By James Calemine
“Walk believer walk,
Your work ain’t never done.”
-The Black Crowes
The Black Crowes rank as one of the finest rock and roll bands recording and touring these days. The Black Crowes’ musical path led them through glorious peaks and dark valleys during their 20-year career. The band’s ruthless determination to move onward through the most savage and strange changes earned them a reputation as a cantankerous and powerful band in a shallow and fickle music business.
Adam MacDougall joined the Crowes last year. Born in New York City, MacDougall began playing music at an early age. A resident of Los Angeles since 1998, MacDougall met Chris Robinson in Laurel Canyon a couple of years ago, which eventually led to him joining the band. Jonathan Wilson and Robinson hosted Wednesday night jam sessions at Wilson’s Laurel Canyon home where MacDougall began sitting in. Robinson later asked MacDougall to play on Gary Louris’ Vagabonds CD that Robinson produced. Jonathan Wilson—a genius in his own right—called MacDougall “a prodigy”.
MacDougall joined the Crowes after the group dismissed Rob Clores (who replaced longtime Crowes keyboardist Ed Harsch in 06) in July 2007. We conducted this interview a week before I met up with The Crowes in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in June. Adam proved quite hilarious and a great (not arrogant) conversationalist. His musical style fits in well with The Crowes. He’s aware of the scrutiny fans project, and remains respectful of the cosmic legacy of The Black Crowes.
During this summer tour, The Crowes have hit a furious stride as they play their strongest material in years. The evidence of such majestic power can be purchased at LiveBlackCrowes.com. Adam MacDougall and Luther Dickinson contribute their own mojo on the Crowes latest CD—Warpaint—the group’s strongest material since 1997. This latest line-up of The Black Crowes proves a vital era in the band’s career.
After the Chattanooga show, I was a little apprehensive because I thought Will Call gave me—courtesy of Luther Dickinson– the wrong pass, which was titled ‘Artist’. I had full access to prowl the grounds and the backstage area before the show. The Black Crowes almost never grant passes to a writer. As a writer in such a position, I always remember this is sacred ground. You’re loitering around someone’s workplace while they’re on the job. That night I stood on the lip of the stage near the amps behind drummer Steve Gorman’s wife and two small children, one Crowes soundman and one friend on Rich and Adam’s side of the stage. It’s always wise to give the musicians a respectful distance during such swirling circumstances. They arrived to the gig by boat, so I enjoyed the surroundings until Chris, Luther and Adam came by to say hello. I took photographs (no flash) and felt a little uneasy during the show due to proximity to the band. A few days later, I conveyed my concern to Adam to which he replied:
“Trust me, if you weren’t supposed to be there, you would have been removed. Nobody stands on The Black Crowes’ stage.”
“I just didn’t want to be someplace I wasn’t supposed to be. Rich shot me a couple of fierce glances during the show.”
“Oh man, Rich does that to me all the time. He’ll be onstage playing some heavy shit and he’ll give me the same look. That’s just Rich. No, it was cool. The festival shows are always crazy. When we come back to Atlanta in October and it’s our show, they’ll be more time to hang out.”
Anyone who operates that close to The Black Crowes can tell you there’s serious electricity surrounding the band—especially Chris and Rich…and this is a high-octane era for the Crowes. In this extensive interview, we discussed MacDougall’s early music days, his previous bands, his session work and sharp insight as the multi-talented keyboardist for the most rock and roll band on the planet, The Black Crowes…
Hey man—what’s happening?
AM: How ya doin’?
Hot out in California?
AM: Yeah, hot y’know—but it’s not so bad. I’m used to East coast hot, humid summers. People out here think ninety degrees—it’s so hot (Laughs). Totally dry. Growing up in New York—ninety degrees in New York…in August? Oh, man…
It’s all concrete and steel…
AM: Yeah, man–sweltering. Then you walk around after whatever you’ve been doing at 2AM and the garbage trucks are driving by…dripping that gravy coming out of the truck. It’s weird…
Yeah, anyone visiting New York for the first time certainly has a brutal sensory confrontation with strange smells.
AM: Oh yeah.
So you’re sort of a mystery man to some folks, but you’ve been playing music your whole life, and now you’re the keyboardist for The Black Crowes. Chuck Leavell was their first keyboardist and then Eddie Harsch…
AM: For so long it’s just that and then I get this Crowes gig—and the Crowes fans are pretty intense. All of a sudden a friend of mine called me and said, ‘Have you ever Googled yourself?’ I said, ‘Yeah, once when I was drunk just for the hell of it, and a rugby player came up.’ And they said, ‘Well you better go back and check it out because somebody’s been putting stuff up.’ And sure enough now people have compiled my discography. It’s funny…
Is it accurate?
AM: It’s funny—I think it is, partly. Some things people found and I was like, ‘Really? Did I do that?’ Then you think back, and I remembered it. How do they find this stuff?
Well, at least we have the opportunity to get some facts straight. When were you born?
AM: August of 74.
You grew up in New York City, right?
AM: Yeah. New York City.
Did you have any musical family members that got you into it?
AM: Well, my grandfather played piano and clarinet—he was pretty musical. It’s not what he did per se because he was actually a playwright; some of his plays were turned into movies in the 50s.
AM: Yeah, he did a movie called The Man In The White Suit with Alec Guinness. He also wrote a movie called The Mouth That Roared with Peter Sellers.
