According to Merriam-Webster, one of the definitions of a “magpie” refers to one who collects indiscriminately. In the case of The Magpie Salute, a new 10-piece outfit drawing together three key members of The Black Crowes—Rich Robinson, Marc Ford and Sven Pipien—the groups collects its source material from a myriad of influences to create an expansive sonic palette built on solid grooves and a winning improvisational flair.
The group’s new debut album, produced by Robinson, was cut live (sans one studio track) in front of an audience in at Applehead Recording in Woodstock, New York.
Cherry-picking songs by the likes of Bob Marley, The Faces, War and Delaney & Bonnie, The Magpie Salute inhabits the material, harnessing the creative freedom to explore where the music takes them. We caught up with Rich Robinson, who filled us in more about The Magpie Salute.
Rock Cellar: When The Magpie Salute came together, did you have a plan in place for the kind of sound you wanted to make, or did that happen organically?
Rich Robinson: I was on tour for my solo record, Flux, and this show came up in Woodstock. I’d done one two years previous and it went great, so I was like, “Yeah, that was fun, let’s do it again!”
But I wanted to do something different and wanted to bring in some guests and try some different things.
So I asked a couple of friends to come sing, a couple of singers from up in Woodstock and then I reached out to Marc Ford and he was excited to come. Then I reached out to Eddie Harsch and same thing, “Man, I’m there, it’ll be great.”
So it was more like my band was doing that anyway and I brought all of these people in and it worked out amazingly well; I was very happy with it.
The whole purpose of it was to get to play with Marc and Eddie again. I felt like my musical connection with those guys is special and you could feel it while we were there. The minute Marc and I play together or me and Marc and Ed and Sven, you can just feel that it’s a special thing.
The reason it kind of launched from there is while we were there we knew it was special. We were like, “this is really next level, this is really unique.” So that’s the impetus for the whole thing.
Being a co-founder of The Black Crowes, the fabric of that band is a big part of The Magpie Salute. It’s something you celebrate and embrace rather than shy away from it.
Rich Robinson: Well, yeah. That band was wrought with a lot of negativity, stemming from the personalities in the band. It started out in a really pure way, maybe like a lot of things that become successful, the intention was pure. We loved music and wanted to play it. And then egos grow and success comes and everyone wants to be the reason for the success. And then it’s managers and attorneys and all of these people who fight and get involved and put in their opinions and then it can go south, it can go sour.
There was a lot of that in the Crowes and it just seemed to ramp up over the years. My first inclination was to stay away from the Crowes and just make my own record and do my own thing. But then you realize the only reason anyone is coming to these shows to see me solo is because they grew up with the Black Crowes and they came to these Crowes shows and that band and because my music meant so much to them.
So as I started playing more on my own I started realizing, man, it’s kind of silly to ignore that, that’s important. It means a lot of people and by the way, what’s the purpose of being in a band? Well, the sole purpose of being in a band in my opinion is to have your music matter to people, to have your music matter as much as the Rolling Stones mattered to me or Bob Dylan or The Who or Zeppelin or whoever it may be.
That’s the whole purpose.
Given that life inside The Black Crowes was tumultuous, how do you intend to hamper down on egos and “keep the peace,” for lack of a better word, with the new band?
Rich Robinson: Well, the thing is everyone that’s in this band has reverence for the music of the past and reverence for the new stuff we’re making now. Me, Marc and Sven and Charity (White) and Eddie for the brief moment he was in the band, we were around all that horrible negativity. We went through a lot of soul-searching to understand our part in all of that negativity, and we are all coming to this with the sole purpose of not reliving or adding or fostering any negativity.
This is not about ego; it’s not about us, it’s about the song and that’s what I tell everyone.
Many of the songs on The Magpie Salute’s album top seven minutes in length and some nine minutes. Was this expansive sound something that developed naturally, given there’s less worry about structuring a song for commercial radio play?
Rich Robinson: I haven’t even thought about it. I don’t listen to the radio. I kind of feel that the industry is the industry and it does what it does. It’s running itself into the ground, and I’m just trying to play music that means something. Sometimes those two things will meet (laughs) and sometimes never the twain shall meet. (laughs)
There are still some fans of music out there who are in the music industry, and one of them is the guy that I am working with on this project with my label, Eagle Rock. He’s a big fan of music. There’s also a bunch of bankers, who only care about money or hanging out with young starlets and they don’t give a shit and that’s what it is.
They want to hang out with Katy Perry or Lady Gaga or whoever and they don’t care about music. But I think there’s a huge gross misunderstanding of what pushes music forward and it’s not technology. It’s not some sort of weird hybrid technology of, “Well, you can get a DJ and think about all of the things you can do with your laptop now onstage.” (laughs) It’s like Jesus, man! At the end of the day, who gives a fuck?
You’re right, that computer‘s doing that work for you. Then you’re just a computer programmer. I can go play a Madden video game but it doesn’t make me a professional football player and that’s where it is. It’s taking that humanity out of it. So people think that is moving forward, but I kind of feel that people are using technology as a crutch and it’s allowing people who shouldn’t be making music to do it.
It just opens the floodgates for anyone who just wants to bang around on a guitar to be able to make a record, whereas this is something I take seriously. Where are the people that are writing music about the world outside? I mean, there’s a whole shitload of stuff going on this country right now that we can see every day. It’s really reached the level of psychosis; from the environment to politics to our President to the violence that’s going on around the world. There’s so much to write about, but also even if you don’t want to get into all of that, writing about humanity and your voice and what do you see within yourself. How are you pushing yourself forward? How are you getting through these things that may be struggles?
It’s not just about some sort of Disney-esque theme like, “Oh, everything’s great!” It’s not about that; it’s literally about being human.
