BY CHRIS MCCARRY Let me be clear about this: I am a hardcore Black Crowes fan. By the time I finally saw them live when I was 20, I had been listening to their albums just about everyday since I was 14. My best friend and I blew off work on a Monday and drove the two-and-a-half hours to a place called The Staircase in Pittson, PA to catch an unpublicized warm up show for a newly reformed Crowes lineup after several years “on hiatus.” I can still remember, as if it were yesterday, feeling my knees buckle when Crowes lead guitarist/songwriter/co-founder Rich Robinson kicked into “My Morning Song.” Everybody’s got one or two bands with whom they have an emotional investment in and that night put The Black Crowes into that category for me.
The Crowes’ axis turned on the brothers Robinson – frontman Chris Robinson, who actually sounds like he earned the sandpaper timbre in his petulant rasp of a voice, and guitarist Rich Robinson, who makes a commanding grasp of the early ’70s blues-rock vernacular look effortless. On and off since the early 1990’s, The Black Crowes have cut their own path on Rich Robinson’s unique brand of vintage melody and classic-rock swagger. Hits like “She Talks to Angels” and “Jealous Again” off their multi-platinum debut Shake Your Moneymaker helped them find footing among the grunge and heavy metal that was so popular at the time. They followed with The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion which silenced the critics who wrote them off as a cheap Faces rip-off. Though the Crowes would go on to sell more than 30 million albums, the Robinson brothers often toxic relationship resulted in a series of breakups and two abandoned album attempts. While they always remained a force on stage, the music they did manage to release sounded like a band falling apart.
In 2015, they broke up for good after a dispute between the Robinson brothers about who “owned” the band. Since then, Rich Robinson has stepped out on his own, touring with Bad Company, moonlighting on producer Dave Cobb’s newly released Southern Family compilation, and writing/recording/releasing his fourth solo album, Flux. On Flux, Robinson offers a dynamic set of melody-based jams that departs from his lead-with-the-chin style and demonstrates his gifts not just as a guitar player, but as a singer, lyricist, and band leader. In advance of his acoustic show at the Sellersville Theater on Thursday, Robinson took the time to talk to Phawker about the new record as well as the Crowes, the state of the music biz, the importance of vinyl and how he really feels about Rick Rubin.
PHAWKER: I’m looking forward to the show in Sellersville. I saw you there about a year-year and a half ago on the acoustic tour you did. It was a lot of fun. What is the draw of a place like the Sellersville Theater?
RICH ROBINSON: It’s a little more peaceful. I think sometimes big cities and the places – sometimes there’s some cool places. But I also think you can find some really interesting – everything’s becoming so corporate, and all these chains like City Wineries, and House of Blues and those kinds of things. It’s sucking the uniqueness out of the world. That’s one of the things that’s really cool about places like the Sellersville Theater is that it is definitely really unique, it’s a unique place and it’s beautiful inside. It’s really cool.
PHAWKER: I love that room. A few years ago, some friends and I used to make this sort of annual trip up there because they play “It’s A Wonderful Life” on the big screen up there. It was like a family thing. We would all go up there and watch that movie. And that had been the only thing I had ever been to there for a long time before I started seeing bands there. It’s a great little room.
PHAWKER: Let’s talk about Flux. Let’s start with, can you tell me a little about your mindset going into the record. How do you decide it’s time to make an album? When you have songs for it, or do you start writing after you decide you want to do one?
RICH ROBINSON: Well, I write songs in part year-round. Just because every time I pick up a guitar, if there’s something cool I’m into, so I just do that all the time. Once I have enough of a collection, and I have enough time to make the record, then I’ll be like ‘hey, it’s time to make a record’. Everything I do, I try to do it in a natural time, and a natural feeling. This feels right, so I’m going to go do this. So this record in particular, or in general any of them, I’m like it’s time to go make a record. Sometimes I’ll have full songs going in. I like to use the studio to create songs and on this record in particular I just went in with a bunch of parts and said let’s see what happens. Let’s use the energy of the studio and use that urgency to create. Because you have to make a decision if there’s a finite amount of time that you’re in there recording. I don’t have time to mess around, this is what needs to happen.
PHAWKER: How does your solo career songwriting process different from your days in the Crowes?
RICH ROBINSON: In the Crowes our roles were really defined and my role was really music and Chris’s role was to write lyrics, and that was it, and sing, and I was to play guitar. I just look at like my role has kind of expanded into a whole song, instead of bringing half a song to Chris and having him finish it. It’s always cool to have someone with you, to be excited with you about something, and to bounce ideas off of, and that kind of shit. But ultimately, right now, these are songs that are coming and I’m really happy with it and I love the guys that I play with in my band. That’s how I’m looking at it right now.
PHAWKER: I’m a big fan of the second Black Crowes album, Southern Harmony and Musical Companion. What can you tell me about making that album?
RICH ROBINSON: The thing about Southern Harmony is we went into the studio just coming off of the Shake Your Moneymaker tour which was 350 shows in 22 months. So we were like ready to go. And we made it in a week. I mean literally 8 days we recorded that whole record. So that was just the band firing on all cylinders. And unfortunately, it’s tough, touring at this level, to keep a band together without a label helping out. We all have families, we’re all older. So the thought of going out for 22 months and playing 350 shows is not feasible.
PHAWKER: The last couple years since the Black Crowes wrapped up, you’ve been pretty busy. You reissued your old solo stuff and I know that even before that you re-issued some of those old Black Crowes albums.
