Chris Robinson looks back on two decades of keeping it weird

By Chris Neal

In January 2002, the Black Crowes announced plans for an indefinite hiatus. Relations among the members had reached an all-time low, particularly the famously tempestuous bond between lead singer Chris Robinson and guitarist brother Rich. They all needed a break from each other. “There was a lot of negativity surrounding all of our feelings,” recalls Chris Robinson, who founded the group with Rich and drummer Steve Gorman in Atlanta 23 years ago. “It’s confusing and upsetting when things fall apart and you’re thinking, ‘I want to get out of here.’ It shouldn’t feel like that. It’s something that’s brought too much joy.”

After being back in action for the last five years, the Crowes recently announced another impending hiatus, set to begin when their current tour wraps up in December. But the mood of the band, Robinson says, is very different this time. “Everyone is happy and feels great about where we are, what we’ve done and where we’re going,” he says. “We thought it would be healthy to say, ‘Look, we’ve done so many gigs and made three really energetic records in the last five years. Let’s put it down for a bit and see how we feel.’”

To mark the occasion—and to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Crowes’ debut album, Shake Your Money Maker—the band has recorded a new double album featuring acoustic versions of songs from throughout their back catalog. Croweology was recorded late last year at Sunset Sound Studios in Los Angeles, with former Crowes guitarist Paul Stacey producing. “We definitely wanted to make some symbolic effort for our 20th anniversary,” Robinson says, “even though we’re the most non-career-oriented group of people that you would probably ever meet. I think it’s a super-interesting record, it’s a warm cocoon of music to get in to.” When we caught up with Robinson at his Topanga Canyon home in Los Angeles county, he was engaged in what he calls “big rock-star stuff—moving some stuff into a storage unit, going to Whole Foods with the family. It’s a big day.”

Why go on hiatus now?

It’s better to take a break while everyone feels good and all the pieces are in place, so it will be that much easier to put it back together when we feel we want to do it. We probably should have taken a break after Three Snakes and One Charm [1996]. If we’d taken a couple of years off back then, who knows? But when you’re in the middle of something, you don’t have that perspective. There’s a lot of stuff that happens in your life when you get off the submarine for a while. That’s a lesson we had to learn from our past.

How long will it be?

It could be two years, five years, 10 years or whatever. Let’s see what happens. Our joke is that if this record sold a lot of copies, we would go back on the road next year. We laugh about that, but I don’t know. The last five years have been pretty Crowe-intensive, and we want to do some other things—have time to be with the kids, do that kind of stuff. So it’s hard to say. But that’s what I like about it. You just shove off from the dock on your little dingy, and the next thing you know you’re on the wide open sea.

How did you decide which songs to re-record for Croweology?

We were very democratic about it. Everybody put together a list of the songs they wanted to do. It was funny, about 70 to 80 percent of our lists were all the same. Then we filled in the pieces. Most of the material we know, we’d been playing it for a long time, so it was just a question of getting a good sound.

Even though it’s acoustic, it’s definitely a real rock ’n’ roll record.

On a song like “Remedy,” this version is rockin’ without electric guitars. Hey, “Remedy” was written on an acoustic guitar, laying around in my garage in 1991. One thing I really like about the record is that it breaks down a little bit more of the songwriting. You get to hear the architecture of the structure in the music, which is really hip. I don’t think most people would expect the way the record sounds. I hope they’ll be pleasantly surprised.

What was the recording like?

We made the record last December. We came from a five-night run at the Fillmore in San Francisco straight down to the studio here and went right in. So we were a little shell-shocked, which adds to how dreamy some of the music sounds. We went from these big, loud, long psychedelic nights at the Fillmore to this. We had to get into this space where you’re not being that loud, but you’re playing this dynamic kind of music.

Did you feel like you learned something new about the songs?

I get that feeling all the time. I’m not on a nostalgia trip, and I don’t really listen to our records. I can’t be in one of those bands where you have to play [the Crowes’ 1990 breakout hit] “Hard to Handle,” you still have to go out and get into that groove. Luckily, we don’t play the exact same songs all the time. If you’re going to play your music, it has to feel legitimate and it has to feel present. If you get to the real, true expression in whatever piece you’re working on, you can stay in a pure place. The songs change with you and the things that you go through, and with the audience. Especially if you’ve been doing them for a long time, the songs have to resonate in some way other than nostalgia for the listener.

When you first started the band, did you have a goal in mind?

No, we weren’t like that. We just wanted to make a record. Steve Gorman joined the band in 1987, and by then Rich was just getting out of high school. I decided not to go to university, so that’s when we said we were going to do this. We made a commitment, but our commitment was to make music, our commitment was to not give up. Our commitment was, at least for me, to keep it weird. If we made it, or if we got to a place where we could eke out a living, great. If we became rock stars, even better—but that was so beyond the realms of consciousness. It was about trying to write the best songs and be the best band we could be, and see where that took us. I didn’t want to look like anyone else, didn’t want to sound like anyone else. I feel the same way now. It’s the thread running through our tapestry. I never wanted to be a chameleon or have a character or something. I don’t have to get a silly haircut. I’m sure people think I look silly anyway, like some weird old hippie-like wizard guy.

How would you describe your relationship with your brother?

I guess to other people it’s complicated, but to me it’s simple. I love my brother to death, he’s very talented and I love the music we make together, but I don’t always like him. He probably feels the same way. I’m proud of the work we do together, but we live in our own worlds. The only time we can really communicate and be civil is when we’re making music, and then the other times there are these complicated things. I’ll take my half of the credit for the good and the bad stuff. That’s the way life works, and I can’t get hung up on it. I can’t say, “Oh, that’s the way Rich is.” I imagine the way I am is hard to be with on a certain level as well. We’re just too stubborn, maybe—I don’t know. The fulfillment and the payoff is the music. That’s the focus, the most important and the most interesting thing.

A lot of people say Rich is a realist and you’re an idealist. Is that right?

Maybe on some things, but not on others. Rich is equally an idealist in terms of the politics of how we make our music and how we get it to people. We both have a healthy disregard for authority, so that’s the tie that binds us. So I don’t know if that’s a fair assumption. It’s hard to say, I have a hard time putting my finger on it myself. Maybe during the hiatus I’ll figure it out. (laughs)

What are your plans for the hiatus?

I definitely see making music. I could play music here in L.A., get some solo material together, write songs with other people. The Black Crowes is this incredible dynamic trip. It’s love and hate, joy and loss. It’s very dramatic. I love that, but five years of that doesn’t give you any time to play with other people and do all the things you want to do. It’s time we take control of our own business and say, “OK, we’ll get back to this later.” Everybody has music to make and children to raise and wives to love. It’s a healthy move for the commune all around.

Looking back on the last 20 years, what are you proudest of?

Keeping it weird. Not just the music itself, but what it stands for and the culture of what the Black Crowes has been. These days nobody steps out to make a statement, a soulful statement. It’s just sad when kids grow up thinking Nickelback is a real band. I’m sure they’re great guys, I just picked them because they’re big. I’m proud that we’re still making music that I feel is equally important and has as much depth as anything we created in our commercial period in the ’90s. I’m proud that we still have the freedom to be self-indulgent. Jesus Christ, shouldn’t somebody be self-indulgent besides Radiohead? (laughs) Not every trip is the same, and not everything should be watered down to sell to the middle. We didn’t jump on any trends or bandwagons. I’m proud that we’ve maintained a certain aesthetic and integrity, even though on the outside it may look like we’re totally crazy. We love it so much that it probably has made us a little crazy.

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