Ghosts in the Machine
Slumped in the back of the lounge of the Chelsea Hotel in Knightsbridge, is a tall, unfeasibly thin American rock singer. one part of a band whose debut record is now touching the three million sales mark in the US.
Yup, I'm referring to Atlanta's BLACK CROWES, whose rootsy, hard-edged rhythm n' blues has captured the imagination and struck a nerve with the American public. And at a time when most rock bands' share of the 'great American dream' has been cut down to ever-decreasing proportions. Why? Probably on account of the recession on both sides of the Atlantic, too much competition, and a record-buying public gorged and satiated by MTV overexposure.
For almost a year now, this young five-piece from the Deep South have been touring the States supporting their Shake Your Money Maker record, playing to ever increasing audiences, and now they look set to become one of the biggest rock n' roll acts in our ever-shrinking, chaotic globe. More importantly, they're a healthy anecdote to the soulless music-by-numbers crud that regularly spews out of the States (or anywhere else for that matter). Cynical? Nope. Just honest.
Hmm... 'honesty,' that, according to Chris Robinson, is one of the key words for him and his band. It's also one of the reasons why so much 'controversy' has gone hand-in-hand with THE BLACK CROWES's startling success. Ah, every silver lining has a cloud!
Why so? Well as most of you are probably aware, THE BLACK CROWES were recently booted offf the ZZ TOP tour. Yup, those fellow Southern 'over the dusty hill' boogie merchants. To be brief, ZZ TOP's management insisted they leave the tour because the band upset Miller Lite, the tour's sponsors with onstage comments about THE BLACK CROWES' music being "a commercial free zone." The band countered by accusing ZZ TOP of lip-synching onstage.
I make myself comfortable in the vacant chair next to Chris.
Mr. Robinson is, er, resplendent in colorful patchwork jeans and three-day stubble. He recalls our last chat, exactly a year ago in the same hotel. My! Things have certainly changed since then.
Well, Chris, do you regret any of this, y'know, the slagging match between your respective camps?
"I don't know if it's a slagging off..." [long pause] "It may sound like slagging. I've said some things about ZZ TOP and they've said shit about us. I mean, do you honestly think that, when I go to bed at night, I think about it?" he says indignantly.
"A lot of times, because I am the musician and person in question, I question things like anyone else, whether it be morals, religion, whatever. But by me questioning it, it comes off as a statement."
As you're in the public eye, the media always seem to look to get 'good copy' and blow things out of proportion.
"Yeah, like anything else it depends on what kind of aspect of the story you want to go with. Let's face it. That's a very easy gut thing. What kind of story do you have to write? What do you have to think to yourself? Do you have to make a stand? No!"
"Then again," ponders Chris, "you and I would probably disagree on something, but that doesn't mean we wouldn't get along."
He suddenly arches up onto the edge of his seat and exclaims: "It's music, man! It's profound. It's ageless. People have been trying to figure it out for centuries."
True. When all is said and done, it's just an instinctive thing.
"Totally," agrees Chris. "That's the way we live and I can't separate it from the music. Then again, I'm not a diplomat. You ask my opinion and I give it to you because telling the truth is supposed to be a virtue...and it's a very rare virtue these days."
"So many people say things," he explains, "watching what they say because they don't want to ruffle any feathers, y'know, they might not get paid as much. I couldn't give a flying fuck about getting paid!"
It's odd, isn't it, that some people in the business can't handle honesty, the truth. After all musicians, performers...creative people are a little different from the norm. Off centre. Do you always expect artists to come out with polite, harmless comments? There's got to be an angle, an edge to what you say. Chris agrees.
"Yeah, definitely. It's an angle and it's cool. For the first time in a long time, a band's come along to make people start to think, like, 'Wait a minute. What did he say?'"
Thought provoking at least. They don't necessarily have to agree with you.
"Yeah, it's not about sensationalism," he explains. "I don't have an over exaggerated ego thing, where I thing our music is so important and everyone else is horrible. I don't think that. I have thousands of pieces of recorded music. It's not that cut n' dry."
Chris becomes increasingly more animated and intense. It's obvious that he's at pains to clarify his position.
"If anything, all we've said is: if we're gonna be part of the music business, y'all better fuckin' know that we're not gonna be motivated by greed."
Of course, there's also the inherent contradictions of being part of the corporate rock beast. Not surprisingly, Chris is under no illusions.
"We're not idiots," snorts Chris. "We know where we are. We know we're part of the machinery. We just don't like the way that machinery is running right now. And if we're going to be part of that machinery, who says our part of the machine can't revolt?"
A stance not uncommon to JANE'S ADDICTION. Subversion from within. Whatever, it's a real statement of intent.
"It's a more militant stance. It has to be that way," stresses Chris, "because you have to start questioning things. A lot of people say 'you haven't been around twenty years.' Well, fuck, I know I haven't! But if I haven't been doing it twenty years, how come I can get onstage with my band, sing my songs, do it without a corporate sponsor, and I can still sell that amount of records!?"