RICH ROBINSON: Unfortunately, the people who released the Black Crowes catalogue in my opinion they really cheated people who were fans. Originally, those records had great gate folds and really cool artwork. And when I received – they sent me copies of the re-issues – they just shoved two LPs in one sleeve and they had some really cheap, like Xerox looking copy of the artwork that used to be in the gate fold. And it’s really shitty. That’s a shitty thing to do to fans, in my opinion. And we had no control of this. They just did it. They weren’t interested in working with us, we tried to go over these things. And it was a real bummer. And they just put it out kind of out half-ass at the end of our 25 years, nothing to add to it.
PHAWKER: So it wasn’t your decision to put those out?
RICH ROBINSON: No, if we were going to do it we wanted to do it properly. Do the gate fold, do these things. Those are records that sold millions and millions of copies. Put a little fucking effort into it. But they’re record companies, and most record companies are greedy and they don’t give a fuck, and that’s just how it is. And it’s a shame because those records deserve better than that.
PHAWKER: Yeah, I wouldn’t disagree with you. Is that American?
RICH ROBINSON: Yea, Rick Rubin. And if you look at my record, and my reissues, they’re far superior. The vinyl is amazing, we really were meticulous about reworking them. I re-mixed, and remastered and re-sang all of Paper, and I added three more songs that were never released. Now granted, the tapes were in the flood that was Hurricane Sandy, so I had to re-sing them. Not all of the information came off the tapes. But, I re-mixed it, re-mastered it and put it out on this really cool vinyl, with a full gate fold, the artwork was there. It was really well done. People paid attention. The people at Eagle Rock Entertainment did a phenomenal job on it. And the same thing goes for all the other ones. We added tracks, we re-mastered, we put this thing on all of them. Because that’s what you do. There’s such a weird contempt in the music industry especially the people who sell the music to the music industry, I mean to the fans. And there’s a contempt that they seem to have for the people who create the music. And then a cynical contempt they have for the people buying music. And it’s, people are going to either not buy records, because why would they if they have a better version at home; and then (b) nothing, figure it out, like quit trying to sell shitty things to people, do your job, find something cool, release it. It could have been so much cooler in my opinion. And it’s a real bummer because like I said that was a great band, those are great songs. People who are dealing because now or maybe could have seen something really cool that they hadn’t seen before, vinyl, whatever. They could have really had a much better experience than that. And that’s always the way with that company.
PHAWKER: What is your read on the state of the music industry these days.
RICH ROBINSON: There’s a lot of blame to be thrown around, in my opinion, of the state of the music industry. They’ve started making – bankers started running everything. Basically corporate people who work at IBM or Sony Music. And these people don’t know anything about music really. There’s no difference between a fucking towel and a record to them. It’s just a product that they can sell. And so they put this music out and people started downloading it for free, and they were late to get on that and try to figure out a way to bring people along and realize, like hey, there are people who actually are doing work with this. That’s why vinyl is so important. Because vinyl is at least a physical thing that shows that someone wrote these songs, a band played these songs, an engineer recorded these songs, someone built the recording console, someone built the microphone, someone built all the outboard gear. Someone built the studio, someone manufactured these albums, someone shipped them to you. There was an artist that created the artwork, there is information on these things. It takes a process to listen to and it takes a process to create them. It’s a lot more going on. It’s a huge collaborative effort. There are people that ship to stores; store owners that buy them and sell them; blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.
And all it costs is 20 bucks? I mean, people will spend two, three times that in a week at Starbucks, and not bat an eye. But for some reason, you don’t want to pay 10 bucks for a CD or 20 bucks for a vinyl? And a vinyl is something you can keep for your whole life. You can pass that down to your kids. It’s something you can create an incredible relationship with. It can get you through hard times, it can create such warm feelings of nostalgia as you get older, you’re like ‘man, this brings me back to that time, I really needed that’. And you see the collaborative effort it takes to create this music, to make these things and do that. So as this was going on the cynical record industry just kind of kept throwing out the bottom of the barrel to people and people gave up. So I think there’s a lot of blame to go around as to why there’s absolutely no respect for musicians, for music nowadays. And they actually sell music at Starbucks for 10 bucks. And it’s like “Oh, I can’t believe I gotta pay 10 bucks for a CD. Oh I’ll have this latte for fucking $12 dollars and fifty cents”. You know, something that will last for three minutes, depending on how fast you drink your coffee, and then you’re done, it’s done. And it’s weird. It’s such a bizarre, backwards way to look at things, in my opinion.
PHAWKER: So, just to wrap up the thing about the re-issues, I had heard that you were going to re-issue a 25th anniversary of Shake Your Moneymaker. Was that in addition to what had come out, or was that something you guys were going to do?
PHAWKER: What’s life like in your little corner of the music industry?
RICH ROBINSON: It’s no, look man, it can be a struggle. Go from playing in front of 5000 people a night to playing in front of a couple hundred people a night, you know, trying to keep people interested. Trying to get people, you know, it’s tough, fans are older, and you’re competing with staying at home with kids because people have lives or they have jobs. And there are so many distractions and young people aren’t going to see live music really that much. So you’re competing with all sorts of things, Netflix. The amount of people that go to work and when they come home they sit around and watch Netflix because they’re exhausted, because the world is stressful and I get all that, but trading some of that for an experience, a live experience, where you stand in front and you get this thing and you listen to it, I think it’s really a motivation to get out and support your musicians and support your favorite bands and try to help them grow and tell everyone about them like, “hey man, have you heard this, it’s a great record, he’s coming to town, or they’re coming to town. Go see them.” Because if we don’t, if everyone stops seeing bands, no one will play except for the shittiest of the shitty — the most vapid, meaningless pop songs you can imagine. And then it’s just – challenge yourselves. Go out and at least see something and if you don’t like it you don’t have to see it again, but maybe you’ll be turned on to something. Maybe you’ll see something. So it’s difficult, but it’s also worth it in my opinion.