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Birds of a Feather: How The Magpie Salute Flocked Together

Tuesday, 07 August 2018 Written by Simon Ramsay

Throughout our lives the majority of us will make meaningful and lasting connections, forging relationships that, at their most natural, seem impervious to time and distance. Paths can diverge and years fly by, but once we’re back in each other’s orbits the old rapport immediately returns. That’s something Rich Robinson, formerly of the Black Crowes, will certainly attest to after a one-off gig with some former collaborators swiftly turned into a brand new band with over 30 years of shared history.

The sequence of events that led to the formation of the Magpie Salute was something of a happy accident. While touring his 2016 solo effort ‘Flux’, a record that arrived a year after the Crowes’ acrimonious split, the guitarist got an opportunity to play a show in Woodstock, New York. Wanting to do something a little different he invited guests to watch him and a selection of his musical sparring partners from different eras and projects bash out songs they’d played together during their careers.  

Joining Robinson for that spectacle were, among others, a trio of former Black Crowes in guitarist Marc Ford, keyboard player Eddie Harsch (who sadly passed away last year) and bassist Sven Pipien. His old Hookah Brown band mate, vocalist John Hogg, and long-time solo drummer Joe Magistro, bolstered the ranks of what eventually became a double figure ensemble.

Hearing those musicians together in a completely fresh context lit a fire under both Rich and his compadres. A proper tour and live album followed, both of which put the Magpie Salute on the map and set the scene for the their debut studio record ‘High Water I’, which is out on August 10. Blending ballsy rock ‘n’ roll, campfire folk, psychedelic blues and dusky Americana, it’s an album powered by so much chemistry that the band, which now includes keyboard player Matt Slocum, ended up recording enough material for a sophomore effort -  ‘High Water II’ – that’s set to land early next year.

It’s perhaps ironic that a group featuring three members of an outfit as dysfunctional as the Black Crowes have built their foundations on exactly the kind of friendship, enjoyment and unity that, because of their ongoing absence, led to the implosion of Robinson’s former group. We discussed this with the man himself and also got the lowdown on the making of their new records, why he’s no fan of this modern world and whether or not his old band really are “completely finished”.

Did forming the Magpie Salute and going on tour restore your faith in the whole band dynamic, especially after all the negativity that began to dominate in the Black Crowes?

Yeah, absolutely, and to be able to reset. Marc Ford and me and everyone in the Crowes, bringing that into this new context where Matt and John and Joe didn’t have those deep elements and understand the negativity. To learn and be really vigilant about not going down that road has been amazing. It did restore my belief system in going into the studio and making a record with a band and ever since we started it’s just been really cool.

How will you avoid going down the same road with this band?

Just trying to keep open communication, trying to involve everyone. ‘Hey, this is what we’re planning on doing. What do you guys think?’ Being on tour gets hard. There’s a lot of time by yourself, then you’re in this van and you need time alone, but then you want to be part of this thing. There’s a lot of reasons why it can be emotionally tough and isolating. People sometimes sit and take things personally, not communicate, let things fester. We are pretty vigilant in not allowing that to happen. I think we’re all in a much better, more mature place not to go down that road.

Why did you choose to whittle the Magpie Salute down from the 10-piece line up you initially toured with to the six musicians who made ‘High Water I’ and ‘II’?

Well, last year was a celebration, almost like a revue. We went out to celebrate the music we had made together and covers we had done. It was just fun. Once we started looking at the whole thing we just decided ‘This feels good to us and we want to be a band.’ So we wanted to cut it back to the core to give birth to this thing.

Why did you think this particular blend of musicians would work so well?

It’s worked better than I thought. Ultimately, I’ve played with all these guys in different contexts, but it always worked. Joe, as far as a drummer goes, he is my favourite I’ve ever played with and he and I have this connection that’s outside of the Black Crowes. I just knew Joe and Marc would gel together well. I knew that Matt would play well with everyone. I just knew in my heart that all these things would work out.

You and Marc were in tandem on what many consider to be the Black Crowes’ best albums. Why do your guitar styles blend so effectively?

We drink from a similar well musically, but it’s tough to say why it works. We just start playing and it becomes this thing, something both of us recognise in each other. It was funny because when I called him for those shows in Woodstock a couple of years ago his flight had been cancelled and he had to spend the night in Chicago. We were supposed to rehearse the night before but didn’t get a chance to. He showed up and we instantly just went back into that place.

Marc has said you two are better friends now than you’ve ever been. Did you have any lingering issues that needed resolving before you could be in a band again?

The interesting thing is that, whoever played in the Black Crowes in Marc’s role stage right, and the way the dynamic of the band was set up, it just wasn’t healthy. Marc and I…it wasn’t even necessarily a negative relationship, it just wasn’t a relationship outside of music. There was a pretty strong wall between us so when I called him I remember thinking ‘How odd is it to live on a bus with someone for years and not really know them?’ You go through this life and see these things together and, to not have that kind of relationship but then walk on stage and have this musical relationship, just seemed really odd. So that was part of the reason I thought it would be cool to reach out to him. Ever since then we’ve really got to know each other and understand where each other was coming from.

For the ‘High Water’ albums you recorded 29 songs in 21 days. How on earth did you manage that?

