Preparing to celebrate 20 years since the release of their debut album Shake Your Money Maker, the Black Crowes have released two new albums on a 'buy one, get one free' basis. Getting Before The Frost… gets you online access (via a unique download code) to its companion record, a more rootsy and acoustic album called ...Until The Freeze. As on 2008's Warpaint the band is made up of brothers Chris and Rich Robinson, guitarist Luther Dickinson and keyboard player Adam MacDougall, plus long-time drummer Steve Gorman and bassist Sven Pipien. Unusually, the new songs were recorded live in front of an audience over four nights in the barn studios of Levon Helm (drummer with The Band) in Woodstock, New York State.
Q&A: Chris Robinson
Twenty years on from their debut, the Black Crowes have gone rootsy in the Woodstock studio owned by Levon Helm of The Band, running the gamut of rock Americana.
How did this live-in-the-studio idea come about?
My girl and I were in Costa Rica last year on a break from touring. I started day-dreaming: “What if we made a new record, all new material, in front of an audience?” I kind of had an idea, too, that I wanted us to get deeper into roots music. We hinted at those things with Warpaint – Woah Mule, Walk Believer Walk, There’s Gold In Them Hills. Later on in the summer, in upstate New York on another break, we went to see Levon play at one of his Midnight Rambles sessions. The thing that excited me about the Rambles was that it was an off-the-grid experience; no promoter, no security, no trappings of the music business. So it just hit me like a ton of bricks: this was the place where we could pull it together.
What’s the place like?
It’s a studio in a conventional sense, but they turn it around on the weekend and have live shows there – but still with the capability of using the gear in the studio. It’s very intimate, as well. There were 200 people there with us each night – the hard-core, the Crowes nation weirdo people! It made for an exquisitely psychedelic evening.
...Until The Freeze is very much more rootsy, like an acoustic set. Were you playing those songs sitting on stools?
Some of them we did do sitting down. It was just who was comfortable doing what. Sven plays stand-up bass on some of it, Rich is playing sitar so he had to sit down, we had Larry Campbell (a Rambles regular) playing pedal steel, Luther played a lot of mandolin. It depended on the song. I’m playing acoustic guitar on some of them.
Your audience has grown with you, but a Crowes audience still goes along not knowing what to expect.
Part of that has always been a certain level of trust and respect. We were never the ‘Hello Cleveland!’ type. We weren’t interested in clichés, we weren’t interested in pandering as performers, we’ve only ever been interested in the ‘now’. That’s just what moves us and touches our souls.
Before The Frost... includes the band’s first ever ‘disco’ song, I Ain’t Hiding.
In my mind the real pristine part of this project was the vinyl – a 20-song record with a running order I created over four sides. In that format it's kind of about a country or rural person who's in a place that contains some pastoral mysticism and a kind of beauty and freedom. Like any wanderer or seeker, they want to get out of that world. So the third side of the double record is that person finding themselves in an urban enivronment - New York, London, anywhere. That side also contains songs like Kept My Soul, Make Glad and I Ain't Hiding... So I Ain't Hiding comes from that side and it's, well [adopts 'English' accent] it's a bit of a laff, ain't it? I did a bit of that in the mid-late 90s, running around clubs, doing all sorts of chemicals. But to me the song’s very tongue-in-cheek and fun. And by the time you get to the chorus it’s pretty much Black Crowes time again.
So why did you change the track sequencing?
Because we have our own label and we live in our own strange commune... We realised we didn’t really have to do it like that, we could split it up into a download record or a CD, and then give away the other half of the record for free.
So people shouldn’t get hung up about which order to play the tracks in?
No! I think today, the way people listen to music, using shuffle on their iPod or whatever... And of course when we go out and play live we’re not going to stick to any order. We’re simply going to add these 20 songs to a repertoire of 250 songs we played on the Warpaint tour.
You’re now 43 years old. Do you have any sense of where you might be in your career – are you even halfway yet?
I think another one of the interesting things about who we are is where we’ve been. Maybe Shake Your Money Maker was a bit of an anomaly, because everything with that was the first time: the first time we went to England, the first time we took acid on the tour bus, the first time blah-blah-blah... But it’s important, now, that we don’t let the grass grow. It comes back to the presentation we’ve always strived to put out that, again, this is the now. If you come to a show, that night is it. It’s not ever going to be the same again – molecularly, structurally, ha ha.
There have been times in the Black Crowes where I’ve loved everyone, but when the tour finishes I would be happy to get away. I would come back to California and just start jamming and playing with other people. I’m still totally addicted to and obsessed with music. It’s not going to go away. The band has really solidified now. I can’t wait to get to rehearsals! I have more fun on stage, and I’m happier with the way it’s clicking than I have been for a long while.
Tell us about your iPod.
How much have I got on it? God, I don’t know. I think I saw when I downloaded some record a while back that I had 29 continuous days of music, so that was cool. But you know what? Six of those days are Grateful Dead, so it doesn’t really count! Ha ha ha.