Moving Forward While Looking Back: A Q&A With Steve Gorman Of The Black Crowes

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Photo courtesy of All Eyes Media

The Black Crowes have been in the news quite a bit recently. In addition to rumblings of a reunion, the band’s drummer Steve Gorman published a memoir entitled Hard to Handle: The Life and Death of the Black Crowes in September.

Telling the full story of the band from his perspective, Gorman has spent the past several years reflecting on the experience of being in the Black Crowes while also looking forward. Since moving to Nashville 15 years ago, he’s started the band Trigger Hippy who just released their second album.

American Songwriter talked with Gorman recently.

What made you feel that now was the right time to write your account of the Black Crowes story?

It was a few things. I had a really bad taste in my mouth about how the band ended. It was kind of a horrifying and really embarrassing ending to something that myself and a lot of other people had worked really hard to maintain. I wanted to go out with a sense of dignity and a little bit of self-respect, with a tour that we could’ve accomplished, which ultimately didn’t happen. 

So the way the band ended in 2014 was a real affront to me. But, I also had a couple of years where I was like, “well, I should have seen that coming.” It really wasn’t that big of a surprise in the grand scheme of things. So by 2016, I thought that was all behind me and I was busy with other things and I had long since stopped the idea of writing a book. Then Ed Harsch died. In the months following his death, I found myself actually thinking about writing my story of my time in the band. Ed’s death was a level finality I thought I had already reached. He was such a big part of the essence of what made that band great at its best. With him gone, the door is closed, it’s locked, it really is gone and it’s not coming back—it gave me a much different perspective on a lot of things. My anger dissipated quickly, my sense of embarrassment over the ending and of things that happened along the way—all of that just disappeared. I felt two things: really grateful for the experience and really sad about most of it not going the way it should, but it made sense to me, it was okay. I saw the entire beginning, middle and end very clearly. It all came into sharp relief and I thought “oh, I can see what the story is now.” Within a year and a half after Ed’s death, I was writing.

Did you find that working on the book was therapeutic?

It probably was, but I had literally gone through a lot of therapy. When writing, there were really only a couple of things that were difficult to write. There were two moments and they both involved our bass players. The chapter where we made our fourth record and Johnny Colt was removed from the recording process was really painful for me to write because in my mind that was the lowest I ever sunk, not taking a stand on his behalf—and not just on his behalf but on the band’s behalf. I knew the strength of the Black Crowes was everybody playing together, what everybody brought to the sound and the feel of the band. It’s not so much about Johnny, but I didn’t defend the band’s greatest strengths, and that was something where I let myself down.

Then I wrote the chapter about when Sven unwound in 2000 and that was very painful because it was just such a sad thing. Sven’s great now, and he’s been great for years, but going back through that particular chapter was very difficult. 

What stories from your book are you most happy about sharing with Black Crowes fans? Are there any stories that you’re particularly glad are public now?

The entire book is basically about addiction, codependency, friendship, loyalty, business, betrayal, love and hate. It’s all the themes that are just intrinsically human and have been told a million different times in a million different contexts. There’s a reason that all of Shakespeare’s writings still resonate because people are always just people at the end of the day. When you’re dealing with addiction, and when you’re dealing with whatever baggage everybody brings in to the middle of the room, you’re going to also find a lot of codependency, you’re also going to find a lot of secrecy, a lot of shame and a lot of embarrassment. The reaction of the book from people who are real significant Black Crowes fans is very different than the reaction from people who aren’t. If you’re not that into the story, I imagine that there are lots of things in it that are interesting or relatable, but you’re not taking it personally or you’re not hurt or worried about people’s feelings, it’s just a story. It’s a book I wrote to tell a story of my view of what really happened. If you will, it’s a piece of literature, a standalone thing, and I wrote it thinking that if somebody’s never heard of the Black Crowes they could still find something in this book to appreciate or relate to. 

The description of this book says: “They don’t make bands like The Black Crowes anymore: crazy, brilliant, self-destructive, inspiring, and, ultimately, not built to last.” Do you think that’s really true? Do you feel that the type of band that the Black Crowes grew to be doesn’t exist in the modern era of music?

