With his first solo album New Earth Mud now under his belt, and a deep, loving relationship with (way past almost) famous actress wife Kate Hudson, The Black Crowes' lead vocalist Chris Robinson has never seemed more content.
The album's stripped down, honest delivery is an about face from The Crowes' gritty southern hard rock style, showcasing a more mature outlook on life and love. But maturity doesn't necessarily mean becoming sedentary, as the broad range of emotions and musical styles that run through New Earth Mud offers a refreshingly new insight to an artist not afraid to spread his wings into the realms of soul, funk, country and folk pop.
Chris spent some time talking with Livewire's Tony Bonyata about his wife, his hot new band, substance of choice and the future of The Black Crowes.
Livewire: First of all, I'd like to say congratulations on your new solo album. It really is a refreshing contrast to your work with The Black Crowes.
Chris: Well, thank you.
Livewire: For the most part, New Earth Mud showcases a more soulful, laid-back side of yourself. Was this material you had all along or was it specifically written for this album?
Chris: Well, I had a couple of songs, but for the most part everything was written after the last Crowes tour. It was almost a year ago that we made the record. So, everything was pretty much brand new after The Crowes thing.
Livewire: Was there a sense of freedom working on these songs without the constraints and expectations that you may have had with The Crowes?
Chris: Well, I think it's the inherent nature of me doing it myself. It's not like The Black Crowes was ever a binding kind of thing. It's just with this, the dynamics are definitely different. With a band like The Black Crowes, which had been together for such a long time, it just starts to take over. Like when you go into a studio, everything's kinda set out and everyone knows their places and stuff. In one way this was definitely more experimental for me and Paul [Stacey], my co-producer. I like the idea of improvising a lot. I go into things with a certain overall view and feeling of what I want the record to be, but when I get in there I really take it song by song and see where the song leads us. I think that some of the best Crowes stuff we did had that spontaneous vibe. That's something that's always interested me in music. I'm not really the kind of person to get too bogged down in the details. I think that takes away from the emotion and the vibe of what you're doing.
Livewire: So you think that even before you went into the studio with this material, that it came out different that what you originally anticipated?
Chris: Well, to move into a new phase of my music and career, I definitely wanted something that was understated for my first foray. I wanted something that was intimate. I definitely think that's a side of me. As the frontman of The Black Crowes I had to represent all of these different personalities and things, and with this it's just me and how I feel. The one thing about where we are in the music business right now, everything is validated solely by its commercial appeal, so you're missing a lot of content. Everyone is trying so hard to water down everything just to sell, that you're missing so much emotion and so many other things. You're missing a dynamic - a multi-dimensional thing. So, that's really where I wanted to start.
Livewire: The official word is that The Black Crowes are now on a hiatus as a band. Is this solo outing just a temporary break from the band or could it be something more permanent?
Chris: I think 'hiatus' was a nice way to...I think it's more about me and my brother, you know what I mean? It was a nice way to put it. But we don't really speak. I mean, I speak to him, but there's no real plans. I don't really see it happening, you know, for quite awhile.
Livewire: When you and your brother Rich talk now, is it about music or 'pass the pork chops?'
Chris: Yeah, its more about the kids and mom and dad, you know, family oriented stuff, which is nice.
Livewire: I'm in business with my brother, so I know exactly what you're talking about.
Chris: (Laughs) But out the frying pan and into the fire. I'm now in a band with two identical twins from London.
Livewire: The Stacey Brothers?
Chris: Yeah (laughs), so you know.
Livewire: I hope they're not already going back and forth with each other.
Chris: No, they are on very good behavior with me. Paul also worked with Oasis for many years.
Livewire: Give it time.
Chris: Oh, trust me I see it. But I don't see The Black Crowes really... again, I don't think that this is something that I would do, because when I commit myself to something that's where I am and that's where I wanna go. I don't really look at it as a side project. I look at it as a new phase in my career. My ambitions lie in moving this onto the next record. It keeps growing, but it takes time. When you come from something as successful and solid as The Black Crowes - which stood for a certain rock 'n' roll aesthetic and had a specific concert presentation - it'll take a little while. I like that idea of it - the hands on, grass roots idea. I like the way we're doing it. I'm not really concerned so much with ticket sales right now. That's why this record was on a very small record label. I wanna have my time now to experiment. I've got this band together and I couldn't be happier. So in my old age... (laughs)
Livewire: You're how old? 35, 36?
Livewire: You're an old-timer.
Chris: Yeah, well, I'm much more patient. And that's what it's really about.
Livewire: How did you hook up with Paul and Jeremy [Stacey] and Matt Jones for this project?
Chris: Well, Matt came aboard through Paul. I met Paul, actually, through Noel [Gallagher of Oasis]. A few years ago we were in London and Noel came to a Crowes gig and brought Paul with them, and that's where our friendship kinda started. When we were gonna do the Lions album I called Noel to see who he thought would be interesting, in terms of a producer, to talk to in England and he mentioned Paul. We had a meeting in Paris - I was there with my wife where we were married and stuff - and we just hit it off. And I got to spend a little time in London after the Lions album, while my wife was working, and we started working at Paul's studio a little bit on some ideas and things, and it just kind of took off from there.
