"Rock'n'roll has given me bipolar weirdos, addicted, beautiful souls, the madness, and the sadness. It’s just too much": Chris and Rich Robinson tell the story of the Black Crowes

Chris and Rich Robinson - studio portrait
(Image credit: Ross Halfin)

This week, in late January 2024, brothers Chris and Rich Robinson are as far apart as they ever were. Geographically speaking at least – 2,000 miles to be precise. Chris, the elder Robinson, sits in the winter sun-dappled backyard of his home in Laurel Canyon, Los Angeles, Rich in the music room of his place in Nashville, Tennessee. Their most obvious common bond just now is intermittent dog trouble. Chris bolts from his seat at one point to stop his dog, Benny, from escaping through his garden gate and onto the road. Rich begs pause to scurry away his seven-month-old puppy. 

Differences between the two brothers are as immediately apparent as they have been since they first stepped out at the forefront of The Black Crowes. Chris has his Zoom camera turned on. His sharp-angled face looms in and out of the frame with all his fidgeting. He’s baggier under the eyes and with pepper-flecked hair these days. Rich keeps his camera off. Both are good talkers, but Rich remains on point while Chris more often than not gets to it eventually but with sundry twists, turns and abrupt diversions en route. 

Much ballyhooed, their divisions should never actually have surprised. As most anyone with a brother will know all too well, there is no one quite so familiar and yet so alien as a sibling. 

“That’s the truth of the matter,” Chris acknowledges. “Rich and I can agree on a lot of stuff, but we are completely different – and I mean in every way.” 

Back together again as The Black Crowes for more than four years now, the Robinsons are here to talk up Happiness Bastards, the band’s first album of original material in 15 years. Begun during the covid pandemic and recorded over two weeks last year in Nashville with garlanded country music producer Jay Joyce, it’s at once familiar sounding (there’s Stonesy stomping aplenty) and different again (the funky syncopations of, say, Cross Your Fingers, or the thin, wild mercury groove of Bleed it Dry). 

Mostly it sounds unburdened and is best emphasised by its hard-driving second track Rats And Clowns. “There’s a lot of AC/DC in that song,” says Chris. “How much fun Rich and I had doing it. As Rich was playing his solo, very inspired by Angus Young, we were both of us laughing. It was like we were back at mum and dad’s house listening to Let There Be Rock. That’s what you hear on this record.”

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the Robinson brothers starting to make music together. Chris and Rich were born 57 and 55 years ago respectively, in the Atlanta, Georgia suburb of Marietta. Both of their parents, dad Stan and mum Nancy, sang and played music. Stan professionally as a folk musician in the 1950s, when he scored a minor hit with a novelty tune, Boom A Dip-Dip (No.83 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1959). The brothers’ first try-out was as a basement punk rock band, Goo Goo Mucks, named after a Cramps song, was when Chris was a mouthy 17-year-old and Rich a shyly sensitive 14. 

Within six years, and via the more Byrds-meets-R.E.M.- shaded Mr Crowe’s Garden, they were signed to Rick Rubin’s Def American label as The Black Crowes. The band’s 1990 debut album, Shake Your Money Maker, went on to sell five million copies. Its 1992 follow-up, The Southern Harmony And Musical Companion, entered the US Billboard chart at No.1. At the grunge-fixated time, its melange of classic rock, country-blues, funk and blue-eyed soul sounded like nothing else. Today that album endures as a crusading high point of the era.


What’s your first vivid memory from childhood? 

Chris Robinson: Dad playing guitar and music. That would be the one thing different from having breakfast or playing in the yard. Music made the space around me different. My dad travelled for a living. He’d given up his folk career by then, so when he came home at weekends he’d play records. Saturday morning would start off with folk records and move into Crosby, Stills And Nash and Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs And Englishmen. Then Sly And The Family Stone and dancing around. That was like heaven. 

Rich Robinson: Dad had one of those console stereos in our living room. It was wooden and you opened it up. The turntable was in there, and built-in speakers. He loved Carry On from Déjà Vu by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. Even back then, that sound hit me. The resonance and the vibration of the harmony. The beauty of it. We moved around. We went to live up in Charlotte, North Carolina for a while. Those kinds of things were a little traumatic. Dad’s guitar was in the living room the whole time. Whenever people came over, he would play, and he and mum would sing. It was a thing. 

