Chris Robinson (lead singer of The Black Crowes) doesn't do many interviews. At this point in his career he doesn't have to, and this year he has mostly, as one press agent put it, "let his music speak for him." But he took time to talk to Xpress in advance of his Orange Peel show with his current band, The Chris Robinson Brotherhood, because "No. 1, I really love Asheville and I love that area," he says. "It's small and that's good. It's like how we're starting — what we're doing is very hands on and grassroots."
Robinson says that he's not into talking heads and sound bites, but "if you have something to say, it's better to take a little time and do that." So what does he want to say to his Asheville fans? "People should know that Freak America loves them," he says.
"Freak," in Robinson-speak, is hardly a bad word. In a 2010 interview with Esquire about beards and style, Robinson said, "I still wanted to look like a freak, because I didn't live like anyone else, and no one looked like that." He added, "Our souls are crying out for something with a deeper meaning than status and greed and wealth."
That awareness of being different stems back to Robinson's childhood. "It probably has a lot to do with being a young person in the early '70s in Georgia and being horribly dyslexic," he says. "Not having real perspective to understand what that was, music was always something that made sense. There was order in it."
Songwriting was Robinson's stepping stone to a career as a performer, but even with two decades of success fronting the Black Crowes under his belt (not to mention penning hits like "She Talks to Angels," "Jealous Again" and "Kickin' My Heart Around"), it's songwriting to which Robinson continues to return. Following the release and tour for the Crowes' acoustic, career-spanning album Croweology, that band announced a hiatus. Robinson immediately put together the Brotherhood (with keyboardist Adam MacDougall of the Crowes, drummer George Sluppick, bassist Mark "Muddy" Dutton of Burning Tree and guitarist Jonathan Wilson).
For this tour — which focuses on Robinson's solo songs, new work and select covers — the musician says the smaller-sized venues are about practicality. "I'm not going to be the person who gets a record deal and looks a certain way and tells you what you want to hear and has a guy from a record company send me over a demo of some shit pop song that I'm supposed to go out and sell for them," he says. "I didn't do that in the most commercial times of the Black Crowes; I wouldn't do it now."
Robinson says he's on the road because it's something he believes in, but "the music business was a spaceship that crashed." So he's introducing the Brotherhood to his fans, nurturing the seed of an idea until "ultimately there's a level of success artistically and fiscally."
Fans of the Crowes and Robinson's solo endeavor, New Earth Mud, probably won't find the Brotherhood to be a major departure. The freak culture that Robinson alluded to is recognizable on the logo art: A gnome riding an eagle who's holding a mushroom in its talon. Which begs the question, if psychedelics figure into the artwork, what is their role in music?
"I feel that psychedelics are just a tool and/or a gift that allows you to be present in the moment," says Robinson. "The interconnectedness of a multidimensional experience is the doorway that music offers anyway. To be able to heighten that or enlighten that in a responsible setting is a tremendous gift of inspiration." He adds that a person actively involved in the creative process can summon that inspiration without substances.
And, says Robinson, his life is much different now than it was 20 years ago. He's a father. He has a partner. He has responsibilities that have altered how he works. "I found myself working at night again and only getting a few hours here and there. I think it really changed the architecture of what the sound structure could be," says Robinson. But the changes aren't a hardship, but a challenge to be met.
The Brotherhood reflects Robinson's mature outlook. "This band is about nuance and being more expressive in different ways," he says. Gone is the angst of the Crowes' early music — these days Robinson is tapping into Grateful Dead covers. The Crowes got to open for the Grateful Dead in '95 and joined The Further Festival with Dead members in '97. Of Dead songs, Robinson says, they're "a part of our language. You can listen to bands like Howling Rain or White Denim, indie rock bands that will have these moments of Garcia-inspired music. …Now you have bands who can reference them and be inspired by them without having to drink the Kool-Aid."
Robinson sometimes wears Steal Your Face patches on his clothes — along with the ponchos and moccasins that have long-since replaced the roach stompers and velvet jacket of the Shake Your Money Maker days. He says, "decades in, it's like, 'Oh, I'm more interested in harmonious sorts of things and a different kind of trip.'"
— Alli Marshall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
who: The Chris Robinson Brotherhood
where: The Orange Peel
when: Saturday, Sept. 3 (9 p.m. $18 advance/$20 doors. theorangepeel.net)