Chris Robinson:
The TVD Interview

Unashamedly psychedelic, proggy and weird, retro yet modern, Chris Robinson is a latter day icon of that place and time where cosmic rock began. His latest album with the Chris Robinson Brotherhood, Phosphorescent Harvest, is his third in two years, following hot on the heels of a 2013 Black Crowes reunion tour and coinciding with that iconic band’s 25th anniversary. It’s true that Robinson is best known as the frontman for the Black Crowes (who are again on hiatus), but his is the kind of relentless energy that keeps him from locking into any one band or project or sound, and making sell-outs (by default) of many of his peers. 

So, you haven’t seen or heard of the Brotherhood? That’s all right. Their latest tour officially kicks off on April 29, coinciding with the release of Phosphorescent Harvest. (You can hear new songs from the album before its official release via Billboard and Rolling Stone.) In other words, this is the perfect time to get acquainted with the band who, somehow, make the acid-rock music beloved by so many sound fresh and electrifying.

“The best perspective I have on what’s going on in my life—good and bad—is what comes out in the songs,” says Robinson. When we talked with him, Chris was standing outside of yet another venue, tour manager tapping his watch as he talked vinyl, the Brotherhood, and the state of music as he sees it. The rocker is perpetually on the road, logging 230 Brotherhood gigs since 2011. Yet his enthusiasm about his music and his connection with his band and his fans is what’s at the core of his prolonged popularity, and is what makes the California band a rootsy, trippy, utterly magnetic live act. 

Hey, are you The Vinyl District with the record store app?

Yes, we’re one and the same! You like it?

I really do like the app. I mean, you know, once you’ve been going to record stores for a long time, you can pretty much figure out… like, I know which ones I need to go to and which ones I don’t need to go to.

The one and only time I’ve seen you live was with Jimmy Page and the Black Crowes. I caught one of the only tour dates before he cancelled for some reason – hurt his back or something?

No… When we made the record, that was only like a handful of dates. We did the whole South and East Coast and Midwest; we did a lot of shows. It was just that last leg that we didn’t finish—I think! I could be totally wrong about that—I don’t know! [Laughs]

You’ve always seemed like a rock star from a different time. More accurately, you seem like you’ve always been really “into” music—like someone who spent afternoons looking for obscure records.

Yeah, I was always more into music than being a rock star. You think you’ve entered some exclusive thing, and then you look around and you’re like… “Oh, there’s a band called Ugly Kid Joe,” you know what I mean? They had a one-hit record. Anything that was more about money or being cool or whatever, and less about music, was not interesting to me. I was not interested at all. I was that way as a kid. That’s the only thing from my useful self that I reminisce about. [Laughs]

I asked a friend’s daughter, who’s about fifteen, what she thought about bands “selling out.” Her response was along the lines of, “Like how? Selling out a concert?” That notion doesn’t really seem to exist anymore…

Well, what is out there for a fifteen year old? Green Day? Do they even listen to Green Day anymore?

I’ve heard teenagers describe Green Day as “classic rock.”

Luckily for me, on a cultural basis… I think that was one kind of bittersweet thing about the Black Crowes was that we came along with the vibe sort of indie rock politics, but who didn’t sound like a sweater boy indie rock band. We played this kind of blues rock and roll music, and we looked like The Rolling Stones or whatever back then. [Laughs] That was hardly poised for a twenty-five year career, you know? It was pretty miraculous! That was at the hair metal time, and right before everybody sounded like Nirvana or whatever.

So, within that, it’s the same thing. Music should set you free! That’s the way I have always felt about it. Nowadays, maybe, it’s hard for young people to imagine that, because they see such assimilation. Part of the impetus for being in band was that was the only sub-social “caste” that would have me in suburban Georgia in the early-to-mid ‘80s! [Laughs]

We were the weirdoes. You moved to East Atlanta, where everybody was a junkie or poet or a transvestite-junkie-poet, or they were in a punk band, or they were a painter, or their parents kicked them out—or whatever! It was all people who had yet to find traction in life to express themselves. It was where you went to build up your sea legs, you know. It had nothing to do with having your teeth whitened or having people vote for you or being pleasant. In fact, you got on stage to be as provocative as you could, to make people uncomfortable! [Laughs] It wasn’t fake Lady Gaga stuff. It was a different reason to be in a band than just to be in a commercial for a car or something.

Do you feel like with the Brotherhood there’s a place for all that old school rock and roll ethos? Does it really matter if there is?

If there wasn’t a place for it, we couldn’t be doing it. I could just get together with friends and play it on a rehearsal stage. The point is how you do it. I don’t want to have anything to do with real corporations on any real kind of level. So, I don’t want to take any money from them to do it like you would with regular record deals or record companies, and have to answer to people—you know, like, we’re not going to do that.

There’s the best music ever going on right now! There’s awesome dynamic, stuff. It’s just you’re never going to hear it on the radio or see it on TV. You have to go find stuff. In a way, that gives it focus. It gives it energy as well. My thing is that music is going to become more and more connoisseur-driven anyway. Eventually, someone’s gonna spit out this Soylent Green [Laughs] stuff. “That’s made from…!” well, in this case, dog shit.

