MOKB Interview + New Song : Steve Gorman of the Black Crowes

The Black Crowes are one of the more interesting  success stories in recent popular music history. Marrying an unapologetic blend of Faces/Stones guitar swagger with R&B and blues, five Atlanta kids defied all fashion of the day with Shake Your Moneymaker, a homegrown haymaker that rode an Otis Redding cover into the Top 30. Though subsequent records failed to duplicate the commercial success of Moneymaker, the Crowes established themselves as an uncompromising musical juggernaut, and their live show became the stuff of legend. Twenty years on, their newest release, Crowology, finds the band retrofitting twenty of their signature tunes with acoustic arrangements, a Thank You note to their fans, if you will. On the eve of what might ultimately prove to be the band’s final tour, drummer Steve Gorman (the only original member who is not from clan Robinson) sat down with MOKB for a few minutes to discuss playing with Jimmy Page, the music biz according to the Black Crowes, and or course, what to listen to while cleaning the garage.

MP3 : Black Crowes – My Morning Song (from Crowology)

MOKB: So what are you guys doing in Chicago? Rehearsing?

Steve Gorman: Yeah, we start the tour tomorrow in Milwaukee, so we’re up here for a few days of rehearsal, and just to get ourselves into the mindset.

MOKB: Let’s talk about the longevity of the Black Crowes. The band was formed in ‘84/’85, and when Shake Your Moneymaker was released in 1990, there was nothing like it on MTV or the radio. We’re you at all discouraged from putting out Moneymaker?

SG: No one discouraged us. We were in Atlanta doing our own thing and we weren’t actively seeking a record company. In our minds, we thought we were, we said we were trying to get a deal, but all that meant to us was that we booked gigs and played’em. We didn’t have a plan. The music business, MTV and rock radio; that just seemed like other planets to us. It never dawned on us to try to fit ourselves into what was happening. It wasn’t like a defiance we thought was cool, it’s just how it was. It wasn’t like we were walking around yelling at people about it, it’s just what it was. I don’t ever remember having linear conversations about “how are we going to get this band somewhere,” we just assumed something would happen if we just kept doing what we wanted to do. You know, cocky is good when you’re a kid. You can get pretty far being cocky if you really believe in something. I think if would have tried to fit in, we would’ve had a lot more people trying to tell us what to do. Since we weren’t we were just left alone.

The only sort of feeling we got that nobody was interested was after we made the record, we didn’t even have a manager, we didn’t have anything. We had made the record, it was finished and that fall the label was trying to find us management, and they were sending the record around to all the big managers of the day, all of whom were passing. No one even wanted to come and meet us. Pete Angelos, who turned out to be our manager and still is, he was the first guy. When he heard it, he said, “There’s something there.” Looking back, that’s all there was.

The guy who signed us liked the band. When we were making the record we thought we were making something really good, but we never thought it was going to translate into the kind of sales it did. Our mindset was, if we can sell 100,000 copies, that would be the biggest coup of all time. And then surely they’d give us enough to make another record, and we could tour again. I think growing up in the South and in the 80s, like REM was right up the road, and their career was what everyone assumed would be like the best thing ever. You sell 50,000 records, the 100,000, then a few hundred thousand, then 400,000 and then you have a hit record. So, we went a little quicker than that.

MOKB: Exactly the opposite direction.

SG: Sales-wise, absolutely. The first one was so big. It was weird, when is started to get some traction, it had sort of a word-of-mouth buzz and it had been out 6 or 8 months and all of a sudden it went gold. It went gold, and this is right when SoundScan really kicked in, and it went gold and all of a sudden they were like, “hey, man, this thing is going to go platinum like real fast.” It was like the momentum had started. And there was some talk there like, “Wait a minute, this isn’t what we had in mind,” you know, because we thought this was going to set us up a little strangely, but at the same time, our mindset was always, “If the door’s open, you gotta run through it.” Literally, what it felt like was next thing we knew we had sold 5 million records, and we were all sitting around going, “What in the world?” but that never meant we were always going to sell 5 million records, we never thought that was going to be the norm, we were as surprised by that as anybody. Trust me.

MOKB: Just a personal observation here. One of the greatest beats in the last 20 years has to be the one you pull out in the breakdown section of Remedy. And I cannot figure out why no one has sampled that yet.

SG: Hey, give’em a call.

MOKB: I can make you a little side scratch.

SG: Yeah, why not? I think there’s a lot of stuff on our records that could pass for great hip-hop beats, I think there’s a lot of good everything on our records, people just don’t notice because we are serving the song. There’s a lot of moments like that, because we’re not making pop music, not making records with the thought of, “This is going to get on the radio,” we’re able to add a lot of little touches.

MOKB: After Southern Harmony And Music Companion, did you guys feel you didn’t have as much pressure to get on the radio, and could now explore, stretch songs to the 8, 9 minute mark?

