“More than anything, we wanted to make a memorable record, something with a lot of depth to it that people could latch on to.” Vocalist/guitarist Chris Robertson is talking about The Human Condition, Black Stone Cherry’s seventh album in the band’s 19-year career.
Robertson, guitarist/vocalist Ben Wells, bassist/vocalist John Lawhon, and drummer/vocalist John Fred Young recorded their latest work at Lawhon’s Monocle Studios in March 2020. The Kentucky band, whose professional and personal relationships date back to their school years, self-produced again, with their monitor engineer, Jordan Westfall.
They multi-tracked the songs over the course of many sessions, rather than opt for their usual method of recording basic tracks live. And finally, they found themselves wrapping up the new music just in time for the industry to come to an abrupt halt in the face of a COVID lockdown.
“We didn’t know what the rest of the year was going to hold,” says Wells. “We were seeing all of our spring, summer, and fall tour dates getting wiped away, so we said, ‘At least we’ll have an album to show for ourselves this year.’ I think subconsciously we put a ton more passion and effort into creating this because we knew we wanted to have something to look forward to, something to be proud of.”
To mark the October 30 release of The Human Condition, the band scheduled a livestream performance. The event took place a week after a hometown concert, and prefaced a current scattered stretch of U.S. concert dates, making Black Stone Cherry one of a limited number of artists willing to tour and play for socially distanced audiences during the pandemic.
“We want to be safe, smart, and responsible,” says Wells, “but we can’t just sit and not do anything forever. We have to get back out there somehow. It’s for the love of music and for our morale. That first hometown show did so much for so many people’s state of mind. It’s a testament that people need something to look forward to and feel good about.”
“We’re at the mercy of whatever we can come up with, and socially distanced shows, when done right, are the only answer we have for a while,” says Robertson. “It goes further than just being nine months without a paycheck. When you’re a musician at heart, and that’s all you’ve done for the last twenty years, it’s about getting back to who you are.”
Your situation is somewhat unique in that you both play lead, both play rhythm, and both take solos. How do you complement each other’s playing, and how has your partnership grown?
Wells: “Even though Chris and I knew how to play when we met, we learned a lot together, so we have really good chemistry when it comes to guitars. We will both tell you that we don’t know scales, we don’t know any of that kind of stuff. It was all learning by trial and error and figuring it out together, figuring out new tunings and new ways to do things.
“We know each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and when to step in and when not to. That’s very important in a band, because you never want to get two guys who are competing with each other. That’s a cocktail for failure.
“We’re similar in the way we play, as far as riffs and chord positions. When we were in the studio working on our third album [Between the Devil & the Deep Blue Sea] in California, on the first day of tracking, our producer said, 'Which one of you plays the rhythm parts and which one of you plays lead?'
“We said, 'We both do.' He said, 'What do you mean?' We said, 'We’re two guitar players. We both do this and we want to be on the album like that.' They were used to bands where one guy plays this and the other guy plays that.
“He said 'OK,' set us up, and soloed our rhythm tracks, and I remember him looking at us and saying, 'Man, you guys play really tight together.' I said, 'We’ve been playing together for years. This is how we do it.'
“So Chris and I play a lot alike, but we’ve also grown individually as players. I really love rockabilly and acoustic guitar, and Chris will tell you that’s one of my strengths, whereas he can play blues guitar and solos that trump me any day of the week. I’m glad we have grown that way, because we influence each other on different techniques that we’ve each learned.”
Robertson: “You can’t replace 20 years of chemistry, but you also can’t replace 20 years of learning and getting better, and constantly pushing each other. Ben has turned into a great lead guitar player, and live, we go back and forth and jam, which is the coolest thing for me.
“Ever since we started the band, I’ve been the lead guitarist, but as the albums progressed, Ben started getting more and more into lead, and I would say, 'Take a solo. I don’t need to play one on every song.'
Ben is the sharp one and I’m a more fluid kind of player – or I try to be, anyway! Sometimes we do a lot of twin stuff, play in octaves off of each other, and sometimes we play harmonies. It’s a lot of fun.
“We’re not technical, we don’t know scales – we just look at each other and say, 'Try this chord.' It’s elementary, the way we do things. I’m completely self-taught, and Ben took four or five lessons when he was 10 years old, so we really taught each other over the years.
“Sometimes in life you’re fortunate to meet people and always keep them in your circle. My dad has always been the guy that I lean on, but over the last 19 years, there’s something Ben and I have.”
Which guitars and amps did you use on this album?
Wells: “My main sound was my Gibson Les Paul Classic, which I’ve recorded every album with. It was my first Les Paul, so it’s very special to me. That’s the main rhythm sound, through my Peavey 5150, which was my first real rock and roll amp. It’s an original 5150 that was used at trade shows for Eddie Van Halen to demo.
“That was the whole sound on our first album, and it was really good to bring that back. I also used a Nash Telecaster, a Fender Sub-Sonic Telecaster for low-end, beefy sounds, and for pedals I used an MXR Sub Machine. On acoustic parts I used a Martin D-45. It’s one of my favorite acoustic guitars.
“My cabinet is a Hiwatt that was owned by Brad Whitford of Aerosmith and used on their Get A Grip tour. I got it locally from a guy who bought it from them years ago. I’m a huge Aerosmith fan, so it’s very special to me. I don’t tour with it; it’s on display at my house like a piece of memorabilia!
