Chris Robinson on Producing the CRB’s New Album, Staying Positive in Today’s World: Exclusive Interview
Chris Robinson may forever be known as the frontman for iconic Southern rockers the Black Crowes, but to him, that band seems “a million miles away.” For the last several years, his time and efforts have been focused squarely on the Chris Robinson Brotherhood, the rock and roll outfit that released its first two studio records in 2012, and is gearing up for the release of its latest LP, Anyway You Love, We Know How You Feel, set to hit the streets on Friday (July 29).
With Anyway You Love, We Know How You Feel, Robinson and company — guitarist Neal Casal, keyboardist Adam MacDougall, bassist Mark Dutton and newest member, drummer Tony Leone — have crafted one of their best records to date, packed with eight transformative tracks that perfectly showcase the band’s continued progression.
As he prepares for its release, Robinson took some time to chat about what it was like self-producing the new disc with his bandmates, how he stays positive in the midst of so much negativity in the world and yes, he even discusses the Crowes’ recent reissues of Shake Your Money Maker, The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion, Amorica and Three Snakes and One Charm. Check out our exclusive interview below.
It has to feel good to have Anyway You Love, We Know How You Feel wrapped up and ready for your fans to hear.
It feels good just to still be able to do sessions and make recordings. As the rest of the world merrily follows along the path of the occult-generated, trans-capitalism machine, it’s great that we get to make records that aren’t just made to make corporations lots of money. It’s more like a jazz mentality in a weird way, even though we’re a rock and roll band. The sheer idea that we can go into a nice studio and take the time and record, that’s something that we’re ultimately interested in — and if you have the opportunity to do that, you have to focus and utilize that time and energy. In this case, I think it’s the best example of that out of all the records I’ve made.
That seems like it’s always been the attitude of the CRB, and you’ve always been grateful to do what you do.
Nothing is guaranteed, you know? As the album becomes more antiquated, we relish in the work itself. It’s a great craft, making records and making sure everything coalesces in the right place at the right time. When those things show themselves to you and kind of open up, you have to jump in.
And for you, at least with this new record, jumping in meant being more open-minded in the studio, right?
Yeah, part of it is we have to be pragmatic about where we are, as a business and a band. The days of giant budgets and limitless time, all that kind of stuff is gone. Our records are made in a hunter-gatherer mentality … we have to utilize our environment for survival. In this case, because the records have done well and we’re doing well, we had a little more money and extra time, so we spent less time in a pre-production capacity. Rehearsing and getting together to write before the recording process, we didn’t do that. Sure, I had bits and pieces in mind, but I didn’t really finish anything until we were all in the studio because I knew we had the time. And the communal living helped with that, too, you know, everyone living in the house and everyone being up on the side of the mountain. It was the perfect storm, if you will. Then again, it’s been awhile since we’ve been in the studio, I think it was 2013 … that’s almost been three years in between sessions, so we were ready. And to have Tony in the band and now in the studio, we felt more confident.
Did Tony fit right in?
We put in the time, you know? We made the decision to not make a record when Tony joined the band. It wasn’t based on material or anything like that, it was totally based on the idea of going out and playing three hours a night and doing another 115 shows to see where our music is. It’s that kind of work ethic that benefits you when you do have time to get in the studio and record.
You mentioned living together and recording on the side of the mountain. For a guy like me who grew up in a small town in Kansas and now lives in the middle of New York City, the idea of recording on a mountainside seems pretty majestic.
When the record comes out, the vinyl especially … the gatefold jacket captures what it was like. Neal took a picture of me out on the deck and you can see our view. It’s pretty spectacular that you’re just a few minutes from San Francisco as well. Mount Tamalpais kind of overlooks Stinson and Bolinas Beach, and that was our view everyday. For me, because I live a few exits away, you kind of have to go up and over the mountain to get there … at that time of the year we were having a little bit of the El Niño episode and it was really wet. Landslides, rockslides … at some point, people were saying coyotes were ingesting mushrooms near where we were and attacking cars. [Laughs] There was a lot of cosmic stuff going on while we were there.
Well, that sounds perfect for the CRB.
Yeah, exactly. Exactly.
You mentioned the past success of the band — the records, the tours — and how that allowed you to have more time in the studio and be more open-minded. For some bands, though, if you find yourself with more money, you might want to partner with a big-name producer, but you guys did the exact opposite and took the reigns yourselves.
Again, that’s another change from the last recordings. I think we felt that we’ve put in the time — we’ve all done lots of records and been in a lot of sessions. You kind of have to trust your intuition and trust everyone around you. But that’s been the point of the band since day one. Yeah, my name is on it, my name is on the logo, but ideally everyone is part of it, you know? Neal and I have been writing for a few years now, but with this record Adam jumped in, Tony’s been writing. That creates another element of everyone’s involvement that I think is interesting and really vibrant. That makes this something unique. I know for everyone else in the band it’s a unique situation. Everyone finds their groove and their melodic place in the structure. With time and focus and work and crafting it all, we get to a place where we can actually produce it ourselves. Ultimately, we’re trying to make something that we’re really pleased with, that is soulful, that is dynamic. I mean, what else are we going to do? Why would we scrape money together to have someone else tell us what they want us to sound like?
