the mag­pie sa­lute

The Mag­pie Sa­lute’s Rich Robin­son and Marc Ford ex­plain why it was time to take flight again af­ter the Black Cr owes and how to find your own unique voice as a gui­tarist

Total Guitar - - CONTENTS - Words Amit Sharma Photo Will Ire­land

here’s no chance of a rec­on­cil­i­a­tion. It just didn’t end well,” says The Mag­pie Sa­lute leader Rich Robin­son of The Black Crowes – the band he found fame with and co-founded with his older brother, Chris. In the 90s, The Black Crowes were hailed as the saviours of south­ern rock, breath­ing new life into the art of the dusty, sunkissed riffs Lynyrd Skynyrd and All­man Brothers Band had made fa­mous. They man­aged to capture a spirit of vin­tage Amer­i­cana where count­less oth­ers had tried and failed. And yet, de­spite the mil­lions of al­bum sales and sold-out tours, it all came crash­ing down in Jan­uary 2015.

“It was re­ally silly how the band ended all these years in,” con­tin­ues Chris, be­fore a short pause. “It was un­for­tu­nate that it ended that way. I have noth­ing but fond me­mories be­cause it’s my whole life’s work. I wrote all that mu­sic. I

lived in that band for 24 years. I have re­spect for what we ac­com­plished and a lot of love for the work we did, but sadly it ended. And that’s cool, things change and move.”

You’re prob­a­bly won­der­ing when was the last time Rich spoke to his brother…

“We don’t talk,” says Rich. “But it’s okay, what I’m do­ing now has a lot of pos­i­tiv­ity.” THINGS GOIN’ ON Pos­i­tiv­ity cer­tainly feels like the right word to de­scribe Rich’s lat­est mu­si­cal es­capades in The Mag­pie Sa­lute. It all be­gan when the gui­tarist had fin­ished up on fourth solo record Flux and got in­vited to play the Wood­stock

Ses­sions at Ap­ple­head Stu­dios, New York. To make the per­for­mance ex­tra spe­cial, he de­cided to call up some friends from the past.

“I’ve been do­ing this for al­most 30 years now and I felt like I wanted peo­ple in my life that had an un­der­stand­ing of my mu­si­cal lan­guage and the songs I’d com­posed,” he ad­mits. “Marc [Ford] had some gui­tars in the Crowes locker in New York and when the flood hap­pened only a few made it,” he says of the 2012 flood caused by Hur­ri­cane Sandy that dev­as­tated The Black Crowes’ gear in stor­age. I got a friend to give the gui­tars back and we started com­mu­ni­cat­ing.”

Hav­ing not spo­ken in the decade since Marc’s sec­ond ten­ure in the group (his first end­ing in dis­missal for ex­ces­sive drug use) the two mu­si­cians grad­u­ally re­built old bridges…

“I didn’t have a di­rect line to Rich,” of­fers Marc, who played on 1992 chart-top­per TheSouth­ernHar­monyAndMu­si­calCom­pan­ion, its 1994 fol­low-up Amor­ica and part­ing re­lease 1996’s Three­S­nakes

AndOneCharm. “We didn’t speak at all un­til this thing started. When I was asked how I felt about play­ing, it was like, ‘Dude, of course, there was never a prob­lem there!’ No one was ever mad at the mu­sic. I like Rich, but back then I never knew if I liked him. I never got a chance to know him, there was al­ways some­thing in the mid­dle. When a band splits to its core and brothers are in­volved, ev­ery­one has to choose a side. There’s a di­vi­sion im­me­di­ately and it’s bad from the begin­ning. But you know what? It wasn’t rot­ten be­cause it was beau­ti­ful too. Ev­ery­thing great comes at a cost, I guess.”

Along with fel­low Crowes Sven Pip­ien on bass and key­board player Ed­die Harsch – who sadly passed away last year – Rich be­gan as­sem­bling a new-old band for his sec­ond ap­pear­ance at the

Wood­stock­Ses­sions. It was, in many ways, a life-chang­ing de­ci­sion… “I said we should get to­gether for some cov­ers, maybe a few Crowes songs,” he re­veals. “And it all just worked. Ev­ery­thing aligned and it was just there. We played and recorded the show, then went on our own way. I started to in­vent ways of mak­ing this hap­pen more. I needed to fig­ure out how this could be and how it could work. When we play things to each other, we in­stantly get it – we to­tally un­der­stand each other on a deeper mu­si­cal level.” GIMME BACK MY BUL­LETS And so the band was born. Rich was keen to ac­knowl­edge the past and in its own weird lit­tle ways, the world told him The Mag­pie Sa­lute were the words he was look­ing for.

