On the second floor of a Brooklyn recording studio nestled between an ice cream parlor and bridal shop, the Black Crowes’ Chris Robinson is wailing through “Struttin’ Blues,” a deep cut off the group’s 1990 debut album, Shake Your Money Maker. His on-again, off-again bandmate and on-again, off-again brother Rich is two feet away, locking eyes with drummer Raj Ojha as he tears into the muscular blues-rock track.
“It’s just the way it sounded in 1990,” Chris says to no one in particular. “Which was the last time we played that.”
That Chris and Rich are in the same room, much less playing music together peacefully, is either the feel-good rock story of the decade or simply the tale of two artists who realized the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Or both.
The Black Crowes’ last show was nearly six years ago, with the official breakup announcement coming 13 months later in the form of a scathing statement by Rich outing what he saw as Chris’ unfair business practices. “I love my brother and respect his talent,” Rich wrote. “But his present demand that I must give up my equal share of the band and that our drummer for 28 years and original partner, Steve Gorman, relinquish 100 percent of his share … is not something I could agree to.”
It was the culmination of one of the most fractious family relationships in music. And in subsequent years, the duo only communicated with each other through the media, often with barbs that veered between passive-aggressive and cringe-inducingly vicious.
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But in May of this year, a mutual friend of Chris and Rich’s called the Robinsons to try and make amends. “I told [our friend], ‘Man, it would just be cool to be able to play songs with my brother,’” Rich says. “And he said, ‘Y’know, Chris said the same thing to me.’”
Both brothers have carved out solo careers — Chris mainly with the Chris Robinson Brotherhood and Rich with solo albums and the Magpie Salute (featuring former Crowes Marc Ford and Sven Pipien) — but four months after that phone call, the duo found themselves in Nashville, auditioning band members for a 46-date reunion tour commemorating the 30th anniversary of Shake Your Money Maker set to kick off June 17th in Austin.
But the tour begs a question: When is a reunion not a reunion? The duo enlisted all-new members that include guitarist Isiah Mitchell of psych-rock band Earthless; Tim Lefebvre, a veteran session bassist who appeared on David Bowie’s Blackstar; and keyboardist Joel Robinow and drummer Ojha of prog/psych-pop group Once and Future Band. “That was the first thing Rich and I agreed on,” Chris says. “We don’t want anyone from the solo groups. We don’t want anyone from the past.”
Still, having the two in the same room night after night is no small accomplishment, and fans who just want to hear “Jealous Again,” “Hard to Handle,” and “She Talks to Angels” should be satiated. “There’s no jamming,” Chris says, as if preemptively trying to lower the raised eyebrow of skeptics who thought the group veered too close to Chris’ heroes the Grateful Dead in later years.
As the two sit down for their first joint interview in decades, you instinctively brace for an antagonistic insult, an exasperated argument, or an acrimonious glance. But the brothers insist their Behind the Music days are in the past and they’re just ready to play.
This is your first interview together in decades. How are you feeling?
Rich Robinson: I feel great. It’s really cool to be able to get into the songs again after being away from them for such a long time. Having these [new] guys in the band gives it a whole new energy and creates a whole new context in which I can enjoy this. That fuels me and helps me look at these songs through a different lens.
Chris Robinson: We’re playing a song like “Struttin’ Blues” [in rehearsal] that we haven’t touched in 29 years. It’s representative of these full-circle things. We’ve both cut each other down in your magazine and said and done…. [Pauses] We’re just people. And we’ve had an extraordinary experience in music, but it was taxing and it was hard. And we had to fill in a lot of the blanks and improvise at an early age. And I think the last seven or eight years apart from each other — aside from our anger and stuff — we both have had these experiences that when you come back to it, it’s like, “Oh, wow. It is special.” I never lost any reverence for the experience, but I definitely could be resentful and angry and negative. And I’ve been through a lot of stuff, in the last couple of years, particularly, that has really changed my attitudes about all sorts of things.
Chris: [Stammers] Well, I think, you know, it’s, it’s, you know, I think it’s hard sometimes. We were kids when this happened, and it happened so fast. We didn’t have any time to stop. We never had time to really communicate … I felt used and I didn’t feel loved. And there I am, some kid given this opportunity. But I was hurting and that’s part of the trip, though. Now you can go on YouTube and get a lesson on how to handle your stardom or some shit. There were no fuckin’ lessons, man.
“When that record came out, we just went for 10 years and I couldn’t separate from that.” —Rich
Do you approach the material differently now that you’re both in your Fifties?