Were your parents encouraging of your musical aspirations? 

Chris: No. And I can’t blame them. My dad truly thought I could not sing. But also, Rich and I were listening to The Gun Club and X, and Michael Stipe and Paul Westerberg. I don’t think my dad ever understood the fact singers didn’t have to be what he thought a singer was any more. Dad was a very good singer, but he wasn’t a writer. He wasn’t driven to the strange or bizarre. 

Whereas as a teenager I was interested in Rimbaud and Baudelaire and listening to Thelonious Monk and Ornette Coleman records. That part of me was, I think, always annoying to my parents. I had severe dyslexia, but I could suffer the slings and arrows of teachers thinking I was dim because I had this whole other active world in my mind. 

Rich: Trying to get information out of dad about his past and his family was difficult. He lived in the now. I think he’d had some sort of shady dealings where he hadn’t been paid royalties. There was something that bothered him about his time in the business. I think he wanted to shield us from that. He was definitely supportive. If our band had a gig, he’d give us the keys to his van and his credit card. But I think he wanted something else for us as well. He basically said to me: “Here’s three chords, now you figure out the rest.”

Chris Robinson studio portrait

(Image credit: Ross Halfin)

When you started making music with each other, what were you seeking? 

Rich: I don’t know. We just got some instruments and began playing. We instantly started to write songs. We weren’t very good, and we didn’t know how to play. I started late. A lot of guitar players start much earlier, at five or six. Chris was more of an expeditionary. He’d go out and find and bring music home, whereas I’d pick what Iliked and then obsess over those things. I remember we used to make fun of rednecks in our first songs. Punk rock wasn’t big among the redneck population. 

Chris: I wanted to take the pressure off in my psyche. I needed to identify with something, and the hero was important to somebody like me. It’s like Jack Kerouac wrote in On The Road; I wanted to be with the mad ones. I knew I wasn’t alone, and isn’t that the point of so much rock’n’roll? When I first heard Big Star it hit me like a ton of bricks. Alex Chilton, Gram Parsons and Syd Barrett all came into my life at the same time. 

Personally, I wanted to tap into that creative feeling. We would be the last generation to understand the fucking beauty of being bored and of the wandering mind just falling into something. 

What was the first thing to strike you about your brother as a performer? 

Chris: Our first little band, there was a kid down the street who had a bass, so he was in. My cousin was playing drums. Then there was a kid with a guitar at my junior high who had Byrds records. We were going to learn some stuff from the first couple of Byrds albums. Rich is my little brother, and he also has a guitar, so he came down to the basement and said: “Well, I’m playing along too.” We rehearsed once or twice, and the next time the guy from my school didn’t show and it was just Rich. It wasn’t great, but it was something. We realised we didn’t need the other guy.

Rich: Chris was always kind of the mouthpiece. He had the gift of the gab, as they say. He always had friends, and he could maintain and entertain a group of people. I always found it much harder to do that because of who I am as a person. Translate that from a social setting and put yourself on stage, and it was amazing to me how he would be able to even speak to an audience. I was always really shy and crushingly sensitive. He was just naturally good at communicating with an audience. 

Yet by the time you released your first album, Shake Your Money Maker, you each came across as being so absolutely self-assured and certain of what you stood for? 

Rich: It was our shield. We felt like it was our superpower, in a sense. That music meant so much to us, we were like: “This is the best shit on the planet right now.” It was sacred. It was powerful because of our reverence for it, and we unabashedly played it and lived it. 

Chris: Part of that was just a survival and safety thing. Anything else would’ve been a crack in the hull and we’d have had to deal with taking on water.

Rich Robinson studio portrait

(Image credit: Ross Halfin)

How did you balance the good and bad aspects of that first flush of great success? 

Chris: The first decade of The Black Crowes is maybe the last rock’n’roll decade and where it has a certain cultural importance. We were just gonna take this ride for all the juice we could squeeze out of it. I think we also had a bit of the old punk-rock attitude, in the tradition of we were anti-authority, we’re creative, we had a lot of middle-class suburban anger for whatever reason. As naïve as it sounds, we wanted to make a statement of the fact we didn’t have to play the game. 

