Steve Gorman (Courtesy Nashville Public Television)
By Brian M. Howle
In advance of their upcoming Sept. 14 show at House Of Blues in N. Myrtle Beach, I had the good fortune to catch up with The Black Crowes’ drummer, Steve Gorman, on Sept. 2 prior to their show that night in Boise, Idaho. With a reputation preceding him as being one of the real joys to interview (or just to shoot the breeze with if you know him personally), Steve spoke to me from his hotel room and was more than graciously accommodating as we covered a wide range of topics in an effort to encapsulate the 20-year fun ride that we all know as The Black Crowes.
Howle: So, tell me – how’s the tour going, buddy?
Gorman: The tour’s great, we’re having a great time. In a blanket statement, the fact that we know we’re taking a definite break; that we’re wrapping up almost a 20-year “experiment” at not planning anything (both laugh) … I mean, we haven’t had group discussions about this fact, but it’s pretty apparent to me that everybody feels … it just makes it easy to see how much we love the band and how much we care about each other and how much we love playing together, ‘cause every show has just been a great deal of fun. And we’re all very aware that there’s an expiration date right now … it takes away the pressure; there’s always been a feeling of “God, it never ends!”; even when the tours end we’re looking at the next thing we’re gonna do. And knowing that we’re not going to do something next year has made it very special for us, and I think it comes across in the shows … we’re pickin’ up on that from a lot of the fans, too, and it’s been it a very nice tour so far. We’re two and a half weeks in; God knows, the whole thing could explode at any minute (both laugh), but so far, so good.
Howle: How long is this tour?
Gorman: It’s runs until, um, let’s see, Dec. 19 is the last show right now, but it could conceivably run into next year; but whenever this tour ends, the band is shutting it down for a few years for sure.
Howle: Well, that was the next thing I was going to ask, because I wasn’t sure how long the hiatus was going to be …
Gorman: Well, we don’t know either; but, knowing all of us .. everyone puts everything into what they’re doing, and usually that’s The Black Crowes; and I know everybody goes away and gets busy with other things. It’s just that every day, much less every month, it’s harder and harder to get everyone turned back around to the same page, so I imagine it’s going to be quite a while.
Howle: And I think that’s understandable. For those who don’t know much about you, how did you get started in music?
Gorman: I started in music listening to records in my basement, pretty much. I didn’t even have a drum kit until I was 21. I wanted to; in my head I was drumming my whole life. I was probably in 8th or 9th grade the first time I saw a drum kit at a guy’s house that I could sit down behind. And the first time I sat down I started playing it; I’m not saying I was any good or anything, but I knew what to do. And I had some stuff I had to get out of my system immediately … I always wanted to play to see if I could play this or that. But I was a jock, you know, and for a lot of different reasons that never happened at the time.
So when I got to college, I met a couple of guys who were drummers, and I would sit on their kits; and not even hours, for ten minutes I’d play and say, “O.K., cool!” … and every time I would play the itch would get worse, but I never really had a way to scratch it. So I dropped out of school my senior year with a buddy who had wanted to start a band; he lived in Atlanta at the time, so I moved to Atlanta and started a band with him. And his roommate was Chris Robinson; so pretty much the day I moved there in 1987 I met Chris, and within a couple of months, he and his brother (Rich) had been playing and they said, hey, play with us for awhile; so I was playing in two bands and then ultimately started playing only with them, full time.
Howle: Well, when the band made their national TV debut on “Late Night with David Letterman” in ‘92, there were only three members who played onstage – what was up with that?
Gorman: Actually, it was 1990 … but at the time, for whatever reason, a band’s rhythm section wasn’t allowed to play. You had to use the house band (Paul Shaffer, Sid McGinnis, Will Lee and Anton Fig). So it was Rich, Chris and Jeff Cease, our other original guitarist, and the house band backed them up. By the time we came around to Letterman again, it was our third album, and it had changed by then, and the whole band played. We did “The Tonight Show” and “Saturday Night Live” a few times with the whole band in the meantime, but with Letterman, for whatever reason, they didn’t do it that way. I’m sure it was just logistics, you know, it was just easier not to bring in a whole band.
Howle: Well, that answers a nagging personal question I’ve had for years, so thanks for that! Now, the band’s internal conflicts (most notably between brothers Chris and Rich Robinson) and eventual personnel changes are well-documented. What’s it like for a drummer, when you have that sort of unspoken connection with the bassist within the rhythm section .. what was that like for you?