"I read something," he continues, "where they said, 'well, but you're on a record label.' C'mon, would you, please! It's like grasping at straws. At least take the time to sit down and come up with a defence before you open your mouth."
"Corporate sponsorship keeping the ticket prices lower!? How can bands say these things, when their tickets are as high priced as anyone's. How are they going to justify keeping their ticket prices low with a corporate sponsor when they've juts put another $1,000,000 in their bank account?"
Although Chris feels he has to shed light on the cynical, money-fixated music industry, it's clear he'd be far happier just enthusing about his music. In the final analysis he would prefer not to "take on the global corporate community," but he's a man of principle. His tirade continues, now switching to the topic of lip synching.
"Look at the way people make record. Now, if you think that's OK, then you're saying it's fine to cheat everyone. It's a lie. The only reason that exists is because at the end of the day, is because at the end of the day, the record label does not care about the integrity of the artist or the music. Why have someone who might not seem to be attractive ti people when you can just go hire a model to lip synch and look great. Then people go 'hell, yeah, I'll buy that.' You have to start using your fuckin' head," stresses Chris, "and start thinking."
Pre-empting my next thought he turns more specifically to rock music.
"If you love rock bands who get onstage and lip synch, how are they making records? If they can't get onstage and sing their backing parts how can they justify it?"
Right, it takes away the trust if the audience twig onto it.
"And it should!" opines Chris firmly. "THE BLACK CROWES don't kiss n' tell. THE BLACK CROWES don't bite the hand that feeds. We're just saying there are very big aspects of the music business that we refuse to be part of."
Yes, all that needs to be said, but I decided it was time to change the subject. What about the positive aspects of the last year?
"Every aspect has been positive," he surprisingly replies. "Just for the sheer fact that, if you want to cal this thing 'success,' it has allowed us to voice our opinions and have people listen. It's special, man, whether you agree with me or not. I'm very happy that I'm in a place where I get to talk."
Chris adds, "I got to play in the only band I've ever wanted to be in, every night for sixteen months and I'm not done...I'll never be done!"
Chris could talk the arse off an elephant but the guy looks exhausted. Perhaps it's the strain of the band's hectic schedule, the non-stop touring, the hectic promotional schedule of the last few days, which included their appearance at Ronnie Scott's the previous evening. His line of thought occasionally gets tangled but he's essentially a great communicator with an unusual charm.
So, Chris, you say you're more positive but haven't some of your recent experiences made you a little more cynical in some respects?
"I'm more of an optimist," he affirms. "I was much more of a cynic a year ago."
Inevitably, that optimism is rooted in Chris's love and belief in his band's music. As he says:
"At the end of the day, my band get onstage and as a person who's not playing an instrument, I can see what's going on. I just love the sound that rolls off the stage.I get high writing songs with my brother Rich, man. He plays me something new and I can't sleep for a week cos I'm like 'hey I can't wait...'"
"When I get up onstage it makes it all that much clearer; that's why we're here. It makes our dicks hard to get up there and do it," enthuses Chris. "It really does it better than any drugs!"
My thoughts turn around to how THE BLACK CROWES view the way they're presented and promoted in our own fair isle. But it seems you've still got a way to go here in terms of 'commercial' success.
"It's funny. I was having that conversation with our manager today. I will never be, and I say this right now, the kind of artist that passes the buck."
"If it happens it happens," he adds philosophically. "I have a great time coming over here and we have fans. We'll continue to come and play. I'm not going to get bent out of shape and start pointing the finger and blaming people if we don't hit the Top Ten!"
After a long pause, his thoughts, unsurprisingly drift back towards their music:
"It can be a very earthy, real, tangible thing that makes you think about a lot of different things. That makes you feel tingly," his voice trails off savouring the final word.
Let's talk Donington. THE BLACK CROWES, as you're no doubt aware, will be opening the festivities. They might just steal the show. Chris, any thoughts?
"We're gonna go and play some Black Crowes music," he says simply. "It's going to be great. If we had a problem with it we wouldn't do it." A wide grin spreads across his face. "Any place that Bad News played we're gonna go all the way to be there!!"
Donington will enable the band to showcase some of their new songs to a massive audience, doubtless, some of which will appear on their next album. Chris is straining like a rabid dog to get back into the studio.
"Some songs are ready," he reveals. "We have the material. We'll have more material when we get in there. Nothing but optimism lies on the horizon."
And with all the intensive touring behind them the band should be as tight as our publisher's purse strings!!
Mr Robinson continues: "All our albums [album, Chris, album!] are painting a picture of what's going on in our lives; what's important to me and Rich at the time, what I wanna convey as a lyricist."
Chris further reveals that record will be "more stripped down."
"It'll be more militant. It's a militant stance. We're not the same people we were two years ago. Who is, man!? If you're a real artist and true to yourself, you can't repeat things you've already done."
Despite the ups and downs of success, Chris Robinson remains an eternal optimist with an unquenchable spirit:
"It's a weird game man. We knew about it when we showed up. We brought a big bat and a bit glove and we're ready to play ball. Let's go!!"
Mark my words, THE BLACK CROWES will be hitting home runs for a long time to come.