Rich Robinson on the Art and Terror of Writing in the Studio

Some assembly was required in the making of Flux [Eagle Rock Entertainment], the latest solo effort from former Black Crowes guitarist Rich Robinson, and his first major release since the Crowes parted company.
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Some assembly was required in the making of Flux (Eagle Rock Entertainment), the latest solo effort from former Black Crowes guitarist Rich Robinson, and his first major release since the Crowes parted company. Heading into the studio in September 2015, all Robinson had was a chorus or a riff here, a verse there—nothing completely formed—and that was fine by him.

“I decided not to go into the studio with a bunch of songs,” explains Robinson. “I preferred to go in with a few parts, and just kind of see what happened. Ultimately, you have to be inspired by what you’re doing, and that’s what inspired me this time.”

Used to flying by the seat of his pants, Robinson saw sparks of creativity ignite into blazes, as fully realized songs grew almost by magic out of mere fragments through spirited sessions. What emerged was a sonically rich, bountiful harvest of bluesy, Southern-rock salvation and earthiness—all shaped and molded under a tight deadline with a collection of players that included drummers Joe Magistro and Chris Powell, guitarist Charlie Starr, bassist Zak Gabbard, and keyboardists Matt Slocum, Danny Mitchell, and Marco Benevento.

“I was in the studio for 14 days, and we did a song a day,” says Robinson. “We’d pick a song in the morning, and flesh it out. You only have a finite amount of time, so you have to make decisions and get in and get out. For example, the Crowes were never a calculated band. We never tried to write anything. It was always very natural, and the writing for this album was an extension of that. Because of the deadline and the fact that I didn’t come in with fully realized songs, we were forced to think on our feet. That’s really what I like about being in the studio, because you can get wild, totally take a left turn, and, all of sudden, come up with something really cool.”

The songs Robinson and company puzzled out on the fly include the garage-rock of “Which Way Your Wind Blows,” the uplifting swells of “The Upstairs Land,” the gospel tide of “Everything’s Alright,” the shimmering beauty of “Astral,” and the reverb-soaked “Ides of Nowhere.”

“It’s band dynamics that makes songs come together like that,” says Robinson. “When we play, it’s very apparent which songs need to be built up or cut back a bit, because we’ve known each other for a long time, and we get where each one of us is coming from musically. I also use a lot of alternate tunings when I write, because they speak to me more than standard tuning. I have a good connection with different tunings, as they always seem to spark a song. So, as we play, the songs just develop almost naturally, and, for this record, I really liked the juxtaposition of the acoustic guitars with heavy drums and atmospheric keyboards.”

To Robinson, a studio is “like a church,” and about a mile and a half up the road from Levon Helm’s famed Woodstock studio is a place that has everything Robinson could ever want in a recording facility—Applehead Studios in Saugerties, New York. The studio’s warm, timber-framed environment with its vast array of vintage and modern recording equipment—as well as a grand, old Neve broadcast console as its “altar”—inspired Robinson to make Flux there, as well as Ceaseless Sight (2014) and his series of live Woodstock Sessions. Robinson brought ten or 12 guitars to the sessions, including his cherished 1969 goldtop Les Paul and 1963 Gibson ES-335—both restored to their former glory after being damaged in Hurricane Sandy, which flooded a storage warehouse used by the Crowes and destroyed a large portion of his guitar collection—a couple of Martin acoustics, his artfully designed James Trussarts and Teyes, some Telecasters, and a Kala that was a gift from a fan.

“Every guitar is going to sound different,” he says. “You just go through them and pick out which one is going to fit each song best. But, other than that, I don’t get bogged down in minutia—amp settings, mic placement, and those kinds of things. It’s all about feeling for me. If I feel a guitar part or a song has reached the place it needs to be, then I just say, ‘Well, that’s really where it should be.’”