Livewire: So here's a Southern boy with a handful of English musicians. Why did you chose Paris as the place to record the album?
Chris: Well, I knew we were going to have the time there. My wife was making a film, and we were going to be there for three months. It's one of our favorite places in the world.
Livewire: Yours and Kate's?
Chris: Yes. So it was actually much easier to bring the guys over from London. Paul and I worked by ourselves. And then on two separate occasions, over a couple of days, we brought Jeremy and Matt in. It's just a train ride from London. And to be honest with you, starting over with a new band, new management and this whole bunch of songs with a new direction, in a sense, I didn't really want to be in New York or L.A.
Livewire: Places where you've already worked with The Crowes?
Chris: Yeah, exactly. But I think the next record we make will probably be a kind of L.A. based record, because we live in Malibu. But it was perfect, you know what I mean? We found this funky little place and we were totally left alone to get into it.
Livewire: From the few things that I've seen and read in the press, not to mention songs like "Katie Dear" from you new album, it seems that you and your wife, Kate, are the real deal.
Chris: Yeah, it's not something that you just jump into. It's not a novelty. It's funny because we've been married for over two years now, and there's no news stories (laughs). It's only important to people when you get divorced.
Livewire: I was going to ask how you manage it between both of your demanding schedules? But as you mentioned with you choosing your studio in Paris, because that's where Kate was working, I think I understand.
Chris: Yeah, we plan our lives that way. I'm out [on tour] now for three-and-a-half weeks before I'm back on the West Coast and its tough, you know? We don't spend very much time apart. When we did the last Crowes tour she was on the road with me for seven months. She's had a very busy year. She's made four films in a row. But she's gonna take some time off and come back with me. But we definitely plan our lives around each other's schedules. That's why we got married.
Livewire: You obviously knew what you were getting yourselves into.
Chris: Yeah, totally. But part of being in our position is making decisions based on each other. Each other's schedules and each other's feelings.
Livewire: Did it seem strange that after your marriage to Kate you went from popular rock star to, at least from a major media perspective, the guy who married Kate Hudson?
Chris: I don't think so. Not to me or her. I think people who are interested in that type of stuff, aren't interested in our work. That's it own entity and it's own weird kind of thing. I mean, my wife is a bona fide movie star, so that's gonna be part of it. But to me and her it's not that big of a deal.
Livewire: Do you guys have a song that you call your own?
Chris: Well, when we were married we had BR549 play at our wedding. And our song was "Lay Lady Lay." That was the one song that we insisted that they learn. We're both Bob [Dylan] maniacs.
Livewire: Yeah, well, who isn't? Getting back to you new album, while the tone of it is more introspective than your work with The Crowes, you still manage to toss in the greasy-ass funk of "Ride" and the deep soul of "Could You Really Love Me." I don't think I've ever heard a white boy sound and feel so convincingly black, and I mean that as the sincerest compliment.
Chris: Well, obviously its the music that influenced me. And it still influences me. But when I was younger it was something I stayed away from. It took me a few years, as a teenager, to be comfortable enough to let that kind of sound out, without really having to copy something or trying to sound black. Once I got comfortable enough and started to find that place and that voice, that's just how it came out. But in terms of what soulfulness is, you know, Otis Redding and George Jones aren't that far apart to me when I listen to them.
Livewire: Well, it's more in the feeling than the actual sound.
Chris: Oh, absolutely. It's an impossible thing to fake.
Livewire: Can we expect this type of dirty funk and soul in your live show?
Chris: Oh yeah. The live show runs the gamut. We've been doing "an evening with," which was important for me because my music encompasses all the things - from singer / songwriter to R&B to funk to free-form improvisational music. We improvise so much on stage. We play a lot of different stuff all the time, and we're always adding new songs and different cover songs. It's really just the music that interests me. Our live band is definitely more energetic than the record. Like I said, we wanted to make an understated record, where the lyrics and the melody really carries the vibe, and that vibe stays true throughout the whole album. But I think that since we've been out playing some gigs, its really electric and we can take it in so many directions. I couldn't be happier with the people I'm playing with.
Livewire: Is it just the four of you then?
Chris: Yeah, it's me and Paul and Jeremy and I have a bass player from Austin, Texas named George Reiff, who's played with a whole bunch of people, most recently Kelly Willis. And my keyboard player George Laks, who's played in Lenny Kravitz' band for about seven years.
Livewire: If weed was the drug of choice for The Black Crowes camp, what is that gets Chris Robinson, the solo artist, high these days?
Chris: P.G. Tipps. Proper English tea. Yeah (laughs), that's this band! It's a pain in the ass, too, because you have to get it in English stores. We won't drink any other kind of tea. We go through a few boxes of P.G. Tipps every week.
Livewire: That's awesome. Although, I must admit, a little disappointing. You are drinking it, right?
Chris: Yeah, (laughs) it's really good. It's the proper English tea.
Photo by Phil Bonyata
More Chris Robinson
Concert Review - The Rave Feb. 12, 2003
Black Crowes Concert Review - Eagles Ballroom Oct. 13, 2001