Gorman: You know, it’s funny, because when I moved to Atlanta in 1987, I started that other band with my other friend, and the bass player was Sven Pipien. So the first time I was ever playing on my own kit, in my own band, he was my bass player. Well, when I went on with Chris and Rich, Sven stayed in that band. So when Johnny Colt quit TBC in 1997, we were all like, you know, “Who do we call?” … and I said, “Let’s call Sven,” and everyone was like, well, yeah, of course, if he’s still around … he was the first and only bassist we called to take Johnny’s place. And there’s something about those early days, I mean, it was only three or four months and the very first time I was playing in a band; but even then – although we didn’t know that much about what we were doing – at least we felt like we really clicked together. So ten years later when we needed a bass player, there was really no one else that I was interested in playing with, so that was the easiest call we’ve ever made.
Howle: Well, that was certainly a convenient little deal for you!
Gorman: Yeah, it just so happened that the guy I tried to play music with back in ‘87 had a friend who was a spectacular bassist .. and looking back, that was a very good thing to have happened.
Howle: Hey, everything happens for a reason, and in this case it really worked out well for everyone involved. Now, in this tour, the split format – one set acoustic, one set electric – have y’all done this before?
Gorman: We’ve never done it like this before. We’ve done a handful of shows that were completely acoustic; and we’ve done shows where in the middle of a set we’ve done four or five songs acoustically. But we’ve never done an entire set acoustically – this is the first time.
Howle: Do you feel like it makes for a better show?
Gorman: I think so. I mean, I like playing it a lot better – it’s much more interesting, and it keeps everyone very focused. Some of the shows we’ve been doing lately, they’re going beyond three hours; and by the end of the show, everyone’s not so much physically drained but mentally … you know, everyone’s very focused, and the acoustic shows – at a certain level – aren’t as taxing, you know, physically for everybody; but the focus to play quietly, well, you’ve got to really be paying attention.
Howle: Well, shows that have used this format before at our House Of Blues are always just a joy to attend, because it’s such an intimate venue to begin with …
Gorman: Well, not all of our shows have the two sets … for some of the venues, it’s logistically difficult and at those some are just one really long electric set although we may not hit three hours, but it’s announced well in advance if that’s how the show will be.
Howle: Fair enough. Now, on the new CD, “Croweology;” was this re-mixes of original old recordings or completely new recordings, and if so, how long did it take you guys to finish?
Gorman: Oh, it’s a completely new recording. You know, this being the 20-year anniversary of our first album, we wanted to do something to mark that; we didn’t want to do a ‘Greatest Hits’ album and we didn’t want to re-release the first album because we’re not the most nostalgic guys in the world – we’ve never looked back lovingly at our past. We’re always super focused on today and then tomorrow and that’s about it, we’ve never been master planners … you know, the 20-year thing; as much as that’s a rarity – and as a rarity for bands that are still making new music, certainly – it’s kinda unbelievable for us when I look at it, because we never did, we don’t plan out – we never had the big picture sort of mapped out, like, “Well, if we do this, that will lead to this, and then we’ll get to here and then to here” … we essentially operate the way we did back in 1987, which is as a day-to-day band. And that’s just how we are – for better or for worse – and yeah, certain things would have probably have been easier for us if we’d thought more big picture all the time but we’re just not that way. So to hit 20 years for us is pretty astounding, actually … and it was the first time we all looked at each other and thought, “Hey, you know, we did all right here, this is pretty cool!” So, keeping with being the kind of band we are, to re-release old recordings is just not that interesting to us, and I think with having a couple of new guys in the band over the last four years, we wanted to do something not to celebrate the first album being 20-years old, but that the band is 20-years old in the eyes of people. And in trying to commemorate that, we thought, well, why not take 20 of the old tunes and re-record them … we’ve been doing some acoustic shows and we like that template, so why not go in and record these songs for the most part acoustically, and come up with different versions and see if we come up with something we like. That was the plan, to do something that covers 20 years, because some of those old songs, you know, we don’t play them necessarily the way they used to be played. And the way the band is right now, we love it – we love The Black Crowes as it’s been the last four years … it’s been, for me, the easiest and happiest time to be in this band, and I think the most cohesive band we’ve ever had. And we wanted to sort of put our stamp on those old songs, so the recording of this album was – subconsciously – was as much for us as it was for our fans. You know, like this is who we are now and these are still our songs and here’s what they sound like at this given time.
And so, with all that said, to answer your second question, it didn’t take that long to record. We went in right off the tour last year, in December. We were in a good place, we were playing well and the vibe was great, and we felt very productive. All told, the basic tracks we knocked out in a week or so, and then we did overdubs and vocals and all the things you do in mixing to finish up and that was a two-month process; but the initial burst of the whole band in there putting the tracks down was a week or two.
Howle: Does it ever overwhelm you when you look back – like I do – and say, “Wow – 20 years – it’s just a blur!”? And I can’t believe it’s been 20 years – but as you said, the band now is like when you started out. And that’s what really got everyone’s attention back then; the energy, the freshness, the love of what you were doing that came across on vinyl, and especially at the live shows … that’s what really came across, instead of, “Hey, look at us, we’re the cool rock band and you should worship us,” like so many bands end up doing.
