With urban and pop music running away far, far into the distance in terms of streaming numbers, many people – including the Washington Post, with their recent ‘Sorry, rock fans. Hip-hop is the only genre that matters right now – are viewing rock music as choking on the dust of other genres’ progress.
Take Kentucky’s Black Stone Cherry, for example. Since releasing their self-titled debut in 2006, they have slowly built their fanbase in the UK – through high profile support tours with Nickelback and Alter Bridge – to the point where they have now headlined two successful UK arena tours, and all without mainstream attention.
Today (April 20) they release their new album Family Tree via Mascot Records/Mascot Label.
Here, Music Week catches up with frontman/guitarist Chris Robertson to talk about how they became an arena-conquering band, the special guest appearances on Family Tree, his battles with mental health and why now – contrary to headlines you may have read – is a very good time to be in a rock band…
What inspired the title track Family Tree?
“I think more than anything, everything we’ve been through as a band, all the people you meet. A lot of them turn out to be not what they say they were in this business. That song for me is just about what it’s been, what it takes to keep this thing going. With all the negativity and the trickery that can come with this business, the only constant is what you have at home. That’s what that song is all about.”
What is the best lesson you’ve learned from being in a band?
“The one thing that you can never let go of is having a foundation at home. In this business you are gone a lot, I’ve got a five-year-old son, me and my wife have been together since we were 16-years-old in high school. If it wasn’t for my wife and my family that I have so close around me, I wouldn’t still be doing music, I might not even still be here. It’s been my saving grace time after time. For me, that’s the one thing in this business that you have to have. Obviously, you have to have a passion and desire for music, but in order to maintain, you have to have a foundation to plant yourself into, and to reconnect yourself with when you come home. It’s funny because technology is kind of the demise of the record business, as far as record sales go, but it’s also a saving grace for musicians, because it’s a way to have real-time interactions with your family, with Facetime, Skype or whatever.”
In terms of keeping close to family, your son makes an appearance on You’ve Got The Blues. That must be a great moment for you personally…
“Well, I worked on stuff at the house prior to making the record, and he was always running around singing that song. I thought, just for the hell of it, ‘I want to get him to sing that, maybe I can tuck it in somewhere in the song.’ Then it ended up sounding really cool so we stuck it right there at the front of the song and it’s really cool, and it’s something that me and him will have forever, we can tell that story. It’s something that’s just really, really cool and I’m super happy we got to do that."
You’ve got Warren Haynes of The Allman Brothers on Dancing In The Rain, too. What did he bring to the song and what did it mean to you personally to have him involved?
“He basically brought exactly what we wanted which was getting Warren Haynes to the song! Warren is one of our heroes, from his work with The Allman Brothers to his solo stuff. It’s all just fantastic, and I’m a mega fan. I was listening to the record yesterday when I was washing dishes and that song came on and I was like, ‘Holy shit!’ this is amazing. He’s such a lovely dude, man. He’s such an incredible, talented artist. He can do anything. Having him be a part of our record was something that was truly inspiring to us. Making money is great, being able to provide for our families is great, but the biggest pay-offs is when you get to work with your heroes, or when people have a reaction or story about how something you did artistically affected their life.”
You’re a much bigger band in the UK than back home in America. How did you grow such a dedicated fanbase over here?
“You know what’s odd about it, man? We haven’t done anything differently in the UK than we have in the States, we’ve always just played shows and done our thing. Over in the UK, for rock’n’roll, you still have TV, you still have print magazines dedicated to rock. You’ve got Classic Rock, you’ve got Kerrang!, you’ve got Metal Hammer - all these great outlets for rock that in the States we just don’t have. Unless it’s pop or country, there are no music videos on TV. Even the pop and country channels have gone to more reality-based TV shows. You still have kick-ass outlets for rock music. I think that’s as big a part as anything. We’ve never been accepted by active rock radio in America, no matter how hard we tried to write a song for that format, or just didn’t give a shit like we have the last couple of records. We’ve just never been a massively successful radio band. I think print media and TV in the UK are what really helped us. At this point in our career, we’ve headlined two very successful arena tours in the UK. That’s something that, in this day and age, is an incredible feat in my opinion. We’re kind of a ‘ground-up’ kind of band. For us to go play at Wembley Arena in front of 10,000 people, it’s amazing, man.”
