Rich Robinson’s Solo Flight

The Black Crowes co-founder/guitarist talks with Pollstar about his new album and tour, the bands that influenced him and what it was like playing with Jimmy Page.

Rich Robinson’s third solo album – The Ceaseless Sight – arrives June 3 on Circle Sound/The End Records. While the album is filled with Robinson’s signature guitar style, the disc also demonstrates his growth as a songwriter and singer.

Calling from his Los Angeles home and speaking in a soft, easy-going voice, Robinson talked about growing up in Atlanta and described the different ways he and his older brother Chris approached music during the siblings’ formative  years.  Although the Robinson boys were heavily exposed to southern rock bands such as The Allman Brothers, The Outlaws and Lynyrd Skynyrd, it wasn’t until R.E.M. came along that the budding musicians discovered their career paths.

Photo: Alysse Gafjken

You just finished the “Experience Hendrix” tour with other guitarists such as Johnny Lang, Billy Cox, Brad Whitford, Kenny Wayne Shepherd and Zakk Wylde. Were there ever moments offstage when you and the other guitarists swapped road stories and talk about your craft?

Yeah.  Everyone really gets along.  It’s really mellow.  No one really brings anything other than positivity to it and everyone is really cool.  We’re just there as fans of Jimi’s music. … That’s the common theme running through the whole thing.

Is learning to play the guitar an ongoing experience?  With all those guitarists in one room, are there still opportunities to learn from one another?

Everyone is different.  I taught myself to play guitar.  Sometimes people say, “How do you play this?” or whatever it may be. … It’s a really cool, positive environment.  I’d never done anything like that so it was a lot of fun for me.

You’re going out with your own band in May and the new album drops in June.  Is it good to be the boss?

It’s good to have a band that has no baggage.  It’s good to just be free and do what you do and when you look at [your bandmate] you don’t see 25 years [of history]. … I think a lot of that happens in the Crowes.  Everyone is relatively civil, except for me and my brother, maybe. … It’s a 25-year relationship with everyone. … [With my own band] it’s definitely much more laid back and new.  It’s a new group of people and there’s a new bunch of experiences that you have.  Every time someone new comes into the fold there’s a different dynamic.

It also puts you in the spotlight.  When you first started performing solo, was being the focus kind of unusual for you?

Chris is a great frontman.  That’s what he’s here for.  He naturally knows how to do that.  That’s where his strengths are. He’s got a great voice and he can really connect with an audience.  I was always lucky to be behind the guitar.  A lot of the people have it a little easier because they get to hide behind their instruments and just play. … It is kind of odd to be in the center.  I’m not an attention-grabber, but I’m getting more comfortable with it.

When you embarked on this musical journey, what came first for you, singing or playing guitar?

The song came first for me, the musical part of the song, what I’ve always done in the Crowes.  I didn’t start playing guitar until I was 15.  I immediately began writing songs; Chris did, too.  We kind of instantly fell into this thing where I would come up with the music and he would write lyrics.  That’s basically how our career was through 2005. … 90 percent of the songs we would write that way. Just on the last few records he would write a song or I would write a full song.

So this is just a progression into that. When I made my first solo record I had written all these songs for my brother and then I started a new band, Hookah Brown, and I had this great singer but it didn’t work out.  The Crowes went [on hiatus] so I was like, “I really like these songs.  I don’t want to waste them.” And I said, “I don’t want to deal with having to find another singer so … I’ll give it a try.” It was really interesting, scary and great at the same time.  I learned a tremendous amount.

In the Crowes I always sang backup, that’s all I ever did, sing harmony and these things.  It’s a whole different thing standing up in front.

Blues guitarist Ana Popovic talked with us a couple of years ago and said something along the lines of anyone can sing but playing guitar is hard.  Any thoughts about that?

Basically anyone can do anything, in my opinion.  We’re all born to be able to sing.  You go to other cultures in the world and singing is a way of life.  A lot of people go to church and sing hymnals … people have a tendency to understand pitch.  I think these are intuitive gifts everyone has.  Some people use them and some people don’t.

Now, it doesn’t mean everyone has the ability to be superlative at it.  But everyone has an ability to … play some chords and do what they have to do.  What makes people stand out, what makes people great, is everyone is different.  Everyone has these filters and everyone has life experiences … they might even have some sort of injury that gives their hand an impairment or maybe a hearing thing.  Everything subtle or large.  Those are the types of things that give  people their uniqueness.  When you’re unique is when you stand out.

