Black Stone Cherry climbing to the mountain of rock

Black Stone Cherry are one of these past years’ hard rock revelations. They simply have everything: sincerity and simplicity in their attitude, intuition, generosity, fun, and catchiness in their music, charisma and energy in their shows – not to mention the musicians themselves have added feeling to incredible technicality. In short, Black Stone Cherry will do a world of good to anyone’s ears and to any concert venue out there. In October, they’ll hit the roads of England with another gang of young prodigies with a crazy enthusiasm for hard rock: Airbourne.

The Kentucky lads have recently released Magic Mountain, their fourth album. After Between The Devil And The Deep Blue Sea, rather radio-oriented but still as delectable as ever, this album shows a more spontaneous composition process, closer to what the band itself is. That’s what singer/guitarist Chris Robertson explains in the following interview, which will allow you to better understand these guys, linked both by music and by true friendship. It will also let you delve deeper into the frontman’s personality, and to discover how he was “saved by the love of Jesus” (he was baptized by his guitarist Ben Wells last year), without losing his rock soul.

« People always told us that they enjoy our band much more live than they do on CD, so we really kept that in mind the whole time we were working on this album and we wanted to try and make this as live as we could. »

Radio Metal: This new album is called Magic Mountain and features a colorful artwork. Was this somehow made in reaction to the previous album that, to the contrary, featured a black and white artwork and had a title referring to the sea?

Chris Robertson (vocals/guitar): No, I mean we don’t think too much about stuff like that, really. There’s a song on the album called “Magic Mountain” and we thought we could do some really cool artwork with it so we decided to put some colour in it.

And what is that Magic Mountain, actually?

I don’t know [chuckles]! It’s just a title that we liked. I guess it can mean a lot of different things to a lot of people, but for us it was just a title that we really liked and we decided to write a song around it.

You worked with Bob Marlette on Folklore And Superstition, Howard Benson on Between The Devil And The Deep Blue Sea and now with Joe Barresi for this new album. Why do you keep changing producers? Do you feel the need to try different perspectives on your music?

I think, in the music business you have to keep exploring and exploring to find what works the best for you. If you only use one person forever, then you’ll never know what else could be. Bob did a great job with Folklore and Howard did a great job on Between The Devil And The Deep Blue Sea, but we wanted to do a different kind of album this time than what we had done previously. And Joe actually reached out to our management and said that he would be interested in doing the record. We got a conversation with him and decided to use him and it was a great decision for us because this record came out as true to Black Stone Cherry as it could be.

You just said that you wanted to make a different album compared to what you did previously, what kind of album did you want to make actually?

With this album we kind of kept a mindset of more of a live kind of setting, less production and more in the way of just playing the songs. The thing is, we made the last record more so marketed for radio and that’s what we were going for, but for this record we honestly didn’t care at all if there were songs that we were gonna get in the radio, we just wanted to write songs that we really liked and that people would get into live.

Is this why this album is less modern rock like the previous one with songs like “Blame It On The Boom Boom” or “White Trash Millionaire” and more to the roots?

Yeah like I said, with this record, the production value is great, but it’s a different style of production. The last record was super radio oriented and it was basically made for modern rock radio. We, as a band, didn’t grow up listening to modern rock radio much, we grew up listening to stuff like AC/DC and Sabbath and Skynyrd and Led Zeppelin and classic stuff. Some of that stuff was on the radio, some of it wasn’t but for us, we just like to play the music. We wanted to get back to the kind of music that we love playing the most, which is the stuff that we play live. People always told us that they enjoy our band much more live than they do on CD, so we really kept that in mind the whole time we were working on this album and we wanted to try and make this as live as we could.

« It’s just that the whole world gets caught up in what Hollywood does […] and people forget about how simple life can be if you let it. »

Apparently working with Howard Benson on the previous album was a big step for the band, he even pushed you to rewrite “White Trash Millionaire” which in the end became the album’s first single. So, what did Joe Barresi brought to the band this time? Did he have an input on the songs?

The biggest thing Joe did was letting us be a band. Joe is an amazing mixer and an amazing engineer and producer, all at once, but the cool thing about him is that as opposed to worrying about “let’s get this song on the radio”, Joe is gonna tell you “let’s just make something that’s gonna stand the test of time, that we all firmly believe in”. Which is why it worked for us, he just let us be a band. Joe’s biggest saying is “keep jamming, keep trying until we figure out what is the coolest part”.

On the previous album you said at the time that you were away from home, on your own, without a shoulder to lean on with family and that was a good thing for you guys. Did you put yourselves in similar conditions this time?