Anything with Peter Sellers is great…
AM: Yeah, that guy’s crazy. I think it was more like my grandfather wrote a play and a friend of his who actually was a screenwriter and director who turned them into movies. But he was musical. He had a piano in the house and he liked to play. At some point, he realized that he couldn’t play anymore. But he was still driving (Laughs). My grandfather’s Scottish. He moved to L.A. for a spell. His friend the screenwriter was out here—and I’m not sure that’s the reason he moved out here for a bit in the late 60s through the early 70s. He actually sent the piano to my mother in New York. She decided to get me lessons which was I think I got off really easy because she found a guy from Texas named Joe Kerr—like Joker—I didn’t even think of that until my late teens. He was like a barrel-house blues guy from Texas…he could play anything but that was more his speed. He was trying to teach me classical. My mom and I would go out and see him play his gig when I was young. I was 6 when I started my lessons.
So, the boogie-woogie got you…
AM: Yeah, that jazz and the boogie-woogie. He had a kind of Randy Newman thing where he’d write these funny songs—not stupid, slapstick funny…
Kind of sly and highbrow…
AM: Yeah, kind of high-brow with the boogie and jazz thing and he couldn’t really sing. At ten years old watching him play he’d say-‘This is one of my students’. He’d put me up there and I’d play a little something. And I got a ten dollar tip! So, I was like—that’s it. Then I said to him-‘I want to do what you do. I don’t want anymore of this classical stuff.’ I love it and in hindsight I wish I’d studied it more because it’s a great vehicle—just for chops. But I wanted him to teach me what he naturally did—not what a piano lesson should be…
…Teach me some Jerry Lee Lewis…
AM: Yeah, so that was it from then on…
I’m sure you play other instruments.
AM: I play drums, actually, which is not a far cry from piano, if you think about it. Piano can be a very percussive instrument because you’re using your feet with the pedals…both hands…you have to have good interplay between your hands and your feet. The way that I play—I’m not a really schooled player. I do a lot of rhythmical stuff. It’s almost more like beating it than finger-work sometimes. I don’t know if you’re familiar with clavinet…you know, like Stevie Wonder’s “Superstitious”–where it almost sounds like a guitar, but it’s a keyboard. It’s pretty much a percussive instrument—it’s the keyboard’s answer to a guitar. It’s got strings in it—you hit keys and they pound out—it’s like you’re finger tapping a guitar. Each key has a hammer that taps the string. You’re basically playing guitar but that’s really percussive and I love that.
So, drums were not a stretch for me. The first band I was ever playing in, we had a drummer who wasn’t always there for rehearsals. I was really young. That was my first real, real band. At 14 or 15 we started playing around Manhattan. Our drummer was older and he came from L.A. He was this mystical cat from L.A. and he was like 26 or 27 and to us he was old (Laughs). He was kind of a mentor to the band and he also had a smack habit which we really didn’t know about and we were too young to figure out that’s what the case was. He wouldn’t be around, so I would be the guy to say we got to rehearse the band—everything has to be right. I would get behind the drums just to keep time—then I started playing beats. I love playing drums. It’s a lot of fun and if you’re musical about it, it can drive everything.
What were your musical influences at that point?
AM: At that age I was kind of a Jazz-er, which is a little embarrassing. You remember that movie Fame?
AM: Well, the name in the movie was not the real name. That was a real public high school—LaGuardia High School of Performing Arts. I actually went there for high school. So I was way into jazz. Thelonious Monk was tops for me when I was really young. He was my hero because he did things his own way. What happened was I was way into that, but a friend turned me onto Funkadelic. I heard Bernie Worrell play and that really blew my mind. It was almost like he was taking that freedom that Monk had and the humor that Monk had—the playfulness of it—and took it onto electric instruments. It was rock and roll—it was gospel—it was also acid crazy.
What’s your favorite Funkadelic album?
AM: I would say Standing On The Verge of Getting It On. That was 1973-ish.
I love America Eats Its Young…
AM: Yeah, that stuff is crazy. That stuff is great, but for me, Standing On the Verge of Getting It On and Let’s Take It To the Stage are my favorite Funkadelic records. I love that stuff. Bernie also had—one of those records—a song called “Atmosphere”—it’s just him. It’s an instrumental he’s playing B-3 and moog. It really put a knot in my head. When I was trying to be a Jazz-er and all of a sudden Funkadelic came around. Then somebody said, ‘Well, you love Herbie Hancock, check out Headhunters, check out Thrust. I started to get into all of that. Funkadelic. The Meters really blew me back—all that rhythmical stuff. Then also at the time Pink Floyd—not the most amazing keyboard player-Richard Wright—but sonically the choices he made counted.
How did you view songwriting at this point? Were you writing songs?
AM: No, I wasn’t writing. It was because I was such a player at that point that I really didn’t start thinking about that until later. My all time favorite record and it’s going to sound cliché, but it’s the Beatles’ Abbey Road. My favorite song is “Something” by George Harrison. That song kills me. As far as songwriting, I wasn’t writing. By this point we had a band called Marmalade and we were in New York, and it was more of a jam band. A kind of band where you get a one hour set and we had maybe five songs on the setlist. That was when I was real young. It got more song-oriented the older I got. Another favorite of mine was Donny Hathaway—all the songs he did write were incredible.
Great musician…Sad story…
AM: Oh man, totally a sad story, but what a player, singer and writer.
How did everything progress from Marmalade?