You just have to realize that we live in a very anxiety-ridden, troubled time, you know? Most times are always that way, but the idea that everything has to be so shallow and so dumb and just so… youth-driven as well. By the way, I would be into that! I love lots of young bands. They’re not the ones being produced by people my age or younger, I guess, because they have to know how to work the latest robots and stuff. [Laughs]

I think what you’re saying about music eventually becoming more “connoisseur-driven” will have the effect of people rejecting the mass marketed stuff more often in favor of exactly what they want. You can get things instantly… Don’t you think, too, that we’re overwhelmed with information?

But there’s very little information! It’s mostly just, “buy my shit!” And that’s different. People who are interested in information will find ways to get it. There are people who still have books in their homes. [Laughs] As a matter of fact, it’s the same thing—most of the books I read… you can’t download them. You have to go find them. You know what I’m saying?

But I’m not the only one. I’m not the only person who looks for a specific thing in the concert experience. The coolest thing about technology is that the smaller the sub-genre of stuff, the more you realize that there are more people into, you know, early ‘70s electronic music composed for public television. You know what I mean?

Do you think that’s part and parcel of why vinyl is having a resurgence now? People are looking for something that’s not instantly available, but are also using technology to find it?

Yeah, I mean… I don’t think for those of us who have been collecting records forever, I don’t think… I mean, in the mid-‘90s when I was still listening to vinyl, people would look at me like, “What the fuck is wrong with you? You can’t get this on CD, man!” [Laughs] That’s the other thing—about CDs—it was a great scam! But music’s like anything else. People think Pandora is so rad, it’s like… you’re still just hearing the same shit! If you want to be inspired… I mean, hey, I love Elton John. Yay! But the stuff that I collect and the stuff I like to listen to starts to become a little bit more obscure and esoteric as I move along in life.

I’ve spent a lot of time in record stores—I know what I like. I think on one level, people who want to find music and know that the only access to it is through these rare records…that will always be there. But I think for kids or young people, if it’s a nostalgic thing… my head doesn’t really operate like that.

I think people find that a stack of records is a lot cooler than your Pandora, and it’s a lot cooler than putting on your iPod and pressing “shuffle.” There’s an invitation there when you open a record. You’re involved when you put it under the needle. The time that it’s going to stop—people say, “I don’t want to wait to change a record!”—that time is great, because you’re focusing on the stack of records, on what you’re going to play next. The focus and energy, especially when there’s people around, of what you want to hear and what you want them to hear, is a lot more interesting than just pressing “shuffle.”

It’s a completely different experience, giving the brain time away from being multi-tasked and having to sit and listen, pauses and all.

In Patti Smith’s book, Just Kids, about her and her early artistic life in New York with Robert Mapplethorpe and stuff… my favorite part of the book was when they lived in this little crummy apartment and whatever record they had, they would only listen to that record for, like, a week. That’s so cool in one way; you’d know every inch of those grooves by the end of that. It’s amazing.

It’s even more amazing when you hear how much is often left out of digital recordings—especially those early CDs.

It also sounds better in the mid. Although most people listen to exaggerated, blown-out, false sounds these days with huge, fake, bottom-end shit… everything is super high-end stuff. On records, you’re really interested in the mid, and all the fuzzy warm stuff. I don’t know about you, but fuzzy and warm sounds like a nice place to be!

It seems only natural that you’re giving your new album, Phosphorescent Harvest, a vinyl release as well. What’s cool about the songs I’ve heard so far is how the band sounds like it’s been together for decades. Do you feel like that’s accurate?

Well, I mean the first year we put the band together, we ended up… something that started out as a nine-week experiment, just playing bars up and down the coast in California and residencies on Tuesday nights and Wednesday nights and stuff… that took us to inevitably touring the whole country, and doing 118 shows. We play over three hours a night; we did 13,500 miles in the van, just in the State of California, just the five of us and Brian, our tour manager, in the van. If we didn’t know what we were going to do at the end of that… [Laughs]

That’s the thing—everyone is in the right place at the right time and wants to play this music. Everyone also has the freedom… again, I never want to work with musicians where I have to tell them what to play. It should be…. it’s like people you meet. Some people you meet you can have conversations with for hours. Some people you meet, and you’re tired of talking to them in two seconds. [Laughs] It’s like anything else—music is a conversation, too. When we got together, we had a unique and interesting conversation and we’re still yapping away.

Talking about having a conversation with music, the venues you’ve chosen for this upcoming tour are really unique. That you’re ending the first leg at Pappy and Harriet’s out in the California desert… I don’t think you could have picked a more perfect place, with its really cool roadhouse/hippy vibe.

Yeah, yeah—definitely! We had the same sort of event out there last year on our residency tour—we played Pappy & Harriet’s three times or something. Again, you know, the music in our scene isn’t for mass consumption. We want to really nurture the people and the music and the thing that’s here now, you know? I think events like that… we are lucky to have the Mystic Braves, Buffalo Killers, Howlin’ Rain… we have a bunch of our friends out there, too, and great DJs with great records. Super cool people, everyone high and smiling—it’s really nice.

Touring the way you do, are you one of those musicians who can’t stay away from the road for creativity’s sake?

Well, with this band when we have our moments, that’s what we’re searching for every single night. When you’re just floating in space, it’s a fantastic feeling. When everything clicks, and you’re having one of those kind of shows, it could be anywhere at any time. That sort of feeling—that’s why we keep doing it.

Thanks so much for the chat. I know you’ve got to get on the road…

Thank you. Be assured: I am not a despicable, horrible, decrepit old hippie man!

Chris Robinson Brotherhood Official | Facebook | Twitter

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