Chris Robinson: The Black Crowes singer is back and at the top of his game
Monday 03 March 2008
Sitting cross-legged on a sofa in a London hotel, Chris Robinson is reflecting on how, nearly 20 years ago, his band The Black Crowes crept in under the radar and stole the rock'n'roll crown.
"I don't think there was a less likely group of people around to make it in a band," he says. "Our mentality was that to be mainstream, or in any way popular, was bad. MTV was totally shallow and the bands on it representative of the corporate music business that we would never be part of. Then two years later, we were on MTV five times a day and selling millions of records."
When they appeared in 1990, on a music scene dominated by big hair, big riffs and even bigger egos, The Black Crowes, with their cartoon bell-bottoms and penchant for Southern-style blues rock, were an anomaly. Yet their wilfully unfashionable debut album Shake Your Money Maker, which borrowed heavily from The Rolling Stones and The Faces, yielded a string of hits, including "Jealous Again" and the Otis Redding cover "Hard To Handle".
At the time, though, there was no one like them, and the Crowes often found themselves performing at heavy-metal festivals. "Back then, our intro song was 'Sex Machine' by James Brown," Robinson says. "You could see people in the crowd going: 'Who the hell are you, and what are you doing?' We were these aliens in velvet pants and blue eyeshadow, channelling the magic and mystery of roots music. But there was no other place for us."
By 1992, grunge had sounded the death knell for hard rock. Yet the Crowes continued to scale dizzy commercial heights – they have sold in excess of 20 million records – while indulging in the hedonism that was the calling-card of their Sixties and early Seventies forebears. The Crowes were loud about their love of cannabis and, in later years, candid about their experiences with heroin and cocaine.
It's no wonder that by 2001 the band had apparently reached the end of the road. Years of touring had taken its toll. Lions had been poorly received and Robinson and his guitarist brother, Rich, were no longer on speaking terms.
"The biggest uncertainty was whether me or my brother could continue to make music together," says Robinson. "Swimming upstream all that time took a lot of energy and after a while we just stopped communicating. We were all frayed at the seams, whether through drugs or just plain exhaustion. We weren't in contact for a while. There were unresolved issues, a lot of shit wasted along the way."
But there was another reason why Robinson's mind wasn't on the job. "In 2000, I fell in love," he says mistily. "I had never felt anything like that before in my life. It kind of took me over." The object of his affection was Kate Hudson, who that year was Oscar-nominated for her role as a groupie in Almost Famous. The weekend after they met, they moved in together and eight months later the pair were married by a shaman. At 34, Robinson was 13 years older than Hudson and for a while they were Hollywood's golden couple. But in 2005, they separated amid rumours of infidelity and divorced soon after. "We get along pretty good now," says Robinson. "We've got a four-year-old son and his happiness is the most important thing to us both."
That same year, the band played a series of low-key shows in New York. That the five-night run sold out in minutes was enough to convince Robinson that the Crowes had a future. "No matter what, I'm always interested in making music. To get the band back together was very exciting. I'm sure that the ghost of Christmas past will come back to haunt us at some point, but I hope that we'll be smart enough to deal with it head-on."
Of their new album Warpaint, their first in seven years, Robinson says it is the culmination of a lifetime of influences. "We're not supposed to still be here, or be relevant, or making music that's this passionate or fulfilling to us. It's not that surprising to us as it happens every night when we play live, but there are many people who think we shouldn't still be up there."
Musically, the album is business as usual, with the Crowes churning out their infectious blend of bar-room blues and Southern-fried soul. But there is a new emotional urgency to the songs. From "Oh Josephine" ("For a while I was dealing in tears and powders/ For a spell I was strung out beyond my means") to the closer "Whoa Mule" ("It won't take long to sing you my song/ Full of trouble and despair"), Warpaint alludes to the many war wounds, both personal and professional, that have been picked up along the way.
Twenty years on, The Black Crowes are a very different proposition – older, wiser, considerably hairier and more than able to show the little blighters how it's done. Drugs may not be completely off the menu – "That would never happen!" – but it's all in moderation. "Life is different than it was in the Nineties," Robinson says. "I'm a dad, and there are other things I have to get done in an afternoon than just being an artist. Part of getting older is realising that you can integrate all these different areas of your life, rather than the adolescent mindset, which for me lasted a long time, which says, 'It's all or nothing.'"
Much has changed in business terms, too. Having parted company with their label, the band have started their own, Silver Arrow. "We were always frustrated, because success didn't offer us any more freedom than we had with our first album," Robinson explains. "We operated with a certain level of passionate defiance. But there we were, young and from the South and idealistic, making all these corporate entities millions of dollars but not seeing eye-to-eye with them about how to operate. Having them tell us what we should do was pretty galling."
With the shifting technological climate, Robinson says there's never been a better time to be making music. "With time and experience comes a different perception of what's going on around you. Now as a musician, if you have it within you, you can create your own reality. Believe me, it's a novelty. Right now, I've never been more impressed by the new bands that we meet. I may be 10, 20 years older, but we're all on the same page about culture, music and life. After all these years and in this time of chaos within the music industry, I think our band has flourished. We're at the top of our game."
'Warpaint' is released on Silver Arrow today; The Black Crowes play Brixton Academy (0844 477 2000) on 9 April
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