Robinson performs on one of his longtime standby instruments—his 1967 Gibson ES-335. Stephen Stills, Jimmy Page, and Nick Drake are among the players who’ve inspired him to use the open tunings he employs on it. Photo by Joe Russo
Rich, you write a lot of songs in open tunings. Is that a Keith Richards/Rolling Stones influence?
Robinson: It actually comes from Stephen Stills and Nick Drake. I love the Rolling Stones, don’t get me wrong, but as far as playing in open tuning, Keith kind of held onto that 5-string, single-barre-chord sort of element. I listened to what Stephen Stills did and what Jimmy Page would do or Nick Drake in particular—the first time I heard that sound coming off his guitar, I was hooked. I was blown away. The way the guitar sings when the instrument is tuned differently. “High Water” is a rock ’n’ roll take on Nick Drake. I’ve really tried to incorporate his way of playing and writing into a lot of the songs I’ve written over the years.
Do you hear song ideas in your head in open tuning or does fiddling around on the guitar in open tuning instigate the idea?
Robinson: Playing in open tuning influences the idea. It’s because of the timbre of the guitar and the way it sounds with those open strings. I find the vastness of a chord within that tone—you can let everything hang out with the open strings and that’s what excites me.
What was it about Stephen Stills that drew you in?
Robinson: One of my earliest memories was listening to “Carry On”—my dad loved Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young—and listening to the way he played “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes.” All of that was ingrained in me from the time I was born. I always loved the way Stills played. I just thought it was phenomenal. I also remember touring with Jimmy Page, and he showed me the tuning he had for “The Rain Song” and it was just so brilliant. Or listening to Bert Jansch and what turned out to be Jimmy’s “Black Mountain Side,” but Bert Jansch’s version of that [“Blackwaterside”] was just fucking amazing—trying to get around on DADGAD. It’s interesting to tap into and be able to mess around with these tunings and go from there.
Do the characteristics of your guitar choices equally influence the songs and what you’re playing?
Ford: The fun part for me is that I never used Gretsch guitars before, except maybe a little bit here and there, but on this record, I used the hell out of Rich’s Falcons and I loved it. Like a Fender or a Gibson, you just play it different. It holds you different and your angle on it is different. The scale length and all that can be exactly the same, but it’s still got another attitude. The character of the guitar really dictates the part I’m playing. I didn’t set up the guitars for me. They were Rich’s guitars. They have heavier strings than I normally use. It keeps me focused on the songs and what’s needed aurally, not what’s needed in a gymnastic sense. I get to sing, rather than jump through hoops.
What were your signal chains for recording?
Ford: For the record, my go-to amp, unless I specifically needed a particular sound, was my Satellite Cuda. It’s basically a 50-watt Marshall—that’s the most basic way to describe it. And it’s stellar. And it almost always works with the track. If it wasn’t that, it was another Satellite. And then we had a great version of a Fender Deluxe and a great version of a Bassman and a great Marshall. We had all Rich’s gear there. A fantastic version of a Telecaster. Anything you’d need was there. So, the only things I brought were a couple of Ashers and these Satellites that I’m loving. And for the most part, it’s pick a guitar and go directly into the amp. That’s essentially how we did most things. If we needed something else we would plug it in, but a lot of it was us, just going direct in—everything was working so nice.
Robinson: I’m mixing and matching guitars and amps depending on what I feel the song needs. If Marc is playing a Les Paul or a humbucker or a heavier sounding guitar, I’ll tend to go light and choose a Tele or a Strat or something that would work well with the sonic quality of whatever he’s doing, and vice versa—Marc would do the same with me. We’re always thinking about those elements and using certain amps. We had 15 or 20 amps that we were choosing from while we were recording. Some were ’50s Fender Vibrolux single 10" amps and my 1971 JMP 50-watt Marshall running through a Harry Joyce cabinet. I have my Silver Jubilee head that I used on Shake Your Money Maker, Southern Harmony, and Amorica. We also had some AC30s, some Reasons, a Bassman, and an old Matchless cabinet that Mark Sampson made for us for Amorica. We were just trying to figure out what worked and what didn’t.
Marc, what were you trying to get out of your Asher signature model when you first came up with the design?
Ford: I met Bill [Asher] when I was playing with Ben Harper in ’03 and ’04. And then when the Crowes did the reunion gigs in ’05, he said, “Let’s build a guitar. What would you want?” And at the time, the two coolest guitars I had were a friend’s ’59 Les Paul Special and a Stratocaster. So, I said, “If we could put these two guitars together, somehow, that would be perfect. Is that possible?” And that was the idea. Over the years it’s morphed into what it is. People have been responding to it because it’s a viable instrument. There are reasons for the appointments and it makes sense to them.
Rich, you produced High Water I. How challenging is it to wear two hats: decision maker versus artist?
Robinson: I produced all my solo records and a couple of the Crowes records, sometimes with Chris. I never felt like I had a problem with self-editing. If something isn’t working, I’ll be like, “Nope, this isn’t right.” And I kind of know when it’s not working. On the flip side, most producers, and I’ve only worked with a few—George [Drakoulias] produced a couple of our records and Kevin Shirley produced one record—tend to go overboard with simplify, simplify, simplify. And I don’t believe in that.
Can you clarify what you mean by that?
Robinson: Bass is one of my favorite instruments. I think it can add so much color and melody and movement to a song, but for some reason in the ’80s some dude had success by telling the bass player to just ride the root note and play the kick drum pattern. And then, all these producers got in line with that, as if it made them sound knowledgeable or something. But I’m like, “Did James Jamerson do that? Did John Paul Jones do that? Did Andy Fraser do that?” My favorite bass players play beautiful melodies that really touch on specific elements of the song.
A lot of people will tell you to dumb music down—dumb it down because people are stupid, and they can’t listen to it. But I’m like, “Well, why did they like the Beatles? And why did they like the Rolling Stones and Simon & Garfunkel and Sly Stone?” Sly Stone was not fucking simplistic. Some of the shit that guy was doing was so intense and beautiful. So, in my opinion, it came down to turning music into a toaster oven or a vacuum cleaner just to sell it. Basically, turning it into McDonald’s—the most basic form of food that everyone will like, and you can sell a lot of.
So, what is your approach to producing?
Robinson: My approach is to let players play. Like, “What would you guys do? You have all the ability in the world, now, after playing for 30 years. Play like you’re 21 years old. What would you do with all of this ability and you’re 21 years old?” Everyone knows not to overplay [at this point]. I mean, you’re a good enough musician not to just fucking go in there and spray dayglow paint all over everything, but I think that excitement and intention is still at the core of it.
The Magpie Salute proudly airs their classic-rock influences with this live version of Led Zeppelin’s “Custard Pie,” from late 2017 at the Warehouse at FTC in Fairfield, Connecticut. Now, the band is trimmed down to a six-piece on tour.