You think about putting Neil Young on “American Idol” or a young Bob Dylan and people would be like, “Oh, my God” because today everyone wants to sing the same.  Everyone wants to sound the same.  Back then Bob Dylan only sounded like Bob Dylan and Neil Young only sounds like Neil Young.  And even if you think [about] those two guys … when Neil Young plays only one note, you know it’s Neil Young. And when Bob Dylan plays and picks on his guitar, like anything off of Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan or anything in between, you know it’s Bob.  It’s a unique way of playing.

Although Neil probably couldn’t whip out some sort of Yngwie Malmsteen, like a really fast run with a bunch of notes, but vice versa, no one could play like he does.  Those are the things that always mattered to me.

As a teenager, were you the kind of fan that not only listened to new music, but spent a considerable amount of time studying it?

Yeah.  My brother would go out and just amass record after record after record.  I was more of the type to just immerse myself in one record and listen to every instrument, every beat, every note and every sound.

What were some of the albums you immersed yourself in?

Earliest memories, my Dad used to play Sly & The Family Stone, Joe Cocker and Crosby, Stills & Nash all the time.  I remember growing up with those records on such a deep level.  As we got older and started getting into our own stuff, R.E.M. was a huge band for us in the South.  There was a large contingent of people in the South who weren’t [into] Skynyrd, Allman Brothers, Outlaws and those kinds of bands, that were more interested in these other kinds of music, coming from the South and what that meant and entailed.  R.E.M.’s Radio Free Europe when it first came out really meant so much to us and in a way brought Chris, [drummer] Steve Gorman and even [bassist] Sven Pipen together. We all grew up together.  Steve came in later but we were all in high school bands and stuff.  And through R.E.M. we discovered bands like the Velvet Underground and got into the Rain Parade and all these kind of alternative bands on the West Coast and alternative bands on the East Coast like Let’s Active, The DB’s and Flat Duo Jets.  We were brought up in that world.  Those were the records we used to listen to [for] a tremendous amount of time. [From] the ’60s music that we loved, that our Dad exposed us to, we kind of went off into ’80s alternative that brought us back to this music like The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, Stephen Stills, The Rolling Stones and so on.

While a teenager was there anything other than music that you were equally passionate about?

Music and bored suburban vandalism (laughs) and girls.  For me, probably music and girls.

Are you constantly coming up with ideas that you need to carry a notebook or recorder to track your thoughts?

No.  Being prolific doesn’t mean much to me.  I’d rather write 10 amazing songs in my life than 100 average songs.  For me, I write when I feel inspired. … I go by feeling.  How does this make me feel?  How does this sound make me feel?  How does this chord make me feel.  If it generates a feeling I’ll sit there and process it, finish it, and write lyrics to it when it’s done.

What’s different on The Ceaseless Sight compared to your previous solo material?

The last records – Paper and Through A Crooked Sun – there were definitely more concrete song ideas. I went in with full songs and knocked them out like that.  I also had a lot more time to work on those records.

On this record I had a couple of finished songs but a lot of them were skeletons [with] parts here and there.  I didn’t want to finish them. I wanted to go into the studio and see how they went.  I wanted to finish them there and use the energy of the studio to kind of help me get to a [good] place with the songs.

Did you spend more time in the studio on this album than on previous records?

Same amount of studio time, oddly enough.  Some of [the songs] took five minutes to write.  There’s a song called “The Giving Key” that I wrote right there.  The first song on the record – “I Know You” – I wrote in five minutes.

It’s like “This doesn’t work, that doesn’t work,” then finally, “Oh, shit, here it is” and it’s done. I’ve done that in the past with Crowes’ songs.  “Nonfiction” was a song on Amorica that took a long time for me to write. I had the verse and I loved it.  Then six months to a year later I finished it.  That can happen and I don’t really give up on it if I really like the verse.  I just feel like the right context has to come to me.  “Down The Road” was one of those [songs].  It was a “Let’s just fuckin’ wing it and see what happens.”   And I can do that with my drummer, Joe Magistro, who is a good friend of mine as well.  He and I have been playing together since 2003.  It’s really cool to have that connection with someone.  He knows intuitively where I’m going to go and I know where he’s going to go. And we can do that really quickly and with a flow.

What about improvising on stage?  The Crowes are known for doing that.

I do that on my solo gigs, as well. … I think there is a way to improvise that isn’t a disintegration.  My brother was way into The Grateful Dead and loved their form of disintegrative kind of improvisation.  I love the flow of music and I really love musical movements.  My sort of approach on improvisation was more like The Allman Brothers.  The Allman Brothers, to me, always went with a melody, with chords and with these kinds of things. I didn’t appreciate The Allman Brothers when I was young and listening to R.E.M.  But growing up, as I grew older, played more and was able to understand more – listening to The Allman Brothers’ records and where they would go … I really loved that.  Also, listening to bands like Led Zeppelin and The Rolling Stones tear off and go into these other places, I loved that and thought it was so cool.

