An exclusive interview in which Robinson talks about his new solo LP and reveals how the destruction of his prized guitar collection proved to be a turning point.
By Marty Paule
With his latest solo LP, The Ceaseless Sight, released June 3 on The End Records/Circle Sound, Rich Robinson doesn’t necessarily stake out new musical territory, instead choosing to solidify the brew of blues, classic rock, and country/folk elements that have typified his work both as a solo artist and Black Crowes lead guitarist. The new recording’s greatest strength is its overall cohesiveness musically that’s coupled with a new-found positivity in its lyrics.
As Robinson talked about in our recent conversation, there is an underlying impetus to move forward and go beyond past stumbling blocks. Having his entire guitar collection trashed by last year’s Hurricane Sandy seems to have served as a pivotal point in that.
Listening to the first track of The Ceaseless Sight, “I Know You,” with it it’s evocations of early ‘70s Stones slide guitar, swirling keyboards, and hard-edged kiss-off lyrics, that willingness to leave old baggage behind is evident:
Leaving on a midnight train I watch you getting smaller
Driving in the faster lane removes you from my knowledge
This same theme of putting the past in its place recurs throughout the recording. On the second track, “Down the Road,” over a country-inflected melody with skittering drum beats, Robinson says he’s not sure where he’s headed, but he knows that he’ll “never go backwards on that road again.” Instead, he’s looking forward:
Down the road you’ll need to find
The world you didn’t know you’d need to find
The rustic feel continues with the chiming acoustic guitar drive of “One Road Hill,” an ode to the redemptive power of love as a path to personal peace.
“One Road Hill” expresses a joyous engagement with life that starkly contrasts with earlier Black Crowes’ themes.
And so it goes with the rest of the album, this mixture of rueful regret for past mistakes tempered with a confidence that marks the way forward. Though it’s hard to single out individual tracks given the overall connectedness of the songs, Robinson’s guitar work on “I Remember,” with its Allman Brothers-like intensity is a standout. “This Unfortunate Show” conjures up shades of the late, great Lowell George and Little Feat with its lyrical slide guitar and dense, rocking mix.
The HUB: I understand you recorded your new album, The Ceaseless Sight, in Woodstock, New York, and that of course has been the site for a lot of amazing music created in the past by Dylan, The Band, and a whole host of other people. Is there a special attraction to Woodstock for you?
Rich Robinson: To me, it’s the studio, the guys who work in the studio, Chris [Bittner] and Mike [Birnbaum] are just great people and really talented. But I also have a connection with Woodstock for whatever reason—it makes me feel like I’m tapped into something when I’m there.
The HUB: Who produced the record?
RR: I did.
The HUB: Do you find it challenging to work on both sides of the glass, or do you like the element of control that gives you?
RR: I’ve produced all my solo records, and I see them as my expression. So to have the freedom to try what I want is important. I’ve been in studio long enough to understand a little bit about making records. I use what I’ve learned to try and make the best record I can and help my expression to the best of my ability. But you know, Joe [drummer Joe Magistro] and I are not only friends, we’re musical companions—we understand what’s going on. I can bounce things off him or Chris Bittner or Mike Birnbaum—the people I’m working with. So it’s never like without an extra pair of ears.
The HUB: Are there any particular tracks or sounds that came out of the new record’s sessions that you’re especially excited about?
RR: I’m happy with the whole record. The record’s done when I’m happy with everything that’s on it. I don’t say ‘That’s not very good—let me put it on the record.’ [Laughs] I look at each piece and see how it fits into the overall scheme of things. How will a chorus work with a verse and the bridge, and then how will that song work with the rest of the record, The how will the record fit in with my entire body of work. That’s how I’ve always been, and I’m really happy with everything that’s gone on th9s record.
The HUB: You keep up a pretty intense touring schedule. How do you shoehorn in the time for songwriting?
RR: I constantly write. Even when I’m on tour, I’ll always have a guitar with me and be writing the whole time. There’s always time for that. That’s basically the most important thing that we do.
The HUB: Typically, what’s your process? Do you start with a riff that’s in your head, or a lyric line that needs to be expressed.
