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Face Off: Chris Robinson

Having left behind the fame, drugs, egos and other baggage that came with the job, the one-time Black Crowes singer is now a changed man, and comfortable with his place in the world.

When Chris Robinson says: “At the end of the day I’m just the freaky hippy with the beard next to the hot blonde,” he sounds about as happy as a man can be. The sun is out in Malibu, California, where he shares a home with his actress wife Kate Hudson. Both have their work before the public. Hudson’s film How To Lose A Guy In Ten Days was the No.1 movie at the US box office. Robinson’s solo album New Earth Mud was released on a label that he described as ‘not even existing any more’. Yet despite the disparity in commercial returns, Robinson is audibly bubbling with life. Famous and also comparatively rich from the age of 24, when his band The Black Crowes released their first album, Shake Your Money Maker, in 1990, marriage into a grand Hollywood family (Hudson’s mother is Goldie Hawn and stepfather Kurt Russell) and the parallel rise of Hudson’s career (ironically in Cameron Crowe’s filmic rock’n’roll memoir Almost Famous) have brought about a strange inversion: his partner is undoubtedly now more celebrated than he is, and certainly better-known. But does he care? Not a jot. Gone is the dark and druggy figure of the latter days of the Black Crowes, when ego and estrangement were the order of the day. In its place is a man sure of his goals and comfortable with his place in the world. After some break-the-ice chat about New Earth Mud, the excellent and cool record that marks the setting-sail of Robinson’s solo career, and in-between bouts of trying to subdue his exuberant pet mastiff Bella, he was happy to field the most impertinent question of all.

Kate Hudson: the Yoko Ono of the Black Crowes? Discuss.

In the papers here they portrayed my wife as this Yoko Ono character. We think it’s just hilarious. We immediately went out and bought matching white suits. We thought it was hysterical.    

You did go through a lot of big changes very quickly, though: leaving the band, getting hitched... 

I think things all kind of coalesced into this change. For at least the last two Crowes albums I wasn’t very happy. I had someone ask me if I was fearful of leaving something so successful and was I scared to be starting on my own, and I explained to them that the fear-based decision I would have made would be to have stayed in the Black Crowes. It has nothing to do with my relationships with people, and the drama and all that shit, it has to do with my music and how I feel; things in my life keep showing me that the work is what’s important and that an artist has to do what he feels. I can’t make decisions based on other people’s feelings. I’m not those people. And if they’re not all meshing together, then there’s friction and tension, and I don’t think that’s a good place to be making statements from and making music.

But the friction between yourself and your brother was supposedly what made the band great. 

I would say when we were 20 years old... When The Black Crowes was at its best, from like ’92 to ’95, I would say a lot of that was true. But, then again, a lot of it to me was just exhaustion. I love my brother, that goes without saying. And I know how talented he is. All that drama and all the egos and all the games being played on a lot of sides...

When kids hit a level of success as artists, the one thing that I always resented was that it has nothing to do with our money and our fame, it was other people. It’s the peripheral people around you, who have vested interests in your work. It’s a double-edged sword. I was super-happy that the Black Crowes were so successful, that we had all these mouths to feed, that we had this extended family. On the other hand, decisions can be made when I definitely want to go one way which is less commercial and more organic and I want to make broader statements about what kind of artist I am. I’m not afraid. And then you get to a situation where some people think we should be going a more commercial way to fit in a certain context.

People from within the band?

Within the band and around us. Management and dealings with the record company. There’s all this stuff flying around and no one’s communicating. So, ideally, I kind of took it upon myself [to leave]... I think the whole ‘hiatus’ thing was just a nice way of saying it, because it is family, truly family. But looking back, I think we all knew that was it. Halloween was the last show, and we had a meeting – me, Rich and Steve [Gorman] and our old manager – and I just said: "I’m gonna take some time. It could be two years, it could be 15 years, I don’t know." I said I loved everyone very much, and I’m proud of what this band did. And that was the last time we were all together. My brother and I are now starting to talk more often, and we see each other.

Was the band intruding on you and Rich’s relationship as brothers? 

You know, that’s a tough one. Man, it’s weird. I don’t know if it intruded on that, but now that we’re not in a band together and we’re not officially running something and making decisions, now is the time when we’re starting to figure out about being brothers and not being in a band. But I don’t think it ever intruded.

It consumed most of your adult lives, though.

Yeah... Well, when we first started playing he was 15; he couldn’t even drive to the gigs. A lot of places the drinking age was 21, so there was a long time when Rich used to be sitting in the car. And even though I wasn’t of age I somehow managed to put off the vibe that I belonged in that bar.

Were drugs a part of the downfall of the band?

It was a big part of what we were doing. Especially Amorica and Three Snakes... [which] were pretty open drug-culture statements. Again, I know for a fact that hard drugs started to take a bigger toll on everyone: losing Marc Ford; Johnny Colt quitting. Although I wouldn’t say that with Johnny as a musician we had problems because of his capabilities, the music jumped ahead of him after about ’92. Still, he was in the band, he had his things. Me, Marc and Ed [Hawrsh] ran pretty hard. Everyone drank a lot.