Gorman: Well, if you look at us in 1989 when we made our first album, you know, nothing was like us … rock radio and MTV didn’t have anything like that going on. We were never trying to be big; we were trying to be good. And then we got big, and it was kind of bewildering and confusing, actually. Because, you remember, everyone in the south back then … REM was the blueprint for what you would want: put out a record that people like, the next one sells a little bit more, the next one even more, and you build it slowly and you have control over everything. At least, it seemed that way from the outside. And then we came out and our first record just went crazy, and it set things off in a way that we’d never seen. But we were also the guys, too, who always said, “If a door opens, run thru it!”
Howle: And then you usually have the record company saying, “OK, give us another one just like that!?
Gorman: Well, the truth is, we didn’t have that problem because we were signed to a small label; it had distribution through Geffen but we weren’t signed to them, we were signed to Def American. And when we made our first record, we were such an afterthought to them – they had mostly metal bands. Well, when we finished our first album it was mastered and in the can before they even offered us a contract. So we were hardly on their priority list – and it was when the people at Geffen heard it, and they said, “OK, we can take this to radio.” And I can still remember having that conversation on the phone – we all looked at each other and said, “Radio? Really?” I mean, we were just a club band trying to get six weeks of a tour down, and then maybe we could make another record. I mean, we listened to Shake Your Money Maker and loved it, but we couldn’t believe they thought everyone else would.
Howle: Well, I always fall back on the old saying, “Good music is good music and it will always stand up.” And that has to be extremely fulfilling to you guys, to know that not just for these 20 years, but in 120 years from now The Black Crowes are going to be a standard for bands from which to be measured. So you can put that little feather in your hat and be proud of it.
Gorman: Well, you know, that’s true … it’s funny, it’s called a record because it is a permanent record of something. And I worked at a used/new record store in 1990, and the day Shake Your Money Maker came out I was still there. So there I was putting our record in the bin, and it was cool, because there was Bad Company, Bad English, Beatles, Black Sabbath … OK, I’m lookin’ at all the “B’s” going, “Holy shit, we’ve got a record right along with these guys!” That was the most overwhelmed and stunned I’d ever been in my life, to realize that the record store that I worked in – that I thought was the coolest place I’d ever been in my life – now had my record in it.
Howle: What was it like to actually hear one of your songs on the radio for very first time?
Gorman: Oh, well, it was cool, because we knew it was coming; it wasn’t a surprise or anything. Because Rich went to the radio station in Atlanta, after Geffen went to them first and said, “Hey, here’s a local band you should play,” so he went to the big 96 Rock mega-station that, truthfully, none of us ever listened to because we were far more into listening to the local Georgia Tech station and stuff like that. And we had just gotten a manager, and they said they’d play it and Rich wanted to do an interview. So we wanted to hear it in a car, you know, and the rest of us stayed in the van and listened to him talk and then they played it, and the other four of us just looked at each other and went, “Holy shit, that’s cool!”
Howle: Man, that’s just so great, because people who aren’t in bands will never fully understand what that’s like for a musician! So, anything else you would like to say to your fans here before the big show at HOB on Sept. 14?
Gorman: Well, I hope folks will check out Croweology. I mean, most people will hear that it’s an acoustic record and they probably think it’s moody or slow or introspective. But it’s actually a pretty thumpin’ rock record – it’s a big drum record. And you know, there’s a lot of great acoustic rock like Led Zeppelin 3, and Rod Stewart’s old records and the Stones have made a lot of great acoustic stuff, not to mention a lot of more recent things. It’s still very much a rock record; it’s not like the MTV “Unplugged” early ‘90s thing where everybody came in and, you know, stuck their nuts in a jar and tried to get “sensitive.” (Both laugh)
Howle: Well, I think that’s a perfect note to end on, Steve. You guys have a great week and we’ll all be looking forward to seeing you here!
Gorman: Sure thing, Brian. We look forward to seeing you, too. Thanks!
So there you have it, kids. If you’ve never seen The Black Crowes in person, this may be not only the perfect time to catch them in full stride and in their best incarnation, but quite possibly the last time for some time to come. But whether it’s your first or 20th Black Crowes show, you can bet your bottom dollar it will be one of the best shows you will ever have the pleasure to catch. Get your tickets now at House of Blues in N. Myrtle Beach, for the Sept. 14 show.
And later on, you can repeatedly tell your foolish friends who didn’t attend all about it, and take joy in knowing each time that you do, they’ll be – forgive me – jealous again.
This review also appeared in Alternatives NewsMagazine, Sept. 9, 2010.