Chris Robertson, lead singer and guitarist for Black Stone Cherry took the time out to have a chat about their new album – Family Tree, touring and what’s important in life. After introductions and a bit of a laugh about the special reason for rescheduling the original interview times we get down to business.
The band has a new album out on April 20, Family Tree. I’ve been taking it for a bit of a spin, and though it took a few listens to get a lot of the nuances, I’m pretty hooked now. I like the way that you have taken a number of your influences and pretty much Black Stone Cherryfied them. Was that a conscious decision when you started writing or did it just end up that way? “Man it really just ended up coming out that way. To get to here, you’ve got to go back to the Back to Blues period (recent EP released 2017). We had written a bunch of ideas, they were more along the lines of things we’d done in the past. They were more that known Black Stone Cherry sound. When we did that Blues EP, it kind of just rejuvenated the whole band, and brought all those things we used to love playing back to life. The biggest thing was the production mentality of that stuff. When you sit back and really listen to that (the original recordings that we covered on the EP), you get this sense of simplicity, but all the parts being the right ones and performed the right way. So that was the approach we took to this record. We didn’t try to hide our influences, we just let them shine through and be who we are and who we’ve always been.”
You’ve sort of covered my next question which was going to be: ‘Is there a particular method the band follows or is it an organic writing process? That is; do you have specific roles or everyone does a bit of everything when writing?’ It sounds like what you’ve said it was a very organic process this time. “Oh yeah, we’ve always written all the songs together and always been hands on with the production value of these records. But I feel this record is on a different level as far as the band being the band. It was just the four of us and David (Barrick) the engineer from the studio back home here. We got the feel, poured some drinks, started having a good time and made a record. I think you can hear we were having fun as we were recording it. You can feel this energy; we were all hands on, everybody throwing out ideas to each other as they recorded their parts. Jon (Lawhorn) did all the artwork, I did all the mixing and it’s like the most hands on “start to finish” record we’ve ever had.”
You said you did the mixing on the new album, Family Tree (I noted in my review that I loved the level of the bass), what was behind your decision in taking the mixing on? “You know man, I ended up mixing the Back to Blues EP and those were just the rough mixes that we did to send to the label for everybody to hear once completed. The label were like, ‘just turn the vocals up on this and we’re going to get it mastered.’ I was like, Ok, I wish I had known that beforehand as I would have spent more time with it. When it came for the mix of this record, obviously the music was a different direction. It had a certain unique quality about it, so we reached out to a world class mixer to do a mix and the guys also asked me if I would do a mix. I was like, sure we’ll run it and see what it sounds like. We did a blind mix listen where they were just labelled ‘mix 1’ and ‘mix 2’ and the guys all ended up choosing my mix. It was amazing for me. The one thing I wanted it to sound like, as far as the actual mix goes, I wanted it to sound like a band playing in a room. Often times today with records, it sounds like the record was recorded in individual sections. Everything is so perfect in every little nook and cranny, that’s not my mentality when working with pro tools or mixing anything for that matter. I try to take the most minimally invasive approach and just leave the sound of the band shining through, but to get it where you can hear what everybody is playing. I feel like I did that! But the biggest thing was: I wanted it to sound like a band playing music in a room and you just happened to be there listening to it.”
You’re answering all my other questions as you talk to me about this. “ Sorry man” That’s all good, it keeps me writing. I was going to ask ‘the album is almost live sounding, did you do anything different in the recording process compared to the other albums to get that feel?’ So, did you do that on the other albums? “The way we do all our records is, if we all play live together and we’re mainly going for the drum track. Then we go back in and fix things, or if something completely fucked up, then we’ll redo it. But it’s always been more or less, if one of us makes a mistake but John Fred (Young) is killing it, then we’ll go back and fix what we need to fix. But I think the fact that we all four get in a room and play live together is what gives you that energy man, because the drums are the backbone and entire movement of the band. The way Jon and John Fred play together, the bass and drums, it is something super special. I’ve always felt like our records didn’t have the bass guitar way up front either, which is why I cranked the shit out of it. I was like, let’s just run with it. You listen to a lot of my favourite records, as far as favourite mixed records. All those Rage Against The Machine records sound amazing but the bass is like, wide open on them.” I’ll reiterate how much I love the bass in the mix.
You used the same studio (Glasgow, Kentucky) that you used for Black Stone Cherry and Kentucky. How much easier does that make the recording process when you are familiar with the studio? “It’s awesome, even though David’s changed locations over the years. Knowing him and knowing his equipment has been such a huge plus and then Jon, our bass player, he’s big into recording as well. He’s got a lot of really nice gear that he brought over for us to use. But the biggest thing is just knowing each other and knowing how we all work together. The equipment is secondary to that. You listen to all the records that everybody still listens to today, from the (Led) Zeppelin stuff and the Jimi Hendrix stuff, all that stuff. All of that was done on mixdowns and was dumped over to one channel, so to me the equipment is secondary to the musicianship and the song writing itself, and the performances. Those things are number one and then the equipment, but in saying that, it damn sure doesn’t hurt to have nice equipment.” You want it to run well, or otherwise it could just ruin the vibe. “ Yeah that’s true. You know my favourite thing about recording near home, other than the comfort level, is the fact that I get to come home to my own house every night, my own bed and it’s not some shitty apartment in L.A.”
