“Why does music have no value in the modern age, and yet everything else holds such great importance?”
Chris Robinson has never been one to mince words, especially when it comes to expressing his passion about the way he prefers to listen to and create music. The always outspoken former frontman of the Black Crowes has been a tireless champion of vinyl and the LP format for years.
“We were always trying to make albums when other people were making singles or CDs,” he once told me before undertaking a 3-hour-long Crowes gig consisting of separate 90-minute acoustic and electric sets in New York. He’s since found the right band to carry on the vibes and values he’s believed in as a musician and songwriter since Day One — namely, the five-piece jam band The Chris Robinson Brotherhood, a.k.a. the CRB.
And the CRB can lock into one helluva great groove.
You can hear it all through Anyway You Love, We Know How You Feel, out now in various formats via Robinson’s own custom label, Silver Arrow. From the slinky ’n’ slightly psychedelic tones of opening track Narcissus Soaking Wet to the cavernous, hypnotic lead vocal on Forever as the Moon to the funky axe attack of Leave My Guitar Alone, the CRB knows you gotta have strong songs at the core of every good jam to keep the listener fully engaged.
“My impetus, my first step off the ledge, is writing songs,” Robinson told Digital Trends. “Writing songs — that’s what I do. How they get from Point A to Point B after I’ve written them and once the band learns to play them — that’s when they start to become something else. And when you’re dealing with soulful things — poetics and music, rhythm and vibrations — well, it’s hard to put a price tag on that.”
Robinson (who also hosts the eclectic monthly show Gurus Galore on Jam On, SiriusXM channel 29) recently sat down with Digital Trends in a suite at the Empire Hotel in New York to discuss the care he takes in putting together a full album package, why interest in vinyl continues grow, and one way musicians could band together to influence streaming services to pay better rates.
Digital Trends: Since you’re as fanatical about vinyl as I am, I’m sure you took extra care in getting the overall Anyway You Love LP package exactly how you wanted it.
Chris Robinson: It takes a long time now to get it all together. We do have to take greater care and time to make them happen the right way, because now it’s become such a “thing,” and so many people are expecting it.
If thousands of musicians went over to the Spotify offices and started taking whatever we wanted, I’m sure they would change their practices.
Part of what we’ve done, especially in the CRB, is not dilute the music at all. The vinyl is part of the culture, and you have to curate what you’re into. In my case, part of making records is making sure what they look like and what they feel like are the right choices. It’s the artist’s way of expressing himself with a collection of songs at a given time in his life by recording them and presenting them to you. If that’s still something that interests you and is still important to you, then here we are. I’d like to think we still make good records. (chuckles heartily)
But the music business, like everything else, finds other ways to squeeze out more money, so you may see records in weird places. That’s why when you go to a place like Whole Foods, you might see a Jason Mraz record there, or something. (both laugh) I don’t think that’s necessarily what the customer is there for.
The overall sound of Anyway You Love was also quite important to you. Did you go to the final mastering sessions? Do you watch the cutting lathe in action?
I don’t do that, but Neal [Casal, CRB guitarist] does, and Adam [MacDougall, CRB keyboardist] did for this one. Luckily, we have the kind of commune where everyone can pick up the pieces. Betty does hers because she likes to be there, and I think that’s a good thing. [Betty is noted Grateful Dead-archivist Betty Cantor-Jackson, who also compiles and supervises the limited-run live CRB series known as Betty’s Blend.]
The tone of this record feels like everybody’s recording together in the same room while looking at each other. That’s how you guys cut things in that Northern California studio, right?
Yeah, we record live. In this case, we wrote the songs that morning, and recorded them during the same day. That was part of the spontaneity of the session. We didn’t do any pre-production. There were a few songs we had played on tour, but not the majority of the material.
The opening track, Narcissus Soaking Wet, is a home run right off the bat. It’s also been interesting to see people describe it like it’s a lost track from The Band.
It’s funny when people try and figure out what it is. For us, at this point in time, it’s our music. You have to realize how many records we’ve all made, separately and together, and how many gigs we’ve all done. I’m the oldest now [at 49], but everyone else is right behind me. Between all of us, that’s like having over 100 years of being out on the road.
I like seeing how some of these tracks were already road-tested. I’ve seen the clip from Vail, Colorado this past April of you guys performing Ain’t It Hard But Fair, for example.