Rich: I’m 50 [laughs]. I wouldn’t say I’m “in my Fifties.”
Chris: Oh no, you passed it, man [laughs]. That I can still sing those songs 30 years later is cool, but we both had been in our own projects, in our own bands, and we’ve been out in the world with different people. I’ve written hundreds of songs since the Black Crowes broke up, and I put a band together and he has too. But then we get together and there’s just “a thing.” It’s always been our band, and it’s funny — through all the trajectory of the good and the bad, the joy and the frustrations — we were laughing, saying the one thing Rich and I can always agree on is, Shake Your Money Maker’s a good record.
Rich: When that record came out, we just went for 10 years, and I couldn’t separate from that; it’s so intertwined in your DNA for so long. To get away from it allows me to come back to these songs with a whole renewed appreciation. It’s almost like you have to get away to try to have a view to look down and go, “What the fuck happened for that amount of time?” I didn’t listen to these records. There’s this natural thing between the two of us that when we get together, it’s something else. It elevates. You can’t tangibly explain it.
Chris: It’s also having the opportunity to release the anger and negativity and to be in a place where we both feel we probably have more power right now as a team … and to have some things in place around us that will nurture the experience.
More power now compared to previous incarnations of the Black Crowes?
Chris: We always had a certain amount of power, but the money game and the ego game [pauses]. It’s hard to keep your balance.
“I felt used, and I didn’t feel loved … I was hurting and that’s part of the trip, though.” —Chris
Last year, Chris told us you two hadn’t spoken in five years. How did the initial outreach happen?
Rich: It was the Long Island Medium who reached out to us via email saying, “You two need to work it out.” [Laughs] I told a third party, “Man, it would just be cool to be able to play songs with my brother” and he said, “Y’know, Chris said the same thing to me.”
Chris: Yeah, the one thing we both agreed on — and most people, they can raise an eyebrow — the opportunity’s incredible ahead of us on a number of levels. But the real opportunity is to get my brother back, and now I feel a compromise isn’t such a big deal. If Rich wants something, let’s make it happen. If I need something, I can go to Rich and I’m sure it’s not going to be a fuckin’ drag-out battle. My daughter never met Uncle Rich. I didn’t know his kids. That stuff is sad. Our mother is older, and we just gave my mom years on her life — knock on wood — just to know her boys can get on the phone and talk.
Part of the success that hurt my feelings the most was money. I’m a capitalist, [but] the money would make things upsetting to me. For years, it would be like, “What do you guys want to do? Do you talk to Rich?” We don’t talk to each other. Those whispers are all around. “You guys wanna do something?” I was so immersed in what I had been doing and my solo career, time ceased to exist. And then to be in a place where things just fall together at the right time. When some offers came through, our joke was, “We’re still a million miles away.” [Laughs] But I think we feel good. We feel safe.
Did you feel that you had to re-establish a relationship as brothers before you could talk about the music and reuniting as a band?
Rich: With a deep connection that you have with certain people in your life, I always felt there was something missing when I didn’t talk to Chris for six years. And when I was doing my solo stuff and I invited [former Black Crowes members] Marc [Ford] and Ed [Harsch] down to play, it was great to play with those guys, but there was still something huge missing. That whole thing made it more obvious that the real thing was missing.
Chris: I named my band the Brotherhood just to be a dick [laughs].
Rich: Like sometimes when you get closer to it, you realize how far away it is.
Chris: And I’ve apologized to Rich. I was angry, and I’m a sensitive person as well and the way that the band wrapped up and all this stuff about money and everything; all that stuff is all, for the most part, true. That was my way of being cruel to him.
What did you apologize for?
Chris: I apologized for my anger and negativity and that underneath it all, I would like to think I’m a very kind person and that it was unfair for me to attack him. But I was in a negative place. I was in a marriage that was failing. I had exerted all this effort and energy in a band that I loved and the experience that I loved. Doing As the Crow Flies [a band composed of Robinson and primarily former Crowes performing Black Crowes songs], I was with my friends and people that are really talented, but you know what? That’s his thing [points to Rich]. There was something missing that I didn’t even know. And it doesn’t diminish our work or experience outside of it.
Rich, did you accept Chris’ apology immediately, or was there hesitation?
Rich: I accepted it because I knew what he was going through. All of it comes from sadness and stress and hurt, and that’s life; when people behave the way they behave, a lot of time, they’re going through a lot of shit. You have to cut people slack. I could see what was happening and I understood it, and there was really nothing I could do about it, and it was something he had to go through on his own. Being in [the Magpie Salute] and solo the last few years, it was interesting to see a lot of things that I did that were annoying that I didn’t even know, but was so grateful to see it.