“I also used Peavey Invective 120. It’s a new amp, and it’s a super-hard rock/metal machine. It records really well, so we mixed that into a couple of songs. It’s an amazing amp with a great clean channel and the nastiest distortion and crunch. Peavey sent it to me a year or so ago while we were on tour, and I never really got a chance to play it because it was at my house.
“I played it in my home studio when we got back, and I loved it, but I couldn’t crank it up there. When we were in the studio, I said, 'I want to hear this isolated with a microphone.' Everyone was blown away with it, and now Chris wants one for his home studio. I have to say, beyond the way their amps sound, Peavey have been huge believers in our band, and in me as a musician, and that goes such a long way.”
Robertson: “I recorded the majority of the rhythm tracks with one of my signature PRS SE guitars. I also used a Lucky Dog Evangelist. Lucky Dog is a company in the hills of Tennessee.
“They make PRS-style guitars, and they’re some of the finest I’ve ever played. I also played a 1971 Gibson ES-345 with a stoptail piece and a Tune-O-Matic that I bought for $800 from a guy on Facebook Marketplace.
“For leads I used my dad’s 1988 Les Paul. When we were 17 or 18, we started getting cool gigs. My dad came to me and said, 'You’re going to do more with this than I’ve ever been able to, and you need a really good guitar to do it with.'
“I cried, because earlier that year he was looking at selling that Les Paul, which was the only good guitar he had, so that he could pay our bills, and I had begged him not to get rid of it. He ended up giving to me, and it’s been on every record we’ve made.
“I used one amp for the entire record: my Splawn Super Sport 22 on the normal gain channel. I used a Fender Blues Junior on a couple of overdubs, and ’65 or ’66 Blackface Bassman cab that belonged to my grandpa.
“I replaced the speakers with a set of Eminence Screamin’ Eagles. It was cool to have three generations of Robertsons coming through in the tonal package on this album: my dad’s guitar, my amp head, and my grandpa’s cabinet.
“We used a Cascade Fat Head mic and a Sennheiser 441, and for effects I used an original Uni-Vibe, an EHX Memory Boy, and an Octave Multiplexer. For solos I used the prototype of my new Analog Pedals signature DOS Fuzz pedal.“
Black Stone Cherry is coming up on two decades together. Who were you then and who are you now?
Wells: “We’re the same four dudes. We still live in our same hometown, and we still do everything the way we always did. We’ve all grown as people. We’re all married, three of the guys have kids, so there are changes like that. But when we get on the bus together, we’re the same guys who love to pick on each other, and we love each other just the same – or even more now.
“We’ve all grown up together, and we still have stars in our eyes to go out and do the absolute best we can. I’m very proud to say that we have remained the best of friends and we still love playing music together. We’ve always said we’re friends first and a band second, and I think that’s what has kept us together.”
Robertson: “I think I’m mostly the same person I was. Obviously people change. You go through things and they change you. But at the same time, it’s what you make of those situations and how you come out of them that determine where you go in life.
“As a band and as people, we’re constantly getting better and always trying to do more and do better. I’d say we’re doing pretty good for a bunch of kids from the middle of nowhere Kentucky to still be out playing music twenty years later.”
In closing, a couple of personal questions. Ben, last year, you and your wife started the Henry and Clark Foundation to help children and animals in need. Tell us about that.
Wells: “We have two beagles named Henry and Clark, and we like to fundraise for animal charities and help children who need assistance. We love giving back and using our platform wherever we can.
“My wife and I are faithful people, and it was put on our hearts to do something. We believe that people want to do good in this world, and sometimes you just have to put the opportunity in front of them.
“We gave out Halloween bags to local children, we partnered with Alice Cooper’s charity and did some things with them, and we’ll do something around Christmas to stock local shelters with blankets and raise awareness for pets and stray animals who are left outside during winter months.”
Chris, you have been candid about your challenges with anxiety and bipolar depression. Would you please share some words of encouragement for fans who might be struggling?
Robertson: “I was very fortunate. I was in a band that was traveling the world, and everything was amazing. I couldn’t have asked for anything to be better, but inside there was an ultimate unhappiness in me, and I almost let it take me out. I got to the point where I didn’t want to live anymore, and that’s something I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy.
“That’s why I’m so outspoken about mental health, because there is a horrible stigma around it. It’s the only disease you have to prove to someone you have. That’s when they take you seriously – if they take you seriously.
“I go to a doctor and I take medication. That’s what I’ve done for the last 10 years, and I’m OK with it. For me, admitting I had a problem was the biggest thing. When you admit that something is wrong, that’s when you immediately have to take a step back and say, 'OK, what are we doing here?'
“This year has been extremely difficult on everybody, but I look for positive things. I’m not getting to tour, I’m not getting to go out and be myself, but at the same time, I see my dad every day, who has stage four cancer.
“I see my son every day, who turned eight years old on October 11. I have never been home this long since he was born. Watching him grow up in real time instead of on a screen has been amazing.
“My advice is to focus on little victories every day, because a small accomplishment is so much better than a big setback. Keep your head up, your heart open, and keep moving forward. If things get too heavy, talk to somebody. You can’t carry everything on your own. That was a big thing for me to finally understand.”
- The Human Condition is out now via Mascot Label Group