SG: We never felt too much pressure. On the first record, we didn’t feel anything, it was just too bizarre. When we made the second record, which was pretty quickly after the first tour, that’s when we were all saying, “OK, this is kinda nuts. We don’t need to go to two radio stations a day for a year.” That was not where we wanted to go, and the band had changed so much as a live band on the first tour. The kids that jumped in the van in early ’90, when the bus rolled up at the end of ’91, we had gone millions of miles from where we started as far as what we were doing live and what we wanted to do live. And that’s really what we were focused on. It was the records, then the tour, we stopped worrying about where the two were connected. The first tour, we were promoting one album. By the time Southern Harmony came out, we were promoting the Black Crowes. So the label was like, “hey, can you do this stuff more?” But we never felt the pressure because we would flat out say, “No,” and not think about it again. And a lot of that came from making a record that no one was paying attention to, for no money. We didn’t even have the deal signed until the record was mastered. When you make a record that no one cares about and it gets huge, you have a hard time being told what to do.

MOKB: No doubt.

SG: We were just like, “Get outta here.” We didn’t have anyone helping us in the studio, we didn’t have anyone helping us up to that point. That record just made everyone [at the label] a ton of money, way more than it made the band. We were able to sell tickets, thank God, ‘caus that’s how we made our living. It’s one of those things like, “No, we’re not going to do what you guys want.” And it kinda stayed like that. And by the third album [Amorica], and fourth album [Three Snakes And One Charm], that’s just how it was. And if you listen to the third and fourth albums, the farthest thing from our minds was trying to write catchy hooks. We were just trying to make some great records, and we made the albums we were inspired to make.

MOKB: What was it like working with Jimmy Page?

SG: That was an absolute blast. Every second we did that, I loved it. He was awesome. Just such a gentleman. Not awesome in the “he’s the ultimate rock star” sense. On any level, he’s just a great guy to work with. Consummate professional. Just really spectacular. A lot of lessons, not that he’s even pontificating on anything, it’s totally not in his nature, but just being around him you can’t help but pick up things. The biggest thing I got from him was that his motivation in everything was just to find the spirit. Get a buzz about it. If it feels good, then you can take it in front of someone else, but let’s get something that feels right. He was never talking about “get the notes right” or “you’re rushing this section” or “that’s dragging.” Never, ever. He just wanted to find the feel. And when the band would all lock in together, that’s when his cape would come out and it had a big ‘S’ on it and he would just take off. He would always say, “The spirit, guys. We gotta find the spirit,” and it’s true.

MOKB: Let’s talk about Lions. After so many years of working by yourselves, why was Don Was brought in on that record?

SG: We knew Don, and had talked about doing stuff for years. He always sort of championed the band. He certainly had done some restorative stuff with some artists, but with us it was more, “What’s the vibe you’re going for, and let’s find it and get in there with it.” We worked on the nuts and bolts of songs with him, certainly, but as far as how we wanted it to sound and the way we were recording, he was totally on board with us.

Looking back now, my opinion of that record is that it’s kind of a trainwreck, and there was nothing he was going to be able to do. If anything, he realized, “This band is in disarray.” And that stemmed from the situation before. We had made By Your Side, and that was the one time we had a record company dictate everything to us. Def American fell apart and Rick Rubin still had us for one more record, and he got a deal with Columbia Records, which meant we had to work with Columbia. We had absolutely no say in it, no control over it. And so for our fifth album, for the first time, we found ourselves locked in a box. And we had to work with a producer they chose, and record the way they chose. And the truth is, it was held over our heads. “This record will never see the light of day.” So we asked them to release us, “We don’t want to work with you. We aren’t a Columbia artist. This is not going to go well.” And their response was, “No. You’re going to make a record. It’s going to come out. We’re not going to radio with it. End of story.”

So we got our head around that and said, “Alright, let’s go make a real straightforward rock-n-roll record. And plus, we had gone into such a disjointed era at the end of the Three Snakes time, I mean to straighten things out again, we wanted to do that anyway. The demos we gave Columbia were all 3 and 4 minute rock songs that we had been writing during the Three Snakes tour because we all felt it coming back that direction a little bit. On the heels of that, and after touring with Page, we just needed to get our sea legs back. Going into Lions, the reaction was to have the exact opposite of what it had been like making By Your Side. We just wanted it to be whatever it was going to be, And Don jumped onboard that train very happily. So we made the record and at the time, I was really into it, that’s just where our head was. But I listen back now, and all I hear is what that record could have been.

MOKB: So after Lions came out, the Crowes toured with Oasis and you left the band immediately after the tour.