Chris: What did we know? What is our perspective? You put us on the treadmill, and it’s, like, we knew one thing: We don’t want it to stop. But then you’re traversing relationships and women in your life and money and egos and, in my case, drugs. I’m not ever on the ground. In my poetic construct and art that I’m interested in, after 2013, I needed to just go to the fuckin’ wilderness. I didn’t want to dance anymore. I didn’t want to sing. I wanted to do something else. I was writing more. I had to do it.
I don’t mean to be morbid, but we’re lucky we’re still here. We’ve said goodbye to a lot of people, and that would have been a real shame. But better late than never in terms of just being here for [Rich]. If I can make up for all the shit and be his brother as we move along and any way lessen the load for him and be there for the good times and the bad times, that’s more important.
Freud said that depression is often anger turned inward and it’s sometimes said that anger is often depression turned outward.
Chris: I completely agree. In my case, I also understand that, like, I go on Howard Stern and say nasty things about John Mayer. You think I fuckin’ care? Really? I was just trying to be funny. But also, depression has always been part of my life. I feel I have a better handle on it than I did and the severity of those type of things lessened. It wasn’t until the [Chris Robinson Brotherhood] the last seven, eight years that I even felt like people listened to me sing, and I had to deconstruct that.
You thought being a rock star overshadowed being a vocalist?
Chris: This might sound horrible: I found being a rock star very easy. I found being a musician much harder. I’ve always been enfant terrible, but isn’t that the role of the artist? We’re in showbiz, but we’re not in showbiz.
There always seemed to be a tension in the band between embracing nostalgia and carving new ground. It came out both in your catalog and the fights you’d get into over what to perform each night.
Chris: [Smiling wide] We talked about it. This [tour] is fuckin’ genius because if Rich didn’t want to play fuckin’ “Greasy Grass River” [off 2001’s Lions], we don’t have to worry about that. We know what we’re focused on. I want to play some fuckin’ rock & roll before it’s too late. I got into this for my love of rock & roll and then I’ve drifted off into all of these folky, jazz, trippy things. I’m still all over the shop, but I’m ready to fuckin’ play some rock & roll and Shake Your Money Maker is our biggest commercial success. It changed our lives. It was the rocket ship … Don’t you want your rock & roll band to tell someone to fuck off occasionally instead of just do whatever they’re told? All my heroes didn’t give a fuck.
Is it fair to say that the Robinson brothers have embraced nostalgia in 2019?
Chris: Yes. We’ve gotten far enough away from it that I feel like we can — and I know this sounds ridiculous because we did this music and we’ve been in this fuckin’ band — but now I feel like, “Oh, yeah, now I’m ready to fuckin’ do it. We never played Shake Your Money Maker when the fucker came out.” We were already writing new songs!
“No one is here to be a dick … We’re musicians. We’re brothers. We love each other. We love this opportunity.” —Rich
But you’re doing at least 46 shows. Are either of you concerned that any of the past tensions might crop up? How can you ensure that they won’t?
Chris: It’s an important question. I think we’re in a good place with the team assembled to deal with it. But I also think that Rich and I have more tools to not instantly throw [imitates throwing punches at Rich’s face]. We’re lucky to have a life as musicians. But I know his life’s been tough, and he knows my life’s tough, no matter what’s going on. I can look at him in a different light and things melt away. Like that something that was so like this [makes fist], and then just the smallest gesture and respect will disintegrate a lot of that stuff. We don’t have to argue about the set list. We don’t have to figure out what the “next direction” is.
Rich, Chris mentioned having more tools to deal with conflict. What do you think those are specifically?
Rich: First of all, I think to understand the intention. No one is here to be a dick. I’m not trying to make his life miserable by turning my guitar up or telling him I want to play this song. He’s not trying to make my life miserable by saying, “Could you turn it down a little bit?” That became the sort of epic symbols of these struggles. It wasn’t about the volume; it was more about wanting to be heard.
It’s easy to deal with each other when you’re 19 or 20 in a van and you just say whatever. But when you’re in your forties and fifties, and you have your own life and kids, you gotta fuckin’ deal. And so all of these things — putting these [other] bands together and watching the same shit happen — equipped me to look at all of those struggles as a gift because it showed me a lot about myself and his perspective of why these things were happening. By going through all of that and coming to this place and realizing that both of our intentions are pure. We love this music. We’re musicians. We’re brothers. We love each other. We love this opportunity.