I think we were part of the last generation of people who grew up listening to records obsessively and mythologizing bands, what they mean and what they are. My band to me was like my basketball team, my platoon or whatever. I was never the kind of guy who would join a private club or a fraternity or any of that kind of thing—I don’t like groupthink. But, I like group accomplishment and group endeavor. To me, a group is only as strong as the variables that each member brings in. When everybody feels they have to be aligned and on the exact same wavelength, philosophically or mentally—or even worse, emotionally—that’s when you have a cult, or that’s when you have a fraternity. I can’t stand that shit. To me a band, if you look at the Venn diagram, the circle in the middle for the Black Crowes in the mid-90s, whatever everybody’s percentage of that middle was, it was their strengths to fit the Black Crowes, and that made it great. It doesn’t matter if Chris [Robinson] was the famous one and doing most of the interviews, it didn’t matter if Ed was invisible publically, it didn’t matter if Marc [Ford] got all the praise for being the best guitarist in the band—it didn’t matter because we were focused on what we were doing and how we were doing it. That only lasted a few years. There was an essence to that band from ‘91-’96 that was really incredible. It didn’t ever fracture or splinter, it just eroded, it was a very slow process. 

We were all kids of a generation that grew up with bands. We were the next generation. Our parents liked rock music too. We weren’t the original rebels, but the first generation of rock bands had no idea what they were doing. You know it was like “how long will this last? How does this work?” We grew up where there had been a lot of experience with that. Rock’n’roll was 10 years old when I was born, so by the time out record came out it was 20 years since Led Zeppelin. We had an idea of what a band was, what it could be and what it represented. It was something that we all grew up thinking about and idolizing. We all felt that it was worth forgoing every other part of our lives to make this thing great. That’s what I don’t think happens anymore. I don’t think bands mean as much to people, music does, playlists do and mash-ups do—my kids love music but they love it in a very different way than I did when I was a teenager.

The Black Crowes had a classic, straight-up rock’n’roll sensibility. Do you think certain things—such as the album art for Amorica‘s controversial depiction of women—could happen now?

Well, I didn’t like that cover to begin with. I never understood it. I’m all for artistic expression, but that one just never made sense to me. But I think people get away with more crazy behavior than ever. It could happen now if people are willing to deal with the backlash. There’s an immediate blowback, but if you just ignore it and get past it, people are on to the next thing seven minutes later. I mean, if you stay in the news cycle for 2 days in the modern world of music then you are doing something pretty spectacular.

What about the attitude and independence that the Black Crowes had? Do you see that now?

There’s plenty of great rock bands out there, they’re playing in clubs, sure, but there’s just as many. They’re just not as readily available. There’s definitely a time right now where it’s an all or nothing society with music, and it’s been that way for a while.

In the 70s, 80s and 90s, the record labels ran the show. They’d sign a band and you’d have three or four records to develop before they would even think about dropping you. The idea was it takes a while to get good at this. That’s certainly long gone now. If you’re a rock band and you’re going to puncture through, it’s all about one song, one look, one outrageous statement, it’s all these things. Again, it’s been this way for a while, but if you look beyond that you can see a lot of great bands that are slowly developing real audiences that are not going to leave them. It doesn’t have to be hard rock, but you can find an audience and you can still do things your own way. The Black Crowes were an anomaly because we were trying to be that band but we also had the biggest hits early on, so we were straddling a weird fence for a while.

You played drums on Warren Zevon’s version of “Knocking on Heavens Door” off of his final album—what’s the story behind that?

That was a completely unexpected mind-blowing experience. I was working on an album with Billy Bob Thorton, who had a studio in his home. Jim Mithcell, who worked on the Black Crowes’ third album, the one we ultimately scrapped called Tall, called me and said “I’m working with Billy Bob Thorton come over and play on this record.” On the last night as we were finished and listening back and all saying goodnight, when we’re literally wrapping the session up, the door opened at like midnight and Warren Zevon walked in. He and Billy had been friends since the 80s. Warren had finished recording his album, The Wind, which was his final album, and he told us a story about seeing Bob Dylan the night before. Dylan did a few Zevon songs in his set to pay tribute to him, so Zevon said “I kinda feel like I should do a Dylan song for my last record.” He had already announced that he was terminally ill, and that was something we were all talking about. He decided he wanted to do “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” and without any real discussion about it everybody got up and walked back into the tracking room. We talked through the arrangement one time and we played the song exactly once and that’s the one that made it on the album. 

What feels different making a Trigger Hippy record as opposed to a Black Crowes record?