“The mag­pies are in the crow [Corvi­dae] fam­ily,” he con­tin­ues. “There’s a su­per­sti­tion there – the whole story about how peo­ple greet the mag­pie with, ‘Good morn­ing, cap­tain!’, which is also a Crowes song.”

Now they had the moniker sorted, it was time to get this band up and run­ning. The Mag­pie Sa­lute got to­gether to whizz through 100 songs in three days in prepa­ra­tion for their four-night res­i­dency at the Gramercy Theatre in New York. It was a mam­moth task – which could have ended in dis­as­ter – though, ul­ti­mately, was an ex­pe­ri­ence that filled the mu­si­cians with hope.

“Af­ter dip­ping our toes in the wa­ter, we de­cided to give it a go prop­erly,” says Rich, “and the only way to do that was to book a string of shows. We learned all those songs be­cause we wanted dif­fer­ent setlists each night and all four sold out. I’m ex­cited about 2018 be­cause my goal is to hit the stu­dio around Fe­bru­ary and record a whole dou­ble al­bum of orig­i­nals. I want to take the next step and cre­ate com­pletely on our own. I can’t wait to see how it turns out.”

“Rich and I have a re­la­tion­ship that was sup­posed to be,” adds Marc. “We re­ally did not know what we were do­ing but it worked so well. In the fire of the 90s [the band’s in­ter­nal bat­tles], it felt like we

“i be­lieve you don’t have to mas­ter any in­stru­ment”

42 were duck­ing and cow­er­ing. This band is the prod­uct of that in­tense mu­si­cal life to­gether. Now I’m 51, we’re older and wiser. I had to clean out some of my char­ac­ter de­fects to get on with peo­ple, be­cause mu­sic is about re­la­tion­ships. I’ve worked damn hard to get where I am now. I fought for my life… our mu­sic shows that! It made us start think­ing about new pos­si­bil­i­ties. A new life for an old fam­ily.”

LIS­TEN AND LEARN

Rich Robin­son and Marc Ford are not schooled play­ers in the for­mal sense. While many use scales and pat­terns to build their vo­cab­u­lary, The Mag­pie Sa­lute pair (along with ad­di­tional gui­tarist Nico Bere­cia­r­tua – an Ar­gen­tinian who Rich felt “had great en­ergy”) rely al­most ex­clu­sively on the ear. “Se­ri­ously, I don’t even know any­thing about the tech­ni­cal terms out there,” laughs Rich. “You said I use a lot of dou­ble stops, but I don’t know any­thing about them. I just write what sounds good to me – there’s no way to cat­e­gorise or ex­plain it.”

One thing the gui­tarist is con­fi­dent to ex­plain is the world of open tun­ings and how that forced him to for­sake bank­ing on the usual pat­terns – be­cause, of course, they would of­ten make lit­tle sense once an in­stru­ment has been re­tuned. With­out that safety net, it came down to just feel­ing the right notes be­fore mem­o­ris­ing them…

“I love ex­plor­ing open tun­ings,” con­tin­ues Rich. “Be­cause I use them about 90 per cent of the time, a lot of it is trial and er­ror. As I started solo­ing more over the years, I’ve built my own lan­guage and learned the dif­fer­ence in play­ing in open G ver­sus open E ver­sus this open C chord; they’re all the op­po­site of each other. I’ve had to learn what works and what doesn’t.

“Al­to­gether I use around 15 dif­fer­ent ones, which all vary to some de­gree, some­times it might be open G with a capo or open E with a capo else­where. Or you might have dropped D or open C – where I ba­si­cally tune to just a C chord and drop the low E down to a C, so you get two oc­taves on the bot­tom. There’s an­other one that is all Ds and one A – I’ll tune the top two ex­actly the same, the mid­dle two the same an oc­tave down, then one low A and a low D. I’ve also used open D7 tun­ings, which sounded re­ally cool. Some­times, I’ll tune the gui­tar to what­ever I feel and then I’ll just see what hap­pens.”

“I know my 1/4/5s and my sev­enth chords, but very lit­tle be­yond that,” nods Marc. “It’s like a street lan­guage, I know how it all goes but I can’t ex­plain it. The only thing I ever did was fig­ure out how to play good songs and write ones just like them! I’d watch oth­ers do­ing it and mimic it in my own way. Then I built the plat­form where I bring the con­tent. Be brave, man. You gotta be hon­est with mu­sic... peo­ple can tell.”

