Almost two decades ago, the core of Black Stone Cherry coalesced around rock music, and a relentless desire to play live. Half a dozen albums and countless live shows later, the quartet shows no signs of slowing down. Blues Rock Review recently caught up with lead vocalist and guitarist Chris Robertson to chat about touring, pandemic-life, and their new album, The Human Condition.
Through all this madness and with the pandemic affecting everything, how are you and Black Stone Cherry doing? How are you guys holding up in general?
It’s been really weird to get through the year where we haven’t really been Black Stone Cherry. You know, we made a record and songs that we put out, but we’re not on the road and doing what it is that makes us, us. It’s been difficult. It really has but at the same time people like us who are generally gone most of the year, it’s been really awesome to get to be home and spend a lot of time with a family. I never get to be home this much.
I interviewed Ben (Wells) and he gave me the impression that the four of you not only were very tight as a band, but also with your extended families. How has the pandemic affected that? Are you still getting to see each other as much as it sounds like you guys used to, and just hang out, music aside, just being people?
It’s sucked. You know, we’ve seen each other, all jokes aside, I may have seen the guys, ten times each since we finished the record. That was right around March. It’s weird, man. Some of the members of our families that have health conditions, if they were to get COVID it could be very detrimental to them. When you have stuff like that you don’t want to take those chances.
That makes sense. You said ten, ten times since March. So it sounds like even musically you guys haven’t been able to play much together, or have chosen not to because it’s not worth the hassle and the risk.
Since we actually recorded the record we have spent two afternoons playing music together.
We had a day to set up and rehearse and we filmed the content to the Live In The Sky Concert, because none of the venues around here had stable enough internet to do a multicam stream. It had poor resolution with poor audio. So we just recorded a live show. Again, it was the first time that the four of us got to play music together and play through a full song together since February 15th. When we did record, we multi-tracked it this time. We all tracked individually instead of together. So the last time the four of us were all playing together at the exact same time was February 15th.
Besides the Live In The Sky show are you guys still on for this upcoming Friday in Glasgow (Kentucky)?
Yeah, man. That is an outdoor socially distanced event. Essentially what they’re doing there for safety is everyone gets a temperature check on the way in. They have to wear a mask the entire time. And they sold 60 “pods.” So you have to go in with your party, and all the “pods” are spaced out. It’s essentially like the drive-in shows with pods. You know, like with rooftop table pods I’m assuming, instead of the cars. We’re still on for that, man (coughs). Just on the phone with the doctor. Blew my voice out last week doing the first show in eight months (laughs).
So you guys are just getting back into the swing of it. It seems like you maybe have a stop in Ohio in a couple of weeks but then I see you guys pretty open for a while.
We’re doing Glasgow here at home, and then we’ve got Live From The Sky, and then we have November 6th in Cincinnati. And then after that there’s nothing on the books right now because restrictions keep changing. We do a lot of our touring outside the United States. All of that keeps changing nonstop so we really have no idea what the hell we’re doing, man. We’re just anxious and waiting for when we can go out and play music on a stage in front of people.
Would you say that, between venues not necessarily being prepared or wanting the risk, or the local or regional regulations, which one of those has been the biggest problem? Where is the biggest bottleneck? Or maybe you guys don’t really feel like it’s worth pushing the risk?
Ultimately I would never want anyone to have any kind of issue because of anything we do. First and foremost. Secondly, you know, state officials, local officials, government officials of the country are holding up mass gatherings of people. You know, concert promoters aren’t doing it right now, because in order for most venues to put on a show it would have a very limited capacity. Well, that means that the promoter has to offer everybody less pay and a lot of artists can’t do that because they have to have X amount of dollars just to get the crew and the band there. So, it’s kind of a perfect storm for everything that bands aren’t able to do right now.
How do you feel about live streaming concerts? And I guess beyond that, how do you feel about doing those is when the pandemic subsides, when things get back to normal? Is that something you guys will have an interest in continuing a little bit, or a lot, or you’re going to put it aside as soon as you can get back to normal?
I can’t speak for everyone else, but personally, a streamed show is not the show I want, but it’s all we got. We had to make the best out of it. And to be honest with you, I mean, I’m open to doing more of them because that means we can jam again and see all our crew guys and hang out with them. For me, I would do more of them for that simple fact. Obviously, I would much rather play concerts, to a crowd of people. But I will say there was something really cool and unique about the way we did this (Live In The Sky). Playing the way we did was really cool.
Shifting gears, I got to listen to The Human Condition, your newest album, which is coming out this month. It sounds like it wrapped up back in February, is that correct?
We actually wrapped up in March. Right as we were finishing, I remember my son’s school shut down about a week before we got everything done. It was just six of us in the studio. We kind of didn’t go anywhere, like, we were going to the studio and going home and we wouldn’t go anywhere else. That way everybody could stay safe. But we essentially tried to just get in there and get it done before all this craziness took completely over, and we got really lucky that we did, because after that there were heavy, heavy, like 10 people or less gathering rules that massively affected everything.
Different bands and artists have been hesitant to release albums that they can’t strongly, or I guess in this case, really tour at all behind. And there are some artists that are trying to push out more material through digital or live streams. What was your guys’ approach? What was your thinking as to when you wanted to release the album? Were you all on the same page?