RR: No, I always write the music first. I don’t really write lyrics until the song is done. Sometimes I’ll have a concept for a song, But for the most part I just try go in and write the song because to me, the music should dictate the melody.
Preview the entire new Rich Robinson LP, The Ceaseless Sight.
The HUB: When you hit the recording studio, how arranged is your material, or is the process a little more organic?
RR: It changes. Sometimes I’ll have full ideas, and sometimes I’ll have not-so-full ideas. On this record I had skeletons of ideas and just went in like that. I go in thinking, ‘what is this going to look like? How are we going to do this?’ You know what I’m saying?
The HUB: Sketches that you build out around?
RR: Yeah, exactly.
The HUB: With so many songs already under your belt, do ever find that going to the well can be difficult in terms of getting fresh inspiration?
RR: I don’t think about it like that. I write songs when they move me to write.
The HUB: So it’s not so much a formal process; when the spirit moves you, you write?
RR: Yeah, I’ve always been that way. I play when I feel like I want to play, and I write when I feel like I want to write. I’ve never been the type to force anything. So I always feel like I’m healthily inspired when I’m actually writing a song. Or when I’m playing guitar. That way it’s never felt laborious to me. I don’t want to write a song for the sake of writing a song or play guitar for the sake of playing guitar. I want to do it when it’s going to be good; when things are going to come out and be really cool.
The HUB: Can you talk a little about some of the backing musicians on the new record?
RR: It’s basically me and Joe Magistro on drums, and I had a keyboard player named Marco Benevento. I played all the other stuff.
The HUB: That’s a pretty small group. Do you think that leads to more cohesiveness in the studio?
RR: Actually Marco came in after the fact. He came in and overdubbed. I was supposed to have John Medeski, but John’s schedule was all over the place.
The HUB: So all the keyboard parts were punched in?
RR: Yes, it was basically me and Joe; we made the record and did all the basic tracks. All the songs were basically finished, and then Marco laid on everything else. He’s an incredibly talented keyboard player and a really cool dude. He’s so much fun to hang out with and play with.
The HUB: I noticed on a couple of the preview tracks that they had a very ballad-y kind of intro before they got into a more hard-rocking vein. How much did Marco contribute to the sweetening in those intros?
RR: Yeah, Marco can play a lot of diverse styles—that really helped create a great working relationship.
The HUB: Is the studio yours?
RR: No, its Applehead Recording in Saugerties, New York. The studio is Mike Birnbaum’s and Chris Bittner’s—they are the engineers. I just really like working there.
The HUB: Back in 2003 you folded your side project band, Hookah Brown, saying that touring without having the backing of a label wasn’t really viable. Nowadays there are so many acts going out touring, self-releasing records, and doing their own promotional work; do you think the landscape has changed since those days?
RR: I think at that time the bottom fell out of the music industry. The people that tanked the music industry—the major labels—their bull-headedness, as far as how it pertained to their treating the music like it was some sort of spoon or food processor, just to make a profit off of it. I think what’s happening now is that people understand the landscape more, and I think they're more capable now of understanding how it goes and how to play it. So I think it has shifted; I think it’s ever-shifting—the Internet changes everything, over and over, multiple times. Back then it was a cliff—no one knew what the hell was going to happen.
The HUB: You’re co-releasing this record on your own label, Circle Sound, which brought to mind the project in which you performed with Luther Dickinson that’s called Circle Sound too. I was wondering if you’re planning to revive that project?
RR: No, that was just for fun. We just got together and played a couple of covers. I just like the concept of Circle Sound and what it means about music that works in a circular fashion, and how it comes up round. So we just put together a few shows with Luther just for fun, Sven, and my old drummer Bill Dobrow.
The HUB: You use a lot of open tunings, and in the past you’ve credited Nick Drake’s music as inspiration. I wondered if you could talk about what his music means to you.
RR: I first heard Nick Drake in the eighties. A good friend of mine, David Macias, worked in a record store, and he gave me Time of No Reply, which was a release of B sides, demo versions, and the last four or five songs he recorded before he killed himself. It was pretty life-changing for me. The way he played the guitar, the way he sang, his song structures, everything. I just loved the way his guitar sounded. I was just learning how to play guitar when I got that record. I wanted to learn to play and write songs that well.