We tried to appease record labels for so long, it just never worked for us... We don’t need a radio song. We need to get on tour and play in front of people
Is now a good time to be a rock band?
“I think any time is a good time to be a rock band. Rock has always been the underdog and been pushed aside because it was a little bit too dangerous for everybody else. But if you look at music throughout the years it kind of goes in cycles. I love all genres of music, I can listen to anything. We were on a flight the other day and I went from Lamb Of God’s Sacrament to the latest Demi Lovato record, and I knew the words on both the records. But everything goes in cycles. I’m starting to see a resurgence of a lot of Southern and classic rock inspired bands, that’s awesome. I love hearing good, organic rock and roll as long as it’s not copy-catting other bands. I feel like if you keep doing what you do, and you do it well, there’s a place for you. That’s what we’ve finally discovered. We tried to appease record labels and whatever for so long, it just never worked for us.”
Do you mean in trying to give them singles?
“Yes, and that’s the thing, man, we don’t need a radio song. We need to get on tour and play in front of people and with different bands that we normally wouldn’t play with. That’s always been our thing, trying to convert people over. We worked so long and so hard to try to appease a certain format and an idea that a record label had, that we kind of lost touch with what it was that made us love and want to play music in the first place.”
Speaking about playing music, how are you feeling about essentially warming Download Festival up for Guns N' Roses?
“I remember when we got the phone call about that last year, and we were just like, ‘You gotta be kidding us, right?’ We’ve headlined certain stages a few times and Download has always been an amazing festival for us but we worked our asses off to get to be considered for that slot and to have Guns N' Roses be cool with us playing that slot, and to have the promoters pick us for that slot is amazing. It’s going to be an experience for sure, man, hopefully we go out there and do everybody proud.”
Finally, you recently told Kerrang! about your own battles with depression, and obviously in the rock world we lost two heroes last year with Chester Bennington and Chris Cornell. Is enough being done to shed a light on the subject of mental health in music?
“I think too much is never enough for that topic. I’ve been there, I’ve lived through it. Dancing In The Rain, that’s exactly about overcoming that stuff. Look at Chester and look at Chris Cornell, both those guys were in two of the most influential bands of their genres and timetables. When you look at bands from the 2000s, Linkin Park is about as big as it gets. Soundgarden are one of the most iconic bands in rock history, not just grunge. You just never know what people are going through. That’s why, when I get asked about things I talk about it because I think if more people talked about it, they would understand that it’s not a certain select group of people that this happens to. It can happen to anybody, and everybody should feel comfortable enough in their own skin to speak about things that bother them.
"It’s fucked up, but depression is the only illness that you have to prove to someone before they believe you. It’s a disease just like anything else. You know, I’m a manic depressive - that is [the] title I was given. And if I tell someone I’m manic depressive, I suffer from severe depression and anxiety, people tell me, “Aw, you’ll get through it, you’ll be alright.’ Why can’t we have the same support system, or help, even that people with other diseases have? That’s why I speak out about it. For me, I’ve been the guy that was there, the guy that loaded a gun to go take his own life, and I managed to miraculously pull through to the other side, between Bob Marley and my wife and kid and God I made it through, but that’s unfortunately not the circumstance for a lot of people. The last thing that I would want to hear is that somebody didn’t make it to see us again because they ended taking up their own life of they succumbed to addiction. I want those people to know that if you come to a Black Stone Cherry show, it’s okay to be... We’re all a little fucked up, man.
"It’s just if you are willing enough to admit it or not. And that was the thing for me, I had to finally admit that I couldn’t continue. It wasn’t easy because I grew up in an area where people don’t talk about stuff like that. If you’re having a hard time, just get it together, that’s the mentality. A super-simple, stripped-back, way of life, that’s fine, but to me the simple side of it is going, ‘Get yourself some help.’ If you have the flu, then go to the doctor. If things are not right in your head, go to the doctor.”
[Photo: Harry Reese]
You can watch the video for Black Stone Cherry's latest single Bad Habit below: