Digital Cover Story: The Black Crowes are the ‘Happiness Bastards’ (Exclusive)

The Robinson brothers reunite for a joyous new album, Happiness Bastards 

Videos by American Songwriter

On March 15, The Black Crowes released their first studio album in fifteen years, Happiness Bastards.  “The ‘bastards’ part, everyone knows about,” jokes vocalist Chris Robinson, “but now it’s the juxtaposition with the happiness that I think is a big arrow pointed toward the future for us. I think that’s what a lot of this record represents in its energy. Looking forward to having people hear this whole record is probably the most excited I’ve been in a long time.” 

It’s something of a surprise that Happiness Bastards exists, because, for a few years, it had seemed like The Black Crowes were done for good. Despite becoming one of the most successful Southern rock bands in history, they had announced their breakup in 2015, and co-founders (and brothers) Chris Robinson and Rich Robinson resolutely went their separate ways.

They finally set aside their differences as the 30th anniversary of the band’s 1990 multiplatinum-selling debut album, Shake Your Money Maker, was coming up—only to have the commemorative tour postponed due to COVID pandemic shutdowns. With a seemingly indefinite amount of time on their hands, they decided to write some new songs.

“I have a studio in my house, so I started recording songs and music and sending it to Chris [in L.A.], and he would write stuff and send it back,” says Rich, who’s now based in Nashville. “We had this bedrock of a bunch of songs that we could start with. The songs always dictate what the record’s going to be, typically. It’s almost like a jigsaw puzzle. You throw everything on the table. Certain things fit, certain things don’t, and then that’s just kind of how it happens.”

Once the pandemic eased up, the band went on a worldwide Shake Your Money Maker anniversary tour, then set about recording Happiness Bastards. By this point, The Black Crowes hadn’t been in the studio together since Before the Frost…Until the Freeze (2009), and both brothers agree that their hiatus from the band only strengthened their return now.

“The time we spent apart in our subsequent solo projects gave us both the renewed perspective that what we do as a songwriting team is exactly what this record is,” Chris says. In other words, these songs are “the purest Black Crowes rock and roll we can make.”

He admits that their sibling bond also undoubtedly helps them as they create music together. “Rich and I have an uncanny psychic thing when we’re writing. I can just make a little look or make a little gesture, and it’s like, ‘Oh you want me to do that two times,’ or, ‘Let’s do this.’”

And, he adds, this ability came to them naturally, right from the beginning when they started writing together as kids: “We never went to a songwriting workshop. We never read a book about songwriting, or listened to a podcast [about it]. We knew what we liked, and we knew what we didn’t like.”

Typically, Rich composes the music, Chris writes the lyrics, and then they’ll work together to refine the song. And usually, Rich says, this process is fairly straightforward. “I just feel more like a conduit,” he says. “I don’t try to mess around with it. I don’t argue with it. Some songs come really easily, and some songs are a bit of a challenge. Both of them are great. Because one has a lot of flow, and then one is more intellectual.”

The brothers first realized they were both drawn to music as they grew up in a suburb of Atlanta. Rich’s earliest memories revolve around days spent listening to his dad playing records by Bob Dylan, Joe Cocker, and Crosby, Stills, and Nash. By the time they were teenagers, the brothers had become fans of alternative rock bands such as The Replacements and Dream Syndicate. They were also entranced with punk acts, including The Cramps, X, The Ramones, and Dead Kennedys. 

A pivotal moment came when Chris met a kid at school who shared the brothers’ wide-ranging musical tastes. “He was the only dude that knew those bands, and he played guitar,” he says, “and Rich had just started playing guitar. And our cousin was playing a little bit of drums, and there was the kid up the street who played bass. It was exciting to finally meet some kids our age and go into Mom and Dad’s basement and start making noise.”

But one day, the other guitar player didn’t show up. “And we were like, ‘Oh, this is much better!’ It wasn’t good, but it sounded a little bit like a song,” Chris says. Now, as the guitarist responsible for steering the band’s musical direction, Rich developed his own unique style, inspired by the open tunings he’d heard Stephen Stills use.