AM: Well, the band Marmalade started when I was 15. I was in high school and I moved away from home—I moved in with an older girlfriend and she was singing in the band. She had a reliable pot dealer (Laughs). That went on for a while. We ended up moving to upstate New York for a little bit trying to hone the band and get it perfect and all that ended up happening was half of the band couldn’t live up in the woods. They split. The band breaks up. At that point, I actually started playing with people for money. I was in upstate New York and some guy—we were living in some old gymnasium outside of Woodstock—the whole band. Some guy knocked on the door, he said, ‘I saw you play with your band somewhere. I think you’d be really good for a friend of mine’s project.’ He told men to go down and check it out. I drove my old van down there and played with the guy. He told me he’d pay me $250 dollars a week to be in his band. So I started doing that and I moved back into the city.
Then I moved on to hired gun type stuff. I went on tour with artists where I wasn’t part of the band. That was when I was 20-21. Then around 22 me and two other guys from Marmalade—a guitar player named Jennifer Turner who ended up playing with Natalie Merchant—she went to play with her. We had a recording project—the three of us—because I could play drums and keyboards. My friend could play bass and guitar. So my friend Jennifer could sing and play guitar. We’d record all these songs just for fun. Finally we decided to play a gig. This was 1997. We played a gig. I played drums and we were just a three piece. We actually got signed to Virgin. So, I was a drummer for about five years.
What was the name of that band?
AM: Furslide. It was a great band. We didn’t do a very good record. We were young. We went for the money instead of honing our craft. It was like a joke band. I never intended to be a drummer and my friend who was a guitar player never intended to play bass…so we didn’t take it that seriously until we had three or four record companies breathing down our necks. We became a big stink in New York. So, we signed a deal with Virgin and went to London. We lived there for a year and made a record. We put that out and toured for a number of years. So I’d set up a keyboard next to the drums. I’d play keys with one hand and kept time with the other. For a spell I was out of the loop as far as keyboards went. We moved to L.A. with that band. We put the record out in 1998, and moved to L.A. In 1999, we were touring around the country. Everybody who I met in L.A. thought of me as a drummer. It took a long time to convince people I played keyboards. After that band broke up and I was telling folks if they needed me to play on anything, they’d say, ‘Oh well, we already have a drummer.’ I had to explain keyboards was what I really played.
So you stayed in L.A.
AM: Yeah, once I moved out here in 1998 or 1999, I never left.
At that point, were The Black Crowes on your radar?
AM: Well, yeah, of course. What’s funny, back in 96 when I was playing with this girl from New York on some hired gun stuff, we actually opened up for The Crowes for a month or two in Europe. That’s when I first met Chris (Robinson). I think Marc Ford was trying not to drink, and I didn’t know that. I think their first couple of shows he’d come to our dressing room, and I would make him gin and tonics because I had no idea. He got into trouble, and I was no longer allowed to hang out with Marc Ford because I was an enabler.
Did you keep session work up?
AM: I played with Macy Gray for a while. I played with a guy named Ben Taylor who is James Taylor’s son. Then my friend Jason who is the big producer out here said, ‘I just went up to this place in Laurel Canyon that happens every Wednesday and it’s a jam session and you’ve got to go’. So I did. I saw Chris Robinson and we were like ‘Shit, I haven’t seen you since 1996.’ We remembered each other and we hung out. I went to a bunch of those. I got a call from Chris and he said he was producing this Gary Louris record and would I play on it. At that point, I’d been at home doing sessions just trying to make it as a session guy. I didn’t really want to go on the road again in a situation I don’t find great. Y’know you’ve got girlfriends at home—it’s hard to have relationships when you’re gone—especially if you’re not coming home with some money because you’re not making much money at all or you’re spending it while you’re out there. You’re woman is like ‘You’ve been gone for a month and you don’t have any money?’ So, I could make money in town and I was doing session work, which is great but sometimes you do things you don’t really want to do. You’re at the mercy of whatever the song is or whatever the artists is and nine times out of ten you have no idea what you’ll have to play until you show up. Sometimes it’s amazing. The Gary Louris thing was incredible.
You’d already met Jonathan Wilson because the Laurel Canyon jams happened at his house. He also played on Gary Louris’ Vagabonds.
AM: Yeah, going up to these jams at his house in Laurel Canyon. I re-connected with Chris there.
A lot of musicians made a point to check the place out…
AM: Chris and Jonathan started it. It didn’t happen if one of those guys weren’t there. If we’re out with the Crowes it doesn’t happen. When we get back off the road we do every Wednesday again. Probably people I didn’t even know were there—some great players. Barry Goldberg would come by—but he wouldn’t stay until the wee hours. But a lot of cute girls in mini-skirts came by. The only way you can tell it’s not 1971 is because everyone has a cell phone. The vibe is great. It never felt contrived—still doesn’t.
Where was Vagabonds recorded?
AM: A studio called Sage and Sound, which is off Sunset Boulevard. It’s a great place and what happened was a lot of times these days in sessions I’ve been doing you get called in just to do overdubs. Sometimes you don’t even meet the people you’re playing with and that’s how things go a lot of times with Pro Tools being such a big deal. They’ll do a day for keyboards and they’ll call you in and you play on the record—just you, the engineer and the producer. You set up—it’s fun and creative but you don’t have any interaction, which can totally work. It depends on the music you’re making. Some stuff is structured and it needs to be like that.
What was great about the Louris album was Chris produced it. He just said, ‘I’m going to rent out a rehearsal space for a week and a half. We’ll put the musicians in a room and get a feel. Then we we’re going into the studio, set up the same way and pretty much record it live.’