Rich: An opportunity came along, we jumped on it, and we fucking held on for dear life. We didn’t question it. We didn’t stop to reflect. I was twenty years old when the record was taking off. No one’s going to tell a twenty-year-old anything. There was no hesitation or forethought, we just did. 

On any of the eight days you were recording The Southern Harmony, what was going down? 

Rich: We came off Shake Your Money Maker after three hundred and fifty shows and eighteen months of solid touring. I mean, we were constantly playing. What that does to a person, I’d grown as a guitar player and as an artist. Everyone in the band grew. Chris and I had been writing the whole time. We were on fire as a band. 

Chris: Those were the true golden days. We had these new tools, and we weren’t under the scrutiny of not knowing. Shake Your Money Maker – that’s the first time I’m singing on a microphone in the studio. The Southern Harmony is only the second time. Our thing was to be excited. Like: “Why can’t rock’n’roll be what we want it to be?” We were very confident. We knew these were fucking good songs. We knew nothing really sounded, or looked, like we did at the time. 

The other part is, we were always trying to be in the moment. A lot of bands are cleverer about looking down the road. We’re outsider people. Depression is a real thing for us. We were self-medicating. You just have to fucking stay on the ride. You couldn’t ever stop, because if you did it would all go away. 

At the time, you seemed to often be affronted whenever other bands didn’t share your puritanical streak. Who was the biggest let-down? 

Rich: Ultimately, I think Chris got most disappointed by some of his heroes, and seeing the smoke and mirrors sometimes used. It hurt his feelings, in a sense. I was a little more disconnected from the people. I could still look at the product of their creativity, at their music, and appreciate it for what it was, separate from the human beings. Chris was more like: “What the fuck are these people doing?” 

Then again, there were times we weren’t let down. Touring with AC/DC, man, there’s not any backing tracks and those guys were fucking killing it every night. Touring with the Stones. Fuck, to see that band on fire, that was one of the best things ever. Those things made up for the disappointments in spades. 

Chris: Authenticity is, to me, the difference between what I feel is real and can get behind, and what’s pretentious. I still feel that. At the time, I chalk it up to passion. No one could take away our passion. We were on Saturday Night Live two times. The second time was during The Southern Harmony. You get to play two songs. Sometimes Salvation was the single, and they also wanted us to do Remedy. We’d just written a song, Nonfiction, for the next record, and we wanted to play it instead. The guy from SNL was like: “No.” And I said to him: “You know what, man, what do you give a fuck about what we do? You’ll have another band on next week, and one the week after.” 

He told me we were making a big mistake. I said: “All I’m saying is it’s our mistake to make.” Someone told me recently the guy has a podcast now about his days on the show, and he said we were the worst people he ever had to deal with. Cool. Good. At that time in my life it was us versus them at every moment. You know what? He was right. If we’d have played Remedy it would have turned out different. But we didn’t, and everybody’s still here.

Having set the band to such high ideals, did you ever disappoint yourself? 

Rich: No. We made a lot of decisions that shot us in the foot commercially, because our principles went against it. Now, it’s changed. People don’t give a shit any more. They’ll license or sell anything. There’s something gross about the encroachment of the corporate world. Isn’t there enough of that shit in our lives? Shouldn’t music be an oasis?

After the ‘golden days’ of the early 90s, the Robinsons’ course has never again been smooth, or so straightforward-seeming. Neither of the two Black Crowes albums immediately following The Southern HarmonyAmorica in 1994 and Three Snakes And One Charm two years later – sold nearly so well. Combinations of heavy drugs, unchecked egos, and their sibling rivalry toxified matters. 

In 2002, sick of and exhausted by each other, the Crowes crumbled into a three-year-long hiatus. Reactivated in 2005, they would lurch on together for a further eight years, various line-ups coming and going, and before the ghost was given up once more in 2013 the principals as riven as ever. Chris Robinson initiated what appeared likely to be their final break-up, demanding a bigger slice of the band’s monies than his brother. In his telling, he didn’t ever expect to get it, but it was the only way he could think up of derailing them for good. 