Did you seek any Some Kind of Monster–esque professional counseling?
Rich: No, you just have to be an observant person. And you always have to look at yourself. And you always have to put yourself in whatever’s going on around you. How could I have done this differently? Changing the context with Chris and I and all new people is a much healthier place for us to be because everyone brings baggage.
Was there any talk of inviting any of the former members to tour with you?
Chris: No. That was the first thing Rich and I agreed on: We don’t want anyone from the solo groups. We don’t want anyone from the past.
Rich: In order to make this work. To give Chris and I the space to …
Chris: Be here right now.
Chris, there were two statements I’m having trouble reconciling. In 2017, you told us the Black Crowes’ music “has been tainted to me by behavior and attitudes. Actions. Money’s never motivated me and it’s not going to start now.” Last year, when asked about a reunion, you said, “The only reason I could see that … would only be for money.”
Chris: Yeah. I mean, I don’t even really remember saying that. I think what you hear there is me saying, “If you saw me doing it at that time, then that’s what you would think.” What I’m saying is, “If I stopped what I’m doing right now, then it’s a cynical thing to say.” I’m putting myself down there, saying, “You’ve never seen me go for the money grab, right?” And if I was doing it at that time, in 2017, I’m saying that’s all I would be doing it for. I didn’t have a place in my heart and my soul for this experience right now.
Looking back, why am I going on Howard Stern and talking all this shit about my brother? Why am I being so negative? I mean, yes, it was funny. Some of it. But some of it wasn’t funny. I don’t edit myself, for better or worse. I have to have a certain authenticity about this process that to me is just human.
“I’d say, ‘Why are you guys getting along? Because Liam and Noel can’t!’ … In my mind, this is the most punk-rock shit we’ve done.” —Chris
Rich, is there anything in the past seven or eight years that you regret saying publicly?
Rich: No. What I said throughout these past seven years was what I felt. It doesn’t necessarily make them right or wrong.
Chris: Yeah. By the way, when I say that, it’s not like I’m sitting here with any regrets. I don’t give a fuck. That to me is why some people like what Rich and I represent and what the Black Crowes have always been. In an age of everyone status-seeking and playing it so close to the middle. For what? They don’t want to upset the apple cart. Why? There’s one reason, and it’s monetary. I’ve always felt that rock & roll should be more feral. I’d say, “Why are you guys getting along? Because Liam and Noel can’t!”
What new frontmen impress you when it comes to energy and charisma?
Chris: I listen to a lot of hip-hop, and I see how hip-hop stars have been able to take the place of rock & roll stars. They fuck models, they take drugs, they fuckin’ get arrested. I understand the rebellious thing. There’s this kid from Atlanta called J.I.D. I love the J.I.D. I love Earthgang; they’re like the kids of Outkast. But I also see somebody like Marcus King doing it his own way and Ethan Miller from Howlin’ Rain who gets onstage and he’s just fuckin’ energy and beauty.
What about yourselves? Have you thought about recording any new music?
Chris: We haven’t discussed it, you know?
Rich: I think we’re trying to focus our energy on this … for once. Instead of being all over the place; coming back full circle to this.
Chris: In my mind, this is the most punk-rock shit we’ve done; to do something, in a way, in the box.
Did either of you ask for any compromises when agreeing to reunite?
Rich: We didn’t have to. Everything’s growing pains. You grow. You go through life. It’s almost like the old trail horse. Some of the band saw the old red lantern that made them want to rush home instead of still being excited and vibrant about what we were doing. It just became this pettiness, and sometimes you have to get away from it, let it fester, let it go away, and then come back to this full circle again. The way it was, Chris and I started this band. We wrote all the songs. That’s how it was when we were 15 and that’s how …
Chris: That’s how it was the last time we fuckin’ did anything! Whether or not we wanted to choke each other. That’s how the fuckin’ shit works. Rich writes fuckin’ music, and I write the lyrics and sing it.
“All of it comes from sadness and stress and hurt and that’s life … You have to cut people slack.” —Rich
But what message would you have for fans that may be skeptical of the tour?
Chris: I think this is pure. We went off into a lot of things. There’s no jamming. There’s no extraneous stuff. This is the purest Black Crowes that people first [heard] … I hope we reconnect with some people who lost their way with us because of all of our other shit we were doing.
Rich: And there’s no better way to start over then with the first thing that we did together.