The band on Vagabonds was you, Otto Hauser and Jonathan Wilson…
AM: Yeah. Let me say Otto Hauser is incredible. He’s the most musical drummer I’ve ever played with—his ideas are amazing. Sometimes he’d play a backbeat; he’d sit and listen to the song. Then he’d play kick and snare, but then he’d add a shaker, a tambourine—he’d have it all mapped out in his head. He’s the most sensitive player, I’ve ever played with—his sounds, ideas and attitude were incredible. On the Vagabonds session I remember the piano we had sounded incredible. It was this tiny piano, but it sounded amazing for the recording, but there was something wrong with the action, so I couldn’t play anything fast. It actually, in hindsight I’m glad that happened. It really came down to everybody playing the music like that—it’s what you learn as a musician that most of the time it’s what you don’t play that counts. So, Otto played drums, Jonathan Wilson played bass and all the other funny stuff. This guy Josh Grange played pedal steel. As far as singers, obviously there’s Chris, Susanna Hoffs, Jenny Lewis from Rilo Kiley, Jonathan Rice, Andy from Vetiver and Wilson.
How long did it take to record?
AM: I was there for about a week. Then they did some overdubs after I was gone—a little guitar stuff. Pretty much–we set up piano, B-3, drums and Louris played in the booth. He was playing acoustic guitar and singing at the same time. There’s no re-cutting that because your vocals and guitar bleed together—everything you hear him sing and play is a one-take performance with the band. There were no click tracks, nothing. We’d get the song together in rehearsal, came into the studio—pick the song we were going to do—run it through a couple of times and then hit record. We’d do about five versions—listen back, and one of the five versions was the one and that was it. If I had to do a couple of overdubs, I’d do it—it was pretty minimal and then I think when I was gone Wilson and Louris did a couple of guitar overdubs and then obviously they had all the vocalists come in and do background stuff, but the lead vocals, guitars, bass, drums, most of the keys—that was what was happening in the room.
Jonathan Wilson is a monster musician.
AM: He’s a complete monster. He’s ridiculous. What an amazing guy.
He told me of all those musicians in that scene you were the prodigy.
AM: Oh man (Laughs). He’s just an unbelievably great guy. It’s almost hard to believe when you first meet him—you’re like ‘Really? He’s that cool?’ He’s got all the great gear. I’m the New Yorker, so I’m always like ‘What’s the angle? There’s gotta be a problem. Something’s got to be off.’
AM: Completely. My mother was a pessimist—growing up in New York that’s just the way it is. There’s always that, ‘What’s wrong with it?’ With Jonathan Wilson it was like, ‘Where’s the problem (Laughs)? There’s just not one problem with him. He’s a cool dude-super-talented. He really knows what he’s doing. He knows what he’s talking about. He can record stuff. Play stuff. He builds amazing guitars.
I didn’t know he built guitars.
AM: Oh yeah, he builds guitars up there. He’s got a little workshop out there and he makes these really great guitars.
When I talked to him the other day and he was working on a truck.
AM: Yeah, he’s got this old truck. So, he’s that guy. He’s got this bad ass Camaro—he’s got all this cool shit going on.
So you and Chris spent a lot of musical moments together up there.
AM: Yeah, and by the way, Chris Robinson as a producer is amazing.
Did you play on the new Gary Louris-Marc Olson record coming out that Chris also produced?
AM: No man, I haven’t even heard that yet. I keep pestering Chris to play some of the songs on the bus.
Jonathan Wilson said that is THE RECORD.
AM: Yeah, Chris says that too—he swears by it. I haven’t heard anything from it. I can only imagine its amazing because Gary Louris—number one, he’s a great songwriter, and him and Marc Olson together…
AM: I talked to guy who engineered the record and he said it was incredible. I’m looking forward to hearing that. As far as Gary Louris—he’s a super humble dude—super guy—great songwriter. Every one of the songs he introduced us to play was amazing. And not to talk shit about the sessions I’ve played, and I’ve worked with plenty of artists where three or four of the songs are great and that’s what everyone is banking on. That’s what happens a lot of times.
With Gary you’re leaving stuff off you don’t want to cut…
AM: Exactly. You’re trimming fat that ain’t fat. It’s like ‘Oh, no—what are you doing? You can’t leave that off. When I finally got the track list, I was like—‘what about this one? What about that one?’
Inside the CD sleeve there’s a list with notes on like 30 songs or something.
AM: Yeah, he had a lot of tunes that didn’t make it.
Vagabonds was recorded spring of 07, right?
AM: Yeah, April of last year.
How did that lead into you join the Crowes?
AM: What happened was I’d done all the keyboards, and you know it was an intense situation because I respect Chris Robinson very much and I respect Gary Louris very highly and Jonathan Wilson, so for me being in there every day , I was like, ‘O my god, I better pull my shit together’. I want to get it right because I’m surrounded by super-talented people. Like I say, Chris is an incredible producer. He never makes you feel like there’s any pressure—ever. At the same time, he manages to get the best performances out of a group of people without them ever knowing it.
Only certain people can do that…
AM: It takes you going back into the control room and listening back to what you just did to be like ‘I never would’ve thought to do it like that’. It’s great. I’m doing that and out of the blue—eighth day maybe I forgot how long I was actually there, but Chris goes—I just finished playing something—I walk back into the control room and Chris looks up and he says, ‘Cool. You’re done. You can leave.’ And I was like ‘What? So abrupt?’. I kept thinking, oh shit, I want to see how this turns out. So I pack up my stuff, put it in my truck, and I’m outside. Chris is out there, and I’m like, ‘Well, I guess I’ll see you later.’ And Chris says, ‘Hey, by the way, would you be interested in playing with my band?’ He says we have a guy now (Rob Clores) and he’s great, but I like what you do and I think you could add something to it. Would it be interesting to you?’ I said, ‘Yeah, of course.’ He said, ‘I’ll be in touch with you.’