Yeah, we started playing that one last November. We’re still the kind of band that, when we have something new and we have the time to work on the arrangement and the various parts and pieces, we’ll throw it into the live set. We have the freedom to not be too precious about anything. It’s wide open, you know? Funk can not only move, it can remove, dig?
I dig. The last time we talked, you had two classic Technics SL-1210M5G turntables in your house in Southern California. Do you still have them?
I do, I do. Well, we only have one in service, because we had to downsize the rig. We moved to Marin County, but I still have most of those records.
At the time, you had about 5,000 records. Has that number gone up or down?
I got rid of… (pauses) Well, I don’t know. It’s hard to say. I got rid of some, but then more come in, so it’s probably right around the same number, if not a little less.
Any new or favorite albums you’ve spun recently?
Well, I found [jazz flautist] Herbie Mann’s Memphis Underground (1969) is a really good record. I listen to a lot of [Hindustani sarod player] Ali Akbar Khan, Indian records, French Sufi collections, and weird stuff from all these weird labels. I’ve also really been into [jazz organist] Richard “Groove” Holmes records. I’m into listening to a lot of things. (whispers) Maybe too many.
On the other side of the listening coin, people can go into Spotify or Soundcloud and stream your record. How do you feel about that?
Well, it seems lazy and disrespectful to the artist. “Oh, I just want to be casually involved.” OK, that’s fine. They don’t pay anyone what they should be paid. If those streaming services paid people the right way, everything would be fine. They wouldn’t have as much money, but the artist would be much happier, and it would be fair.
The greater question is not what’s changed in terms of the modes or the fashion of how we listen to music, it’s why music has no value in the modern age.
But then again, it’s something that’s out of my control. If I took time out of my life to fucking argue the point and wonder why I don’t have more money, I wouldn’t be spending the time being involved in the positive aspects, the creative aspects, and the original aspects of our ideas, and then manipulating, if you will, our sort of big ball of clay into some other sculpture. It is what it is, you know?
I do find it funny as a grown adult who’s spent the majority of his life playing music that music is so cheap. You can’t go in a movie theater and videotape that film, and then watch it. You can’t go to a Broadway show and take pictures. You’re not allowed to do that stuff, but you can come to a concert, and your song is free. You wrote the song, but so what? It doesn’t mean anything.
Not that you write songs for them only to be worth something, because they should be worth the poetic nature that they’re born of. But how far does that measure?
When it comes to streaming — well, I do have a record collection, and I like having it. Who’s to say that’s the way it’s always going to be? If every musician got together and we all showed up at one time at the Spotify office — like if thousands of us went over there, and started taking whatever we wanted — I’m sure they would change their practices. But then they’d probably call in the state militia, or whatever. (chuckles)
Well, you must like seeing what we can call a revival of the interest in vinyl.
To me, it just made the prices of a lot of bad records go up. But I hear you. It’s cool, but a phase is a phase, you know? People laughed at me for listening to records in the mid-’90s at my house in Laurel Canyon.
It also makes it more difficult. I was in Seattle a few months ago, and I went to this record store there I really like. It was Record Store Day [April 16], and I didn’t even realize it. I walked in, I saw what a zoo it was, and I turned around and walked out. I didn’t have the time to get into one of those long lines, but it’s a good thing. It keeps things interesting.
But the greater question is not what’s changed in terms of the modes or the fashion of how we listen to music, it’s why music has no value in the modern age. Or why, culturally or economically, music is so cheap and means nothing, and yet everything else holds such great importance. I mean, nothing else would be available for such pillage.
Is there any way to change it? What would you do to fix the system?
I guess the one way it changes is that everyone becomes their own little record company, like how you make small batch liquors or small batch beers in the Hudson Valley, or you go to a restaurant that only has this one thing, because it’s seasonal.
In that case, you’ll be far more creative. You’re not making a record that not only is supposed to keep your career going and your coffers filled, but one that also fills the coffers of all these executives, and then pays for the studio time for all these other young bands. You have to remove yourself from that kind of trickle-down economics. (laughs heartily)
And you’ve done just that by literally becoming the master of your own universe with your own label [Silver Arrow].
I mean, we still play the game a tiny bit. You asked what the future is. Maybe the future becomes even more clandestine, and more handmade. It wouldn’t bother me. But that’s just for me. I’m not going to wake up in the year 2017 and be on a major label, or be a corporate person.