Through A Crooked Sun
The Rich Robinson Interview
By James Calemine
"The prodigy of my youth is now broken
Leaving what's left beneath the stars..."
"Bye Bye Baby"
Born in 1969, the same day as Bob Dylan--May 24, Rich Robinson formed The Black Crowes with his older brother Chris in Atlanta, Georgia, during the 1980s. At 17, Robinson wrote songs for The Black Crowes album Shake Your Money Maker, which eventually sold 7 million copies. Following Black Crowes albums such as The Southern Harmony & Musical Companion, Amorica, Three Snakes & One Charm, By Your Side, Lions, Warpaint and Before The Frost compile a formidable rock & roll songbook.
Robinson retains a rare degree of insight concerning success, the music industry and musicianship. The Crowes dealt with the sudden curse of fame with talent and perseverance few bands possess. On the craft of writing, Ernest Hemingway once wrote: "...real seriousness in regard to writing being one of the two absolute necessities. The other, unfortunately, is talent." If you've ever heard it, Rich Robinson's undeniable music speaks for itself in terms of talent.
Over the years, Robinson and The Crowes performed with Bob Dylan, Neil Young, The Grateful Dead, The Rolling Stones, Jimmy Page and many others. Looking back, it seemed the better The Crowes became as musicians the fewer records they sold. The early 90s MTV boom earned The Crowes global exposure, but they soon became jaded once they discovered the echo in the hollow shell of the record industry. Regardless, The Black Crowes have sold over 25 million albums, but as Rich Robinson will tell you there is a price for such success. Like them or not, The Black Crowes gave no quarter when it came to songwriting and keeping the show on the road. The band's turbulent story is well-known in music circles. There's a dark side to anything that deals with money...
Rich seemed to always stand in the shadow of his older brother. Yet, Rich operated as the musical engine of The Black Crowes. Rich released his first solo album--Paper--in 2004, which showcased his stellar, but under-rated guitar playing, as well as his lyrical capabilities. In all these years, Rich learned a few lessons about creativity, commerce, family values and funneled his vision into a new timeless, salt-of-the-earth album that transcends soul and money titled Through A Crooked Sun. Recorded in Woodstock, New York, in April 2011, Robinson's 12 new songs feature Larry Campbell (Bob Dylan, Levon Helm & Phil Lesh), Warren Haynes (Gov't Mule, Allman Brothers Band & The Dead), John Medeski (Medeski Martin & Wood, The Word), Karl Berger, Joe Magistro and Adam Widoff.
Through A Crooked Sun revolves around material change, everlasting spirit and strong songcraft. Exposure to illusions and excesses of the 'rock star' lifestyle forces the most enlightened artist to keep an ear open to the common man and what's going on in the street. Today's economy effects everyone from the factory worker to hardworking musicians. However, Rich always maintains an everyday manner of expressing himself. He's quiet, thoughtful and chooses his words carefully. Through a Crooked Sun was released on October 11. When I interviewed Rich three days later he was in Burlington, Vermont, and already touring to promote his latest release. In this Swampland interview, we discuss Through A Crooked Sun, songwriting, painting, historian Howard Zinn, the economy, Woodstock musicians, art & life in the 21st Century, deals with The Devil and more...
James Calemine: It's been almost seven years to the day since we conducted an official interview. Paper was just relased in 2004. In the last seven years there have been changes afoot. Through A Crooked Sun is a great salt of the earth record.
Rich Robinson: Well, yeah. I think it's about the human experience. People who do what I do or people who write articles like you, working in the world or whatever, we all have similar experiences. At least in the sense of what we all deal with--our feelings, family, jobs, fear, raising kids and the shit we have to deal with just to exist in the world. It's like that age old thing--when you have kids and they go to school and they feel alienated and all of these common or universal things emerge--and everyone feels that sooner or later in their lives. Everyone feels these universal experiences. If you can tap into it, and kind of write about it, you can listen and hopefully heal the connection to what's going on in your life.
JC: You produced and recorded Through A Crooked Sun in Woodstock, New York, at Applehead Studios in April. How long did it take to record?
RR: It took about three weeks to record.
JC: Larry Campbell, and Warren Haynes make amazing contributions to this record. Talk about the rest of the players...
RR: Well, Joe Magistro is on it, and he was on my last record. Steve Molitz played on the record and he's in a group called Particle--he played keyboards. Then Larry Campbell came out and played on a couple of songs. Warren came out to play on a song. We had a guy named Adam Widoff who played with Lenny Kravitz for years. He played some guitar, harmonica and keyboards. John Medeski came and played on some stuff, which was good to have him. Then this guy named Karl Berger who is in his 70s and he was famous for playing with Ornette Coleman. I was very fortunate. In Woodstock it's really cool that way because it has so many great musicians right there. It's such a small little hamlet. I'd say to my engineer, 'I need some vibes on this.' And he'd say, 'We'll call Karl Berger. He lives right up the street.' There's sitar players up there. Anything you want. It's pretty amazing.
