It’s been over 50 years since bands like the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane and Big Brother and the Holding Company burst out of the San Francisco scene, taking the lead on a psychedelic revolution that expanded the boundaries of rock ’n’ roll. Of course, it wasn’t just boundaries that were expanded, but minds as well. Lord knows how many humans have been inspired to take a different path—the road less travelled, perhaps—by some piece of music from that place and time. Art may imitate life, but we all know it has a way of shaping it too.
The legacy of the San Francisco scene is vast, yet no discussion of the era’s modern incarnation would be complete without mentioning Chris Robinson. The singer and guitarist has been at the forefront of the traditional psychedelic rock movement since his previous band, the Black Crowes, rose to prominence in the early ’90s, and he’s gone further down that road with his latest project, the Chris Robinson Brotherhood. Psychedelic music has become more diffuse since the 1960s (we have electronica, and time, to thank for much of that), but few bands have stayed as true to the genre’s roots as the CRB have in recent years. Fewer still have done so with as much success.
The six-year-old ensemble—which currently features Robinson (guitar/vocals), Neal Casal (guitar/vocals), Adam MacDougall (keys), Jeff Hill (bass) and Tony Leone (drums)—has been a veritable touring juggernaut since its inception, often racking up 100-plus dates in a single trip around the sun. One of those lengthy tours will bring them to Tipitina’s on June 9, where they’ll deliver a two-set show in support of their forthcoming album, Anyway You Love, We Know How You Feel.
We caught up with Robinson to talk about the new record (slated for release on July 29), the band’s love for Northern California, making music outside the industry model and more.
Your upcoming album Anyway You Love, We Know How You Feel seems a bit more studio-polished in comparison to your earlier releases. Was that something you guys were going for?
Yeah. I think, like anything else, if you’re at least somewhat conscious of being in your moment that, generally, things should be a little bit different. I think we were lucky enough, in this band, to have a sonic arc. I think we realized the first releases had to be more expansive. Even after the first 100 shows that we did in the first year—or 114 or whatever—we went in the studio and it was still more about us finding out who we were. But six years have gone by, with personnel changes and a few tweaks here and there, and we definitely have a more firm grasp on our sonic personalities and stuff. So I think that’s really what you’re hearing. It’s just us kind of getting deeper into it.
Musically, at least, the album has a very positive vibe to it—it kind of bounces along exuding positivity. Is that the kind of state you guys are in right now? Is that what you are trying to put out there?
I think that—definitely for us in our sort of California egg state, where we grew up and hatched in California—that California is such a big part of the backdrop and it’s interwoven into what we are doing. So yeah, I think it should be about being positive and being progressive but I don’t think it’s overtly goofy or too giddy. If anything, this record, lyrically, has a little more of a somber tone to some of it. A melancholy [tone] or whatever. The vibes we want to put out are… dance music and party music is all fine and stuff, but you’re allowed to throw a little poetry in there. People can dance and hang and be a part of something and get some imagery in their minds. It’s like, “Oh what are you, in the renaissance fair, speaking Old English and stuff?” But for lots of us, it’s still a super vital and dynamic way to express yourself.
Definitely. So this is also your first album with Tony Leone on drums. What did he bring to the table? Did you guys just jump right in with him?
Well I think that was part of the master plan. When we knew we wanted to change directions with our drummer, instead of going right into the studio, we played another 100 or so shows. That’s another 300 hours on stage and then also rehearsals. And it’s not that Tony couldn’t just sit down at any session and kill it, but I think there is just a different level of confidence that comes with that too. When we started this band, the whole point of it was that I want—and we want—to never tell anyone what to play. You know what I mean? I can write the majority of these songs and insert my two cents or whatever here and there, but everyone has the same perspective. Everyone is free to play what they want to play and find the groove they want to find. That’s why it sounds confident. It’s just that everyone is on the same page.
You mentioned how integral California was to what you guys are doing, but when people think of your early career it’s viewed as coming from the South. The Black Crowes, it seems, are usually linked with Southern rock. What it is about Northern California that has made it such a part of what you do?
Well, I moved to California in 1991. Yeah, I left. You know, it’s funny because the Black Crowes were a Southern band in terms of us being from Atlanta, but our aesthetic and influences were always so English in terms of what we liked about rock ’n’ roll music. I’m talking early days. I guess that all the music that I’m interested in, as a base, is roots music: jazz, funk, bluegrass, folk, country music, early rock ’n’ roll, world music, Indian classical music. Then my other interest, my esoteric taste, is avant-garde and electronic composers and all sorts of stuff.
California has a great tradition of musicians moving here and letting it adopt them, or vice versa. You kind of surrender to California, if you will. Whether that’s Leon Russell coming from Oklahoma, or Stephen Stills or Neil Young. Even Gregg and Duane Allman came out to L.A. to try and do their thing. All sorts of people found their way out to California and identify with it. I think that’s part of the legacy as well.
Like I said, I was in Southern California first, so only recently have we been spending all our time in Northern California. That concert culture that we all still use as the model was born here with Bill Graham and stuff. For me, the success of the Grateful Dead isn’t as interesting as the struggles of the Grateful Dead, in terms of what I identify with. I identify with the outsider nature of what that scene was. I’ve been given this opportunity to be in an outsider band that doesn’t have any deep connections to the music business as any conventional thing. And part of loving music is knowing the history of some of it. We all step in a pile of dog shit occasionally while growing up, but you don’t want to keep stepping in the same dog shit. You want to eventually find your way around it. The part of it that is inspiring to me is that it’s where the Pandora’s box was opened for all of this psychedelic rock ’n’ roll stuff. There is a lot of information here and a lot of good vibes.
You brought up the Grateful Dead and, much like them, you guys are circumventing the music industry model, sticking to the road and all of that. Can you just talk a little bit about how that’s been working out for you and how you guys have been able to do that?
It’s about everyone’s group mindset. If you open a small organic farm or something, you know you’re not going to use these seeds from this corporation or you’re not going to use these poisonous chemicals. You’ve already made the decision to not be a hugely successful corporate farm and deal in the way that other farms are dealing, or this would be easier. So if everyone can be on the same page, that this is built on our vision, our passion and our hard work, then it becomes a lot easier. Everyone gets grumpy sometimes. Everyone has good days and bad days. Everyone has good shows and bad shows, but we are really into this band and this music and the way it sounds. We are into our scene and the people that come see us. We like the little community that we started. We know people are ready to come to see our presentation. It’s not the typical jam band presentation, but it’s not the typical rock band presentation either. We like our little niche. It’s never exactly what people think it is going to be until they come, and then they are a part of it or they’re not. Ultimately that’s what keeps everyone in the space and focused on what we all want to be doing. If we nurture that, positive things happen. It’s like the old hippy said: “Forward. Never straight, man.”
You guys will be back at Tipitina’s on June 9. It will be your second time coming here in eight months. Is there something about that venue and this city that you guys appreciate?
Doesn’t every musician have something to appreciate with that venue? The locals in New Orleans like to get down. People come there for one reason: because they like to get down. That’s kind of where we’re at our best as well. So yeah, we are always happy to be there. God, I’ve been playing there for a long time. One of my first gigs was at Carrollton Station or something. We were still teenagers.