The ties that bind musician Chris Robinson to British science fiction author Brian Aldiss are tenuous, but that’s as it should be.
After all, Robinson — former bandleader of the Black Crowes, now the musical shaman at the heart of the Chris Robinson Brotherhood, which performs Sunday at The Bijou Theatre in downtown Knoxville — sees those connections everywhere he looks. It’s his band’s calling, he told The Daily Times this week, and what better way to celebrate it than by naming the CRB’s most recent album after a 1969 novel by Aldiss?
“The book ‘Barefoot in the Head’ is an experimental book of science fiction that’s darkly themed, to say the least, but I love the idea,” Robinson said. “I think a big part of the impetus of CRB and the energy is our perception that life is a random occurrence of chaos. We’ve got stuff thrown at us, and we’re people on a planet, trying to survive, and we have our conscious and unconscious selves connected to all of these other things.
“A great night of rock ‘n’ roll music whips up a vibration that’s pleasant and positive and progressive. You don’t have to have long hair and spend your days in search or esoteric knowledge or even believe what we believe — but you can still be barefoot in the head. You can make what you want out of your situation. In that sense, it’s just about being in the moment.”
Robinson has been looking for such moment since he and his brother, Rich, started The Black Crowes in Atlanta back in the 1980s. The group’s 1990 debut, “Shake Your Money Maker,” was a multi-platinum smash, and the Crowes quickly gained international fame. It was 1992’s “The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion,” however — debuting at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 — that indicated the Crowes were worthy successors of a potent blend of Southern Skynyrd-inspired rock, R.E.M.-derived jangle pop and Grateful Dead psychedelic flourishes. In that record, Robinson said, the building blocks were laid for the Chris Robinson Brotherhood.
“If you listen to ‘Shake Your Money Maker,’ the beats on that record are all very straight; they more like an AC/DC caveman-ish vibe,” he said. “I was a little dude in Atlanta and had never been anywhere, and then we went around the world for two years. Two years later, I’d blown my mind, physically and metaphysically, and on ‘Southern Harmony and Musical Companion,’ you can hear it. There’s a change in meter; the grooves are more Stones, and I think that’s where this sort of dance starts.”
With so much creative talent in the mix, however, personalities often clashed, and the band took a number of breaks over the years; disagreements and squabbles would always seem to work themselves out, however, and the band would regroup and hit the road again. In 2015, however, the guys called it quits for good, and what started out as a side project in 2011 with guitarist Neal Casal and keyboardist Adam MacDougall became Robinson’s primary musical outlet. In the Chris Robinson Brotherhood, there’s a shaking loose of preconceived notions and an added emphasis on sonic exploration that’s not beholden to a long career of radio hits that crowds have paid money to see played live. There’s a blue-collar, workingman’s sense of jubilation to the albums the Brotherhood makes that excites him on a level he never quite reached with the Crowes, he said.
“We’re like cave explorers, in that every time they walk into a cavern, even one they’ve seen a hundred times, they go through steps to get there — the tight squeezes and the bat guano and the skeletons of the ones who went before them, but once they get in that cavern, it’s a quasi-religious thing, and I feel that way about music,” he said. “I’m a father and a husband and a friend, and the way I deal with it is writing it down and finding the light and finding the magic and finding the pain.
“As I get older, and as I’ve freed myself from the trappings of ego and success and money and resentment, that’s where it comes from. The Black Crowes were a bunch of people; I was the leader, and I was in charge, but this band is all of us. We put my name on (stuff), and I write the songs and have the most energy, but this is our band. And when we get on stage, it’s not about putting on a regular show business trip. We’re inviting people to become a part of this musical bubble we’re creating, whether it’s at the Fillmore in San Francisco or in Macon (Ga.) the other night, when only 400 people came out.
“We keep it that simple, and we stay happy,” he added. “I don’t have anybody telling me, ‘You should do this,’ or, ‘You’ll make more money if you do that.’ Our combined musical instincts have led us to this band, this sound, these shows, and that’s the way music works. It should be magical.”
As a unit, the creative process is akin to alchemy, he said.
“That’s how we work — one person takes the glowing orb, and they rub it, and their eyes change color, and then they throw it to the next guy who rubs it, and then we’ve made something,” he said with a laugh. “We work hard, and still don’t have a giant following, and we still struggle financially — but we’ve never been a part of something that gives us such joy. I feel at every gig like we’re just getting started, and it keeps getting better and better.”