By Lou Montesano
[I]n November 2015, Rich Robinson announced that the Black Crowes, after another long hiatus, were finally done. As the band approached its 25th anniversary, talks of a tour and other projects proved too much for what had always been a volatile relationship. Rich wasted no time getting busy, signing a new record deal with Eagle Rock Entertainment and re-issuing his solo catalog with new vocals and bonus tracks of previously unreleased material. Continuing to perform on his own, he connected with Paul Rodgers and will be touring this summer with Bad Company. His latest album, Flux, is due out June 24th. Rich is stepping out and stepping up, raising his creativity and energy levels as he embraces the opportunities that lie ahead.
Elmore Magazine: So I’m talking with Rich Robinson, “lead guitarist of Bad Company.” I’m not sure I can get used to the way that sounds. How did this happen?
Rich Robinson: I’ve always been a huge Paul Rodgers fan. I loved Free. To me that band was perfect: Paul Rodgers, Simon Kirke, Paul Kossoff, Andy Fraser. They were one of my favorite bands when I was growing up. I also listened to Bad Company . . . I mean, you couldn’t avoid them. I always thought Paul Rodgers was someone who would be great to work with, but being with the Crowes for so many years, I wasn’t able to do things like that.
Last year I went to Seattle for a tribute to Jimmy Page at the Experience Music Project. I was there with Duff McKagan, Jerry Cantrell [Alice in Chains], Kim Thayil from Soundgarden and all these people to honor Jimmy. Paul was there to play some of the songs he did with Jimmy when they were the Firm. Paul’s such a sweet guy. He liked the way I played guitar and asked me to play on the Firm songs. I said sure, cool. I got up there and played and he liked the way they sounded.
When Bad Company booked this tour, Mick Ralphs wasn’t able to make it, so they asked me and I said, Yeah, that would be great.
EM: So what’s the current Bad Company lineup?
RR: It’s Paul and Simon Kirke with Howard Leese on second guitar. He’s been playing with them for a while and he plays in the Paul Rodgers Band. The bass player, Todd Ronning, has also been with them for a while.
EM: What does the set list look like?
RR: Right now we’re drawing mainly from the early records, which are really cool. It’s a 90-minute set and I’m learning about 23 songs. I’m sure we’ll be changing it up as we tour.
EM: Do you get to do any of your own songs?
RR: No, I didn’t ask. This is Bad Company.
EM: You guys are touring with Joe Walsh.
RR: We’re splitting headlines. For some shows, Joe goes on after us, but for the majority of the shows I think he goes on before us. Either way, Joe’s amazing. I loved the James Gang growing up. He’s such a cool guitar player and a really interesting singer.
EM: Are you two going to play together?
RR: Maybe. I’d like to see that.
EM: So would a lot of people. You’ve been pretty busy lately with re-releases of your solo albums and a new album due out in June. You had to re-record the vocals for your first album, Paper . Did you find yourself sticking pretty close to the original vocals or did you wind up re-interpreting the songs?
RR: I was able to get in there and tweak them. We kept the tapes in our storage space in New Jersey. When that got flooded by Hurricane Sandy, I lost like 60 guitars and all my amps. Some of them were restored, but the tapes were underwater. A friend of mine was able to restore them and pull some of the information off them, but there were no vocals. So what are you going to do? What was cool was being able to get in there and re-sing and re-imagine the whole thing and then re-mix it. The original mixes were not that good, so to have that record come out as I always hoped it would sound is a great thing. It was my first solo record. I was able to be free and to do anything I wanted . . . add tons of guitars, and sing and break new ground. That’s what it’s all about. It wasn’t about being focused, it was about having fun, about just getting in there and writing songs and doing it.
EM: All of your solo albums are pretty eclectic. It feels like you’ve moved away from the hard-rocking sound of the Crowes toward a more rootsy sound of your own. Do you agree?
RR: Absolutely. It was one thing the Crowes were always able to do. Although we were in more of a rock ‘n’ roll package, for lack of a better term, we covered a ton of ground. From Shake Your Money Maker to the end, we really went a lot of places. Coming from that band and being able to have the freedom we always had, regardless of whether anyone told us we did, we just did what we wanted and that’s how I always wrote songs. So to take that freedom into what I’m doing now was a natural progression. You look back at my favorite records and my favorite bands and the musical growth of those bands. Look at the Beatles, from Please Please Me to Sgt. Pepper in no time at all. You look at the Stones, you look at Dylan, at the Who, where they went as a band, where all these artists went. If you listen to pop radio today it is literally the same thing over and over. One song after another seems to say the same thing, which is very little.
