Ex-Black Crowes lead guitarist Rich Robinson has a new album out. Duncan Seaman spoke to him ahead of his gig in Leeds next month.
WHEN it came to finding a recording studio in which to make his new album, The Ceaseless Sight, the choice was simple for Rich Robinson, former lead guitarist with multi-million selling US rock band The Black Crowes.
Applehead, in Woodstock, is a facility the 45-year-old has visited many times. The Black Crowes made three records there and he returned to Applehead to make his last solo album, Crooked Sun.
“It’s in the Catskills Mountains,” he says. “It’s a quiet town but there’s an energy there that seems to draw musicians.” Indeed Woodstock’s rural idyll has been drawing performers for years. “Bob Dylan and The Band lived up there. A lot of people go up there for the weekend; some people live there all year round. It’s like a community,” Robinson says.
“The studio is great. It’s set in 12 acres. It has a great feel.”
As on his previous two solo albums, Robinson multi-tasked, handling guitars, bass, keyboards and percussion as well as vocals. “Joe Magistro played drums and percussion and we had an amazing keyboard player who lives up in Woodstock: Marco Benevento. It was the three of us.”
As a songwriter Robinson draws from life. “I think all songs come from personal experience, no matter what it is,” he says. “Music is definitely more ethereal. I can’t put specific influences as to why that song came or this song came; it came from experience – it may be 20 years ago or it happened yesterday.” He starts composing on an acoustic guitar. “There’s something about it, the sound of it. I’ve always believed a song that sounds whole and complete just with a voice and guitar should be the base line, it’s how it should be. No matter what you add or take away, it’s a great song. That’s what I hope for. Sometimes I will write a song in five minutes; sometimes it may be an idea down the road that I’ve had for a while.”
After nearly two decades performing behind his older brother Chris in The Black Crowes, Robinson is enjoying taking the reins. “I like singing and I kind of like the expression, ‘This is my song, my expression’, whereas in the Crowes my focus was on the music, my brother wrote the lyrics. I definitely like to go out there and change it up a bit.”
But he doesn’t think of himself as a frontman. “I consider us a band. Although I might be singing up front [the limelight] doesn’t mean anything to me.”
As a vinyl connoisseur, Robinson is particularly pleased with the splatter wax pressing of The Ceaseless Sight. “Vinyl brings you closer to the musical experience than digital music,” he says. “As we’ve moved away from the tangible and the spatial world we’ve lost respect for music. You can walk into a store with a phone, hear a chorus, hit an app and buy the song within 10 seconds. There’s nothing in that, no journey, no seeking.”
He prefers the “tactile experience” of vinyl, not just the physical effort in playing both sides of a record but also taking time to appreciate the artwork, the lyrics and the album credits. “It showcases that the artist, the person who created the music, took time to write this song,” he notes.
For all the convenience of modern technology, he fears it’s “taking away the human experience”.
“When you go to these shows and hold up iPhones you’re missing the experience of the show. You’re trying to record the experience of the show but you’re looking at it through a three-inch screen instead of looking at the show. Everything is a paradox.” He’s happier to talk about guitarists. “I have a lot of favourite guitar players, I don’t really have one, I love a lot of styles of guitar,” he says. From a “picking standpoint” he loves the fluidity of Nick Drake, whose records he discovered when he was 15. “What he could do on that guitar, how he could make that sound – it’s something that really moved me.”
For sheer excitement, he cites Peter Green, Jimmy Page, Keith Richards and Mick Taylor. He’s also a fan of Stephen Stills and Neil Young.
One particular career highlight was being invited to play on Patti Smith’s 2007 covers album Twelve. “She’s one of the coolest people in the world,” he says. The pair met by chance in a restaurant in New York and Robinson felt compelled to introduce himself. “She was really nice, very sweet,” he recalls.
The next day his mobile phone rang. “I didn’t know who it was,” he recalls. “A voice said, ‘Hey, this is the girl you met in the bar last night’. I said, ‘What?’ She said, ‘It’s Patti’.”
Having obtained Robinson’s number from a mutual friend, she invited him to play guitar with her. Her son, it turned out, was a fan of The Black Crowes. Aptly she chose him to work with him on The Boy in the Bubble – the Paul Simon song that had been playing in the restaurant when they met.
It seems unlikely however that there will be a Black Crowes reunion any time soon. “I miss working with [Chris] in the context when we could work together,” Robinson says of his brother. “He’s a great singer, that’s his strong suit. He could write lyrics. We worked really well together for a long time, but that has changed. People have different opinions of what they think something should be. I miss working with him when there was mutual respect.”
That bond seems to have broken down and the band have been in hiatus since 2007. “For whatever reason brothers are weird anyway, things happen,” Robinson reflects. “There’s definitely not going to be any shows next year or who knows when – if ever.”
• Rich Robinson and his band play at Leeds University on November 15. For tickets visit www.lunatickets.co.uk