For both brothers, in the interims there have been an abundance of solo records, other bands and different collaborations. Nothing, though, has resonated nearly so much as their work together, and no matter how racked their relationship at any given time. 

For all the strife attending their making, both Amorica and Three Snakes have grown in stature. Each one haunted and spooked, but thrilling in their abandon and sheer wilfulness. All the way up to 2009’s Before The Frost… Until The Freeze (ostensibly cut live in the Woodstock barn of the late, great Levon Helm of The Band), the last all-new Crowes album prior to Happiness Bastards, the Robinsons have sparked off no one so much as off each other.

In retrospect, was the period covering Amorica and Three Snakes an especially creative one? 

Chris: Incredibly creative. Rich and I wrote a lot of songs at that time, enough for three records around Amorica. It was a dark time. Kurt Cobain had blown his head off and everyone was on heroin. Rich and I are both cerebral people, but when it comes to music it’s always related to how we’re feeling when we’re making it. There was no self-editing in a lot of those songs. 

I think Amorica sounds incredible. That record starts with the song Gone. That was the real manifesto as to where I was personally, and where I thought we were. Half of the band was living a certain way, and then Rich and Steve Gorman [drums] didn’t do drugs. They were married and already like soccer dads. Johnny [Colt, bass] was kind of off on his own. Then there was Marc [Ford, guitar], Ed [Harsch, keyboards], and me, and the whole surrounding cast. 

Rich: The musical climate was shifting, and so were we. Chris and my relationship started to change. It was a downer period. There was a lot of weird shit going on. Amorica was almost an anti-commercial record. We’d made Rick Rubin a shit-ton of money. And we always said if you make someone a bunch of money, they’re going to want you to keep doing it. With Amorica, people didn’t like the title, they didn’t like the album cover. They started to come around to the studio. I can’t speak for Chris, but it wasn’t a positive experience for me. There was a lot of depression for me. I wrote a bunch of heavy songs. Beautiful, but heavy fucking songs. They were representative of how I felt. 

What was your artistic high point of that first era of the band? 

Rich: One of my favourite records is Three Snakes. It’s raw emotion. Amorica was intense and dark also, but Three Snakes was almost too intense and sad for me. 

Chris: For Three Snakes it was a heavy drug period. We built a studio in this house in Atlanta, and half of us were living there – the bad half of the band. We made the record there, and we felt it was done. Then the management and the record label came along and said no it isn’t. So we ended up moving out to LA and doing a month of overdubs. It’s always been a disappointment to me. Maybe they were trying to sonically erase the desperation, but that’s what’s beautiful about those songs. I’d love to find some of the original mixes. 

A song like Nebakanezer is pretty autobiographical [sample lyric: ‘Nebakanezer… left his needle outside in the rain… Spent most of his time making holes and licking his wounds’]. It was early days still, but it was the first time I realised: “Hey, this band is something I really love, but it’s also broken my heart.” That record has a lot of heartbreak on it. Not romantic heartbreak, but philosophical, metaphysical heartbreak. 

The low point being? 

Rich: I don’t think there was a creative low point. Look, we did what we wanted to do. I thought those first four records were brilliant. I couldn’t have been happier with them. 

Chris: You know, I laugh when people talk about Jim Morrison being such a dick. He wasn’t a dick. He was twenty-seven years old. Fuck, isn’t that what your twenties are for? You’re talking about crazy people. Rock’n’roll used to be full of fucking maniacs. There wasn’t an old rock’n’roller you’d listen to that hadn’t been arrested for something. In the 2000s it started to be different. But when I look back at the 1990s with us, it’s like: “Of course.” It makes perfect sense to me.

What, if anything, had changed between the two of you when you got the band back together in 2005? 

Rich: Not a lot. That was kind of the problem. There wasn’t a reckoning. It was almost like we’d simply had a time out. I had my own experiences. I put together a band and it fell apart. I scored a movie [2002 crime drama Highway, starring Jake Gyllenhall], put out a solo record, and did a lot of painting and art shows. So from my perspective that was cool. But I was getting back together with the band as my first marriage was falling apart, and so that was fucking shitty to say the least. 