I’m taking a leap here and guessing you wrote the lyrics for My Last Breath and that they are about your son and wife. They are beautiful man, I love it. I’m also a massive fan of Family Tree the song, for me it just struck a chord from the first listen. Do you have a favourite song on the new album? “Probably My Last Breath would be my favourite song on the record and I think it’s my favourite song we’ve ever recorded. That’s exactly what it is about, the whole notion of that song. In my final days, what would I want my wife and kids to know. That song basically lays all of that out there to be seen. I’ve always been an open book when people ask me questions, but that’s the first time it’s ever been thrown into a song. It’s something I felt needed to come out. You know a lot of people who have heard the record have talked about that song a lot, so it’s something that I’m very proud of.”
You recently undertook the southern rock cruise around the Caribbean (as special guest of Lynyrd Skynyrd) – how different was that experience to your normal touring? Will you be looking at doing another gig like that again? “We’re always up to doing stuff like that. We’ve toured with Skynyrd several times. To me the most amazing tour we’ve ever got to be a part of, aside from our own headlining tours, would be a tour we did several years ago where we opened for Lynyrd Skynyrd and Bad Company. That was in 2012, it was the 40th anniversary of both the bands and those are two of my favourite bands of all-time; with Skynyrd being my favourite band ever. To do that, was fucking amazing. Any chance we get to go out and play with legendary bands like that, it’s such an amazing, inspiring thing to get to do. It’s such an opportunity, to get to share the stage with the people that inspired you to go and pick up a guitar in the first place. Those cruises are so cool too, because you get to see a lot of the up and coming Southern Rock bands. We’ve done the Skynyrd cruise several times. We’re very fortunate that that band has taken us in as part of their own, as part of the Southern Rock genre.”
What are the plans for taking the show out on the road, how many new songs will you be trying to fit into the setlist? “The album is not out yet but we’re doing two so far. We wrote this record to play the damn thing live, at the end of the day, that’s what we did. A lot of records, you write and record them and hope there’s some kind of commercialised success. That being the end goal and that’s the way you’re brought up in this industry. Once you sign your record deal it’s what can we do to be commercially successful. We tried that shit for so long and it never paid off for us. With our last couple of records we were like, ‘Fuck that, let’s just go do what we do and have fun with it’. That’s what we’ve done with these records. Bad Habit and Burnin’ have both been released and we played both the songs at all the shows since they’ve been released. Hell, we opened up with Burnin’ the other night, that’s stuff that bands never do. They’re not going to open up with a song they released two weeks ago, but we did and it was awesome.”
“It’s weird man because there’s starting to be this kind of movement with our fans. They’ve created their own fan pages on Facebook for certain places. There’s a Cherry Heads – Black Stone Cherry official fan page, and all of this stuff came out of nowhere. There’s one for Australia and New Zealand now, people are just doing it on their own. That is so cool to me, it makes me think of all the Skynyrd fans, and the Grateful Dead fans, even the Jimmy Buffet fans. All of the fans of these bands, kind of create their own communities, they’re doing meet ups before the show. It’s so cool to see us say ‘to hell with trying to be commercially successful and we’re just going to play the music we love’ and things have only gotten bigger and better since we decided to take that approach.”
It shows, I do go into those sites and I see you guys interacting with them as well. It’s really cool and that makes them, well makes me feel part of it, part of the whole movement. It’s really awesome that you guys do that. “Without people enjoying our music and supporting our music, we don’t get to do this and we don’t get to provide for our families. So we take all that stuff seriously, and any chance we get, we’ll get on and chime in. A guy asked the other day, something about the song Burnin’. I told him how to tune his guitar and what position to play it in. It’s simple stuff like that, but we try to pay attention and chime in when we can. I chase a five year old around the house all day, so I can’t be there all days.”
I was at the April 2017 gig in Sydney doing my first ever concert photography shoot and seeing the energy you guys bring up close and personal was awesome. Even when I went to re-join my wife in the crowd after the first few songs, the buzz was amazing throughout the crowd. I love what you guys bring to a live performance. So can we expect you guys to be heading down this way later in the year? “Dude we absolutely loved it, the jetlag is a bitch but we absolutely loved it. Hopefully it is something we can continue to do, at least once off of every album cycle. I know that we’ve already told our booking agent, that books us outside of the US, that we want to come back. As long as the promoters are willing to bring us back, we will definitely come back.” That’s awesome, I caught you guys back in Vegas back in 2011, supporting Alter Bridge and that’s when I first ran across you guys. Your live presence is amazing. “ That was at the House of Blues, right? I remember that show.” Yeah, I was with a mate and we wanted to catch a gig, that was it. Found and awesome new band as a result. “Awesome man, hopefully we’ll be back down that way sometime this year. Trust me if it’s up to us, we’ll be back sooner than later. It’s just everything else has to fall in place. But as far as us, we’re on board to come on back now.”
Well it’s pretty much time’s up so before I go. If you had one thing to say to the young Chris Robertson from almost 20 years ago before you kicked off, what would it be? “Don’t change yourself for anybody. We tried to play the game where we had a record deal, where they wanted us to be something we weren’t and we tried to appease them. I would just say be who you are every day, the people who can’t handle that shouldn’t be in your life to begin with.”
Thanks very much for making the time with me, it’s been a pleasure. I hope we get to see you very soon. “Yes sir. Thank you.”