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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

When did all of the material come together for Barefoot in the Head?
ROBINSON Leading up to the last record, Any Way You Love…, and the EP, If You Lived Here…, we had been working really hard for three years and we hadn’t been in the studio, so we had more of a budget to work with, plus an extra 10 days. When we finished those sessions a year ago in January, I came home and we had a little time between runs, so I just kept writing. I was in a great headspace.

You know, these times are filled with anxiety, uncertainty and the great toxic illusion of fear and ignorance surrounds us. So you have to be able to withstand that, fight the fear and focus on the things you can control. That’s where it all coalesces. When other things are in chaos, the “poetry” should be focused and expressive. If you can!

When we started this band, we were at a club somewhere in Kansas and I was setting up my rig, taking my amps out of the cases, and a kid said to me, “Why are you doing that?” thinking that I should have someone doing it for me. The Black Crowes drove around in a van for years before we got to travel on buses, and on private airplanes, and stay in the nicest hotels around the globe. Why wouldn’t I do this? The music doesn’t care.

No matter what I’ve been through, right or wrong—if I should have said something, or if I shouldn’t have said something—those things don’t matter. The music business is a system, the rules of the shit, right? If you stop your dedication to the muse, to art, to this life…it’s an archetypal thing that’s not just about rock and roll or musicians. But if it does become just a job, or something that you “learned,” then it isn’t alive anymore. And if it’s not alive, why am I dealing with this dead stuff?

In my 12 years of playing with Dickey Betts, he has always demonstrated that there is only one way to play music, which is to give all of yourself to the moment of creativity, and as a band we will find where we are going, together.
ROBINSON Yes, “I will be revealed!” The mystery is revealed at that point. Dickey Betts is one of the greatest guitarists in rock history, but to maintain that open spirit… Playing music is kind of like entering some crystal-lined cavern, but for some people, after a while it’s just like entering any old living room. Some of us have the same reverence every time it reveals itself, and you discover new chambers. I see music like that. You have to have that same mindset whether you are in a set composition or you are improvising. You should always have the same awe and wonder and magic about it.

Can you point to any specific instances when this became apparent to you?
ROBINSON Absolutely. I remember when we were recording the fourth Black Crowes album, Three Snakes and a Charm, I had this song called “Halfway to Everywhere” that was conceptually like a Sly and the Family Stone-Temptations-Parliament/Funkadelic tune with three different singers doing three different parts. I had my great friends Garry Shider from Funkadelic and Mudbone Cooper.

We were standing at the mic—and I was pretty “far out” with these guys by that point in the day, trying my best to keep up with the Funkadelic crew even though I was running hard myself—and it dawned on me that I had never sung with other experienced guys or producers like these guys; I was thrust into this “do it!” mentality. We were at a home studio in Georgia, and when I was on the mic with these guys, I was thinking of having grown up listening to them with Parliament/Funkadelic, like Garry and his cousin Glen Goins, who were the guys I was imitating as a kid, trying to find my voice. Being next to them and seeing how animated and visceral these guys were, I realized, Oh—there should be nothing restraining you! You have to dive in fearlessly, and we are drawn to that because it fits who we are.

When did you get started on the songs for this new record?
ROBINSON By the end of last summer, I was contemplating moving back over the hill to Stinson Beach and making the record, and I said to the guys, “Listen, I don’t want any of our road gear in the studio—no amps or anything that we used before on any recordings. Bring whatever you want, but not the same amps, guitars and effects.” Any stringed instrument, every stringed instrument!

CASAL That’s what led me to picking up the banjo, and Jeff [Hill] plays beautiful upright bass, and Tony [Leone] added great mandolin playing, too. We started flexing our muscles as a unit, and what’s so strong about this record is the ensemble playing. That’s what you can get when you go straight into the studio after an entire year on the road.

ROBINSON Having Jeff on the new record is a huge difference maker. We had a hired hand on the last few records, but Jeff is the guy in the band, with his own vision and imagination, and can play a lot of other instruments as well. Tony, our drummer, playing marimba was like, okay, where’d that come from? I’m down! It’s being open to the moment and free. It’s hippie baroque—that’s what I call it.

