. I had to let Adam go and I think he probably is much happier. So no ill feelings. I mean, we’re not children and we’re not spiteful people. It’s like, okay, who knows what’s going to happen in a few years or next Thursday or whatever. I mean, the reality is that it kind of just brings focus to what we’re doing.
We just did a short run with the amazing Pete Sears on keyboards and every night, it was just beautiful. It was real rock and roll [with] really one of the best musicians on the planet playing with us, with appreciative people in front of us. It was nice.
You mentioned Pete Sears, I’ve been very intrigued by the Green Leaf Rustlers gigs that you’ve been playing. Those seem like a real trip.
Super, super fun, yeah. You know, we all live in Marin, so it’s easy for us to get together. I had a few open nights at Terrapin Crossroads [in San Rafael, Calif.] and I put together different bands for each one. One of them turned out to be the Green Leaf Rustlers. We just added Greg [Loiacono]. We played with a bunch of guitar players, and I had played with Greg a little bit. The Mother Hips are a legendary Cali group, so you know, it was just one of those things. I take guitar lessons from Barry Sless and he’s my friend as well, so we get together and jam. He’s an amazing guitarist and an incredible pedal steel player.
So it was like, well, let’s play all of these old country songs and play the New Riders [of the Purple Sage] stuff and the [Flying Burrito Brothers] and you know, Ricky Nelson – whatever we want to do. All of the other stuff too, the ‘60s and ‘70s stuff, the Byrds and [other things]. It just kind of turned into that. Super fun. You can’t go wrong when you sing songs everyone always loves. [Laughs.]
The setlists for the Green Leaf Rustlers shows have been bonkers. You guys are digging deep into music history with Mel Tillis, Lefty Frizzell, the Louvin Brothers, Doug Sahm. The shows seem to have a pretty free-form feel.
Yeah, definitely. We play them and then like anything else. Everyone is pretty much into hippie stuff, so we’ll play some country music, and then we’ll go flying off into the stratosphere into some improvisational madness.
Have you found the experience of doing that material feeding back into your own songwriting?
Maybe, you know, because that’s the other thing. I have four or five new tunes laying around and they’re definitely less star-dusted. They’re definitely more dirty boots. But I’ve had those songs for the CRB. [With Servants of the Sun] especially, the only criteria that I really had for everyone was that the last few records have a lot of acoustic guitars, mandolins, banjos, vibraphones – you know, all sorts of things. Acoustic piano and Hammond organ. For this record, I was like, no need to bring any acoustic instruments and I don’t want any piano or organ, all Fender Rhodes and synths and that kind of vibe and electric guitars [instead]. But you can play whatever you want. I think the songs that I’ve been writing subsequently are really kind of back to being super wooden sounding.
It stuck out to me that there are some really interesting sounds on 'Servants of the Sun.' “Venus In Chrome,” for example, has a great hook to it. I love the way the keyboards kind of weave in and out of what’s going on with the rest of the song.
It’s funny, the little [imitates the keyboard sound], I had been sitting on that little riff for a long time and I had played a version of it even when we were doing the rehearsals for Phosphorescent Harvest many moons ago with [drummer] George [Sluppick] and [former bassist Mark] "Muddy" [Dutton]. It just kind of laid flat and I don’t know, for some reason, I started goofing around with it again and then kind of came up with the verse parts. I pretty much had everything except for the guitar solo. We taped it at soundcheck, so Neal had a tape of that and then a couple of days later, he had the little solo section and I was like, "Oh, cool!" We started playing it, and that’s just kind of how it works. After that many shows and that many gigs, everyone knows their language or their part of the puzzle.
What’s on tap for the rest of the year for you after July?
What’s on tap for me is to do absolutely nothing for a little bit. I’m going to start working on this solo record. We have some Green Leaf Rustlers things happening and I have a few other little things going on. I don’t get home until August and then I’ll see my kids, and have some time before school starts and just write songs. So the CRB, we’re just putting it down for a while. It’s not going anywhere; it’s right there. It’s funny, I have ideas for more CRB records, so everything is [possible]. Nothing is concrete.
Do you have a timeline mapped out for when that solo record might emerge?
I would like to do it in a couple of pieces, I think. So, maybe get half of it done in the early fall and then the other half done in the early spring. I’m not really in a hurry. I only have like really, three or four songs that I feel are even close to being ready.
It must be interesting, because it sounds like that material emerged somewhat spontaneously. It’s always cool when stuff comes out in a certain direction like that.
Well, I’m always writing and I’m always filling up notebooks. Life continues to be beautiful and challenging. [Laughs.] The inspiration is always there, I think, if you’re a person of some poetic construct.
Your former bandmate Steve Gorman is working on a book about the Black Crowes. How much of a chance is there that you’ll tell your story similarly at some point?
I don’t think there would be anything similar. I’m a writer. [Laughs.] That’s what I do. I don’t think it would have anything to do with something like that. My life has been the life of, you know, the ideas. I’m the one who put the band together. I’m the one who pointed us in the direction. You know, Rich and I wrote the songs. I’m the one that lived the life, as well. So to have someone’s view from the sideline or someone’s view who wasn’t at those parties or didn’t live that life or didn’t create anything is going to be much different than the person’s who has.
I’ve been offered, book deals have come and gone. I’m kind of still in the second act, you know what I mean? I’m still 20 years away from even beginning to slow down and put it all together in that sort of term. I think the best rock and roll books or whatever you want to call them are the way Patti Smith [approached hers]. My life, no matter what, has been a dream. That’s what I do. So, it would be much different than writing about some stuff that you watched.
What has it been like for you to finally revisit the Black Crowes material over the past year with those As the Crow Flies shows? What did the experience of doing that draw out for you?
Oh, it was just super fun. Audley Freed is not only one of the greatest guitar players on the planet, but he’s also one of my friends. Just to be surrounded by my good friends, who are all so fucking talented and just to have fun. It seems so long since I’ve sang those songs and people had such a good time, and it went really well. [Fellow guitarist] Marcus [King] is super special and I haven’t had the opportunity to really get to know him until then and that was, for me, worth the whole thing as well. I’m super-impressed with that dude. It was just good, just positive. We had a blast.