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Published: 2016/05/01
by Matt Inman

The Future is the Past: Revisiting Paper with Rich Robinson

In 1990, Rich Robinson and his brother Chris introduced The Black Crowes to the world. 26 years and several breakups later—the last one seems to be final—Robinson is looking back on his solo career, which began as a side project with 2004’s Paper, with a set of rereleases on his new Eagle Rock. Included in the releases is a complete reimagining of that first solo record, with Robinson going back into the studio to remaster and re-sing every track. Combine that with a new record coming this June, a summer tour with Bad Company and even a side career as a visual artist—not to mention three young children at home—Robinson is busier than ever.

On a recent trip to New York to play some tunes for the Relix/Jambands.com offices, Robinson sat down to discuss the process of revisiting Paper over a decade later, how his albums have progressed with and without The Crowes, how he came to be Bad Company’s guest guitarist and why he thinks the modern world is squandering the sacred gift of music.

You have several re-releases in the works. Can you talk a little about how you came to do those, the process and also the re-recording of Paper ?

Paper was the one that was destroyed in Hurricane Sandy. I always wanted to redo Paper —I was never happy with the mix. When I signed with Eagle, part of the deal was to gather all of the stuff I released before and put it under one roof. The opportunity arose to be able re-mix it, but the tapes were destroyed during Sandy with all of my gear. I had this great opportunity when a friend of mine, Matt Wells, who is based in New York, got the tapes and restored them and got them on file so that they were listenable. When they came, though, they didn’t have any vocals on them, so while I was in the studio making my new record that’s coming out in June, I was like, “Fuck it, I’ll just re-sing it.” It was about twenty songs that I had recorded, so there was extra stuff that hadn’t been finished or released, so I was able to finish that and re-sing everything. I was also able to rewrite some stuff I wasn’t thrilled with the first time around and re-mix it so it sounded great. Pulling it up on the faders was like, “Wow, this is what we remember it sounding like.” It sounded so much better, and it was cool to be able to do that again, just to totally re-imagine—for lack of a better word—what that record could be, and I’m really happy with it.

That came out in February, as did Llama Blues, which is this little EP I recorded. I was just in the studio and I had a song that I had written that didn’t really fit with the rest of the record. I was thinking, “What if we just go in and make a little EP in a room with one mic?” We had a little mic sitting there, an RCA from the ‘40s, a huge ribbon mic. The drums were on one side, I was on the other with my amp and we recorded it that way. It was more for just fun, and we made up a thousand of them just to have. They sold out really quickly so it was like, “Let’s take that and re-master it and put it on vinyl.” It’s cool to be able to have something like that on vinyl.

Recently we’ve been doing colored vinyl, which actually sounds really good. It was funny because The Crowes reissued all of our first four records, and the original Amorica was on white vinyl, and people talk shit about colored vinyl. I put that shit on and it sounded great. My last record Ceaseless Sight was on a marbled vinyl that was really cool and it sounded fucking great. So listening to what they can do now is really cool. Coming up in April, Through a Crooked Sun is being re-released. I have some really cool live tracks that were never released before that I added on that record. We did this series called the Woodstock Sessions, which is not unlike how we made Before the Frost, where The Crowes made it live in front of the studio record. We did it throughout two and half weeks of recording. We went up there to the studio I work in called Applehead, and a live audience comes in and just watches us record this live record. We did it over two days, two sets a day, with an acoustic set and an electric set. People ask questions and we’re just hanging out in this place because it’s so small and nice to just hang out in. We had some other stuff that was not released on the first record and it was all set to go. This is kind of a newly reimagined Woodstock Sessions because I tweaked the sequence and did this and that. For whatever reason even if it’s subconscious, just having everything under one roof makes sense to me.

Was that part of the deal when you signed with Eagle Rock?

That’s what was so cool about it. They were like, “Yeah, let’s bring it all here.”

What is it like to going back to these songs and re-recording the tracks?

I can’t believe that was thirteen years ago we recorded that. It was cool. I mean shit, man—Eddie Harsch played on it, but in the mix, because it became so compressed, you can’t hear. There wasn’t a lot of breath in that mix. Donnie Herron—who plays with Dylan now and is in a band called BR549 playing some beautiful fiddle—he’s playing pedal steel, and just to be able to listen to those [recordings] for the first time in a long time and to hear them clearly is really cool shit.

In re-recording the vocals, have you changed as a vocalist since then?

Yeah, I’ve changed as a vocalist. We started so young, you know? Chris was the singer and I played guitar. My wheelhouse was music, and that’s all I was interested in. For eleven or twelve years, Chris would be like, “Just sing the high part.” That’s just what I did, whether I could do it or not, I just did it. Then I put together a band called Hookah Brown that didn’t last very long and I was like, “Fuck, man, I have all these songs. I want to make a record—that’s what I do.” So I put everything out there and tried to have a concept for how I would sing. What I love is juxtaposition—to juxtapose this loud rock-and-roll music with these almost David Gilmour-esque vocals. I was trying to be more melodic and softer in a vocal approach, just conceptually, to see how it worked. I also threw some George Harrison-y, long, cool, double vocal parts in there.