Is it hard to believe that this is your fourth album with the Brotherhood?
Not really, man. Well … [Pauses] … I guess it is kind of funny. We started in 2011 and now it’s almost 2017. [Laughs] The coolest part of it is — and something that is unique not just about where we are but how we got here — we’ve had a nice ascent, creatively. We made the first records — they are what they are. That’s a band that is on the road. That was our first year on the road, that’s what our presentation was, eight-minute songs, no singles. Then Betty’s Blends fit in there as well as sort of these long live snaps of what we’re doing, doing things different.
"This record was such a fulfilling experience for all of us on so many levels, it kind of opens up a lot of ideas and a new chapter for us."
We talked about this years ago as a band, but we knew we were going to work five or six years to get to this point. You know, we built the table, so now we can put a cloth on it and a candelabra and make a setting and invite some people over and have some nice wine. Now the hard work really starts. This record was such a fulfilling experience for all of us on so many levels, it kind of opens up a lot of ideas and a new chapter for us. We’re already thinking about our next session. I’ve probably written four or five pieces that could be songs, and all they take is a little bit of focus and work, so I think by the time the new year rolls around, I’ll probably be sitting on 12 or 13 things like that. And you know, we have another EP coming out in the fall of other tracks from this session, and then we have another Betty’s Blends set for release in the winter, in February. I think the coolest thing about where we are is that we’re not trying to break the bank, man. We’re not trying to have hit records — we’re just trying to put out cool stuff. If we do it with this “small batch” mentality, then it works. The little things will make a greater thing down the line.
This will mark the third volume of Betty’s Blends. What shows did Betty pull from for this set?
Volume three is from our runs in Atlanta, Charleston and Raleigh last November. So this one will be Betty’s Blends, Volume Three: Betty’s Self-Rising Southern Blends.
Well, I love the Betty’s Blends series. I think they’re some of the finest live releases out there.
We love it, too. We love it because we love Betty and she’s great at what she does. It’s a cool perspective to have. In a world where everyone is trying to make money off the Grateful Dead, we’re just about celebrating “Jerry culture.” It’s kind of cool, you know? The extended Grateful Dead family means a lot to us.
This is our third or fourth time chatting over the last few years, and one thing I’m always impressed by is your unwavering positivity. In the current climate we’re in, I think that’s needed now more than ever, and it comes through your music and your lives hows. How do you keep that up?
Because of other people’s negativity, because of the fear, because of the anxiety, because of all of the symptoms that those things cause culturally and socially, we have to be positive. It’s nobody’s right — it’s a privilege to play music and have people listen to it. There’s a certain generation that their whole planet is in peril every second of the day and all they want to do is listen to a guy with a laptop. I mean, it’s cool, I get that you just want to dance the night away and stuff, but for us, it’s important to stay positive … Some of the ways our music and concerts affect people, that’s been really positive for us, too. It generates more positive progressions, you know?
Near the end of last year, the first four Black Crowes albums were reissued. For a lot of fans, this was a big deal — those early records are sometimes hard (or expensive) to find on vinyl. Were you involved with those reissues?
I wasn’t super involved … I still think the Black Crowes are one of those bands, especially with those early records, that seem to not get treated with much respect. I think if they were any other band they would get a little more respect. But, yeah, I had to okay all the remastering. I found myself really liking it, you know, going back and listening to those records … it was really enjoyable.
Are there any other plans for reissues, like By Your Side or Lions?
I don’t know. I have no idea. The Black Crowes seem a million years away. Eventually I guess that stuff will come up, but I really don’t think about it or deal with it that much. But yeah, what about those records? That’s a good question. [Laughs] With Lions, they only made the vinyl in Europe, so it’s hard to find. Nobody was really doing vinyl in 2000 or 2001.
Well, and like you said, you have a lot in store with the CRB — an EP, Betty’s Blends. For you personally, is there anything that you have a desire to create that might not fit the CRB?
I would like to be making more experimental music, sort of electronic soundscapes … touching on new age, more esoteric recordings. I mean, some of my interests in that gets put into the CRB, but I’m talking about no songs, no drums, just soundscape scenarios. That’s something that would really interest me, but I think anything other that is all fair game.
The Chris Robinson Brotherhood have never seemed to be limited by anything.
Yeah, you get what everyone is into. Adam’s thing is a more urban thing. The late, great Bernie Worrell, you know? I’m coming from a super fun place from where I grew up. Tony’s a jazz-er … we all listen to jazz. On the bus it’s everything from the Louvin Brothers to Thin Lizzy to Lefty Frizzell. We listen to a lot of music, but at a certain point, after you’ve written hundreds of songs and played thousands of hours, it all starts to become sort of your sound and your music. But when it’s your sound and your music, it’s all the music. Music is one giant thing and either you’re involved in it and playing around in it, or you’re not.
The Chris Robinson Brotherhood’s fourth album, Anyway You Love, We Know How You Feel, is out now via Silver Arrow Records. You can get more details on the record at the band’s official website.
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