The coolest thing about this time around is that we didn’t do the amount of co-writing that we did on Between The Devil And The Deep Blue Sea. If you look at the credits on Between The Devil And The Deep Blue Sea we had co-written, I think, every song on that record except for “Blame It On The Boom Boom”. With the new album there are only a handful of co-written songs and for us it was just getting back to just the four of us really playing music. We didn’t want to worry about going to write songs, trying to write hit songs, we just wanted to write songs that meant something to us and I think, more than anything, the fact that we got back to just the four of us in a room writing songs and not having to write with other people as much, I think you can really hear that on the record, it’s a lot more honest. The songs like “Holding On And Letting Go” and “Runaway” and “Sometimes” and “Remember Me”, those songs are all way more personal songs than songs that we have done in the past. We had already done personal songs like “Things My Father Said” and “In My Blood” but there’s a certain level of honesty in the new songs because it’s just the four of us, it’s just different.

And did you isolate yourselves during the process?

Like I said, it was just the four of us and Joe and then his assistant engineer Jun (Murakawa) in the studio, the whole time we were recording. So we kind of kept it between not many people in the studio. We wanted it just to be the core of the band, the four of us and Joe and that’s what we did. It was cool, because on the first two albums, we did it very close to home and we had people down all the time, it was a really relaxed experience, but for Between The Devil And The Deep Blue Sea, we were out in California and there was a big team of people who worked on that record. For this record, we kind of got back to how we did the first albums with a smaller team, but, because we went to California again to record – we recorded in Joe’s studio in Pasadena -, there’s a certain element of… I don’t know if it’s because it’s a tighter thing or what, but there’s definitely something different about when there’s just four people without any kind of outside influence other than the producer and the room, as opposed to when you have five or six people extra in the studio the whole time. I kind of like it better when it’s just the band, that’s when you get the true representation of the band.

The first single off of this new album is called “Me And Mary Jane”. We could actually hear about Mary Jane already in the song “Blackwoods Gold” from the first album. So, who is Mary Jane?

Mary Jane is just an old southern name around here and there are references of Mary Jane to marijuana and there are so many references of the name Mary Jane. It’s just a cool name, being from the south and that being a common name around here for whatever. The song kind of wrote itself. Ben had the initial guitar riff for the beginning of the song and he thought it would be cool to have the vocals to follow that riff, it kind of sings itself. When you hear that guitar riff and you think about “what would you sing?”, “me and Mary Jane” just comes out and we just wrote that music and we had that title and the song kind of wrote itself! The music lined itself to those lyrics and vice versa.

You’ve been mentioning various unknown people names in your songs, like Mary Jane, Mr. Johnson (“Devil’s Queen”) or Mr. Collins (“Ghost Of Floyd Collins”). Does this mean that one of your main inspirations is simply the stories of the people you meet or hear about?

Oh absolutely. Being from the southern United States and being from a small town, storytelling has always been a large part of everything that we are and everything that the people that live in our area are. So when you grow up hearing stories or telling stories, you’re obviously gonna reflect that through the songs that you write. Storytelling has always been a big thing for us and we kind of got away from that just a little bit on the last album but we definitely got that back on this album.

« We just said ‘to hell with the pressure, let’s just go write some songs that are fun and let’s have fun doing it.' »

The song “Hollywood In Kentucky” talks about your home area. What’s so special about Kentucky according to you and what do you consider being Hollywood in Kentucky?

It’s just that the whole world gets caught up in what Hollywood does, because of all the actors and everything like that, and people forget about how simple life can be if you let it. Where we’re from it’s just a super simple way of life, it’s the little things in life that make you happy and you don’t have to worry about what everybody else is doing, what everybody else thinks and stuff like that.

The band is known for its incredible energy on stage. What is your state of mind when going on stage?

Man, that’s a hard question! There’s all kind of states you go into: nervousness, excitement, those are the two biggest things. You get super excited and there’s that little bit of nervousness that’s always gonna be there. Those are the things that drive us. And then, once we get on stage and we start playing, the crowd has a lot to do with it from there on. From the minute we hit our first note and how the crowd starts reacting, you can tell how the show is gonna go from that moment.

You said earlier that you wanted to have this live energy on the album, so how do you do that in the studio?

Just not over thinking it, not super over analyzing the songs and more than anything just getting in there and playing those songs. Instead of sitting there analyzing the part over and over, you just play it like “that’s what I would do live, is there a way to improve that?” and then you try to refine it and just leave it alone. The thing about playing live is you get one chance to do each part every night, so in the studio, we tried to keep that mentality as much as possible. If we totally messed up we would try to fix something but just not over thinking it so much.

Magic Mountain is your fourth album already. How do you see at this point the evolution of the band from the first album to the new one?

I feel like we really grew as songwriters. The songs are ever more fluid thanks to that now. But the cool thing about this record, and more so than any other record, we got back to what we do, who we are as a band and more so than ever back to the first album, having fun and not worry about so much. Before you put out your first album, you got your whole life to write your first album, after that point you got a few months to write every album. So there’s a pressure that comes with putting out extra albums but for us, we just said “to hell with the pressure, let’s just go write some songs that are fun and let’s have fun doing it”.

Have you thought that maybe this would be time to record a live album to immortalize all that live energy you have right now?