Also, that was some of the closest and some of the best we ever played. It’s just when it takes over and it’s not about fun anymore. Everyone, knock on wood, survived that. I didn’t speak to Marc for a number of years, but I had this batch of songs that I was working on for this record and Marc and I got together. I hadn’t seen him in a while. He wrote the bridge for Sunday Sound. And he sat in with me for a couple of nights at The Troubadour. He’s in a good place. He’s a very talented guy.

Was touring with Oasis a wise move?

It was more tongue-in-cheek for us than Oasis. Noel and Liam, although I wouldn’t say they hung out a lot, I don’t remember them having one row at all. We got on famously together. That was a fun couple of months in among a lot of stuff that wasn’t much fun. It was great to be on tour with a great rock band. We watched their show every night and they watched our show. There was some drinking, but I didn’t think anyone was using any drugs. It was just really good. If it had been ’95 we would have killed each other. Someone would have died, if not all of us [laughs]. But you can’t be tongue-in-cheek anymore.

You’ve said that you weren’t a huge fan of the Crowes’ Live At The Greek record with Jimmy Page. A lot of people love that record. 

To be honest, I haven’t really listened to it. I’m super-happy that I got the chance to play music with Jimmy, but at the end of the day I’m motivated because things make me feel good, not because there’s an angle or money to be made. I felt by the end it turned into something a little bit business-oriented. That was it for me.

The initial gig, when we made the record, it felt like a project and it felt kinda cool. By the time we built it back up to go out [on tour] again, nights when we played and the next night The Who played, it seemed like business and everyone came to work with their egos on.

After five or six shows I got tired of singing songs about goblins. Trust me, I would sing songs about witches' hats and black cherries for rings, because if there was an Incredible String Band gig I’d be there every night and I’d be so happy to sing those songs.

I think the funkier kind of stuff played really well, along with the plush things like Ten Years Gone. For me it was great, because hopefully it was a shot in the arm for Jimmy. To go out and play some rock’n’roll and to give Jimmy a place where he could really feel free... He has two great guitar players behind him who love his music. A great presentation, I think. We were very respectful and he was super-respectful; very easy in rehearsals, very easy at the gigs. Like I said, I felt a little bit when we came back that it was more just a gig... I’m speaking just for myself. But working together, he was a joy. Everybody was on good behaviour.

Has your wife being very famous wife been difficult to deal with? 

No. You know, it’s funny, because the initial wave of the Black Crowes’ success came at one of those junctures. Something that I had to grapple with early on is that idea that you’re on MTV every 20 minutes. Now, people who watch MTV don’t necessarily like your band, they don’t necessarily like your genre of music. But they see your face all the fucking time. And being a celebrity and being famous is the most uninteresting thing in the world. Because, I mean, fucking TV presenters are [famous]. Game show hosts are. I had it for a good amount of time, and I just didn’t like it. I was just a kid at the time of Shake Your Money Maker. Fame now is not that big a deal.

I came walking out of The Troubadour the other week after soundcheck, and there were these paparazzi outside. They knew Kate was going to be there. They looked at me and they were like: “Can we take your picture?” And I was like: “Why?” And they looked at each other, and one guy took one picture, and they put their cameras down. I kind of stopped them in their tracks. Why would you want my picture? It has very little to do with your world. Poetry and beauty and art and music and the things that interest me; they don’t fit into your world. So in a sense, who’s in the fishbowl, then? Is it me or is it you?

That’s the modern culture of fame, though – fame as a goal rather than as a by-product.

Yes. And that debases people who are famous because of the work. All these young bands, they’ll play any kind of music if it makes them famous, they don’t even care what it is. I feel a greater purpose and I know there’s a greater purpose to be had than just being famous.

Status is another problem – people involved with status. 

That’s fucking boring, too. You’re wrapped up in having the biggest watch or having the biggest Bentley; you didn’t learn anything, you didn’t meet anybody, you didn’t see anything, you didn’t talk, you don’t live, you don’t love. You’re just getting things and you’re trying to impress people for all the wrong reasons. And that’s boring.

To me it’s easy, because it all fits into the reasons that I play music and why I go about doing what I do.

You’ve also got a ringside seat to a more voracious industry than music: Hollywood. 

I watch my wife and I watch her work. She’s in something like How To Lose A Guy In Ten Days, a phenomenal hit here – a kind of tested formula, the romantic comedy, and a film that I probably wouldn’t go and see – but when I watch my wife in it I realise what kind of craft she brings to what she does. Again, most people would have very little idea about what kind of real people my wife and I are.

But it’s funny. I think she’s a minority in how she sees things and in her craft. It’s something that’s integrated in her life as an artist. Because she’s a visual artist. My wife, in the next few years, will make a record. And people are going to be utterly shocked at the range and the depth and the integrity of her music and at how talented she is. She has incredible musical instincts.