The HUB: Did you start out on an acoustic?
RR: Yeah. my dad gave me my first guitar—he first let us use his guitar—then later he gave me one; I started out on that acoustic.
The HUB: Still got it?
The HUB: Do you still play it much?
RR: Absolutely. I play it on every record.
The HUB: Who are some of the slide players you admire?
RR: Growing up I was way into Lowell George and really into Ry Cooder. Ry was the guy to me. No one sounded like him. And he could just do anything. I really liked the sloppiness of Keith [Richards]. It was cool and had so much feeling. And as far as blues guys go, I was way into Furry Lewis and I loved the way Muddy Waters played. I always loved country blues. It moved me more than Chicago blues. I loved Mississippi Fred McDowell, Lightin’ Hopkins, and Mississippi John Hurt. Those types of people.
The HUB: I wonder if Elmore James fits in there somewhere given that The Black Crowes used $hake Your Moneymaker as an album title.
RR: Yeah, I really liked Elmore James too. But from a technical point of view, I liked the way the guitar came across with that chuggin’ symphony that came from Mississippi Fred McDowell. It’s unbelievable.
Check out Rich Robinson’s hot new signature Gibson ES-335 here.
The HUB: You went out on the Experience Hendrix tour earlier this year with an incredible lineup of fellow guitarists. I was wondering what songs you performed.
RR: I did “Message to Love,” “Hey Joe,” “Axis: Bold as Love,” “Spanish Castle Magic,” and I did “Red House” one night.
The HUB: Was that an enjoyable experience, going out with a whole crew of players like that?
RR: Yeah, it was a lot of fun. Everyone was really cool. It was mellow; everyone just got together and played.
The HUB: I understand a bunch of your axes got trashed when Hurricane Sandy blew through last year, and I was wondering which ones you’re missing the most these days.
RR: The ones that were most important were restored. My 1963 [Gibson] 335, and my ‘68 Gold Top—from when they started making Les Pauls again—the traditional single cutaway Les Paul. So those two came back to me. Plus I had a 1956 Gretsch Streamliner and a ‘60 Country Gentleman restored.
There’s a lot of baggage and sometimes bad energy surrounding my brother and myself, and when that flood came, I kind of felt like it took a lot of that away. I was bummed to lose all that gear, but I was grateful to feel that a lot of that negative energy went away. I wouldn’t say that for my brother, but for me, that was the case.
You know, you put it in perspective and stuff is just stuff. Guitars are amazing instruments, and they’re really cool, but they’re wood with strings on them, and at the end of the day there’s plenty of wood with strings on them, and I got more. So I tried to not get too bogged down to holding on to any of that.
The HUB: It seems like a very rational philosophy, and I like your notion that as much as Hurricane Sandy was a tragedy, there was also a purification process going on. Sort of the same way trees get pruned in a big storm.
RR: Absolutely. And that’s kind of how I saw it. And it helped.
The HUB: What’s on tap for you for the rest of the year?
RR: I’ll be touring behind the new record in the States and Europe for the rest of the year and hopefully in Japan and the rest of Asia too.
The HUB: Good luck with the LP and safe travels—I think you’ve got a great record on your hands that marks a big step forward in your career.
The Ceaseless Sight is available from for The End Records / Circle Sound in multiple formats, including a limited edition double-LP. Order it here.
You can catch Rich Robinson on tour at these upcoming shows:
June 6th - Boston, MA @ Paradise Rock Club w/ Jackie Greene Band
June 8th - Washington, DC @ The Hamilton w/ Jackie Greene Band
June 10th - Cincinnati, OH @ 20th Century Theater w/ Jackie Greene Band
June 11th - Nashville, TN @ 3rd & Lindsley w/ Jackie Greene Band
June 12th - Atlanta, GA @ Vinyl
June 18th - London, England @ The Borderline
June 19th - Nijmegen, NL @ Doornroosje
June 20th - Hengelo, NL @ Metropool
June 21st - Zoetemeer, NL @ Boerderij