JC: They're all hard-boiled experts up there in some weird Appalachian-wooden instrument sort of way. They're not about flash, that's for sure.
RR: Yeah, these guys just play man. They wanted to move out of the city and live up in the mountains and do their thing. Joe lives up there and he knows a lot of people there. It was a great thing to be part of. Just to have all these great musicians come and play on my album was just great. Any time you have great musicians come and play on your stuff is always a good feeling.
JC: Are most of the songs Through A Crooked Sun pretty new?
RR: Yeah. Most of the songs were no more than six months old. Some of them I'd just written right before I went into the studio. When I went in to record some of them were about six months old.
JC: It's an acoustic-based album. These songs like "Bye Bye Baby", "Falling Again", "All Along The Way" are strong tunes. It seems your song "What Is Home" from Before The Frost indicated some stepping stone or new direction that perhaps foreshadowed this latest batch of songs...
RR: I just write music. So, I do feel kind of like "What Is Home" was a song I had, and I guess you could sort of say it was a stepping stone for this record. It was something I felt really good about when I wrote it. It didn't take long to write the song. I actually wrote it for Chris to sing on, but he was like, 'Naw, you go ahead and do it.' So, I wrote lyrics for it. I was up in Woodstock and I just wrote this song. I literally felt the connection, and I wrote the lyrics. I obviously wrote the music, but I had to write the lyrics which is something I've always been very reticent about. The whole lyric thing kind of freaks me out sometimes, but either way I wrote it and I felt like I really captured something. In Woodstock, for some reason I really like it up there. It's beautiful. There's mountains and there's a vibe. And like you said, they are very serious musicians--there is no flash.
Larry Campbell would pull up in his pick-up truck, brought out his lap steel or pedal steel and just set it up. There's no techs or 20 people running around. This is what I do and it's incredibly fullfilling. It's such a cool thing to see because it should be that easy. You don't need all that bullshit. You should just be able to pull up with your guitar. And Larry does it man. John Medeski--same thing. That guy came in so unassuming and he was phenomenal...a people player. We were all just watching and listening to him going, 'Holy shit. He's great.' He's very unique, but he understands styles.
JC: "All Along The Way" contains some amazing instrumentation...
RR: "All Along The Way" is me playing the B-bender. You know what a B-bender is?
JC: Yeah, Clarence White invented it. It's that guitar-type instrument that Jimmy Page can make twang so beautifully, right?
RR: That's right. I was going to get Larry to do it, but he had a Midnight Ramble that night so I just did it. I did my best Jimmy Page "Tangerine" intro best I could (laughs).
JC: "Follow You Forever" was written for your father, right?
RR: Well, yeah. He wasn't doing so well. So, I moved down to Atlanta to be with him. Right now he's doing okay and things have taken a turn for the better. He had lung cancer. It's good. I'm just staying kind of near him now.
JC: Explain the cover art for Through A Crooked Sun...
RR: Actually a friend of mine did it. He's a director from Paris. He put an image to the emotive feeling of the record and the music. He was around while we were recording and visually he made the vibe of the record come to fruition. He was around to see the setting of where the studio was, which is on this beautiful piece of property in Woodstock on 12 acres with llamas and horses around. I took some pictures and also sent them to him. He loves music and he really loves to do that stuff. He laid everything out. The pictures were like a collage and touched visually all the aspects of the recording process and what the whole record is kind of about.
JC: Are you still painting? I know you painted the cover art for Paper...
RR: Yeah, I haven't been painting much in the last year because I've been moving and working. But when I get home and have time to find the space I can get in there and get it going. I work in bursts. I'll go for a year without painting and then I'll go in and on the last round I did about 30 paintings. Then I'm done with it for a while.
JC: Hey, before I forget...Scott Kinnebrew from the Truth & Salvage Company told me you gave him a favorite book of mine, Don Nix's Road Stories And Recipes. To me, just Eddie Hinton's skillet fried tuna fish recipe is worth the price of the book...
RR: (Laughs) Absolutely. Those guys were out on the road with The Crowes for a while. They were cool guys and I thought they might enjoy it. He seemed to really like it.
JC: I want you to talk about working on Howard Zinn's project The People Speak. I forgot he lived in Atlanta for years...
RR: Howard Zinn was a historian. He actually fought in WWII. He was a patriot of our country. He went to war and saw things that made him uneasy. He felt Hitler was obviously a bad guy and he wanted to fight for his country so he went there. He saw disturbing things like when he came back to America after the war. By the way, Howard lived an incredible life. He was an incredible human being. It was a true gift for me for me to be able to meet him just before he passed away. He was just one of those guys. He was an integral figure in the Civil Rights movement. He was at the center of it. He held hands with the students and encouraged them, and in my opinion he was a true American.
