How Chris Robinson Found A ‘Harmonic Place’ With His New Brotherhood Album: Exclusive Interview
In the middle of “Forever As The Moon,” the second track on the new album from the Chris Robinson Brotherhood, Robinson exclaims, “Anyway you love / We know how you feel.” He apparently really liked the phrase, because it also became the title of the record, which arrives today (July 29) on Silver Arrow Records.
But as was the case with many things during the creation process of Anyway You Love, We Know How You Feel, the fourth studio effort from the band, it was a moment that happened rather casually and organically.
“It’s funny, that’s not usually my M.O.,” Robinson laughs, during a recent conversation with Ultimate Classic Rock. “You know what’s cool about that? I had the verses and [things were a] little bit darker or melancholy if you will. I mean, the whole song is…..it’s a different kind of song. So I have the whole thing, the verses, the choruses, the things that you hear and then we get to that little two-chord turnaround [in the middle of the song] – Neal [Casal] threw that in there while we were learning my pieces and that’s just the first thing that came to my mind for whatever reason."
“It wasn’t in my notebooks or anything – I just sang that out of some sort of connection,” he recalls. “And what’s really funny, we were sitting around and it was super cold and foggy and moody and stuff up [where] we were recording it and it was awesome – we loved it. I was like, ‘Ooh, maybe this album could be [called] Songs from Sourwood Mansion or something weird’ and then the second I said that, a couple of days later it was like, by dinner that night, maybe the record could be called this. Everyone raised their wine glass and thus it be.”
It had been three years since the band had been in the studio and as Robinson relates, a good amount of creative ideas were brewing in that time, making the band eager to get back into the process.
“We like to write songs. I think the energy of us being in a new headspace, taking the bull by the horns and producing it ourselves and just reaching for some stuff that I don’t think we’ve reached for in ourselves and in the music and the composition and the performance….all of that [and] the sonic part too, [were important],” he says. “In this band, everyone is free to be as expressive as they want. And the writing is changing, I mean, I write most of the verse/choruses, but now Adam [MacDougall] and I are writing more and Tony [Leone’s] getting in on it. And of course, Neal and I have been writing. Weirdly enough, a couple of just my compositions pop on, so it’s kind of like it’s wide open. While we feel that way, we want to capitalize on it. Our days on this planet are filled with anxiety, fear, suffering and weird stuff, you know what I mean? So if we have the opportunity to sort of drop a pebble into the pond and have a reverberation, even in our own small way, then that’s kind of like where we want our music to be. We’re not hiding from any of the realities, but we can take a vibrational stand against the outside world in a way and create our own harmonic place.”
“Leave My Guitar Alone” was a song which had been lurking in Robinson’s songbook for 15 years before finally finding its place officially on the new album. It came to the surface once again as the veteran songwriter was working through his normal process, playing through song ideas and riffs for the other members of the band.
“You know, a lot of times, when we are working in the studio, it’s early in the morning and everyone’s there, because all of the guys stayed at the house [while we were making this album]. I’m up at seven no matter what, taking my daughter to school. I’m up early making a cup of tea, having a piece of toast and listening to some Klaus Schulze records and then everyone starts to wake up or I’ll go outside and work on some lyrics and stuff that I’m working on to show everyone,” he says. “But this has happened over the last few years, you know? Everyone can be sitting on the bus or at soundcheck and I’ll start playing, like a little idea and singing the first couple of lines I’m thinking of. And sometimes, Adam’s still rolling a joint, Neal’s changing strings, Tony’s having a cup of coffee and no one looks up and I’m like, ‘Okay.’ Later, I’ll play something else and like all of their heads peek up, like meerkats or something and I’m like, ‘Oh, okay, so they like this one.’ It’s kind of by committee in that weird way and I’m totally cool with it. If a song is good, it might stick around for a while and pop up. For me, it was just...everyone heard that and said, ‘What is it?’ and I was like, “I don’t know, it’s been going on.” I ended up doing a different arrangement and rewriting it. I never really had lyrics, you know? So I wrote the lyrics and it’s kind of a little ode to the California CRB experience in a way. It’s a lighter song, you know, it’s a rock and roll song and it’s funny, no one would hear it, because we just don’t play like it, but we listen to a lot of T. Rex records and like David Bowie and stuff, you know, a lot of English music on the bus, so that’s our hippie glam rock song.”