You recorded the album except for the song “Omission” live in front of an audience. What were the trickiest challenges you faced doing it this way?
Rich Robinson: Well look, the fortunate thing about being in the studio is if something sucks it’s not going on a record. (laughs) But fortunately for us, there is decades of experience between all of us being onstage. You have Eddie playing with James Cotton and Albert Collins and then being in the Crowes and all the people that he played with. And then you have Matt Slocum, who was our keyboard player with Eddie and played with Colonel Bruce Hampton and played with Susan Tedeschi and all these people and he had been on tour for decades.
When you do something that much you’re gonna bring a level of expertise to his thing. Fortunately for all of us we all get what this thing is and we all bring that to the table. We can get up there and we’re all smart enough to know if you don’t know something you don’t play. 90 percent of playing music is listening and backing off and realizing, “This person is covering this and that person is covering this, I shouldn’t sing here, let’s do this.” And that’s all it is and we know it and we did it really well. So the cool thing about this record is we probably could have done a double or triple album but this is what I chose and what represented the Magpie.
With this new incarnation, you re-team with guitarist Marc Ford. What was special about that chemistry and how does that collaboration speak today?
Rich Robinson: Well, it just really comes down to trust. I’ve always loved Marc Ford as a guitar player, and I love what he plays so I’d bring music to him I’d always wonder, “Man, what’s Marc gonna play on this?” and I just always thought it was really cool. So to have that kind of relationship with someone, even if it’s just musical, let alone personal. There’s a deep communication that goes on between Marc and I when we play music. A lot of times we didn’t have that in the Crowes. It was kind of filtered through my brother and not necessarily correctly. That’s where Marc and I would really meet — on that musical level, and now we get a chance to meet on both levels.
On the new album, you interpret material by Delaney and Bonnie, Pink Floyd, Bob Marley, The Faces, War and The Black Crowes. What makes a song right for The Magpie Salutes?
Rich Robinson: Well, it’s just songs that mean something to me or “hey man, that lyric was great” or “I think sonically this would work with our band if it’s “Goin’ Down South,” that Bobby Hutcherson song we do.” What kind of feeling does that pull from me and what kind of feeling does that pull from everyone playing on that song? When you hear it, what does it pull when you play it?
You even cover “Time Will Tell” by Bob Marley, which the Crowes also recorded for your second album, The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion.
Rich Robinson: I always thought it was really cool the way the Crowes did that song and we never did it (laughs); we recorded it and I don’t think we ever played it, not even once. I thought with the girls in the band and Marc and everyone there that this would be a really cool song for us to do.
What’s the last record you heard that blew you away?
Rich Robinson: There’s a new artist that I heard out of New Orleans called Durand Jones & The Indications. I was in a coffee shop and heard this song and I bought the record immediately. It’s just great. That was only a couple of weeks ago.
How do you define success in regards to the Magpie Salute?
Rich Robinson: Well, just to be good. (laughs) Just to musically live up to all of our desires and capabilities, and that’s success to me. We’re just going started. I just dumped over 150 songs on these guys and our singer. John Hogg has the hardest task out of all of us because (laughing) he’s gotta learn lyrics, melody, keys; he’s go so much to learn.
We’re gonna be drawing from 150 songs. We change the set every night. We’ll be playing 20 plus songs a night and we change setlists every night. The Crowes songs that we play are songs that I wrote altogether or wrote with my brother. Chris wrote about five songs in the Black Crowes catalog that he wrote on his own and that was really the last record or two that we made. So the whole of the Crowes catalog is on the table.
John Hogg is a great singer and is more than capable of singing these songs and he really brings himself to them. He’s not Chris and he knows he’s not Chris but he loves this music and he has reverence for it. He does a great job. It’s tough, people are gonna be staring at him with very focused eyes.
In terms of guitar influences, is there a seminal player that the press and public don’t cite that had a profound impact on the way you approach playing guitar?
Rich Robinson: Yeah, I guess. I’ve talked about him a lot over the years but Nick Drake was probably one of my biggest influences as far as his open tunings that he’d play with and the way that he approached songs and music. It’s just something that has always reached me and you can actually hear that throughout the songs that I’ve written. If you look at “Thorn In My Pride,” that to me was my first Nick Drake song. Over the years, he’s probably one of my biggest influences.
You subbed for Mick Ralphs on Bad Company’s U.S. tour. What was that experience like working with one of rock’s greatest bands and singers, Paul Rodgers?
Rich Robinson: Paul Rodgers really has it. It’s mind-numbing how great he is. He does sound as good, if not better, than ever. I was fun to play on that tour and play with Paul and Simon and the rest of the band. I grew up being a huge Free fan. I heard Bad Company all over the radio but I owned those Free records and listened to them all the time. So to get up there a play with Bad Company was amazing and it was a great honor. To me it was just fun.
Paul said, “Can you fill in for Mick because he can’t make these couple of legs” and it was great. It was fun, it wasn’t my band and I didn’t have to lead anything, which took the pressure off. Everyone was so cool.
Looking back at The Black Crowes’ career, equally triumphant and turbulent, what are you most proud of in terms of the band’s legacy?
Rich Robinson: We had a great shows. The most fun shows would be when we opened foe AC/DC or when we toured with The Rolling Stones and we played with Neil Young and toured with Dylan and toured with all of our favorite artists.
The tour we did with Jimmy Page was just crazy. To us those were the most fun. It was great to headline our own shows. In 2005 we did a New Year’s Eve show at the Garden, which was really cool. Playing Red Rocks or the Greek or Madison Square Garden. The band always loved our shows.
It was pretty amazing to be able to do that.
Stream the Magpie Salute’s new live album below, via Spotify.