As The Crowe Flies – An Interview with Steve Gorman of The Black Crowes
Contributing Writer – Garret K. Woodward [TheRFW.com/blog/Garret]
In the spirit of creativity and controversy, The Black Crowes follow a long line of rock-n-roll debauchery and grandeur, which is seemingly spearheaded by a dynamic duo of musicians throwing punches in the gutter and gracious handshakes in the face of success.
Within the eye of this melodic storm, Chris and Rich Robinson have garnered an array of material meticulously interwoven into the fertile American musical landscape. Their creations not only provoke reflection, for good or ill, they inspire pure pursuits of genuine purpose as we all mosey down the road a little further.
But, behind every cherished lead singer and guitarist resides an equally beloved drummer. For the Crowes, Steve Gorman is a perpetual force of reason, onstage and off.
At a recent performance in Vermont, Gorman is the backbone of an aged, yet “wiser for the time”, musical body, one that is currently immersed in their artistic pinnacle, thus far. The sextet provokes goosebumps with such ease, you feel intoxicated by the aroma of psychedelic-rock soaked with an embracing sound paying ode to the likes of the Grateful Dead, The Band, and Led Zeppelin.
Checking in from Nashville, he spoke of the road to redemption the band has taken over the last decade, why the group is going on hiatus in 2011, and how Ringo Starr never seems to get the credit he deserves.
Garret K. Woodward: Let’s get right down to it. Hiatus or breakup?
Steve Gorman: It’s not a breakup, it’s just “let’s stop with no guarantee we’ll start up again”. This is us being 20 years into this, six straight years on the road. Three of the guys have new babies. We just want to focus on other things for a while. The Black Crowes are an all-consuming band for the people in it. We’ve just have learned, hopefully from our past mistakes, about grinding ourselves in dust. So, we want to pull the plug before that happens again.
GKW: Since 2006, it seems you guys have been on the road the whole time.
SG: Definitely. We went from the early 1990s until 2001 without even taking at least a mental break. There are a couple times, looking back, we all agree that at different times during the 90s we really should have just shut it down and said “see you in a year”. And I think we would have made a lot of things easier on ourselves and probably consistently easier to follow. We haven’t made things really easy for our fans sometimes. A lot of those things come from being so close you can’t see it. So, we really want to make sure nothing like that happens again. It’s funny because it’s prompted by the fact that we’re really happy with what we’re doing right now. I mean, if we were sort of floundering and it didn’t feel like we were really on a roll, I don’t know if we even be having this thought of “let’s just shut it down”, it would probably be more of like “maybe we are done”. Instead, it’s “this is really great and we need to protect this and do what best for it long-term”. If there is going to be another Black Crowes, there needs be a Black Crowes that’s been away for one or two years.
GKW: It’s funny when I tell people the band is taking a break after this tour, they all seem to ask if the hiatus is because Chris and Rich are going at it again.
SG: No, they’re fine. They each had babies. When you start bringing babies around, all your stupid childhood fights sort of fade into the background.
GKW: You guys have collaborated in the past with the Grateful Dead and they definitely have a big influence on your music. Like you guys, they did nonstop tours, pumping out albums. And yet, they didn’t take the right initiative and take a break when people needed time to rest.
SG: They are hardly the only band, but that’s a good example. I don’t know a single band, that’s been around more than a decade, that doesn’t look back and see “this is when we needed that break”. In 1995, early on and throughout that whole tour, we all had a conversation that, “when this tour ends, we should all go away for a while, take a year off, we really got to get away from this”. We had a rough tour. There was a lot of fighting, not just the brothers, everybody was at each other’s throats. There was a tough vibe for the whole tour. At the very end, the last couple months of the tour, we spent the summer in Europe with The Rolling Stones and then came home and headlined the H.O.R.D.E tour with Ziggy Marley, Blues Traveler, and Wilco, all these great bands. It got really fun all of a sudden. We went into the studio right when that tour ended because we were having fun again. The truth is, we should have stuck with our original thought. We got in, made a record, and by the time the next tour started it was like we never had a break. We hit the road dead tired. By the end of that tour, two members of the band had quit.