SG: The tour ended, and Chris and Rich and I just said, “Let’s take a break for a couple years.” Chris wanted to do his own thing, and that didn’t bother me. I’d been telling him for years, “If you want to make a record, Dude, make a record.” I mean, get it out of your system. It wasn’t that we were fighting, the band has always had arguments. We didn’t always see eye-to-eye, but in the past it always seemed we were looking in the same direction, and we were just going to get there in different ways. By the end of 2001, there was no common vision, no common thought, no common anything, on any level. And there was a time of, “Are you on this guy’s side or on that guy’s side?” and those days were long gone. It was just three completely separate thoughts on what should happen.

So, I just thought, “This is like every other band this goes through, it’s done.” I’m not going to stay around and patch this up for the sake of what this used to be. That’s not the point. So we said, let’s take a long break, but when it came time to announce that, I said, “You know what? I’m taking a forever break. I’m not coming back, because this is ridiculous.” That was my decision.

Everyone just went and did their own thing, we all had new projects, and when they called to say, “What do you think about doing it again?” I wasn’t that interested. I was still involved with a band I’d been touring with, and had a lot going on. And looking back now, if they would have just held off six months, it’s far more likely I would’ve been there from the start, but I did miss the first 20 gigs when the band came back in ’05. It’s funny, because I thought, “No. If you guys want to do it, go ahead. I’m fine doing what I’m doing and I don’t want to go back and relive that.” I wasn’t holding out, but I had a conversation with Chris, and just in very casual conversation, enough things clicked that I said, “OK, there is more to this than just, let’s go play some shows.” It was clear there had really been conversation and thought about not what to do, but how to do it, at least as far as being on the same team again. So I came back to give it a shot, but when I came back, I thought, “I’m coming back for the tour. I don’t even want to talk about a record, or the studio. That doesn’t exist until we have something we agree on. I never would’ve thought six years later we’d be talking and we’d have three new records out. That did not even enter my mind in 2005.

MOKB: Yeah, you’ve really hit a second stride. You’ve put out some great records in the last couple years, why hang it up now?

SG: Well, the one thing we don’t want to do is repeat what happened at the end of ’01, and I think last year, we all could feel it. You know, we’re getting a little itch. Everyone is getting two things: a little tired and interested in other things. Everyone is always interested in other things, but the Black Crowes is wholly-consuming for us. We put all we have into it. Three guys in the band have had babies in the last eight months, and so, in a lot of ways their headspace has changed. They’re in a new chapter of their lives. It was kinda like we all realized this is where we were at the end of the Jimmy Page tour. We were in a good place, and instead of rushing into the next thing, which turned out to be Lions, we should have taken some time. And in 1995, at the end of the Hoard Tour around Amorica, we really made a huge mistake. In January, we agreed to take some time off when the toured ended. We were all about to die, or kill each other, or run ourselves into the ground. We had a rough tour around Amorica, and that summer we went to Europe and opened for the Stones, and came back and did the Hoard Tour and we felt really great. We got suckered in by how much fun we had. And we rolled into the studio to make Three Snakes and we really should have stuck to the plan, we really should’ve taken that break. This time around we feel the same way. The band sounds great. We really like what we’re doing as a band, but we just know. The twenty-year thing, Crowology is a nice summation of that, you know, put a bow on top and take a break. I think it will be a lot longer than one year this time.

MOKB: How do you feel about the current Crowes lineup?

SG: I think it’s the most cohesive lineup we’ve had. Fans have certain eras they prefer and that’s their right. I would never try to argue that point with anybody, but for me, everybody is finally on the same page musically. There’s been amazing moments in this band’s history, but never where it’s intentional. Never where it’s just locked in as much as this band in the last two years. That’s my opinion.

MOKB: How should the Black Crowes be remember in music history?

SG: The best thing is, I’m not the one who has to decide that. That’s your job. We tried. We gave everything we had. We just didn’t have the conventional headspace about how things should go. We could have made it a lot easier on ourselves if we did.

MOKB: Are the Black Crowes the last classic rock band?

SG: [Laughing] Maybe.

MOKB: Will anyone ever again do what you’ve done musically, or from a business standpoint?

SG: I doubt it. I mean I don’t even know how you’d get started. There’s just no way to get any traction in this day and age.

MOKB: Any new bands you really like?

SG: I like Band of Horses. I like that Fleet Foxes record. I like all the Wilco records, but they’ve been around almost as long as we have. We just had a new band open for us called The London Souls from Brooklyn. They’re spectacular. That’s a band to look for. They’re great.

MOKB: OK, the tour’s over. Saturday morning. You have to clean the garage, what are you going to listen to?

SG: Saturday morning? I live in Nashville, so I always put on a show on Lightning 100, I can’t remember what it’s called [Retro Lightning], but they take one year from the past, and just play music from that year. So if it’s a good year, if it’s 1979, I’m all over it with The Clash and Blondie and stuff.

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