Then I realised the band hadn’t changed, and all of the same bullshit was still there. All of the same people were causing the same shit. Chris and I were not in a good place. It was just negative and abusive. Inevitably, it fell apart again because we’d never dealt with the core issues. 

Chris: There was a lot of lip service about it being different, I think. A lot of it has to do also with the people around you. I’m not angry or resentful about anything that’s ever happened, because that’s the way it’s supposed to be. That’s how shit is laid out. 

In spite of all the rancour, the two of you were still able to gather yourselves to make something as vaulting, and undimmed, as Before The Frost

Chris: That record has some of my favourite songs Rich and I have ever written. It was such a fucking cool idea. I always wanted to make a live record of new songs, but I didn’t know how to do it until I went to a ‘Midnight Ramble’ at Levon’s place. When Rich and I started to write the songs, it was fantastic. What we did is write and record studio versions in the week, and on the weekend we had the gigs at Levon’s. The gigs were great. 

But then we went from a really good place of writing and being cordial, to within a few days it being like a big ‘Fuck you’, and fighting. Typical of the way Rich and I worked together. The writing was always very easy. 

Rich: For that record, we started writing songs for the first time on our own as well. It didn’t feel as collaborative. It was a lot more separate.

Altogether, six long years elapsed without a single word passing between the Robinsons. When they did finally agree to meet up again, at first tentatively and over breakfast at the Chateau Marmont hotel in Los Angeles, they’d each had children who’d grown up never having laid eyes on their respective uncles or cousins. Their Hollywood breakfast occasioned a full-scale reunion of The Black Crowes, albeit with the two of them as the only original members left standing. 

In 2020 they embarked on a 46-date tour to mark the 30th anniversary of Shake Your Money Maker. Bitter experience may have forewarned them to expect the unexpected, but not to have their comeback interrupted by a global pandemic. 

Emerging out of it, Happiness Bastards is ushering in another tour. Opening at the storied Grand Ol’ Opry in Nashville on April 2 and (extreme events notwithstanding) set to visit 35 cities in North America and Europe. “We have actual business meetings now,” remarks Chris, saucer-eyed. “I mean, it’s great, and amazing.”

Have you learnt anything new about each other these past four years? 

Chris: I’m in a different place of trying to have more empathy and be more understanding of my brother. When I was younger, I didn’t realise the severity of Rich’s social anxiety. I didn’t have the time or perspective to think about it, or to give a fuck. I was just like: “What’s wrong with him?” We would build up resentments about that, because in a sense we were adolescents still. On top of it, we’re almost English in terms of dealing with our emotions, because we’re from Georgia, and Atlanta especially. Mick Jagger said Atlanta was the most English place he’d ever been outside of England in terms of attitudes. 

Rich: As you grow older, you change with how you see the world in general. And we’ve been on a pretty long journey. Forty years since I got my guitar, and we started playing in our basement, seems crazy to me. To think of the arc and the scope of the thing is pretty far out, but it’s really all I know. Chris sings like Chris. He doesn’t sound like anyone else. I play like me, and I don’t sound like anyone else. We’re both of us still curious and in love with music. 

What’s been missing whenever you’ve worked with someone other than your brother? 

Chris: It’s been the same thing right up to this last record. Rich will play me something and it’ll prick up my ears. It inspires me to do what I do, which is pick up a piece of paper and start finding an image and the right melody for the song. I’ve done that with other people as well, but never in the way Rich and I can suddenly start doing it. It must be because we were in the same house. 

Rich: Whenever I write songs, I just subconsciously write for his voice. Writing a song and having it come to fruition has always been my favourite thing. The challenging part is trying to make it work, but I’ve always had a conviction that it will. We just have to find the right spices. There’s a musical gift Chris has of being able to write off my rhythm and understand it innately. That’s always a cool thing. The six years you didn’t talk to each other. 

What do you regret the most? 

Rich: I don’t really have any regrets. We needed that time to get to this place. Sometimes you need silence to be able to stop and truly see something clearly. What it did for me, it also gave me my own experiences through which to really figure out my part in all of it. I broke away for a long time, so I was able to come back into The Black Crowes as more of a confident and whole person. 

