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Chris Robinson and Neal Casal Talk New Brotherhood Album, 'Barefoot in the Head'

Chris Robinson and Neal Casal Talk New Brotherhood Album, 'Barefoot in the Head' Chris Robinson

“The real inspiration for this band is what I think of as roots music—which is everything: jazz, bluegrass, rock and roll, funk/soul/R&B, pop, country, blues, Appalachian folk. As a band, we all love all of these different kinds of music, so why wouldn’t we be inspired by everything from the Stanley Brothers to Lee Stevens’ first solo album to Weather Report, and beyond?”

Chris Robinson is discussing the inner workings of the Chris Robinson Brotherhood, the group he assembled in 2011 following his departure from the Black Crowes.

Robinson has been extremely busy—and incredibly prolific—with this current venture, comprised of guitarist Neal Casal (Ryan Adams, Hard Working Americans, Circles Around the Sun), former Black Crowes keyboardist Adam Mac-Dougall (Macy Gray, Ben Taylor Band), bassist Jeff Hill (Larry Campbell and Teresa Williams, Rufus Wainwright, Trey Anastasio) and drummer Tony Leone (Ollabelle, Levon Helm, Phil Lesh and Friends).

Though Robinson had stated that his initial intention with the CRB was to “have a local L.A. band, just play in California, and see where the music takes us,” he very quickly embarked on an ambitious North American tour while releasing four albums between 2012 and 2014, Big Moon Ritual and The Magic Door (2012), the live Betty’s S.F. Blends, Volume One (2013) and Phosphorescent Harvest (2014).

He has since released a fourth studio album, Any Way You Love, We Know How You Feel and an EP, If You Lived Here, You’d Be Home Now (both 2016), followed by the band’s latest collection of new material, Barefoot in the Head. Combined with two more live Betty’s Blends releases and 2014’s Try Rock ’n’ Roll EP, that’s an astonishing 10 albums in five years.

“We have the freedom to invent this band’s mythology, on the run, coming at it from outside the box,” says Robinson. “The seedling hatched seven years ago and it has progressed in a purely natural way, which is great. I’ve been through it the other way around, way back in my youth, but that doesn’t take away from the amazing respect I have and the unique opportunities I had while in the Black Crowes.”

Barefoot in the Head traverses the broad terrain of sounds and influences that comprise Chris Robinson’s musical creativity, from the Sly Stone funk/soul of “Behold the Seer,” the Bob Dylan/the Band vibe of “She Shares My Blankets,” the Beatles-esque twists heard on “If You Had a Heart to Break” and the heavier T. Rex/Mott the Hoople rock-type grind on “Hark the Herald Hermit Speaks.” The true magic of the band is that they find a way to infuse all of these disparate elements in a seamless, organic way.

Chris and Neal took some time out to discuss the band’s latest expansive and musically ambitious release, Barefoot in the Head.

Chris, how did you and Neal initially connect, and what makes him someone you want to have in your band?
CHRIS ROBINSON I met Neal in the early Nineties in the East Village in New York City at Three of Cups, an Italian restaurant/rock and roll bar. A few years later, I took the Beachwood Sparks on tour with the Black Crowes and Neal was in that band at the time, and that’s where our friendship started. There was also a moment when Neal was going to join the Crowes but Marc Ford ended up coming back into the band.

NEAL CASAL We both frequented Three of Cups but we were in different scenes. Chris was at the height of rock stardom then, and I was in a different crowd. But I was a big fan of the band, and we got to know each other some. He was evangelical about turning people onto good music, overturning stones and discovering old, unknown records and musical gems. He turned me on to [Scottish folk guitarist] Bert Jansch, John Renbourne, Terry Reid and The Incredible String Band. Back in the early Nineties, it was rare to hear someone speak authoritatively about these musicians and bands. His tastes run wide and deep, as do mine.

ROBINSON From the beginning, I could see that Neal and I like the same stuff and have similar tastes. When I asked him to join this band seven years ago, it just so happened that he wasn’t committed to anything, so it was fortuitous. My whole thing is that I don’t need a guitar player—I need a writing partner. We have that threefold now because Adam is active compositionally, too. I’m into nurturing the group aspect of this too; if someone has a part that’s better than the one we’ve got right now, have at it! I love that about this band.

Chris, does your experience with the Black Crowes inform your new music in any way?
ROBINSON The Black Crowes—in my view now as a 50-year-old “folk singer”—is that it was something that happened to me. At the start of the Crowes, we didn’t have a big local scene in Atlanta to be a part of. Luckily for us, [record company executive/producer] George Drakoulias saw us, and you put your coin in the slot—DING DING DING!!!—it comes up cherries and boom the race is on. It was a rocket ride that was unique but also scary when you are a kid in this adult world with people with money symbols in their eyes. You’re trying to have this soulful connection to the energy that you think is “rock and roll,” that you believe in. I just see it as a dedication to the muse.

CASAL As long as the quality is high, we are free to go anywhere we want, which is the best place for a band to be. We’re a hard-working bunch, all of us, with the same mindset, which is “the time is now!”

ROBINSON We don’t have any hit records to live up to, there’s no one pushing us in any direction that is not completely our own, our own personal and emotional content, so the idea is to take full advantage of it.

It sounds like you are free to follow your creativity wherever it may take you.
ROBINSON There’s no one there with expectations, so we are free to create and play music that we like, and that interests and excites us.

CASAL There’s no evil record company guy standing in the corner of the control room, saying, “Hey guys, do you really want to be, like, going in that direction?”

ROBINSON That’s like when Dave Chappell adopts an average older white guy’s voice—no one likes that guy! [laughs] I don’t care where you are from, that guy is not cool!

Isn’t that funny? We have removed ourselves from all of that, truly. We’ve all made great sacrifices to have this freedom: we sleep on the tour bus, we play five nights a week, three hours a night, two-hour soundchecks, average 115 shows a year, we work hard and we’re still not in a place where we are jetting over to the south of France whenevwer we can. We have to be pragmatic and realistic in our business model, and that has to be representative of the same attitude.

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