We were all over the place at first. You know there were moments there like “what do we do? Do we hold off on record and sit on it until things start opening back up?” And then the more we thought about it we were like, “no.” Now, if anything, people need more entertainment right now. Ultimately we decided we wanted to keep, you know, staying on schedule. So that’s what we’re doing. You know, it sucks that we can’t tour, but we’re gonna make the best of the situation and do what we can.
Family Tree had more of, for lack of a better term of classic rock tone when set next to The Human Condition. The Human Condition is a bit harder, it’s punchier, it’s more driven, and on certain tracks grittier. It’s a little more reminiscent of earlier BSC. First of all, do you agree with that and if so, did this occur naturally, or how did you guys decide to shift from Family Tree to this?
The only thing we knew was that we wanted to make a record that kicked ass. Like we wanted to get, you know, some of the aggression back in the record, and we wanted to also bring the energy back, the heavy energy. That was the only that we wanted to do for sure. Everything else would come out in the playing. It was a conscious decision that we went a little heavier this time.
“Ringing In My Head,” “Again,” they’re heavy songs. In contrast to those, there are a few songs like “When Angels Learn To Fly,” “I’m In Love With The Pain,” and especially “If My Heart Had Wings,” that convey a very different emotional sensibility and tone to them. How do you explain the wide range of songs you’ve put on this album, where do these come from?
Man, at the end of the day they’re all Black Stone Cherry. They’re snapshots of who we are at any given time. You know, ultimately, for us, the best songs are the ones that we end up picking to record. And even though the songs are very different musically, you know, take “If I Had Wings,” and “Push Down And Turn” on the same record(…) but at the same time, they flow beautifully. It takes all the songs to make that record what it is. A song like “Push Down And Turn” is going to catch somebody for one reason. A song like “If I Had Wings” will catch a different person, or the same person for different reasons. And I think balance is always really important on records. Whether it’s just a couple of songs to keep it not being the same thing over and over or where you split the record up drastically. I love balance on an album.
On “The Chain” you sing, “Until we all make a change, just links in the chain.” “Some Stories” seems to be about gossip, conspiracies, and people’s behavior. This album comes out in about a week, a lot of people are going to think this is part and parcel with the pandemic and social upheaval, but the fact is you guys wrote these before all of this. How did these songs come about?
Man, “Some Stories,” we wrote that song in 2010 or 2011. I have no idea. “The Chain” we wrote towards the end of last year, the very very beginning of 2020. The one that you would think, “okay they wrote this about COVID” is “Ringing In My Head.” We wrote, “People people, your attention, please. I need to tell all y’all about a new disease.” That entire first verse, the first half of that chorus was written four years ago, three or four years ago. And then we wrote the second verse, about the way the world is right now. I don’t know. We’ve always written songs about what we know, and they say history repeats itself if we don’t change. So I guess, we’re still doing the same stuff that we went through ten and four years ago, respectively. It all rings true. I guess there’s some advice to songwriters and bands. Never throw away a song if there’s one part of it you believe in. Don’t throw it away. It could be something cool one day.
The vast majority of songs on your albums are your own. On this album I stumbled across “Don’t Bring Me Down,” and I found that really intriguing because when I think of who BSC might cover, I don’t immediately think of ELO (Electric Light Orchestra).
It’s funny. Everyone thinks “The Chain” is the cover on the record. But oddly enough, Ben (Wells) had brought in the idea of doing “Edge Of Seventeen.” We were kind of on that idea for a minute, and then there was a Bob Seger song, and we were looking at a couple others. Then I just hit play on “Don’t Bring Me Down,” and we all just kind of turned around and said, “we’re going to do that.” We kept it really true to the original. We just got rid of the synthesizers and replaced them with some guitar. Then we just kind of turned the amps up to ten, gave it the Black Stone Cherry treatment. We’re all huge Jeff Lynne fans, whether it’s ELO, The Traveling Wilburys, or his solo stuff. He’s just one of those dudes who gets it, and I’ve always been a huge fan of his. Everybody in the band is. It just felt like the right song to do, you know. We needed something a little more lighthearted, for this record to go on and keep on keepin’ on.
I know it’s hard to see, but what is next for you guys on the short term horizon, and something more like a medium term horizon, maybe envisioning next summer? Are you thinking of going back into the studio? Are you going to tour extensively to make up for what you’ve missed out on? Will you continue to add to the Back To Blues series?
Man, honestly right now we’re just in full swing of getting the record out there, and to the people. You know, we have a show this week here in Kentucky, and then we’ve got Live From The Sky the following weekend. The following weekend after that we’ve got a drive-in concert. So, minimum short term, we’ve got a lot of stuff. We’re super busy with the new record and a couple shows. Midterm, next summer, I’m hoping and praying with everything in me that people are healthy, that the powers that be all around the world have gotten a better grasp on the situation that the world is in, and that some of the regulations can open up not only for bands, but for all of the live entertainment industry. There’s millions of people that are still without jobs, and it’s not getting any easier, you know. As soon as that can happen safely, the better, especially for entertainers like me. Long term I see us spending a whole hell of a lot of time on a road making up for time we didn’t get this year.