Chris: It is what it is, and it had to be the way it was to get us to where we are. I’m a firm believer in that. But there were a few personal things… a medical thing I didn’t know about. Rich had his own family and everything, but I’m sure he was scared, and I was his brother, and I wasn’t there for him. That hurt. But I’m an adult, and I can live with it, and make up for it. It won’t happen again. We’re there for each other. We hardly ever talk on the phone, but I love to cook, and he calls if ever he wants a recipe. 

And what do you now love your brother for the most? 

Rich: That’s an interesting question. I guess this is more of a youthful thing, but it’s more the times when he recognises the brother in me. Not a little brother, but a brother, and the fact we’re in this together and we’ve done this together. Also his ability to just be him. Chris will walk into war. He’ll jump straight in, and I’ve always appreciated that about him. 

Chris: I love that he doesn’t realise how crazy he is, too. I know I’m a mental case. It’s very charming that Rich thinks he’s not. I love my brother because he’s incredibly sweet and very sincere. He’s a very special musician. I love his sensitivity. Show biz wants to take that away from you at all costs, and Rich has never let it happen. I think that’s really wonderful. 

From the forty-year journey of the band, which former member do you miss the most? 

Rich: There’s a ton of people I miss. That was always hard for me. You get used to people. I did like Johnny Colt. Johnny handled himself well when he left. He didn’t rag on us. But the biggest one now is Eddie Harsch [Harsch died on November 4, 2016, aged 59]. Everyone in the band always had reverence for his abilities. The other day, Chris and I were in Georgia, in the studio, and listening to old tracks from Southern Harmony. Man, to solo Eddie’s tracks… That guy was such a deep player. He was a funny, kind person. I always stayed in touch with him after he left the band. 

If you were able to go back and impart one piece of advice to the teenage you, what would it be? 

Rich: I’m not sure my fourteen-year-old self would listen, but I would encourage myself to enjoy it more. To take time and really appreciate it, instead of putting your head down and ploughing through. 

Chris: I wouldn’t fix anything. Everyone’s trying to go tell it to the mountain, but we all take a different route to get there. I was in New York the day before yesterday, and I took a long walk. I walked past apartments where friends who are no longer with us lived. All sorts of weird things came flooding back. But you can’t escape adversity. You have to make mistakes. It’s all a learning process. 

Did the teenage you get everything he wanted? 

Rich: I don’t know. I think in a sense he did, but sometimes when you get what you want, maybe it’s also not what you thought it would be. So yes and no. When you’re a teenager your aspiration is: “I wish I could play stadiums for the rest of my life.” In my opinion now, there’s a richer life experience to be had. Our path has been very mountainous, with a lot of highs and lows. You can’t see how high you were until you can look up, and vice versa. 

Chris: I’m prone to decadence and drawn to the shadows, but overall it’s a wonderful life. A few years ago I lost a dear friend, a musician. My daughter was very young at the time, and she saw me crying. She asked me why I was crying. I said to her: “Because my friend is gone, and I loved him. But I’m also crying with joy, because don’t ever forget, your dad’s a musician and my friend was a musician, and nobody gets to laugh like we have laughed, and have that vibration.” 

The grand adventure rock’n’roll has given me is the other reason I was crying. The characters I’ve met. The bipolar fucking weirdos, addicted, beautiful souls, the madness, and the sadness. It’s just too much. Like Steve Marriott said: ‘It’s all too beautiful.’ That’s a fucking fact. As for the teenager in the basement getting what he wanted, I’m gonna paraphrase Muddy Waters – I can never be satisfied!

Paul Rees

Paul Rees been a professional writer and journalist for more than 20 years. He was Editor-in-Chief of the music magazines Q and Kerrang! for a total of 13 years and during that period interviewed everyone from Sir Paul McCartney, Madonna and Bruce Springsteen to Noel Gallagher, Adele and Take That. His work has also been published in the Sunday Times, the Telegraph, the Independent, the Evening Standard, the Sunday Express, Classic Rock, Outdoor Fitness, When Saturday Comes and a range of international periodicals.