Chris Robinson: ‘It’s Hard in Our Culture to See Joy as the Greatest Commodity’
A few weeks ago, the Chris Robinson Brotherhood made an announcement that was obviously greeted with jubilance and excitement from their fanbase across the world: They are once again teaming up with famed Grateful Dead archivist Betty Cantor-Jackson for a second volume of Betty’s Blends, this time tackling nine tracks that were recorded throughout the band’s 2014 summer tour.
Betty’s Blends, Volume Two: Best From the West is set for release on June 2 via Silver Arrow Records, and will be available in various (and limited) formats, including digital, CD and vinyl.
Ahead of its release, Diffuser caught up with Robinson and premiered one of the tracks from Best From the West, “Shore Power” (from the CRB’s Phosphorescent Harvest). “It’s Betty’s trip, man … we’re just on it,” he told us. “We’re Betty’s house band!”
Now, as they get ready to kick off their latest run of gigs — starting in Big Sur on April 30 — Robinson chats with us about the Brotherhood, why he thinks joy is the greatest commodity of all and what it’s like playing some Black Crowes tunes in the CRB’s live set. Check out our exclusive chat below:
It’s been nearly a year since the release of Phosphorescent Harvest. Do milestones or anniversaries like that matter to you?
It’s funny. I was just discussing this. I think the way things are, it’s not like that record … this is a business thing that the corporate business people put in your minds, that when you release a record and it sells, then it’s over. What else can we sell? That’s what it is. Are you kidding? They don’t take Moby-Dick off the bookshelves because Bill O’Reilly solved the mystery about the Fatty Arbuckle f—ing mysteries. It doesn’t work that way if you’re involved in other stuff. Remove yourself from the trance that’s being emitted from, well, whatever powers that be from your point-of-view. It’s symptomatic of that mentality, you know?
That’s a good point, because I could just as easily be asking you about Big Moon Ritual.
Exactly. Even more than that, it’s important to just look at your releases and your recordings and how that affects your weird little business model in a more positive way. It’s not like we’re rebooting putting out singles. There’s no panic. The scale is very nice. We’re not biting off more than we can chew. It works and it also allows us great space to breathe and grow. What are our expectations? They’re not to keep people in a big office supplied in hookers and cocaine and limousines.
You might not bite off more than you can chew, but you definitely stay busy. You’re touring, you put out an EP for Record Store Day Black Friday last year, you’re gearing up for the second volume of Betty’s Blends.
Yeah, that’s what I mean. You know, we take advantage of not having that kind of business mind or that kind of relationship with someone else’s company who is handing you money that now you’re responsible for. At the inception of this band, it was always to keep our heads down as much as possible. Patience. Take our time. We really only wanted to focus on what we can control, our scene, being onstage, songwriting, our compositions, our music, our ideas. In a weird way, it’s form out of chaos. If it connects and the vibration is steady enough, people pick up on that. You have something. And we’re there, at least at the precipice of it. It’s hard in our culture to see joy as the greatest commodity. You can’t buy anything with it, joy doesn’t have a selfie with someone famous, how cool can it really be? But truly, to me, that’s the greatest reward of being able to play music, being a father, being a husband, being a friend. I’m not saying it’s all joy all the time. Just like natural cycles of things, when the cherry blossoms bloom in Japan, there’s a reason why it’s a beautiful thing and it only lasts a few days.
Joy isn’t everywhere, so when you have it …
Celebrate it. If you can find some weird way to manifest it and control it a little bit … you just have to be a conscious, awake person who isn’t wrapped up in himself. It’s a group effort. It’s a group mindset. If our little band can spark that kind of interest and energy in our lives, we’ve already won. It’s interesting to me. As you get older and the world gets more fear-driven and anxiety-filled, I’d rather take Timothy Leary’s advice: Tune in, turn in and drop out. But that doesn’t mean I have to go live on a commune. The difference is integration. There is a lack of integration in everything. Medicine, technology, politics, civic engineering. Go to an airport, it’s insane. What are we? It’s crazy.
You mentioned the inception of the Brotherhood. The goal was to keep your head down. I’ve been a Crowes fan my whole life, and a fan of the Brotherhood as soon as I discovered it. But, how I discovered it … it was definitely under the radar.
You know, we did one big publicity stunt. At the last Black Crowes show in 2010, we had some Heads pass out some stickers with the first CRB logo. That was it. That’s what we did and then we just started playing the shows.
Is the Brotherhood something you always wanted to do?
Yeah, for years and years. You know, the Black Crowes just stopped being a band that was writing songs and looking ahead — where were we going? The Black Crowes were just about, “Let’s just do this.” I don’t want to just do that, and everyone can be as mad about it as they want, but I don’t care. I didn’t care when we all met, I don’t care now. If you don’t understand that about me …
Well, it’s probably tough to find joy in a situation like that.