EM: The Crowes came along in the late ‘80s. Everyone was watching MTV and there were a lot of big-hair bands. You guys were more like the Southern rock and jam bands of the ’70s that weren’t that popular any more, but you broke through and helped turn things around.
RR: We just did what we thought was good . . . it was all very natural. We were just writing songs. That’s what you do. Yow write some songs and then you get out and play. We changed the set list every night. We went out there and explored. We’d break it down. We’d be acoustic, we’d be electric, because we always wanted to push ourselves as musicians and songwriters first. How could we do better? What else can we say . . . what else can we bring to our audience? We tried different things and did different covers.
EM: On the subject of covers, some people like them and some people hate them. How did you guys approach covers?
RR: We just liked to play what our favorite songs were. Ultimately, that’s what it came down to. We would just choose some cool covers and that was it. But we also had a huge catalog of music, songs that were hits and important to people, and also deep tracks that our hard-core fans really liked.
EM: A band like Gov’t Mule has taken covers to a whole new level, doing entire sets of the Doors, Neil Young and Pink Floyd. Some people criticize them for it, saying they do covers because they can’t write their own songs. Do you think that’s fair?
RR: The one thing I know about Warren Haynes is he’s a huge music fan. He just loves music, so he’s probably into trying a bunch of different things. That’s what he’s done in every context he’s ever been in: the Dead, the Allman Brothers, Gov’t Mule, wherever he’s played. Now because of the Internet everyone’s got an opinion and you can hide behind your opinion. It’s almost like the veil’s been lifted. I think for a long time there was an air of mystery about bands, about how things were created and why people made the decisions they did. Losing that mystery because of social media, which I blame wholeheartedly, everyone now knows exactly what you do all damn day. Once you’ve been invited into someone else’s world, those opinions become a little bit stronger. There are cameras on people 24/7. It’s shameless self-promotion and I’m really uncomfortable with that. I have all these accounts, but other than just disseminating some basic information, it’s ultimately a waste of time. We’ve become a polarized society of haters and we hate what’s not comfortable to us instead of just being indifferent. I think indifference would be a lot cooler. You don’t have to like it, just be indifferent. Why do you have to hate something?
EM: Let’s talk about your new album, Flux. What were you trying to do?
RR: Just getting in there and making records is what I love to do. Next to being with my family, it’s what brings me the most joy and peace. To create these parts that turn into songs, and then to do them with a full band . . . it’s the process that I love and that fuels me to want to do it more and more. On my last record, The Ceaseless Sight, I didn’t have as many songs. I had a few songs and parts of other songs and I wanted to use the studio to finish them. I liked the way it turned out, so for this record I said I’m not going to finish anything. You can have parts of songs and sit on them for a while, but when you’re in the studio you have a finite amount of time and you have to get in and finish them. There’s an urgency and I kind of like that pressure. It forces you to make creative decisions on how this is going to turn out. So that’s how I went in. I love the fact that it’s a very eclectic record and that it draws from all of my influences. It takes you on a journey and that’s what records should do. I look at the record as a whole. What I feel when I hear this record is that I’m in a different place for every song. I get inside this place and then the next song comes and I’m in a different place and I really like that. It’s really interesting to go with the music and where it takes you.
EM: Who was in the band?
RR: I’ve played with the same drummer since 2003, Joe Magistro. My keyboard player is Matt Slocum. We had some guests. Marco Benevento played some keys, we had Danielia Cotton sing, and people like Charlie Starr from Blackberry Smoke. The core was Joe, Matt and me. I played bass on all the songs.
EM: The re-releases of your solo albums all contain some bonus tracks. Did you include material from around the time the original album was released?
RR: We tried to pick things from the same period. We added a few unreleased live versions of songs on Crooked Sun. Paper has three songs that were never finished that I was able to finish and put on there.