The band’s sound expanded even further after the members heard R.E.M.’s single “Radio Free Europe” playing on a local rock radio station. Rich remembers how that Georgia-based group immediately affected him deeply: “It struck me in a really profound way, that song—the sound, the feeling. I was like, ‘Fuck, man, there’s something here.’ He found R.E.M. so interesting, he says, because “They were still very southern, but had nothing to do with redneck rock or whatever you want to call it. It was beautiful. It was art. When R.E.M. was introduced to us, it really made us refocus on what we wanted to do.”

Taking all these diverse influences and blending them together, the band came up with their own bluesy, soulful sound. Chris says he could tell they were on the right track because of the high-quality music his brother was suddenly able to create. “Rich was sixteen years old when he wrote the riff [to] ‘She Talks to Angels,’” he says.

The Black Crowes—Chris and Rich Robinson (Photo by Ross Halfin)

At the same time, Chris was refining his lyric-writing skills. “I always identified somehow, romantically or naively, with the poet. I found that I just liked the play of words together, and the double meanings of things.” He especially admired Bob Dylan, because “He could be snarky and funny, but could also be sensuous and tender and sensitive. He had a great range of things he could create with the spell of his words.”

Though they felt they had hit upon a winning formula, The Black Crowes didn’t initially feel welcomed in the Atlanta music scene. Chris recalls it as “an indie rock place where we wanted to be successful, but we were never going to look a certain way or be a certain way or talk a certain way or play a certain thing just to get over. We wanted authenticity.”

Then again, he adds, “I didn’t think that being in a rock and roll band, or choosing a life of a creative person, would be the soft ride. I never expected it to be easy, and I didn’t want it to be easy.”

In the end, though, the band didn’t suffer in anonymity for long. “I moved out of my mom and dad’s house in 1987, and we made Shake Your Money Maker two summers later,” Chris says. That debut album, which was released in early 1990, immediately made the Black Crowes one of the most famous rock bands in America thanks to the hits “Hard to Handle,” “She Talks to Angels.” “Jealous Again,” and “Twice As Hard.”

“When I was writing Shake Your Money Maker, I was a teenager; what the fuck did I know?” Rich says. “At the time, what was big was heavy metal and hair bands and stuff like that, so no one in a million years thought that record was going to come out and be what it was.”

Rich notes that within only eighteen months, the band went from playing to a dozen people at a local Atlanta club to opening for AC/DC in front of an arena audience in Moscow, Russia, with 350 shows in between. “I mean, that’s pretty intense, but that gave us a fast injection of a lot of life experience,” he says. “All of our abilities grew as musicians, as songwriters—but also, as human beings living on this earth.”

That experience affected their sophomore album, The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion (1992). “I believe that was more of who we were. That was the first time we walked into our skin as a band, learning how to play together,” Rich says. That album charted in a dozen countries, including hitting the No. 1 spot in the U.S.

Now, with Happiness Bastards, The Black Crowes have ten studio albums to their credit. Through it all, Chris says, the band has maintained its musical integrity. “We’ve taken some pretty wide rights and wide lefts in our career with what we wanted to do artistically. I would imagine there’s a soulful element to it,” he says.

Rich believes this is why the band’s music has resonated so strongly with listeners: “I think it’s authentic,” he says. “The intention behind it has always been honest, in a sense. I wouldn’t even know how to try to write a hit, or try to write something that people would like. It’s really just about writing music, and then you hope people gravitate towards it. And it’s always been that way.”

And, Rich says, he and his brother continue to find music just as moving as they did when they were growing up. “We listen to music all the time on [tour] buses and in dressing rooms and stuff, because that’s just what we do. It’s the absolute reverence we have for what we do and for what other people do,” he says. “Music still means so much to our day-to-day lives. It’s something that we’re still passionate about.”

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