Everything. Personality-wise, perspective I have now on making music and the way we went about it. Nick Govrik, the bassist and principal songwriter for Trigger Hippy and I have been playing together since we met when I moved to Nashville in 2004. We love playing together and Trigger Hippy was always a really loose collective for years. We had one lineup that we made a record with in 2014 and now we have a second lineup for the second album. No matter which part of Trigger Hippy’s life you’re looking at there was never a sense of anything beyond “let’s write a great song, let’s record it and let’s go play it. Let’s play the music that we love and see if we can bring something to people that moves them the way it moves us.”

The Black Crowes had a million motivations and impulses and it was an entirely different animal, the kind of thing that happens when a bunch of kids who are 20 put a band together. Trigger Hippy is very different. The Black Crowes always talked about how the only thing that matters is the music, but our actions spoke very differently, a lot of things mattered, and that was okay. Bands don’t get successful if all they truly care about is the music. But for Trigger Hippy it’s always started from the fact that we like playing together and we like the tunes.

We do have a lineup now that we put a lot more thought into. Nick and I did want this to become a band that could continue to record and tour indefinitely. We wanted to have this as the place that we get all of our musical satisfaction from. So, that’s how we’ve approached it. It makes for a very patient experience. For this album we had no timetable, we weren’t dealing with a label, we didn’t have anybody other than me and Nick sitting there going “well, what do we want to do?” It was “let’s just do it. We have our own studio, we can just bring friends in and work through songs.” As it turned out, Ed [Jurdi] joining was really an impetus. Ed, Nick and I got on the same page really fast and realized “oh this is a really nice working relationship, let’s continue to write songs and put tracks down and we’ll play with people and we’ll wait to see if the right person appears, and if they do maybe we’ll be a band again.” We went about it very slowly and very patiently, and ended up with a record and a band that we’re really excited about. 

Can you tell the story of how you discovered Amber Woodhouse? You found her singing in a Nashville honky-tonk? 

She plays with a lot of people, a lot of different styles of music, and one of her gigs was in a cover band at Acme Feed & Seed on Broadway on Thursday nights. I was talking to Mike Grimes, who owns Grimey’s, and I said that we’re looking for a singer and he said “well there’s a girl who does Thursday nights at Acme, she’s incredible. She plays saxophone too.” He said her name was Amber and we should go check her out, that’s all he said. Nick and I went down to Acme the next night and it’s a tourist honky-tonk, a place I’m rarely in anyways. But, we walked in and I can’t remember what song she was singing—it might’ve been “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” by Whitney Houston—whatever it was, it was a song that I thought “well let’s see what you’re gonna do with this.” Like, who’s gonna knock out a Whitney Houston song in public? But she did. We watched one song and looked at each other and said “what in the world? She’s incredible!” We spoke to her that night for a minute and then got together not that long after. Getting in a room with her and just going over songs with acoustic guitars, just vibing it out and talking about things, it fell into place very naturally. Her entire spirit and her sensibility, about not just music but life in general, fit and we said “well, let’s see where this goes.” Before too long we were all looking forward.

What is your role in the songwriting process? How involved were you in the writing of Black Crowes songs? Trigger Hippy songs?

For the Black Crowes, there was no hard fast rule about anything. Chris always wrote the lyrics, he and Rich put the chords and the loose arrangement together, but a lot of the music of the Black Crowes was arranged with the band in the room—and if not the band, or at least me in the room—just playing beats and following suggestions from Chris or Rich or playing what I heard. It came from every direction. In terms of technical songwriting, nobody else was ever given songwriting credit, but nobody else asked for it. It was all mostly about arranging. In terms of what is involved in publishing, that was always the domain of the brothers. Everybody’s input wasn’t always listened to, but it was welcome. Everybody was involved in arrangement, discussions and at least the part they were playing. 

With Trigger Hippy, there’s songs where I’m writing lyrics or I’m suggesting melody and I’m adding parts. I sing what I hear. I don’t know any chords, and I never cared to learn them. The general feel of a song, the tone of a song and the vibe of a song, I have an awful lot to do with that, with every Trigger Hippy song. When a band starts with a rhythm section, it’s inherent that that’s going to play a large part in what a song is from the ground up. But until somebody asks me about it, I just don’t think about it. You contribute whatever you do every day, whatever the situation calls for.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length.

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