EM: There’s a great live version of “Got to Get Better in a Little While” on the new Woodstock release. Was that recorded at the same time as the original tracks?
RR: Yeah, we were up there for two days. We did four sets, an acoustic set and an electric set both days. People were there and they got to listen and watch as we recorded. We had a blast.
EM: Will you be touring on your own once the Bad Company tour is over?
RR: I’m immediately going out on tour with my solo stuff. Bad Company ends on July 3rd and we start rehearsals on July 14th. My first show’s on the 19th in Kentucky. We’ll be in New York at the Highline Ballroom some time in July or August, which will be cool.
EM: What are you favorite places to play?
RR: New York’s always great. Boston. Chicago’s always cool. It’s fun to play Atlanta, Austin, Nashville . . . lots of places.
EM: It’s gotten increasingly difficult for artists to make money from recorded music, so they have to get out and tour. As a result, the live music scene is better than it’s ever been, with lots of smaller clubs that make things more intimate.
RR: Yeah, that’s what’s cool about it. You want to play for people who are into it because everyone’s in the room, existing in this time and place, and having this experience.
EM: Is it definitely over for the Black Crowes or is this just another hiatus?
RR: This time we’re done. It is what it is. It was just time to call it a day.
EM: You call your fan club “The Other Brother’s Fan Club.” Chris was the front man, but what was being in the Black Crowes for you like being the “other brother”?
RR: No, not at all. It’s more of a take on the Brotherhood.
EM: Did you and Chris grow up in a musical family?
RR: Yeah, my dad was a musician. He had a Top 40 hit in the ’50s. His name was Stan Robinson and his song was “Boom-a-Dip-Dip.” He was signed to ABC Paramount and had a short career. Then he started a folk duo in the South called the Appalachians. He played the Ryman Auditorium and played with Lester Flatt and Earle Scruggs one night, which he was thrilled about. He loved music . . . music was all around us growing up.
EM: Lots of great players passed through the Black Crowes: Luther Dickinson, Jackie Greene, Marc Ford, Audley Freed. Was there a particular period or lineup you feel was a peak period for the Crowes?
RR: I think by far the best lineup was 2005. That was me, Chris, Steve Gorman on drums, Sven Pipien on bass because Sven’s a tremendous bass player. We had Eddie Harsch on keyboards and Marc Ford on guitar. I think that was the best of what we could be. Luther was great and Jackie was really cool, but Marc brought what was best for the band at that time. Luther comes from the same place we do and Marc’s from LA. His approach was just a little different and added another element to what we were doing. You want to keep a band together and everybody was always really cool, but things get in the way.
EM: As you look back on your career, what stands out for you? Where do you think you really hit the note?
RR: With the Crowes I feel the best run we had was the first four albums. That’s where we were firing on all cylinders. Then we put out By Your Side, which I thought was a really good record but I hated the way it sounded. Everyone in the band agreed it was a little too slick. I really liked Lions. Again, sonically it wasn’t great, some hard-core fans weren’t into it as much, but there are some really great songs on it.
On my solo stuff, I like Paper because it was my first record, but I’m really happy with everything in its time. Crooked Sun was great, Ceaseless Sight I’m really happy with. And I’m thrilled with this new record. It just seems like another step.
EM: What do you think of the current music scene?
RR: I think there are some cool bands and some people doing good music and I think there’s a sea of shit. There’s a strong juxtaposition of what’s popular and what’s good. Not a lot of what’s popular is very good. There used to be more of a balance, but now it’s all disingenuous and about being an entertainer. No one seems to be saying anything. It’s the lowest common denominator for the most part. To me, writing a song is about one’s personal expression or the expression of two people or of a band. Once you get beyond that, then it’s just a committee doing the safest things possible. People getting together, throwing meaningless words together to try to make money. There’s nothing artistic about it. If you get into the music business to try to make money, you’d be better off signing up for a reality TV show.
EM: You also paint. Your art has appeared on some of your album covers and you recently had a show in SoHo. Is your art something you take more seriously now?
RR: It’s another creative outlet, and I do take it seriously. It’s a different form of being creative and it satisfies another side of the brain. That’s why I like it.
EM: You sound like you’re in a good place personally and artistically. Good luck to you on your upcoming tours.
RR: Absolutely. Thanks, man.