I didn’t hear anything at all in May and then randomly in June I got a phone message from him saying, ‘How would you feel coming out and auditioning in the beginning of July in Chicago? I called back and said sure. They sent me plane tickets and I flew to Chicago and played with the band.
AM: They were on the road. They had a day off. They were hubbing out of Chicago because all the gear was in Chicago and they took it to a rehearsal studio and set it all up. I basically flew out on July 4th. I watched the fireworks from my hotel window. I brought a little keyboard with me and I was trying to woodshed the songs.
That’s a lot of songs…
AM: Well, they sent me an email saying learn these songs: “Thorn In My Pride”, “She Gave Good Sunflower”, “Jealous Again”…but we only went through two songs. We started playing and jammed around a little bit, and Paul Stacey was still playing guitar, and he was ready to produce a new record. He was walking around, listening to me play. That was cool. I played a little bit more a day or so later. Chris took me outside the room and said, ‘You wanna do it?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ Chris said, ‘You’re in.’ Basically, that was a Thursday. He said, ‘We’ll fly you home tomorrow and we start the record (Warpaint) on Monday. Go home, pack your bags and we’ll fly you to upstate New York. Then I went up to Woodstock.
It’s interesting because Luther’s out on the periphery. Had he committed to joining the band yet?
AM: Luther was going to be playing on the record. He was still busy with the North Mississippi All-Stars and they had dates booked up until the end of the year. So what happened is we came in and did the record in the same way we did Gary’s. We recorded Warpaint at a studio called Allaire. It’s on top of a mountain in upstate New York. It was one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever stayed. The vibe was incredible–aside from the fact that I was stressing out about getting the music right. Ed Harsch is a hero of mine. I was opening for The Crowes when I was about twenty years old. I used to sit on his side of the stage every night and watch him. He was amazing. He used to practice while we were sound checking. He’d be back there practicing with the sound off. He’s incredible. So, I was nervous–but it was a beautiful place.
How was the food? Catering?
AM: Allaire is set up where there are two studios and it set up on the top of this mountain. There’s a bunch of rooms you can live in. There’s a full kitchen and a big dining hall, or actually two big dining halls. They have a staff to give you meals every day—if you want. Or you can choose not to stay there and not eat your meals there and just record and drive down the mountain every day and get food for yourself and sleep somewhere else. It was amazing to wake up in the mountains, nestled in the country—everyone’s got a room. It was quaint—you get breakfast, lunch and dinner. They cleaned everything—all we had to do was make music.
The music was quick. I think Steve was only there for five or six days. So, we cut the basics in about five days. Then I was there for maybe eight or nine days—I stayed on a little bit longer after that to do some more keyboard work then I left. Then they did more stuff with Luther—then I think he left and they did some vocals. I think the whole thing was done in less than three weeks.
So Luther was waiting in the wings with prior commitments…
AM: Yeah, he’d been asked to join the band. What happened with Paul was he was playing with Chris in New Earth Mud. He recorded stuff with Chris, so Chris trusted his judgment. So, I think when Marc Ford faxed in his resignation a couple days before the tour started…I think, in a pinch, Chris relied on Paul. Paul Stacey is an amazing guitar player. He’s also an amazing producer. He’s a great guy. His sense of humor is amazing. He’s British and they tend to be funnier. They have a way with dealing with life.
AM: Which I love. My mother and her family are English. I lived there when I was making a record. I’ve been there a bunch. I love the Monty Python sense of humor—that really dry English. Paul is that guy. He’s hilarious. Great guitar player. He was also great at producing the new record. He really let the band do what it had to do. Getting a good vibe was the whole point of that record—having the band in a room and getting a performance. So Paul came in as a temporary. He wanted to produce more records. He fell into it and it just went on and on for a year and a half. By the time I met him he’d been doing it for a year and a half. It wasn’t what he planned on doing. They already played with Luther. They decided they wanted him in the project in some way. Luther had commitments with The North Mississippi All-Stars, so Luther said he’d do the record and then the beginning of this year he’d join the band. So, basically he recorded on the record. Paul just produced it and then Paul played on the fall tour. We took a break from November until February and then Luther stepped in.
What was your first gig with The Crowes like?
AM: (Chuckles). My first gig—I can’t remember exactly where it was (Bethlehem, PA, Aug 3, 2007)—somewhere around New York on my birthday. What happened we started the record around July 8. I went basically between the first show I was about to play and the time I left to do the record there was about 10 days of time. They basically said—while I was making the record—you know there’s six albums and a huge repertoire of songs to pull from. So, I’m trying to do this record and it’s great, but meanwhile in mornings I’m getting up and putting on headphones and walking around the grounds listening to all the old stuff trying to get it all in my head. Then I’d go and work on the record. Then at night, I had a little keyboard in my room and I’d work on the old stuff. I’m trying to learn the old stuff and there’s no rehearsal for the upcoming tour. They said, ‘You’re done with the record. Go home, learn as much stuff as you can and we’ll see you at sound check!’
So, I went home—its end of July in L.A. I have a nice air-conditioner in my bedroom—so I turned the air on and closed the door. I had my B3. I set up the rig I was going to be using for The Crowes in my living room. So, I sat around for eight days playing Black Crowes music. I don’t like using charts. I’ll write stuff down on paper or for a session or one-off gig that I do just once or twice.
Most fans don’t understand how difficult it must be for a musician to come in on several weeks notice for a touring band and learn their 20 year repertoire.