GKW: I lost track of you guys after the first hiatus (2001) and a lot of fans wandered off as well. But, over the last five years, you’ve reclaimed anyone who ever doubted the band or walked away. It’s very bittersweet when you put out a milestone record like “Before The Frost, Until The Freeze”, hitting this incredible stride, and now decide to take a step back.
SG: I appreciate that. We are very proud of that record. We’re old enough now to realize that it’s going to be around. That record isn’t going anywhere. If anything, I think the way people see that record will only improve over time. You give it a few years, it will sit in people minds as a benchmark. The truth is we need a break. As much as we’re all happy with the band, there is another side of us that knows if we go our separate ways and get focused on other things, it’s going to be hard to get it back together. But, we just got to see what happens.
GKW: How did the whole idea come about for that album to be recorded at Levon Helm’s?
SG: Chris went to one of his Midnight Rambles. We had an idea already to make a live record. We were thinking we’d be in a conventional studio, with 20 people in there, piled up in the corner, just to see what would happen, if it would change the energy of the room. After Chris went to one of the Rambles, he was sitting in the barn and realized it was a recording facility where you could fit 200 people in there. Levon said, “Come up, my home is your home, do what you want to do”. He wasn’t part of the project, other than he owned the facility. He wasn’t involved in the making of the record. We would have loved it if he’d have hungout more. Every four or five days, he’d poke his head in and sit down for an hour when we were taking a break. We’d all talk about how it was going, tell stories, and have a good hang. Then, on our very last night, he came in and we did a couple tunes, that weren’t on the record.
GKW: How much of an influence did he have on you as a drummer?
SG: Oh, huge. There isn’t a member in my band who wouldn’t count him as an influence. The Band themselves and Levon, quite specifically, is such a musician, such a gentleman, such an encyclopedia of taste, and all these things I think any real rock-n-roll musicians would want to aspire to.
GKW: Who’s the greatest rock-n-roll drummer, in your opinion?
SG: I have two. Ringo Starr and John Bonham. The thing that they share is that both bands (The Beatles / Led Zeppelin) are unimaginable with someone else. They serve the songs. Ringo has one of the best feels of any drummer. By people that aren’t musicians, he is so misunderstood.
GKW: I also felt he was always underrated.
SG: Only because they are the biggest band of all-time. Bonham could have tried all he wanted, but you’re never going to take The Beatles off the top of the mountain. They came in and did something so inconceivable that anybody could put in that amount of work. In seven years in the studio, they have like 138 songs everyone in the world knows. Nothing computed. I mean, my kids love The Beatles. Then, when Zeppelin came in, not as a pop band, there was this wave all about the musicianship and the playing and this sort of fifth member. When the four of them played (Led Zeppelin), they created this aura and this magic to that band. There were two different approaches. I mean, you can’t say anyone is a great drummer unless they’re in a great band. You don’t give the MVP award to someone on a .500 team. The band has to be great to even start to discuss if the drummer is great. A great drummer in a bad band is about as useless as anything could be.
GKW: It’s all about the cogs within the machine.
SG: Absolutely. It’s funny, drummers can pick apart John Bonham all day long about the technical things. Drummer might do that, but musicians wouldn’t. And there are a lot of drummers who are musicians first, then get into it. Then, there are a lot of drummers who go to the basement, put on headphones, and play along to The Who or Rush records and think they’re great drummers, too. Ringo and John Bonham are musicians who play the drums, they’re not just drummers. Rock-n-roll music is all about feel. John Densmore of The Doors is probably the most overlooked great drummer of all-time. No one talks about that guy. When you hear The Doors, you think of Jim Morrison, and he would have been useless in front of any other musicians.
GKW: With the Crowes rising into the upper echelon of American rock-n-roll, is it surreal to have kids and other drummers look to your style as an influence?
SG: I’m aware of that, but the truth is that’s something I’m not going to spend a lot of time thinking about
GKW: A humbling feeling, perhaps?