Robinson says that there were several factors that led to the decision for the band to take control of the producer’s chair for the new album and self-produce, one of which was the chance to get out of Los Angeles and record in a more creatively inspiring environment. They found themselves in Northern California, recording in a beautiful studio space in the mountains that overlooked the Pacific Ocean. Their surroundings definitely fed back into the vibe of the music that was captured and it proved to be a good setting for them to continue the musical conversations that happen nearly every day, no matter where they might be.
“We feel that we’re the kind of group that communicates well,” he says. “There’s no real ego trips, there’s no agendas, there’s no guy from the record company telling somebody else, ‘Don’t tell this guy this.’ There’s no agendas and there’s no games. We’re a tight knit group of people who, you know, we still live on the bus. We’re still together when we’re on the road all day long, talking about music, listening to music. We go to dinner, we talk about music, we go back on the bus after dinner on a night off and listen to records. We’re kind of f---ing boring obsessed music dorks, if you know what I mean. I think we all want what’s best and we’ve all built this band. In that sense, I don’t see why we wouldn’t. We know what we sound like. We spend that time. We’re not going….what, do I want to sound like the modern stuff that’s on the radio? I don’t. That’s not important to me. It’s cool that people do, that’s totally cool to go for whatever you want to go for, that’s your right and that’s your ambition. Our ambition is to kind of make the most soulful, dynamic thing that we’re into.”
“It would be cool to be on the radio, I guess,” Robinson adds with a chuckle. “But are there still radio stations? I don’t know! But we just couldn’t, if we tried.”
He got plenty of radio airplay in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s with the Black Crowes -- a group that was making music that could have been termed as being outside of the box with what radio was playing at the time and yet, he’s not surprised that they had the success that they did in those years.
“At the time of the big commercial success [for the band], they put our cog in the system, they pulled a handle and it fit and it made a piece work and that’s what it is,” he says. “Yeah, the songs were good and I think there was obviously something about the band. But those first couple of records and those first couple of years, you’re just in the machine. Your only job in a corporation is to make money, that’s it. That I had any commercial success on any level is f---ing hilarious. It was when I was 22 and it is now -- because I don’t have commercial success in the same way, of course. But you know, it’s truly a blessing that anyone likes your music. It’s a unique opportunity.”
It was a unique opportunity that found the group sharing the stage with some of classic rock’s giants in 1990 and 1991 as they hit the road with Aerosmith, Robert Plant and ZZ Top, a period that Robinson summarizes by saying that, “Sometimes you get to go on Magic Mountain for free.” Even when things got thorny with ZZ Top, with the Crowes eventually getting tossed off of the tour as they were in the midst of a homecoming run of dates in Atlanta, the band just carried things forward and continued to ride the wave of the success at that time. Now, it’s been 25 years since those days and Robinson says the water ran underneath the bridge a long time ago.
“I don’t know, I don’t even remember,” he says, looking back at how things wrapped up with ZZ Top at that time. “We were selling 150-175 thousand records every week at that point and they were not. We were kids and who knows. It’s funny, after all of these years, Billy Gibbons and I are good friends. I see him all of the time and run into him in the weirdest places. It’s the same thing -- that’s ancient history of young beings wandering the earth.”
Have we seen the last of the Black Crowes?
“Yeah, probably. It’s far out of my viewpoint at this time in life,” Robinson says. “We’re super focused and I think the next four or five years for the CRB are going to be super busy. Kind of like the last four or five years for the CRB.”
“The harder that we don’t really pay attention to anything other than the music, the more that music seems to not only...we nurture our music and the creative thing that we have going and then that’s super-fulfilling for us,” he adds. “Now, with Jeff [Hill] in the band, I feel like we’ve gone through a lot of...of course the guys that were in the band were instrumental in helping, but now here we are with our rhythm section locked in and now it’s time to get our boogie on.
Hill is the most recent addition to the band’s lineup, joining earlier this year as a replacement for original bassist Mark Dutton. Drummer Tony Leone now has a year’s worth of live dates with the Brotherhood under his belt that were a positive influence when the group entered the studio to record the new album. “Now we have the guy who kind of drives the whole thing and his confidence and his groove and all of our kind of trust, that makes it so much easier too to just jump into a batch of new stuff and new grooves and stuff and have them be really natural and feel strong,” he says, of Leone.
Now that the new album is out, the band will be on the road for the rest of the year playing live dates in support of the album. After that, if Robinson has his way, we’ll hear more new music from the group really soon. “Basically, if my kind of weird plan is right,” he says, “We’ll be in the studio again in January or February.”
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