Chris Robinson: Greetings from the Outer South
Chris Robinson had already secured his place in the rock-and-roll pantheon before forming the Brotherhood in 2011, but that doesn’t mean he views his current group as a late-career side-project. Born out of his love for ‘70s California psychedelic rock and Grateful Dead-inspired improvisation, the Brotherhood is a true band, featuring noted musicians like longtime Ryan Adams collaboration Neal Casal (guitars, vocals), latter day Black Crowes member Adam MacDougall (keyboards, vocals), Mark Dutton (bass, vocals) and George Sluppick (drums). Immediately after forming the Brotherhood in 2011, Robinson whipped his new outfit into shape the old-fashion way: they piled into a small van with almost no road crew and played almost 120 dates, including a stretch of small, West Coast clubs and bars they dubbed the California Residency Tour. Then in 2012, during The Black Crowes hiatus, the Brotherhood released two expansive studio albums, Big Moon Ritual and The Magic Door, and honed in on a new, distinct sound that owes as much to the Dead as it does Robinson’s best known band (Longtime Dead sound engineer Betty Cantor is an admitted fan and recently recorded a live album for the group).
Though he devoted a good chunk of time to the Crowes last year, Robinson has already made the most of the group’s 2014 break by releasing the Brotherhood’s third studio album, Phospheresent Harvest, and prepping for an extended run with Bob Weir & RatDog. He’s quick to admit that playing with the Crowes gives him the luxury of flexing an experimental muscle, but Robinson is also molding a band he plans to nurture for years to come. While en route to a SEVA benefit, Robinson walked through his recent recording sessions, reflected on his work with The Dead and explained how being from the ‘outer south’ prepared him for a life in rock and roll.
It’s been a few months since the release of Phosphorescent Harvest. Since the first two Brotherhood albums were recorded at the same time and released before the band started touring extensively nationally, in certain ways this is the first set of Brotherhood songs written since this band has had a specific sound and image. Can you start by giving us a little background on when you started work on the album and how the Phosphorescent Harvest material has translated into your live set?
Well, in an overall sense, they all have to fit, somehow, into the live show. It would be amazing to be at a place in your life where you could make studio records that have nothing to do with the translation in front of people. But this band is born of a real, in a way, almost a need for the writing—that’s the fuel, that’s the impetus. The goal is to have something to say as a songwriter.
With the first two records, we basically we went in the studio after that first year, and we set up as we did every night on tour, and we just just played our entire repertoire, which was perfect. We didn’t have to rehearse; the songs were like all ready [Laughter.] There’s a little bit of method in the architecture of the whole idea. So that’s what you get with age, man.
But this time we definitely felt that we wanted to… We knew we were gonna make a recording that wasn’t as expansive, so instead of recording 30 songs, we kind of just said, “Let’s focus on 14, 15 tunes this time.” We had been playing a few of them live but they changed quite a bit by the time we got to the studio. But, for me, one of the luxuries of this whole band is that we are fairly anonymous in the music world. [Laughter] That relative obscurity—the freedom to do exactly what you want—is great.
I was just one of those people that was damaged enough even before I got into this music life to think that’s what real freedom was. It wasn’t selling billions of records and being a slave to your own ego and your own popularity. I mean, if that happens—very few people have it in them, I think, to continue that kind of thing, which is kind of evil, maybe. I don’t know [laughter].
Anyway, the idea is that you want to stay pure, and that is harder to do when there are people pulling at you from every side for the almighty dollar. In this case, we don’t have any money, so we’re free to do these things. And I think it also helps bring you to where you want to be creatively. Instead of being part of a system where you’re spending other people’s money and you’re living a certain lifestyle with other people’s money, in a sense it gives you a real sense of immediacy and a real sense of the present. We know why we want to be in this band and what this band means to us, what the songs means to us, what our little scene means to us. When we go to cities where we have our audience and people are really hip to what it is, that’s a super unique, special opportunity to have.
I think all the songs are seeded with that kind of vibe or theory, if you will. So it gives us a great place to just be super expressive and use a lot of texture, a lot of color. And after you do it for a few hundred shows and a couple years go by or whatever, then you really have a sound. We want to really nurture that sound. It’s our weird garden and we’re going to tend to it.
As you said, on the first two albums you essentially presented your live repertoire, which you were concurrently developing on the road. Do you feel that the band as a whole wrote toward the specific sound the Brotherhood cultivated since those early recordings on Phosphorescent Harvest ?
Yeah, I think that happened. And I mean that’s something that transpired probably in those first nine weeks. We piled in a van and did 15,300 miles just in the state of California. And it was just us—just the guys in the band and Brian, our tour manager. Which by the way, it’s still just us [laughter]. But that’s the thing, here we are.
It’s not a project in the traditional sense, where you say, “I’m gonna make a record,” and then, you take some money and make a record—or however you choose to do it— and then say, “I’m gonna put a band together, then we’re gonna go on the road, and I’ll see what I’m gonna do next year.”
That’s a dead-end sort of way to do it. The music business is gone, that industry is gone—and thank God, by the way. I mean that with all the joy in my heart because I think it was a corporate driven thing, man. And I think there’s a lot of people in the world who are searching for deeper meaning and deeper context than just status and what’s easy. And some people are getting less and less fooled by, “Wow, why is the only stuff that I’m hearing and seeing always coming at me at a price?” And that price is that those types of bands are a product. This isn’t. This band is real, in my humble opinion.
My thing is, if you’re working in the major label system right now, you might as well work for Delta Airlines, or you might as well work for BMW or General Electric or whatever, ‘cause that’s what you’re doing. And that’s cool, man. People wanna be famous and make money. But, some of us wanna make music, and we understand the connection that we have. I still go to concerts, and I still love buying vinyl records and being a listener. I mean, Jesus, we have to get a trailer for our tour bus, not for our instruments, just for the amount of vinyl records we carry around. And as I get older, my relationship with that—as a creative person and as someone who’s just soaking it in—is more advanced, even, than as a kid.
And even with the other things in life—family, kids, life, playing with this band, everything that goes on with people—music is a powerful, powerful vibration. It’s a real gift, man, to be able to do it. I think the first nine weeks, on that tour of California, that was a great opportunity for any of these people in this band to look at each other and say, “That was fun, but I’m not committing to this full-time. You’re crazy!” or whatever [laughter]. But it was the exact opposite; it fell into place and our musical conversation was very interesting. And it only gets deeper, the creative process.
What has that creative process taught you specifically as a songwriter and a musician?
My partnership as a writer with Neal has taught me a ton. Also, this band has allowed me and encourages me to grow as a guitarist, and that is something that really wasn’t there before, besides maybe someone to strum along or write with. So all of it is about progression, and we live in an age where it seems like America will go kicking and screaming, man; they don’t wanna progress in a lot of ways. And I think it’s super exciting—I love that we have this time right now, too. If you’re creative and you have the energy and you wanna work hard and you have passion, it’s a great time to be a musician.
And, by the way, I’m not an idiot. It helps that I was in the fuckin’ Black Crowes for 20 years and sold like, you know, a million records [laughter]. But that has nothing to do with this man! You know what I mean? I’ve never put the Black Crowes on anything. This isn’t the Black Crowes, so…