SLIDE AWAY

There’s plenty to be learned from the Crowes/Mag­pies school of slide gui­tar – of­ten the ic­ing on the cake for their sig­na­ture swampy sound. Rich ex­plains how his ap­proach came down to three key play­ers, each teach­ing him the im­por­tance of vi­brato, phras­ing and heart in ev­ery note played.

“I al­ways loved Ry Cooder – he was one of my favourites, along with Low­ell Ge­orge and Duane All­man. There was some­thing about all of them that al­ways sounded amaz­ing. Duane was… Duane! The guy was on an­other planet, re­ally. I loved the sweep­ing tech­nique that Low­ell used – his vi­brato wasn’t fast, it would just hang there over ev­ery­thing. It was beau­ti­ful. He used a metal slide. I say the heav­ier, the bet­ter. You can use that weight to get the slower vi­brato. All my slides have al­ways been thick brass. I use the weight against it­self, like a coun­ter­weight to get more feel.”

“I didn’t think I had a style un­til re­cently,” ad­mits Marc. “I never had any tu­ition other than the ini­tial chords to OhMyDar­lingCle­men­tine, or what­ever. My slide play­ing all came from lis­ten­ing to records. Even if I could never get it there ex­actly, I knew what I was hear­ing emo­tion­ally. If I’m lost for ideas I think, ‘Who would go here? It might not be slide. What would Richard Thomp­son do?’ Once you’re in, you’ll find your way. It’s about find­ing the en­trance points and the slide is a tool.”

IM­PER­FECT STORM

Per­haps the most de­fin­i­tive as­pect of any mu­sic Rich and Marc have worked on in the past is just how free their record­ings and per­for­mances feel. In a sim­i­lar spirit to the ti­tle of the most re­cent Lynyrd Skynyrd al­bum, LastOfA

Dyin’Breed, the mu­si­cians wear their old-school val­ues with pride, lov­ing the im­per­fec­tions of mu­sic in its most raw form…

“Per­fec­tion isn’t a real word – who knows what per­fec­tion is?” shrugs Marc. “The only way to learn is to sim­ply do it a lot. Get in the car and go and play in front of peo­ple, some of them will hate you and oth­ers will love you. As a kid I used to play with old gnarly blues dudes who were re­ally tough,” Marc con­tin­ues. “You needed thick skin to get any­where near that stage, let alone pick up a gui­tar. But I be­lieve you don’t have to mas­ter any in­stru­ment. You don’t have to be the best. Peo­ple say Neil Young is a hor­ri­ble gui­tar player and I would ar­gue he’s one of the best I’ve ever heard. It depends what you’re look­ing for… ac­ro­bat­ics? Or

some­thing with a mes­sage that hits you in the gut?”

“I was brought up lov­ing a lot of In­dian mu­sic,” re­calls Rich. “I like the hu­man el­e­ment, the lit­tle nu­ances and mi­cro-tones. You hear all these ‘singers’ that can run scales, but 99 per cent of them are us­ing Pro-Tools with some­one sat there tweak­ing ev­ery sin­gle note. But we are not that in pitch as hu­mans. Ev­ery­one has a ten­dency to hit a cer­tain scale or speak at a spe­cific note – we all have our own fre­quency. Lis­ten to guys like Paul Rodgers, Robert Plant or Rod Ste­wart, they might sing one 10th of a tone off-key – maybe a lit­tle sharp, maybe a lit­tle flat – it would be al­most funny to hear them go­ing through auto-tune. They’re singing in their own rel­a­tive key. That’s what we for­get… there is no ex­act fuckin’ key.

“It’s the same with drums – if you have a com­puter quan­tis­ing rhythms, that’s the worst thing in the world. John Bon­ham had this huge kick drum that would push and pull over Jimmy Page, these are the things that make bands unique and in­cred­i­ble. Nowa­days, peo­ple put ev­ery­thing into the com­puter and it spits out clin­i­cal­sound­ing horse shit with no soul. Hu­mans don’t play that way. We have a ten­dency to get ex­cited about a cho­rus and maybe speed up a lit­tle bit… that then in­ter­acts with the lis­ten­ers, who also get ex­cited about what’s com­ing. A com­puter can’t do that – which is why it won’t have any feel. Hon­esty is what’s amaz­ing about mu­sic.”

The Mag­pie Sa­lute’s self-ti­tled al­bum is out 9 June on Ea­gle Rock

Above: Rich dur­ing the Mag­pie Sa­lute’s four-show stand in Lon­don, play­ing one of his two El Do­rado mod­els by Teye Gui­tars of Austin, Texas

Marc Ford re­cently de­vel­oped a sig­na­ture model with Asher gui­tars but got this Elec­tro Sonic model from them af­ter­wards

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