JC: The government really fucked with him, and called him a communist.
RR:Totally. That's what happens in America if you don't agree with these jerkoffs. If they're afraid of you they call you a socialist-communist- facist even when they don't understand what those terms mean. Back then they were trashing this gentle, caring, intelligent human being in a way that anyone could understand was wrong. He gave his life for America and humanity. He saw what he thought was injustice and in a non-violent way fought it. I have nothing but the utmost respect for him. I did a play, that was the format at first. They were doing it around New York, and Steve Earle was doing it. And I did a couple of those--I was nervous as hell, but I did it. So, when they decided to turn it into a movie they brought it all these artists that were involved and it was abount finding these protest songs on the music side of things. Protest songs that really convey a message.
The whole point of the movie was to show that every day common people can make a huge difference just like the people on Wall Street right now. They've had enough of what's going on and I commend them. I'm all for them. Good for them man. These people in charge are fucking everything up. They're just putting money in their pockets. The movie is a great testiment to the American spirit. So, Chris and I played (Neil Young's) "Ohio". It's a song that really captured a moment when Vietnam protestors, college kids in Ohio, are shot and killed by their own American National Guard because they were doing what the first amednment of the U.S. Constitution protects. They killed college students, and so for us to be able to do that song and put it in perspective. I just felt incredibly honored to be part of the whole thing. Bob Dylan did a song. Bruce Springsteen did a song. Eddie Vedder did a song. When we went to L.A. they had a lot of other bands out there like X. Chris and I got to play with X. Jackson Browne, John Legend and all these people, so it was an amazing thing to do. I felt honored to be part of it.
JC: You may have insight or an opinion on this, but it seems art and our culture is drifting a little...perhaps creeping back to the dust bowl blues of the 20s, 30s and 40s kind of vibe. It's hard. There is an eerie feeling of fear in the air. There's no time for excesses of the 60s, 70s, 80s or 90s--across the board.
RR: Well, it's definitely heading there. Right now we're just teetering. A lot of it I feel is just perception. With all the media owned multi-national companies with an agenda, and they own media outlets and push their agenda to people. Anytime the truth comes out, people throw a lot of money and untruths at it so that no one knows what the hell is going on. I think a lot of times, we're on the tip of something if things don't change soon of really falling into a deep financial problem. This is stuff, regardless of people's politics, we all know something has to be done because you have these other people that steer. It's all a distraction.
When one percent of the country controls everything there's an issue. The 400 wealthiest people in America have more money than the bottom 150 million people. That's a problem. If you take the 150 million people on the low-end scale of income and you combine their wealth and what they make--the 400 wealthiest American have more money than them. You can say capitalism or these types of things but it's getting morally wrong. It's morally wrong when people are starving and losing their homes and they're just getting tossed around by these assholes in Washington that are bought and paid for by the people who have all the money. It makes no sense to me. No one is saying the government needs to be out of control. But a lot of the huge corporations are out of control. It's time to reel them in on people's behalf. We can vote a congressman, or a senator or a president out, but we can't vote out a CEO when they have a monopoly.
JC: And they have enough money to keep you at bay or make the rest of your life a legal hassle...
JC: Do you believe in the proverbial deal with The Devil? The Legend of Faust? Robert Johnson at the crossroads? Neil Young's Greendale when The Devil cleans the painter's glasses and his work begins to sell?
RR: I think there's angels and devils in us. A common theme that runs through most religions is that we can attain heaven in ourselves or attain hell in ourselves. What reality is based on is soul or morals and what you choose to give the world and to take back. I believe making a deal with The Devil is selling out. The proverbial--in my case--I could make a lot of money if I make this shit music or huge awful songs that appeal to common denominators of people's ignorance. Or I could do something a little loftier with the creative process and show things a different way to make mankind better, but it might not sell at all. I think we get caught up in the literal instead of the metaphorical. We do it with the Bible sometimes, and we do it with religious documents. I truly believe these metaphorical sort of teachings have permeated history. We're all exposed to universal things. You get into trouble when you confuse the metaphorical with 'it happened just like this'. That's what I think.
JC: I know you played dulcimer and guitar on Patti Smith's Twelve album. Besides The Crowes and Circle Sound have you played on anyone else's album lately?
RR: I produced and played on a young artist's album, and she's from Scotland. That album will come out in February. But no, I haven't played on anyone's records in a while.
JC: I noticed you guys played the Gram Parsons song "She" last night. The Crowes always rendered a great version of that. I look forward to seeing y'all in a couple of weeks here in Atlanta and Athens.
RR: Yeah, we did. It should be cool down there. I'm looking forward to it.
JC: Well, Godspeed out there Rich. Hopefully I'll see you in a couple of weeks.
RR: Okay James. Thanks a lot.