AM: What I don’t like doing—and this is just for me—is use charts. I find if I use charts I get stuck on them and it’s very hard to get off of them—it’s like you get addicted. If you know it’s on a piece of paper then it’s never really in your head. So I said to myself there’s no way I’m going to have pieces of paper around—no way. It’s not that kind of vibe. Plus, with stage lighting chances are you can’t see it anyway. I got as much as I could. I got to sound check that first day. I didn’t have my headphones off for like 6 weeks. That whole first tour—the crew joked around with me because anytime they’d see me, I’d have on my headphones.
Chris would write out the set list about two hours before we’d get to the venue. The first two or three weeks worth of shows—I’d look at the setlist, and go ‘I know four of these songs! The rest I’ve heard and three or four I’ve never heard.’ The Black Crowes catalogue is very extensive. You get really good at what we call relative pitch. I basically ask Sven—he’s a great guy and a great bassist—he knows the key to every song. I’d ask key we’re in and he’d say G, which a lot of them are. So I’d go that’s a four chord, that’s a six chord, that’s a minor third—just sort of relative pitch it out and listen to it enough that when we got to it I’d do it. I’m sure the first couple of weeks into the gig I probably wasn’t pulling my weight.
A nervy couple of weeks…
AM: There’s something about me. I’ve always tried to get rid of it, but I do get real nervous before I play any show. I just can’t get rid of it. Music to me as a performer is pretty much a confidence game—I think most things in life are confidence games. It’s about losing yourself in the music where you’ve left yourself and see things in a different light. Not specifically in that moment or time…because time is relative…but when you’re not doing your daily grind. For a second you’re out of it. That only came to me through music. It’s rare—it’s rare for everybody, but it’s that moment people always talk about when you see Hendrix do something amazing and you see his face and you realize he’s not really there. That’s what you try and find. When you do find it…you’re on a roll…a confidence roll…in the moment…as they say in sports…in the zone. It’s a confidence game. If you lose your confidence you get in a spiral where you make one mistake and you start going, ‘Oh, I just fucked up’. Then you’re thinking about the fuck up you just made and then you make another one. That happens in every aspect of life—conversations…everything. So, it’s all a confidence game for me.
The Black Crowes definitely have a serious history over the last twenty years, and you’re coming into a high-pressure situation…
AM: Yeah, I knew Chris – really I knew them all here and there because of opening for them years ago, but Chris was great about it. He’s the guy that brought me in. He never wavered in his confidence which is really admirable. In part because I know there were some shows – I don’t know what I’m doing! (Laughs) Chris never came offstage and said – ‘Hey you fucked up!’ There was a guarantee with that much material and no rehearsal I was gonna miss a few times. There were not that many. The biggest one came in the song “Gone”. It comes to that point where it’s just piano – and it’s not a hard riff to do at all but we’re playing Summerstage in New York (Aug 9, 2007 Ed note: The North Mississippi Allstars, opened the show and Luther Dickinson played on “Thorn In My Pride” and “Downtown Money Waster”), but they all stop playing – like they’re supposed to, but so did I. I’m looking around thinking – ‘Why is nobody else playing?’ (Collective laughter). I look over at Steve and he’s just laughing at me- the rest of them are grinning at each other – which is great because they laugh about it. It might be an eight – measure count and I realize four counts into it that I’m like, ‘What’s that part? It was like eight measures of nothing and we all came back into it. I’m sure the fans wanted to strangle me. t they all laughed about it. They were gracious about it. They’ve all been really cool. It’s a big situation to fill and they’ve all been really supportive.
You guys performed some shows – playing Warpaint in it’s entirely. I caught the show in Atlanta. Then the band went to Australia in March…
AM: We did. Australia was fun. What was cool was before we went there was those Warpaint shows. We did about eight shows. I’ve never played a record front to back with a band, and I always thought that was cool. Pink Floyd did that.
The Crowes have never really done it before.
AM: No, I’d never been in a band that’s done that. I’d never seen a band do it either. I have bootlegs of Pink Floyd playing Dark Side of the Moon. When it came out – they would do that- in exact song order. They’d give out programs…
…”Brain Damage Part 2″…
AM: Exactly. I’d never heard of anyone just doing the new record, which I thought was pretty bold. That was a lot of fun. I was surprised how well the fans reacted to the fact most of them hadn’t heard any of the material. The Atlanta show was really fun we did “Space Captain”.
Warpaint is a fine record. I really like “Movin On Down the Line” where you really get to do your thing in that first minute and thirty seconds or so…
AM: We’ve really started to stretch that out a bit. When you saw it in Atlanta we didn’t really stretch that out. The last few times, it’s been three or four minute intros…we build in slow.
On Warpaint, Rich and Luther blend well together. Rich really mastered that under-playing…he’s a great guitar player.
AM: Yeah, all those riffs are his; all the guitar work- the meat of the song is Rich. He’s a force. It’s interesting as far as band dynamics. Most bands I’ve played with, as far as the rhythm goes – usually rhythm sections – bass and drums, but what I’ve found in the Crowes, the rhythm section is actually Steve and Rich because they grew up learning how to play together. They have a way between Rich strums his guitar…he and Steve move around together. Sven is amazing – because he just comes in and sits in the middle and does his thing between the two of them which is a great dynamic. I’ve never played in a band where it’s like that – usually they lock the bass with the drums. But in the Crowes Rich locks with Steve and the bass gets to move around in there which is so much more musical- in my opinion.