We were at a party the other day and this guy, a famous actor, sits down and he says: “So, what do you think of our town?’ I said: “Well, I tell you, I see all the brightest, the most beautiful, the writers, the directors, the talent, the producers, all these people, all this money, all of this vision, and all you do is bow down to the middle. Where is the forward-thinking? Where are the statements?” Of course, he got up and immediately left.

But that’s my thing: with the resources given to talented people, does everything have to be based on watering it down to fit a criteria of commercialism? I understand that some are big blockbusters, but everything is validated by its commercial success? That’s not how life is. That’s not how creative people see the world. Joni Mitchell said it pretty clearly: “Being creative is not a service.” That whole idea of having to bow down to money. You know what? Bob Marley said he never bowed down to anyone. And that’s what I understand about what my role is.

That’s easy to say when you’ve got money.

Well, I disagree. That’s the way I felt before I sold a fucking record, and I’ve gone through my entire career basing my decisions on those things. If you look at my career with The Black Crowes and now with this record, what have I done that’s overtly commercial? I refuse to sell my songs to corporate entities. That’ll never change.

You’ve made a very low-key solo record. Is there some hard-won wisdom behind that decision? 

Not so much. Because, to be honest with you,I’ve never been driven by that. Since I was a kid, I would be suspicious of commercial success. One of the enigmas of The Black Crowes is that a band that really was set up to be anything but successful became successful very quickly. After that it’s a struggle because of the money and the egos. I honestly look at it in terms of... I work in a grand tradition: the troubadour, the travelling bard. That relationship with song and music and lyric and performance is not very new. So I honestly feel I have a deeper connection with the reasons I wanna do this and a deeper connection with the content. Commerce is boring; content is interesting.

Did you reject big commercial offers when it came to recording what would be New Earth Mud? 

I didn’t contact anybody. I wasn’t looking for anything like that. I was working for a short time with Kelly Curtis [manager of Pearl Jam]. Kelly and I met up, and he heard two of the songs and said he love to help me out. I told him I just wanted to find a label who would pay for this session, a very cheap session; I just wanna go somewhere where Paul [Stacey, Chris’s writing partner] and myself can have a nice studio with some nice gear and just explore a little with these songs that I have.

My ambitions and the things that drive me are going to dictate the next step. There’s major-label interest now and there’s lots of little labels. Right now the business is in such a state of flux. And it really appeals to me. That equation A+B=C: we sign a band, we market them, we throw it up against the wall and see if it sticks. That’s not indicative of the culture. It’s not indicative of the true experience, this multi-dimensional experience that music can be for us.

What made you chose to live in Paris when it came to making the album? It’s one of my favourite places. I’ve always wanted to work there. I’ve been going there for years and taking vacations there and whatnot. And it just turned out that my wife was going to be filming a movie there, so we had about four months’ advance notice. Symbolically it made it better that no one could stop by and say [big-cheese voice]: “Hey, that’s not a single,” or “That is a single.” It represented some isolation away from the music business. It’s a little studio, by the Natural History Museum and the Austerlitz train station, called Yang. It’s been there since the 70s. It’s just this funky little studio – old API board in there, ivy growing down the sides, super-dark, but really that warm, analogue human sound.

Did you feel a connection with the American tradition of Henry Miller, Jim Morrison etc. – off to Paris? 

Paris, last year, was in a really good place. The history adds to it. There’s a lot of music, there’s a lot of people talking about art and politics. People there aren’t afraid to educate or learn or have dialogue. I think in the United States dumb is in: “I don’t need to feel that... I don’t need to talk about that.” But as the world wrestles in the grip of all these evil vibes, it’s time to have these conversations and it’s time for intimate scenes. Negativity begets negativity. I can’t say I had a direct linage with anybody. Some went to Paris to lose themselves, others went to find themselves. Also, I’m working with an all-English band. It was a lot easier.

Spring seems to have sprung in Robinson-land; there’s a lot about love and reinvention on the record. 

Well, you know, it’s funny, because I think people gravitate towards the relationship aspect of my wife and I. But I’m always affected by myenvironment and surroundings, and making a record in springtime in Paris is a well-spring of creative invention over the centuries. A lot of it had to do with a departure from something that was – leaving yesterday behind, and moving on into the now. The thing about that record is that it’s purposely very understated. I wanted to get out of the harbour under cover of darkness.

You sound very confident and settled, though.

It’s funny. I was talking to some people yesterday. People were like: “Hey, how’s your album doing?”

I’m not obsessed. True freedom and true success is being able to do what you want to do.

I made a record on a label that doesn’t even exist anymore. I knew those things. But in my first foray away from something that took up a great portion of my life, something that will always be a part of who I was, I had the freedom to say it’s a mid-tempo record. It is for mornings and for getting in the car. It’s one of the things I like about living out here in Malibu, you do have a fairly long commute – it’s an hour to Hollywood. Some of that imagery is going to seep in. 

SILVER CAR

CHRIS ROBINSON UPDATE

The Chris Robinson Brotherhood, the singer's current band, released third album Phosphorescent Harvest at the end of April. They're now on an American tour.

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