Chris Robinson's humility is nearly as impressive as the success he's had as frontman of greasy southern country rawkers the Black Crowes. He brings that loose, uncomplicated attitude to his new project, the Chris Robinson Brotherhood, a band he's allowed to grow at its own pace while putting a premium on nurturing the muse over commercial considerations.
For example, rather than head directly into the studio after forming to have something to hawk on tour, they rode Robinson's name, affording them a chance to discover themselves and the songs before setting them to wax.
"By putting my name in there, obviously we can jump in line a couple places. That was the reality," says the Atlanta native. "The material is going to change and grow ... so let's see what it's going to be. Let's get into the present before we get into forever."
Not that Robinson's particularly precious. He recalls how he felt when he saw the Crowes' smash 1990 debut Shake Your Money Maker in his local record store. "I was, 'Wow, my record is in the same store with Hank Williams and John Coltrane.' Then reality hits. 'Oh shit it's also in a store with Def Leppard and Faith No More. Ugh," he says, laughing.
When the Chris Robinson Brotherhood did finally hit the studio, the band had enough material for two albums. Though June's Big Moon Ritual and Sept. 11's release The Magic Door were finished within months of each other and grew out of the same recording sessions, the finished products have very different feels.
The former explores a blend of cosmic country and Bay Area psychedelic folk, as befits a musician who's frequently played with the Grateful Dead's Robert Hunter and Phil Lesh. The latter is earthier — in a Levon Helm kind of way — and jazzier, as if Robinson were coasting through Traffic. It sounds more city, while Ritual's more cow field.
"I'm a huge Deadhead, but my being a Deadhead truly revolves around something beyond the jam band aspect, whatever that means," says Robinson. "To jam around in B minor is one thing, to create songs that can take you someplace and create a mood, to have a tangible feeling that is coming out of these people, that's something completely different."
The album's title, which reflects the music's mind-expanding spirit of both recordings, is taken from the trippy Hermann Hesse book Steppenwolf, and essentially represents the third eye that's open for those who perceive it.
But as cosmically laid-back as Robinson may be, he's not one to lapse into lethargy: "American will eventually awaken from the sugary, greased-out complacency of consumerism," says the musician. "I'm not a political person at all, but I'm very culturally aware. And the culture of corporate America will change. We've had enough of apathy. The individual is the real power."
As for Robinson's own business plan, it's remained consistent for both the Black Crowes and the Chris Robinson Brotherhood.
"On an idealistic level, the businesses are run kind of the same. I make decisions to make my soul happy. Hopefully within that, I have perspective enough to keep everybody's paycheck going," he says. "There's a lot of responsibility — it's not all hallucinating and astral travel, though we have plenty of that too."