Other people find joy in things that I understand, but they don’t understand that I don’t find joy in the same things. With the CRB, I just wanted to work. I wanted to write songs. I never looked at music as a thing to make some money and just sit around and play golf. Are you f—ing joking? I got into this because I like to write. I like to work, I don’t find it tedious. This is how I know who I am. This is how I know why joy exists. This is why I’m able to stomach the pain that we all stomach. I don’t know how, but I found my way to this. It’s pretty good! I’m pleased, and I feel like this is just winding down the second act in a weird way. If the possibilities are your ideas, then how deep can the music go? Everything falls into place. We’re lucky, too, because you were a little kid when all that Black Crowes stuff happened. I probably wasn’t being fed the most altruistic advice. It was hard, and you have to make some hard decisions.
You talked about the music business in the beginning, and I have to imagine from that point when you were just a kid to today, it’s changed just a little bit.
[Laughs] It died about 10 years ago. The big machine died about 10 years ago. Yeah, it’s still there with its weird little pop groups and producer-driven stuff, and hip-hop is its own thing, but it’s exactly what you think: rats clinging to the f—ing tip of the mast when the ship is going down. They’re not idea people. They’re business people, and any corporate scenario doesn’t care about what they sell, they care about how many they sell. When that is your prime focus … I understand the commerce of the thing, I benefit from it. But, when it is just one blind pursuit, this is what you get. That topples empires. It toppled the f—ing record business. Good riddance. That’s what I say.
You’re a California guy, a Southern guy. Do you find a difference in your fans in those areas of the states compared to here in New York?
They are definitely less stoned here on the East Coast. There’s less of a trippy vibe. I associate it with smiles and dancing and people having a good time, and we’re pretty lucky. That’s really all we’re offering. [Laughs] If we can squeeze in some imagery … I think a good time sometimes revolves around a little bit of reflection or whatever. Ultimately, that’s what unites people, regardless of their regional identity.
You play a couple of Crowes tunes in your Brotherhood sets, you always have. With all the recent news surrounding the band, do you have any hesitation to play Crowes tunes?
Nah, not at all. Like “Hard to Handle,” I’ve played it with a lot of different bands. It’s my song, I can deal with it. The stuff I play, the stuff I brought to the band, was the stuff that I wrote for the later Crowes records.
And you put your own spin on the tracks. They definitely have a Brotherhood vibe to them.
Yeah, we change them a lot. The performance really has nothing to do with the Black Crowes. As times moves on, I think that will show itself to be what it is. It’s cool — we didn’t ask anything from the Black Crowes when we started. You never saw it on my posters, you never hear me saying, “Hey, it’s me from the Black Crowes.” I don’t need to say it, I don’t need to throw it out there, I don’t need to tempt someone with it because it’s not what you’re getting. I’m being fair. I’m not trying to squeeze out another $25. We’re doing our thing. We’re on a good pace, you know what I mean?
At the beginning of this chat, we talked about records and releases … are you thinking about the Brotherhood’s next effort?
We’re four or five new songs in to whatever a new recording will be. We will be in the studio next January. That gives us time to play, you know? We just want to play. But we can still write, we play new songs during our sets. We have the freedom to do what we want. When something new comes along, we can throw it in. Everything flows in its own way. Focus on the stuff you can control and the other stuff will just take its place.
That’s a perfect way to wrap this up.
[Laughs] Thank you, man.
You can pre-order Chris Robinson Brotherhood’s Betty’s Blends, Volume Two here; each CD, digital and vinyl run is limited to 2,000 copies. Once they’re gone, they’re gone. And make sure to grab the CRB’s full tour itinerary at their official website.
Chris Robinson Brotherhood’s “Shore Power” — ‘Betty’s Blends, Volume Two’
Chris Robinson Brotherhood 2015 Tour
April 30 – Big Sur, Calif. – Loma Vista
May 1 – Big Sur, Calif. – Loma Vista
May 2 – Calpine, Calif. – Sierra Valley Lodge
May 5 – Nevada City, Calif. – Miners Foundry Cultural Center
May 6 – Arcata, Calif. – Humboldt Brews
May 8 – Bend, Ore. – The Domino Room
May 9 – Seattle, Wash. – Revolution Hall
May 12 – Salt Lake City, Utah – The State Room
May 13 – Salt Lake City, Utah – The State Room
May 15 – Denver, Colo. – Cervantes Masterpiece Ballroom
May 16 – Denver, Colo. – Cervantes Masterpiece Ballroom
May 17 – Bellevue, Colo. – Mishawaka Amphitheater
May 22 – N. Lawrence, Ohio – The Ville
May 29 – San Diego, Calif. – The North Park Theatre
May 31 – Napa, Calif. – BottleRock Festival
July 10 – Summit Point, W.V. – All Good Music Festival
July 11 – Marshfield, Mass. – Levitate Music Festival
July 17 – Lowell, Mass. – Lowell Summer Concert Series
July 25 – Floyd, Va. – FloydFest
Aug. 1 – Fort Smith, Ark. – Peacemaker Music & Arts Festival
Sept. 11 – Arrington, Va. – LOCKN’ Festival (with Phil Lesh & Friends)