SG: Totally humbling. As a musician, all you can ever hope is you inspire more people. When a kid comes up to me and says I’m his favorite drummer, there is nothing anyone is going to tell me about The Black Crowes that will make me happier. This isn’t some kid that wants to play Rock Band, he wants to sit down and play the drums. Yes, those things are great, but I don’t spend that much time thinking about it. I didn’t become “that” because I felt that about it.
GKW: And that humble nature is what I have enjoyed about it. You don’t hold the listener at arm’s length. It’s a very embracing band.
SG: You know, we are really impatient people. We can be moody and snobby. But, in the big picture, where we are at, we don’t think about what the fans want from us, because we assume what they want is for us to keep being us. But, on a personal level, nobody is star-tripping out here, no one ever has been. On the first record, as things started to progress, we sold so many copies. We weren’t the bands moving to LA and working the malls. We literally were the guys on the bus, listening to Led Zeppelin bootlegs, going “man, check that out.” We always thought we have a long way to go. And, I’m not a jazz drummer on any level. I will never even attempt it. It’s a different instrument from what I play, in my mind. But, we were the geeks who would sit around and listen to Miles Davis albums. Not when other people were around, but when it was just us, on the bus. We just were always inspired and always chasing the greats, trying to be the kind of band that can interact and communicate with each other onstage the way those artists could.
GKW: When you’re behind the kit, during the show, when the band is hitting their stride, where do you go in your mind?
SG: It’s hard to say, because when the show’s done, it goes out of my mind immediately. You know, on a good night, it’s the feeling of almost like floating. You are present and in the moment. I know when something happens, in the middle of the song, when you might be hit be a coin or a bottle cap or lighter or t-shirt, it can feel like you’ve been snapped out of a trance. It can clearly be jarring. You find yourself in a state of complete focus and complete relaxation at the same time. And, it’s not because of what I’m playing, it’s listening to what everybody else is doing and we’ll hit these strides. We can all feel it. A lot of the things most exciting to us, the audience might not immediately get it. They’re hearing a song they like, and they’re happy, but there are things within that this look will go through the band like, “man, check this out, where are we right now?” Those moments, they are the best, but you can’t think about it either, because of the momentum. In the old days, we would try to steer it, now we try to hold on for dear life.
GKW: “Wiser Time”. A song that resonates deeply within me. It’s a staple of The Black Crowes catalogue and a melody that only seems to get better with age. Ironically, it seems, the lyrics apply more and more to the group as time passes. What does that song conjure within the band? How did it come about?
SG: It means a lot to me now. I don’t think your wrong with that sentiment. It’s obvious when we play it now. That’s a song that when it kicks in, there’s always this feeling in the audience. That’s a song that has worn the years well. I think it’s a much bigger deal now than in 1994, when that record came out. I don’t have any specific memories of putting it together other than it was the first song I ever played a cowbell on. I was just messing around with some different beats and patterns. I didn’t know what I was trying to get to. I had something else in mind. And Chris looked at me and said, “Wait, wait, what is that?” He looked at Rich and said, “Put those changes you were doing over that.” We completely pasted that whole thing together in five minutes.
GKW: If you were never to play together after this tour, is this the creative peak of the band?
SG: I would like to think that people see it as that. One of the biggest reasons I came back in 2005 was because I couldn’t stand the way it ended before. I didn’t think we had another big future ahead of us. I just wanted to come back and straighten up the mess we left behind. I didn’t like the record we had put out at the end. It was a chance to come in and sweep us the mess. If you had told me in 2005 that this was going to be a three album burst in three straight years, at the end of a six year run, I wouldn’t have believed you at all, I would have thought you were nuts.
GKW: What’s the legacy of The Black Crowes?
SG: That’s your job, man. I don’t have to think about it this time. We’re just doing what we do and everybody else can worry about those things.
GKW: So, let the music speak for itself?
SG: Absolutely. We didn’t change other things, we just kept doing what we’re doing. That was simply the focus. We lost track of some stuff and we got it back. The key is not to lose it again.