CASAL Jeff brings so much to the table, in terms of solidifying our lineup, our sound and our confidence. Chris was so excited by the lift that Jeff brought to the band that he wanted to get right back into the studio and capture that feeling.

ROBINSON The benefit with that is that you don’t get too far away from it. Some bands are not cut out for that kind of scheduling, but something that binds the guys in this band is that we’re all lifers: before the show, we’re immersed in music, listening and talking, then we play the show, then afterward we wind down, get back on the bus and it’s always music. We’ve got a turntable on the bus, and Neal, Adam and I are all record-buying swine!

How does this band differ from the Black Crowes?
ROBINSON You can’t compare; these are different times and I’m a different person too. The Black Crowes was a fire that everyone was throwing gasoline on all of the time, because that’s what kept it burning. In this situation, we’ve never had an argument, and everyone plays whatever they want to play. Each of these guys has been in a variety of different bands, too, and this is a musical utopia for all of us. This is all any of us really want—this kind of freedom. If you are not acting in a harmonious way to what is around you, then you are actually in the act of destroying it. We all have great respect for each other, and that is something that cannot be bought.

Let’s talk about the tunes, all of which were written specifically for this record, yes?
ROBINSON Yes. Usually, I have the verses and choruses and Neal will come in with the bridges. For “Blue Star Woman” and “Hark the Herald Hermit Speaks,” I wrote the whole thing. On the “smaller” songs, like “Glow” and “Dog Eat Sun,” they only have two parts to them, and we wanted to keep them simple.

How did the recording process take place?
CASAL
Everyone lives at the studio while we are recording, and after you wake up and have your toast and tea, there’s nothing else to do but to make music. By 11 A.M. or so, we’re all on the floor, working. Living there in the same space, you get a three-hour jump on the day.

ROBINSON My house is just down the road. I’d drop my daughter off at school, head up to the studio, make a cup of tea and grab my acoustic, go outside and play, and pick something for us to start with that day. “Behold the Seer” is a perfect example, because I had the intro riff, plus the jam into the verse and that was it. Neal threw in the chorus, and then Adam added some different chords for him to solo over. And that was it, and I love it.


Above: Neal Casal with his Scott Walker Santa Cruz.

Were most to the tracks on each song cut live with everyone playing together? The feeling you get is one of listening to a band play live.
ROBINSON Completely. That’s what is has to be. I’ve heard it said 100 times: rock and roll is dead! They said it when I was a kid and they still say it now, but it’s not true, nor will it ever be true. There are still lots of people going to see Derek [Trucks] play every night, and to them this music is more alive than ever. And the same is true for Jimmy Herring with Widespread Panic and Trey Anastasio. Go to Amoeba Records in San Francisco and you have to wait in line to pay for your fucking shit, so don’t tell me it’s dead!

CASAL Chris has been in a very prolific place, in terms of lyrics and music, over the last two years.

ROBINSON My initial feeling was that it would be “sketchy” and loosey-goosey, but by the end of the very first tune, it had turned into something else. But we did end up with a very acoustic sound on the record, and Neal played so many different acoustic instruments. It was the first time he ever played banjo, on “High Is Not the Top,” with Tony on mandolin. “Glow” was recorded live with Alam Khan, Ali Akbar Khan’s son, on the sarod, whose playing is just phenomenal. I met Alam through Derek. 

I’m an obsessive Indian classical music fan, and I thought he would be perfect for this song. It’s my attempt at something that’s a little more “English” and pastoral, like a John Martyn kind of flowing thing. That was one of the most special moments in the studio I have ever experienced.

I’m so glad to have a song like “Good to Know” on this record, that is keyboard driven and kind of lilt-y, a beautifully THC-driven meditation, and then also have “Blonde Light of Day.” All of this music was seen, and created, through the lenses of the guys in the band, so there are many views and many angles to the music. The music should be expressive—the stories we get to tell should take you to new and different places.

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