Chris: That just so happened to be the most commercially successful thing. This is going to be an amazing learning experience for us.
Chris and Rich at same time: We’ve never done this!
Chris, you said of Shake Your Money Maker in 1991, “We wanted to make a record as good as Exile on Main Street.” How close do you think you came?
Chris: Oh, not even close [laughs]. Not close in a million years.
“I found being a rock star very easy. I found being a musician much harder … I want to play some fuckin’ rock & roll before it’s too late.” —Chris
Rich, you said in that same feature, “I think we serve the same purpose the Stones did 20 years ago or Aerosmith did 15 years ago.” What purpose do you feel the Black Crowes play in 2019?
Rich: I think that the world needs some direction. There’s a massive amount of people that are never shown anything authentic. They’ve lost the ability to understand what authenticity is. A lot of that has failed, and we’ve allowed it to happen to ourselves. There’s a complacency with masses of people today just because I think they don’t understand that they can go [a different way]. So by Chris and I going out and doing this and playing our music and being who we are … we’re just who we are.
Substance abuse was a big problem in the Black Crowes, and it fueled some of the anger, frustration, and fighting in the group. Do you think that will …
Chris: Are you asking me if I could sell you some coke? [Laughs] I’m just kidding.
Do you think with hard drugs no longer an issue, it will help the process of you two getting along?
Chris: There’s definitely a connection. [Pauses] I’m a weird person to ask about that. I love drugs. I don’t do hard drugs anymore. [Pauses] I always knew where I was and where the line was drawn. Around us, heroin would be something that more affected other people in the band in the late Nineties; that’s where it got weird. I also had incredible experiences on drugs and living that lifestyle. I had more fun than anyone. But to be in a place where we’re older, it’s like, fuck, the Black Crowes would have ceased to exist if there wasn’t just endless booze and drugs everywhere we went. It was part of the trip, but I couldn’t imagine living like that anymore.
You both have prolific catalogs outside of the Black Crowes. Does this force you to pause that side to focus on this?
Chris: Rich and I really enjoy our solo lives, and the music is important. I mean, Neal. [Pauses] That band’s over. [Chris Robinson Brotherhood guitarist Neal Casal died by suicide in September.] Maybe down the line as years go by, I can revisit that music. But Neal kind of put the period on that.
Rich: The other stuff, I made those records. I’m really proud of them. But it’s been put to bed. It kind of started becoming a drag. And I don’t want to deal with the drag. I want music to be fun and joyous.
Did Neal’s suicide change the way you look at this outing and your relationship with Rich?
Chris: Oh, yes, yes. Crystal clear. I didn’t really know the extent of Neal’s mental illness and depression and what he was going through to cause something like that. Suicide is like emotional terrorism. I have no judgment about anything. I’m only here to be empathetic. But if I wasn’t focused, I’m more focused about this and my relationship with Rich. I should have said it earlier: That part of my nastiness and negativity about my career, that’s gone. I’ll never ever, ever, ever even remotely not see this for what it was and how beautiful and special [it is]; even the fuckin’ fights and the shit we went through. We’ve got to live our lives doing the thing that when we were kids, that’s all we fuckin’ cared about.
I never did take that for granted, but even if I hovered close to something like that dynamic, that tragic event really brought it all together. I’ve always been surrounded by a little bit of madness and a little bit of depression, and those are the people that influenced me and that I love. Flirting around with the negativity sometimes can get stuck.
“My daughter never met Uncle Rich. I didn’t know his kids. That stuff is sad.” — Chris
Former Black Crowes drummer Steve Gorman recently released a memoir that’s less-than-complimentary toward both of you. Would either of you like to comment on it?
Rich: It’s in the past. Everyone has a perspective. Whatever.
Chris: I agree with Rich.
Anything you want to add?
Chris: Naw, I read so much [laughs] that I don’t have time to do that.
Would you consider writing your own memoir?
Chris: I definitely want to write a book. But I’m about to be 53. There’s so much more stuff to happen that I don’t really have time to stop too much and wax poetic about what has been when it’s still going on.
Have you started to think about what may lie beyond the tour? Where do you see the Black Crowes in five years?
Rich: Not even thinking about it.
Chris: That’s not even something I’m remotely thinking about. This is so humane and rad in what we have going. The schedule, the way we’re being treated. Rich and I are calling the shots. I don’t feel like a fuckin’ greyhound racing around the track.
Rich: In this band in our past life, one of the former members came up to me and said, “One of the scariest things for all of us was when you and Chris got along. When you two got along, no one else could stop it.”