That’s the kind of improvisation I bring to myself and what I brought to the Crowes.

The Black Crowes toured with Jimmy Page about 15 years ago.  That had to bea  thrill to have spent your teenage years listening to Led Zeppelin and then  later to stand on the stage playing with the guitarist from that band. 

It’s something that you can’t think about when you’re in it … because then you’ll just sit there and consider it the whole time instead of getting your job done.  We always approached those kind of things like, “Hey.  We have a job to do. So time for fandom and whatever has to come later because we have to show these songs the proper respect and focus that they deserve.” That’s how we did it.

Jimmy is such a cool dude.  He came in more like a friend.  We met him a long time ago, in 1995, I think.  One of our first arena tours was opening for Robert Plant. … We were playing at the Royal Albert Hall three nights in London. And Robert was like, “I’m going to bring Jimmy down.” And we’re like, “Oh, man.  Fuck yeah.  It will be great.”

Jimmy came and we liked the same records, liked the same things. Like Robert, we had such a cool time. He flew to Paris and jammed with us at this place called the Zenith.  We had so much fun with him and it was so natural.

A few years later we toured with The Stones.  In between playing with The Stones we would go play with Robert and Jimmy.  Then when Jimmy joined the band. … HHHow cool is it to just to stand up there and play a song with Jimmy Page?  And also to be able to provide him with the the multiple parts that he was playing on his records, that he always had to cover himself, live.  We were like, “Look, we learned all the parts. You play what you want [and] we’ll play around you.”

The Black Crowes released its first album, Shake Your Moneymaker, in 1990.  24 years later you and The Crowes are considered to be veterans. Can you still get into the moment while playing onstage when everything vanishes except for the music?

Sometimes with The Crowes … I would feel that.  Pretty much every night there are times when you can disappear, and that’s a cool thing. I find it easier, because of the lack of band politics and bullshit like that, to be able to do that in my solo work where I can just disappear and it seems to come easier that way.  There’s a lot to deal with, with The Crowes.

Photo: Matt Mendenhall
“I’d rather write 10 amazing songs in my life than 100 average songs.”

Rich Robinson’s upcoming shows:

May 24 – Mill Valley, Calif., Sweetwater Music Hall
May 25 – Aptos, Calif., Aptos Village Park (Santa Cruz Blues Festival)
May 27 – Los Angeles, Calif., The Satellite
May 31 – Woodstock, N.Y., Applehead Recording & Production
June 1 – Woodstock, N.Y., Applehead Recording & Production
June 3 – Philadelphia, Pa., World Cafe Live
June 4 – New York, N.Y., City Winery NYC
June 5 – New York, N.Y., Webster Hall
June 6 – Boston, Mass., Paradise Rock Club
June 8 – Washington, D.C., The Hamilton
June 10 – Cincinnati, Ohio, 20th Century Theatre
June 11 – Nashville, Tenn., 3rd & Lindsley
June 12 – Atlanta, Ga., Vinyl At Center Stage
June 18 – London, United Kingdom, Borderline
June 19 – Nijmegen, Netherlands, Doornroosje
June 20 – Hengelo, Netherlands, Metropol
June 21 – Zoetermeer, Netherlands, Boerderij
June 22 – Warsaw, Poland, Progresja
June 27 – Saint Charles, Ill., Arcada Theatre
June 28 – Kansas City, Mo., The Crossroads
July 2 – Denver, Colo., Cervantes’ Other Side
July 18 – Jacksonville, Ore., Britt Pavilion (Britt Festivals)
Aug. 6 – Bowling Green, Ky., The Warehouse
Aug. 7 – Charlotte, N.C., Visulite Theatre
Aug. 8 – Durham, N.C., Carolina Theatre
Aug. 9 – Charleston, S.C., The Pour House
Aug. 12 – Columbus, Ohio, Park Street Patio
Aug. 14 – New Hope, Pa., Havana New Hope PA
Aug. 15 – Teaneck, N.J., Mexicali Live
Aug. 16 – Moosic, Pa., Pavilion At Montage Mountain (The Peach Music Festival)
Aug. 24 – Prince Frederick, Md., Calvert County Fairgrounds (Southern Maryland Blues Festival)

Appearing with Jackie Greene June 3-11.  Appearing with Robert Randolph & The Family Band June 28.  Please visit for more information.