We would definitely want to do a live album at some point, who knows when that will be but it’s something that is definitely on our list of things to do for sure.

You were baptized last year just before Christmas by your guitarist Ben Wells, with the assistance of Kevin Estes and pastor Chad Lockhart at Highland Hills Community Church in Glasgow, Kentucky. The whole band was actually there. How important was this for you and to have your band mates be part of this?

I’m a person that, for a long time, struggled with a lot of things in life, with depression and thoughts of suicide and drugs problems, prescription medicines and stuff like that with abuse of those. No matter how great my life could be, I was always missing something in my life. I felt there were no God and anything like that. I hadn’t been to church in like fifteen years and Ben invited me to come to church with him. All the other guys have always believed and I went to church kind of like as a favor to Ben, and I realized, five minutes after being in the church, that I wasn’t there for Ben, I was there because I needed to be there. You know, man, a lot of people have negative things to say about my belief but all I can say is that I have never felt anything more real than what I felt the Sunday that I was saved by the love of Jesus. For me, it was the one thing that I had been missing in my life from day one. I’ve struggled with so much and my life is so much better now with that. And the fact that the whole band came to support me is something that I think is just the true testament to our brotherhood and our friendship.

« To have a hundred people singing in the choir, man, in a church with a thousand people singing the songs, it’s kind of like a rock’n roll concert, man, it’s crazy. »

Would you go as far as saying that part of the energy and inspiration you put in your music you find it in your beliefs and love for god?

Yeah, man. I mean, this album was written and finished before all the changes happened in my life but it’s my inspiration for everything now. The thing is, in rock’n roll it’s not cool to love Jesus or to have a god that you serve and I don’t care, you know [chuckles]. There are so many guys in this business that over the last several years have had the same thing happen to them that happened to me and it’s just amazing to see it keeps happening. For me, everything I got to do was never enough and now that I have this relationship, everything is what I ever needed, I was always searching for something else and I finally found it.

Have you ever thought about singing in a gospel choir or maybe using one on a Black Stone Cherry album?

This past Sunday I went down to the church that I attended, Highland Hills Community Church in Glasgow, Kentucky. This church was kind of born out of the larger church in Bowling Green, Kentucky, called Hillvue Heights, and this past Sunday, they had what is called Palm Sunday, on april 13th, which is the Sunday before Easter. They had like a hundred person choir and they had a church service. And the cool thing about Hillvue Heights and about Highland Hills, is that about half of the service, every Sunday, every service, is live music with a full blown band, drums, guitars, bass, piano and people singing. They’re all singing songs about Jesus and it’s an amazing thing. This past Sunday I went down, I had actually led the service one Sunday in Highland Hills and sang several songs, and this past Sunday I went down to Hillvue, and Ben did it with me when I did it at Highland Hill and he also did it with me this past Sunday, we went down to perform songs with this choir. It was amazing to be singing the songs and playing, it’s full rock’n roll but it’s a song about the god we worship. And to have a hundred people singing in the choir, man, in a church with a thousand people singing the songs, it’s kind of like a rock’n roll concert, man, it’s crazy.

It would actually be cool to have you record that on an album!

Yeah, man, it would be fun. I don’t know if Black Stone Cherry ought to do that because we’re not a Christian rock band. We’re all believers in a higher power but we’re not that kind of band. But I would love, at some point, to put out some songs, whether it be covers or original songs, I just love that kind of music. I’ve always loved that kind of music even when I didn’t believe in it. I just loved the whole gospel music, just because of the soul that’s in the vocals. But it’s something I’ll definitely be asking them to do, one day.

You said earlier that it was not cool in rock’n roll to have this kind of beliefs; did you really encounter some strong criticisms or some problems with some people because of that?

Yeah, man, I’ve had a lot of… Ben posted it from my Facebook and then a couple of other various people also posted it because the idea of a guy who’s covered in tattoos, who plays rock’n roll, who uses bad language on stage, developing this relationship with Jesus, they thought it was a publicity stunt and all this stuff. People are gonna think what they think, I couldn’t care less what anyone thinks, I really couldn’t. It was cool, man, we did this cruise called Ship Rock with all these really heavy bands and Brian Welch from Korn was on it with his band Love And Death, who are a Christian rock band, and he came up and started talking to me out of the blue and he said “hey, man I heard you had a change in your life.” And then we got to talk and the way that it happened to me was kind of the same way that it happened to him, like there was no control over what’s going on, he couldn’t help what was going on, he couldn’t stop it and I don’t know… There’s gonna be negative comments because, for some reasons, it’s just not cool to believe in anything [chuckles] but for me, believing in something is everything.

Interview conducted by phone on April, 15th 2014 by Spaceman
Transcription : Judith
Questions & introduction : Spaceman
Photos : Ash Newell

Black Stone Cherry official website : Blackstonecherry.com

Album Magic Mountain, out since May, 5th 2014 via Roadrunner Records.

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