Chris Robinson and Neal Casal Talk New Chris Robinson Brotherhood Album
To create their new album, Anyway You Love, We Know How You Feel, the Chris Robinson Brotherhood relocated to a remote recording studio in the hills of northern California. The result? One of the band’s finest musical moments to date.
The disc also represents several "firsts" for the former Black Crowes frontman and his bandmates; it's first album the band produced without any outside help, and it marks the first release featuring new drummer Tony Leone.
The tunes, including the infectiously psychedelic “Narcissus Soaking Wet,” seem to channel everything from Bob Dylan to Parliament Funkadlelic, while tracks like “Ain’t It Hard But Fair” and “Forever As the Moon” showcase a deep level of maturity in the band's songwriting and kaleidoscopic sound.
The Chris Robinson Brotherhood is Chris Robinson (vocals/guitar), Neal Casal (guitars), Adam MacDougall (keyboards), Jeff Hill (bass) and Tony Leone (drums). I recently spoke with Robinson and Casal about the new album, songwriting, their gear and more.
How much of an influence did recording in northern California have on the sessions for Any Way You Love, We Know How You Feel?
Neal Casal: It was very inspiring. We made the record in a house with a big window overlooking the hillside and the Pacific. It was a very comfortable and quiet environment where there were no distractions or social situations to pull us away. There was something about the energy on that hillside that was very creative. And once we got inside, Chris’ notebook opened up, the words started flowing and the songs just wrote themselves.
Chris Robinson: We might not all be Californian, but this band was born in California. The California concert culture and counter culture is embedded deep within us. Living communally in this amazing house and studio changed our perspective. We were a lot closer to the source of what influenced us and it was unique on so many levels.
How would you describe Anyway You Love, We Know How You Feel?
Robinson: In a weird way, it’s kind of like it’s our first record. Our actual first record was a band that had worked all year long and then went into the studio and recorded our live show. For the second album we had more time on the road and pushed ourselves a little more in the songwriting. Now that we’ve spent four solid years on the road and have been writing and working, it was all about getting to this session and letting these songs flower. We’re really happy about the bounty our art has given us after tending it for so long.
Casal: I think it’s the natural maturation of the band after being together for five years making records and doing hundreds of shows. The songwriting partnerships have developed further and broadened our palletes. The music, our commitment to the band and our mission is deeper than ever. It’s also a more direct sounding record with a closer connection to our live show.
What was the songwriting process like?
Robinson: I’m writing all the time in my notebooks and it could be about anything, like a conversation or even the name of a river. I’ve been doing it that same way ever since I was a teenager. I’m also constantly playing guitar, because you never know when something’s going to trigger a melody or a chord progression. Most mornings would begin with me being outside working on lyrics while everyone else was just waking up. Then we’d move it inside and I’d start playing something. If everyone looked up at what I was doing then we knew we were already halfway there. Whenever they’d say, “Hey, what’s that you’re playing?” that was when the day really began.
Let’s talk about a few tracks from the new album, starting with “Narcissus Soaking Wet."
Casal: That song’s the brainchild of Chris and Adam and their love of deep, funk music. All of their listening to Prince and George Clinton late at night found its way into it. I learned a lot about that style of music through those guys. Eddie Hazel is one of my heroes now and I tried bringing some of that influence into the song with the out of control funk guitar and some other flavors. I remember when it came alive we all got very excited. We play it live every night now and it already feels like a classic.
“Forever As the Moon”
Robinson: It’s a little bit of an ominous song. There’s a little bit of anxiety and fear in the world that controls us to a certain level. In this case, we used it as a metaphor for tuning out all of the hate and fear.
Casal: That’s a song with some very cool Dylan-esque lyrics. Rhythmically, it taps into our love of hypnotic grooves. The words are so cool and it’s one where Tony really shines. We couldn’t have pulled a song like that off in any other version of our band.
“Ain’t It Hard But Fair.”
Robinson: That line is something that I always heard when I was growing up in Atlanta. Whenever you’d ask someone, “Hey, how are you doing today?” they’d say, “It’s hard but it’s fair—and we’re gonna have a good time when we get there!” [laughs]. It’s one of those songs that takes place in scenes. In one scene, there’s two lovers having a conversation and she puts a white flower in the lapel of his jacket. He might have made some bad decisions but she just brushes the hair off his face and says, “But baby, ain’t it hard but fair—we’re gonna have a good time when we get there!”
What are the band’s current tour plans?
Casal: We’re going to be playing as much as we can for the rest of the year. We’ve got new music to play and a new lease on life. We’re ready for the second phase of this band to begin.
Neal, what’s your current setup like?
Casal: I have a Scott Walker Santa Cruz model guitar that I’ve been playing for the past two years and it’s the best instrument I’ve ever owned. I really can’t say enough about the beautiful instruments he makes. It’s elevated my playing and is a big part of the sound of the new album. I also have a B-Bender Telecaster. It’s a newer guitar but is an excellent sounding Tele. As far as amps go, I have a Divided by 13 100-watt head with a Celestion 2x12 cabinet. I also have a custom, 100-watt head from a company in New Jersey called Booya that I really love.
Chris, did you always know that music would be your calling?
Robinson: I aspired to find some way to survive by being a unique thinker. Originally, I was planning on maybe going to school and forging myself into a writer. I always loved music. My father was a folk singer and I had listened to a lot of folk and roots records. Then when I got a little older I was into real R&B and funk. It wasn’t until the early Eighties hardcore punk movement that I had access to all-ages punk shows. It was important for me to be in a scene where bands were doing it for something other than to be famous or to make a lot of money. It really influenced me.
What are you most looking forward to about the second next phase of CRB?
Robinson: The creative element, friendships and scene we’ve made is very fulfilling and unique. It’s also fulfilling and unique to make it work without having to be something we don’t want to be. We don’t want to be on a major label or work for a corporation. We also don’t want to water down who we are or what we feel just so other people can make money. We want to have our own little musical commune and be self-sufficient.
Casal: I’m excited about being able to continue to do what we do. Having the chance to get on stage to play another day and to have another shot at writing another record is enough for me. It’s as simple as that. I can’t predict what’s going to happen tomorrow but to do well enough today to keep going is enough to keep me here.
James Wood is a writer, musician and self-proclaimed metalhead who maintains his own website, GoJimmyGo.net. His articles and interviews are written on a variety of topics with passion and humor. You can follow him on Twitter @JimEWood.