Q&A: Chris Robinson on His New Band, Bonding With Phil Lesh
Chris Robinson spent 118 days on the road last year fronting a new project, the Chris Robinson Brotherhood, which wasn't even supposed to be a band. But the experiment has turned into an official group, with a debut LP, New Moon Ritual, due on June 5th. (Listen to our premiere of album track "Bright Lights, Big City," a cover influenced by Sonny James' version, above).
Robinson, a father of two, is looking forward to getting back on the road for an unusual reason – to get some rest. "If you had told me at 45 years old that I would have to go on tour to get rest, I would've said, 'That's not how it works,'" Robinson tells Rolling Stone, laughing. "But nothing can be more gratifying. I'm a very hands-on dad."
More than 20 years removed from hitting the top of the charts with the Black Crowes, Robinson has found new grooves both personally and musically. He spoke to Rolling Stone about why the Brotherhood is the right project for him now, his musical heroes and American Idol "artists."
This started as an experiment. When did it become a band?
Just a few weeks into the California residency tour last year. When we put all the pieces together and started getting the songs, the idea was not to look too much into the future – "Let's be present with this and let's see how we feel." There was no entourage or commune to take care of. It was just the five of us and our friend, our tour manager, in a van. We did 13,500 miles in a van with just us. I think a couple of weeks into that, we started to let the cosmic vibes flow through us and we realized, "Oh, wow, this is something that feels really good." Being a pop artist or making music like a jingle or something – I don't do that [laughs]. So for us it was exploratory. The whole brotherhood thing was a little bit tongue-in-cheek when we came up with it, but that's how we feel. And it's still just us.
Is there a philosophy behind this project?
When I think about the real pioneers of the psychedelic movement in a musical sense, not just the culture, everything had a handmade sort of vibe to it. We're inventing our culture as we move along into this. Everyone in this band, we laugh: "What would happen if we did find ourselves more successful? Then the infighting can start, then the resentments can grow." But it's in a really cool place where it's very group-oriented. If I can throw my name on there to get us in the door, then so be it. That shit's logical.
What did producer Thom Monahan bring to the album?
Thom was the perfect person because he facilitated from Day One in the studio. We thought, "Do we take what we've been doing and change it? Do we take these songs that we feel are expressive and dynamic and dilute them?" He said, "No, no, no, you play it the way you played it." That's what Thom's greatest gift is to a band like ours. It was the most intensely beautiful session I've ever done. Ninety-six takes, 27 songs in six days – that's just fucking nuts. We've made the record that obviously isn't for everyone.
Who are some of your musical inspirations?
Phil Lesh and Bobby Weir sat in with the CRB last year at our run at the Great American Music Hall in San Francsico. When it really coalesces into something unique is when you go, "Oh, wow, we are in this space and we're communicating on a cool dimensional level ... Hopefully Jerry's smiling" [laughs]. Not only are they some of my musical inspirations, but as time has moved on they are also my friends, and I really appreciate that. I can talk to Phil about anything. He's been through everything. But I have that relationship with a lot of people. I saw Jimmy Page last summer, and people like David Crosby. It's funny, when Black Crowes were young and I'd go to the bar at the Sunset Marquis, I wasn't hanging out with the members of whatever band was popular at the time. I was in the corner rapping with Joe Cocker or whoever. There's great knowledge there, and I'm impressed by the longevity and the talent and the craft that people have.
Do you hope to be where they are 20 years from now?
Of course. Whenever you see someone who's been on American Idol and they call themselves an artist, even though they're kids and it's just bullshit, it still makes me cringe as someone who's dedicated himself to his art. It's my duty to the poets and musicians and people that came before me not to be a liar, not to be an asshole. I'm not interested in a persona. I'm interested in authentic experience and the essence of that creative place, and where those myths begin and where they become real on any level. Bob Dylan could care less what anyone thinks. I have to see that the greater reward is your body of work, as opposed to, "Hey, we got a Target commercial for our new album promotion." I'm the weirdo. There have been multitudes of times in my career where I could have taken an easier road or a more commercial path, and I've been just like, "That's not gonna make me happy."