Yeah, Sven’s bass line on “Walk Believer Walk” is a good example of that –I love “Daughters”, “Evergreen”, “Whoa Mule” is great…
AM: Yeah, we recorded “Whoa Mule” outside. That was in the courtyard on the lawn. All the poor studio hands had to bring all those long mic cables and pull everything outside. We were playing it outside, and Paul said, ‘You know what? This is where we’re doing it. Out here!’ So we played it outside. You can hear birds chirping. In fact, you can hear birds chirping on a lot of the record. There were no real isolated rooms in that studio – it was one big room. In fact, the control board was in the room with the band. So, basically if you wanted to have anything that didn’t pick up drums you had to do it outside of the room. There’s a little balcony which you could close the doors to – that we’d stick Rich and Luther out there if they were doing acoustic guitars. It was really to let them get eaten by mosquitoes (Laughs). If you listen on a bunch of songs it starts out with acoustic guitars, and you can hear birds and crickets – it was just great.
Well, it’s all about to heat up – I’ll see y’all at the Chattanooga show next week…
AM: Yeah, we’ve got the Chattanooga show on the 6th. Then I think we have a gig opening up for Dave Matthews in St. Louis, which should be interesting.
I’ll see Luther and the All Stars Friday (Variety Playhouse with Amy LaVere) here in Atlanta tomorrow. So, The Crowes will be out for the rest of the year.
AM: Yeah, pretty much. After these shows they’ll be two weeks off and from the end of June until Dec 20. It’s like three weeks on – ten days off. Six weeks on, ten days off. We’re gonna end the run at the Fillmore in San Francisco, which I think Jonathan Wilson will be opening those shows. That’s what he said might happen.
How did The Topanga Days things go last weekend? Gary Louris was on the bill – Jonathan Wilson – Marc Ford.
AM: I played with Jonathan Wilson and I played with Gary Louris.
Did Chris go down?
AM: No, you know Chris was supposed to play. Originally it was gonna be me playing with Wilson and Louris. And then it was gonna be me, Wilson, and Chris just winging it–which would’ve been great. The whole day would have been better if things were run better. I got nothing against it. It was a great time, but for me I have to have the right gear. Well, number one, the first problem was I think the production manager – I was trying to call her up – and see if we could get a B-3 down there. I know Marc Ford’s organ player wanted a B-3, somebody else wanted one and I certainly needed one for Wilson and Louris.
I called her up and her outgoing message was, ‘I just dropped my phone in the toilet. Please leave your message and I’ll try and get back to you.’ So I left messages with everybody I could – ‘Somebody told me there’s gonna be a B-3 there – is this true?’ At ten o’clock in the morning when we had to play somebody called saying ‘There’s a B-3 here – I’m looking at it. So don’t worry.’ I happened to have a fake organ in the back of my truck. We get there and I check out the gear and I said – ‘Well, it all looks good.’
Wilson’s about to go on about ten minutes to go – I’m feeling good and I ‘m asking these stagehands, can we move this B-3, and they go – ‘Oh it doesn’t work.’ I was like, ‘Did you know about this, this morning?’ Yeah, yeah, yeah…so for me it was a stress – fest. I think both shows were just fine from my standpoint because I was playing on stuff and didn’t have the right gear that I needed so you gotta do things the wrong way to get a certain sound. I’m just particular about that. No, Chris is definitely on vacation with his girlfriend. I’m not sure where they went – Honduras or Buenos Aires – some place you’d really want to go. She took him on vacation. The last time we played he told me I’m not going to be able to do the Topanga Days Show. In the end all be all, it was probably best Chris didn’t go because it was a little mix-mosh. You know who Jonathan Rice is?
Yeah, his girlfriend is Jenny Lewis. They’re involved in those Wednesday night jams at Wilson’s house….
AM: He’s a great guy. Jonathan Wilson basically played his own set with me and Husky the drummer – he’s in the lyrics of one of the Gary Louris songs. Creekside is Wilson and Husky is Husky. Not to blow the mystique. I played with Jonathan Wilson and I played with Gary. I went and watched Jonathan Rice and from the crowd everything seemed fine. Then when you get backstage it’s pandemonium. It was one of those days. We got through it and it was fun, but I had to deal with technical difficulties. And sound guys saying through the monitors, ‘What’s talking so long?’ And I say, ‘Well I just found out the B-3 doesn’t exist. And I gave the keys to my girlfriend who had the organ. I talked to Jonathan Wilson a couple days ago and he was like, ‘I’ve never seen you that stressed out.’
So, this Laurel Canyon thing will always be happening…
AM: Yeah, we’re thinking about it tonight. Wilson told me some top secret info about some show happening in town. I’m gonna go to that, and then we’ll move on to Wilson’s house. Chris ain’t around, but it’ll happen whenever it can. It’s a great forum for just – number one, for me I learned a lot of songs. Chris Robinson aside from being an amazing singer–his brain is incredible. He has a catalogue of songs in his head, and so does Jonathan Wilson. When those two get together….sometimes they’ll play songs you’ve never heard. I’ll just play along. It’s great for me. I always come away with having gone through songs I’ve heard, but never played.
Well, now you’re in The Black Crowes. Traveling in the vortex…
AM: Yeah, the back of the bus is Chris’ territory. A gigantic IPOD. A gigantic… everything…
Well, it should be interesting. It’s a new era for the band. It’s a new era for another Georgia band, Widespread Panic with their new guitarist Jimmy Herring. I just went down to the Florida line and wrote a story on them.
AM: Yeah, ya know we played with Jimmy Herring in Atlanta last year. He’s great. He’s in Widespread Panic now, right?