Thirteen years later, after touring on my own a bunch, four solo records in and two EPs, and live records and shit, I definitely have more of an understanding of what works, and I’m more comfortable with it. The problem is that people get used to someone in a context. Crowes fans are so diehard, and that band and that music really mean so much to the people who like it. To take that sound—the music that comes from me—and to put it with different vocals is kind of a stretch for some people. It takes re-contextualizing. I don’t sing like Chris—I never said I wanted to or could. It’s not what I do. This is a different thing. To me, now that I’m getting into it and understanding it and bringing my concept of what I know that I can do—what I can bring to my music—it’s been really cool, and I really like it.

In that vein, do you think that when you started doing your solo stuff with Paper that your music writing changed when you added your own vocals?

I think that I understood more about my voice. I would put it as growing and changing as a singer. I had a concept, and I knew could do this thing, but I didn’t really know what I was doing, so it was really a period of discovery more than anything. Like, “What can I do? How can I do this? This is what sounds cool to me, how can I try this and that?” I don’t know how much of the way the music is written is fueled by my age and my changing of experience versus singing, because I still write the way I’ve always written. I just write what I like, that’s all you can do.
I write what moves me. I hear something and it sounds great to me, so I make a song out of it. It’s all very organic, and the way that I create always has to come from something. I don’t go in with a solid idea, like, “I need a rock-and-roll sound;” I just kind of play around. Something catches my ear, I do this and it ends up here. That’s a joy that comes from that process of creation, because it’s unexpected to me. There are so many times I’ve written a song and recorded a song and I’m not into it, and then one thing will shift and I’m like, “That’s fucking it.” It could be so subtle—it could be a chord change or it could be a lyric or it could be a melody, and it turns it from this song I was never really that into into something that’s like, and that’s what’s cool about it to me.

You also released an Eric Clapton cover for Record Store Day. What are your thoughts on the day? I feel like Record Store Day is kind of when artists pick pet projects, things that they’re passionate about that maybe wouldn’t fit on other releases.

I did the last three Record Store Days, which has been really cool. I believe the future of music is the past, in a sense. It’s almost like people can’t understand why music is inherently important to us as a species on this planet. I read this amazing book called The Singing Neanderthals where they talk about how Neanderthals and proto-humans used music far before language, because even as language started coming in, there was no context, no grammar, you know—“Bear kills man. Man kills bear.” There was nothing to really hold onto, and you couldn’t convey emotion. [The book] quotes Noam Chomsky a lot, with his linguistic background. They talk about how music is used to help us communicate and help our language, but it also helps us communicate the emotion of something. Music, in particular, is so important to us as human beings, but we just fucking ruined it—it’s everywhere. It’s a flood. Everywhere you go, you hear shitty music in a store, you hear shitty music in a cab, you hear shitty music on an airplane—for whatever reason, you’re inundated with the shittiest of music. It’s not like you’re walking down and Neil Young from Massey Hall is playing; it’s some fucking asshole who had fifteen people write their fucking song because they want to be in show business. It’s really getting to be schlocky-ass show business now. We’ve cheapened that importance in our lives.

It’s really the only creative medium that has a religion based around it. If you think about Sufis and what music means to them and what chanting means in the Buddhist philosophy and hymns and singing in Christianity. It always goes hand in hand with one of the most single important things to humans, which, next to surviving, is spirituality. So why are we treating it with such disrespect? Then with Record Store Day, bringing people in to go buy vinyl—vinyl in particular, even if you’re unaware of it on a conscious level, there is a process to it. You hold it in your hand—it’s a multi-sensory process—and you have tactile process of feeling this sizable thing. You have to open it up, use a muscle, and you don’t [just hit a button]. You open the thing, you pull it out, you look at it and you read it. There’s information—information about the studio, the players, the people who wrote it, the people who produced it, the engineer, the people who designed the artwork—you get something out of it. Then you walk over to a turntable, you turn the turntable on, you put the needle on and then you hear that sound. It could be a scratch or it could be the start of it. Then you have to listen vigilantly, because a side is only four or five songs, and you know if you go out of the room and that shit ends, you’re going to hear that horrible sound and it’s going to fuck up your needle. You have to give it your attention.

It’s all a choice we live with every day. We have choices—we have a choice to be a douchebag or to be cool. We have a choice to be inquisitive or to be lazy. We have a choice to eat healthy or eat fucking Kentucky Fried Chicken where they found a lung—some dude found a lung in a piece of chicken. Everything that we do as humans, we have choices, and for me, showing respect to something that gives us so much is key. That could be the beginning of everything. So by doing that, doing a thing like Record Store Day and trying to bring people into those stores is a celebration of what is important. It’s not a matter of, “I have eleven thousand vinyls.” Well how many fucking vinyls do you listen to? You can have ten of your favorite vinyls and you can listen to them—or one—and get something out of it every day. That’s the respect I think music is owed, because music gives us so much and I think we just cheapen it on a daily basis.

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