We wrote a little bit on tour and towards the end of it came to the mutual agreement we wanted to make a record. Just to start off it was me, John and Marc coming up with things and in January we all got together in a house, sat down and brought everything we had. I had 40 things from the past, new and old. Marc and John had a bunch of stuff and we sifted through all the pieces, put about 35 things together and went into the studio. Through that some songs were working, some weren’t. We kind of nixed everything and focused down on these 29. The whole thing was incredibly creative. Everyone was in a good, positive mood, the studio was great and all those things together created this vibe and feeling.

The first record is a complete piece that takes listeners on a journey. Does it disappoint you that people are often more interested in streaming individual tracks than investing in a full album these days?

I think that’s annoying for a lot of reasons. First of all, it’s odd that these weird computer algorithms choose what songs you may like based on the other 150 songs you listened to this week. It also absolutely negates the artist, the person who created the music, and their desire to sequence a record to show you the path. That’s a disappointment.  

When someone listens to vinyl I think it subconsciously, or consciously, gives people a deeper understanding that everything is a collaboration. Someone had to build the instrument, someone had to make the vinyl, someone created the artwork that’s on top of the record.  Someone had to build the gear we’re recording on, the microphones and the cables. You spread that out and someone had to drive a truck and bring this thing here. 

It has a smell, there’s a tactile response. You stand up and actually have to get off a sofa, walk over and put a needle on a vinyl. And you have to listen vigilantly because there’s not 1500 songs on your little computer device. It forces you to realise that there’s a whole process to this thing and, ultimately, that’s what makes it so brilliant.

Mary The Gypsy gets the album off to a fiery start. What’s that song about?

It’s about what’s happened to society. We’ve allowed ourselves to be pigeonholed because we don’t like things that are messy. We go along with rules and, basically, what corporations tell us to go along with. I like to call it being ‘corporate chipper’, where everyone’s fake happy and everything is fine as long as you don’t have an opinion and just agree and shop and all these things. I don’t agree with that and think humanity is more important than that. I think creation is more important than that and anyone who creates architecture, music, movies or whatever it may be, they have a responsibility to shoot for something higher than the lowest common denominator.

Along similar lines, Can You See seems to be about the evils of modern technology.

It’s ‘What about humanity?’ Like, we’re adrift in the ether between earth and the screen. If you think about what we’re doing to ourselves, everything is a virtual, digital print of real life and it’s never as good. People come to shows and look through their shitty little screen on their shitty little phone, and they paid money for that. They take that home and it’s never as good as if you just experience the show yourself. We’re missing these experiences we can have for the sake of holding onto them, but we’re not holding onto them. This little computer’s holding onto them. We’ve missed the whole thing and keep missing it in a loop because we keep watching it on our phone. It’s so odd. Those are the things I find really frustrating about the new world.

Humanity is a running theme throughout the album and one of the most poignant songs is Color Blind, which John wrote. While racism has never gone away it’s sad how relevant the song still feels in 2018.

Exactly. I remember when I first met John and we started this other band a long time ago. I was so amazed by his perspective of life. What kind of a tough gift, to be able to see things through these two eyes and what that means. So when I brought the music to him I’m like ‘Why don’t you write about that? Tell me what you saw. Tell me what you think.’

Send Me An Omen and Take It All have a very strong Black Crowes vibe. Is this the kind of album you wanted to make with them before you guys split up, rather than the direction your brother, Chris, thought they should take?  

That band descended into an argument every time we would make a record. It would be ‘What direction does this band need to go to?’ I wasn’t interested in going down that Grateful Dead road, I was interested in being the Black Crowes. I felt we were unique enough in my songwriting and Chris’s voice to be able to go down that road and Chris felt otherwise. So he immersed himself in this jammy kind of noodly sound, but I still think songs are important and a huge gift. When you write a great song there’s nothing better than that to me.

You haven’t spoken to Chris for years and there’s been a bit of mud-slinging in the press during that time. It must make you sad things ended that way?  

Obviously it’s always nicer to stay civil. A lot of the negativity that goes back and forth, people in the press look for an angle so they can sell it. Chris likes to talk a lot. He says some negative things so I find myself having to correct a false statement or defend something. It’s unfortunate for that but it’s ultimately part of the whole thing. It could have been handled much better but, look, it is what it is. We’re here now. It was handled the way it was handled and that’s all we can really do.

Groups like the Eagles and Guns N’ Roses have proven that, in rock ‘n’ roll, you should never say never. What, if anything, would need to happen for the Black Crowes to reform or just reunite for some gigs?

I don’t know. To me it’s just not interesting anymore. It’s too marred in negativity and horseshit and so, ultimately, I just don’t think it’s ever gonna happen. Like you said, you never know. Guns N’ Roses got back together. But I am so much more interested in doing this with my band and keeping it positive and cool. There’s just a real negative cloud over the Crowes that always tends to come around so I’m far happier doing this.

'High Water I' is out on August 10 on Provogue/Mascot.

The Magpie Salute Upcoming Tour Dates are as follows:

Fri August 10 2018 - LONDON Oslo

Click here to compare & buy The Magpie Salute Tickets at Stereoboard.com.

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