Yeah, he’s their new guitar player.
AM: He came in and played on a song with us. He’s played with the Crowes before. He’s great – really nice guy. Hands down, everybody in this situation is super-talented and super – cool. I can’t say enough about everybody. Luther Dickinson is another super hero. He’s amazing. That guy is the hardest working dude ever. I’m talking to you on the phone and he’s playing a show somewhere.
He’s very cordial. He got a serious first-hand musical education. And he can play anything…his sound is a classic blues tone…
AM: Yeah, that’s his thing. To me, being a Yankee and all – Luther Dickinson represents the epitome of a southern gentleman. Nothing bothers him. Never a stress. He and his wife are just awesome. He’s always happy. He’s always positive. He always plays well even when he doesn’t know what he’s doing. He came in and did a show with us in Colorado when Paul was mixing the record last year. So, basically Luther came in and played a show with us cold. Just one show between two legs of the show – a five week run – two weeks off when Paul went to mix the record and we had one show in the middle of that two weeks off and Paul couldn’t fly back and forth to England for one show – he had to mix the record. So, Luther was gonna be in the band anyway, so he came to play the show. He was totally Luther – happy, relaxed. I was like, ‘Goddamn’. I remember the first time I had to play a show with the Crowes and didn’t know what I was doing – I was shitting myself. He knows when to layout, and if he messes up – he’s like, ‘Whoops – whatever.’
I would guess a keyboard player can hang back just a little bit, but Luther’s in a different position… If one brother says left and the other says right…he’s probably one of the only guys that could come into The Black Crowes and musically navigate upstream without offending anyone in the band, and they all dig his musical actions and reactions…
AM: Yeah, totally. In fact, I’ve heard horror stories about Chris and Rich, and there’s been a couple moments where things were a bit intense, but honestly this whole year everybody’s been really happy. I don’t know much about it because I’m new, like Paul would be like ‘I can’t believe how great things are.’ I was like ‘What – this is normal’. He’d say, ‘No, man- you have no idea. Things have been pretty dark in the past’. It’s been really great. Everyone is happy… with Luther, he’s almost like a Billy Preston in the Beatles, where everyone was at each other’s throats. He came, got along with everybody and was killing it. Everybody felt good about it again. There’s a new energy. I’d like to say some of that is me, but I really think it’s Luther. They really respect Luther’s playing, his vibe, his attitude – I think just having his energy there has made everybody happy. Like you said, they’ve been doing it for so long that you have to be re-energized about what you do. Having a new record out- first one in seven years and having Luther with such positive energy around – it’s energized the original members of the band into enjoying themselves.
This should be a pretty good introduction to your career and how it all came to pass. Provide a few facts instead of some weirdo’s speculation on a fan board…
AM: Yeah, I don’t even read those boards. I remember Paul used to read those and he’d do it for fun. He’s English and some of the things they say. He was laughing about it, ‘Look (English accent) this guy wanted to get on stage, take my guitar away from me, and beat me over the head with it (laughs).’ I was like, ‘Man, you should stop reading that. He’s like, ‘I know but it’s funny’. I see those die-hard Crowes fans at shows. They sit there with their arms crossed and stare at you. They refuse to enjoy it in any way because it’s not Marc Ford or Eddie Harsch – it’s not the original band. They come to the shows in order not to enjoy themselves. To me that’s stupid. I mean hey, don’t focus on that much negativity in your life – it’s just gonna give you an ulcer. If you don’t like the band any more then find one that you do. Enjoy yourself. Don’t spend $60 on a ticket and go knowing you’re not gonna have fun.
Either way those guys are never gonna be happy. I’ve talked to a bunch of people that are really appreciative and they dig it. Those are the cool people – and they’ve seen 200 shows and they still come up and say – I’m really glad you’re here. I love the way the band is progressing. I love the new record. Those are the people who are actually fans of the band that it’s moving forward and doing what it has to do to be creative and continue on in its career. Those are the people that are cool to talk to – they understand music is ever-changing and it’s not something you can put your foot on and lock down. It’s never always going to be the same – that’s a beauty of it. If you look at that you appreciate how it changes. If you don’t, and you want it the way you want it, stay home and listen to the record.
What’s been the hardest thing to learn getting thrown onto the runaway locomotive of The Black Crowes in such a short time?
AM: What’s big for me- is I’d really had to broaden my… I always loved different kinds of music. I’m a big Leon Russell fan, but where I came from, it was Bernie Worrell, Richard Wright, War, and to be thrust into this… you gotta know your Otis Spann and stuff like that I really didn’t grow up on. That’s the biggest thing. Eddie Harsch came from the blues, I came from a more funk more psychedelic situation. What’s great is that’s something Chris saw in me and wanted to introduce to the band. I’ve never been told not to do something. I’ve been given a pretty big license when we do a jam or we go off. I’ve only been told to do what I feel, which is amazing. How rare is it that for a keyboard player you get that for a keyboard player you get to play with a great band, and they still jam, you still have moments onstage where you don’t know what’s gonna happen, which is becoming increasingly rare these days. That’s the kind of stuff you can do in a little club and in front of 15,000 people at a festival is rare.
It’s about streamlining musical magic especially when fans can buy the live shows.
AM: Yeah man.
Will you be on Jonathan wilson’s new record Gentle Spirit?
AM: I have to hear it. He plays a lot of stuff, but I recorded some stuff for it. I hang out at his house and play. So, I might be.
Well , this should be a great run for the Crowes. I look forward to seeing y’all next week.
AM: Ok man. You got my number. See you in Chattanooga.