BLACK STONE CHERRY – “Screaming Life And Letting Death Go”
September 29, 2023, 3 months ago
As Black Stone Cherry is about to release their eighth studio album, Screamin’ At The Sky, on September 29 via Mascot Records, vocalist / guitarist Chris Robertson was “Sittin’ on the porch, enjoying the Kentucky humidity,” as he spoke exclusively to BraveWords. With birds chirping in the background, Chris revealed that the recording of this album was an entirely new and different experience for the band.
Screamin’ At The Sky was tracked at The Plaza Theater in Glasgow, Kentucky – a thousand seat venue built in 1934 that boasts meticulous acoustics. In June 2022, Black Stone Cherry rented the whole place, brought in all their recording equipment and engineer Jordan Westfall. They set up the basement as the control room and the stage became the live drum room. The sound on this album is superb!
“Yeah, we’ve been doing some charity shows there every couple of years for a long time now,” begins Chris. “When it came time to record this record, we were looking for somewhere to record the drums. There’s a few different studios around, we’ve used the majority of those for recording something; and we wanted to try something new. When it comes to recording, one of the most fun things is always trying recording in new spaces. Obviously, you have tried and true environments that work really well, but there’s something to be said about using a make-shift studio that gives you a different kind of sound. We were just thinking, the drums always sound amazing in that venue when we play there. Why not just reach out to the venue and see. That’s what we did man, and it worked out really, really well. We were able to mic up the room, and truly mic the room, instead of having the microphones pointed at the drums. From a really distant spot in the room, we were turning microphones around and actually micing the room itself, instead of the drums. It sounds really cool man.”
When asked about a cost comparison – renting The Plaza Theater versus renting a traditional recording studio, Chris answered, “For us, renting a venue worked out to be a little less than renting out a studio. That’s simply because over the course of the last several years, we’ve all been collecting studio gear and more music gear, things like that. We had enough gear between us and our buddies to record the thing. So, we didn’t have to buy any equipment, or rent any equipment, or anything like that. We were able to just go straight in and start recording once we found a venue where we had enough space to set up a control room. And to get an acoustic sound that we thought would be workable. We just went from there. It’s something that, I’m 110% into doing it again at The Plaza. It was a really cool experience man. We would go do drums there… the original idea was we were going to do drums there, and then do all the guitars, bass, and vocals at (drummer) John Fred’s house. We did all the bass and all the vocals there, but John Fred would just get on a roll doing the drum tracks; cause we did it in two different sessions. He was inspired in that room, just knocking shit out. We ended up tracking all the guitars and all the drums at The Plaza, and then the bass and vocals were all tracked at John Fred’s house.”
Unfortunately, Black Stone Cherry did not have a camera crew with them at The Plaza Theater, as this recording process would be really interesting to see. “We didn’t, per se, film a lot, but there were cell phones out. Admittedly, I’m horrible about capturing stuff like that, especially when we’re in the studio because, for me, I’m one of those people that, the studio is one of my safe havens – if that makes any sense at all. I love playing live, and I love that rambunctiousness of the live thing, knowing that things could change at any moment; a song may be totally different than it was the night before. But there’s something about the studio, about that whole idea and the concept of, you’re making forever. Whether that forever lasts a minute and 48 seconds punk rock song, or it’s a 13-minute Tool or Dream Theater song; you’re making forever for that amount of time. In the studio, when we get in there, I am awful. I shut out the outside world. I don’t even look at my phone until we leave, unless I’m just trying to find something to distract myself for a few minutes. It’s kind of odd man, we all focus so much that we forget to record stuff. Next time we record, we’ve got to get our guy Mike. He normally films a lot of video content for us, but he was out touring with some bands when we were making the record. But I absolutely love the experience! The thing I love about it is the way we record everything; it allows everybody to focus in on every single instrument. You really get the best out of everybody, and everybody gets to have a say in every single aspect of it.”
The songs that comprise Screamin’ At The Sky were written collaboratively while on tour. “Man, that’s basically how we’ve written since the beginning of time; other than before we were touring, when we were just together at the practice house. But yeah, it’s odd. The only song that wasn’t written on the back of the bus was ‘Raindrops On A Rose’. Everything else was written right on the back of the bus. For us, a lot of times inspiration will strike at soundcheck, or after a show. You’ll have a riff, or there’ll be a lick… or there’ll be a moment during the show that somebody does something. It’s like, damn, that could be an idea. A perfect example of just random things inspiring songs – ‘Out Of Pocket’ was inspired by me and Ben (Wells, guitarist) busting each other’s balls. That whole song – obviously it turned into something super serious, and a very emotional song. But that whole thing is… we will quote movies all the time to each other. Me and Ben have this thing where we constantly f*ck with each other, we can’t help it. We’ll just walk by each other and say something; we’re doing it just to get a laugh out of each other. There’s a movie called Next Friday… people from my generation will remember the movie. These younger kids may not. But there’s a line in the movie where the two guys are smoking a left-handed cigarette on the couch, and they’re feeling pretty good. He says something to the guy, and the guy’s stoned and doesn’t hear him. So, he repeats it again. He says, ‘Sell your Momma’s car, I’m not selling my car.’ I looked at Ben and said, ‘You gotta sell your Momma’s car.’ I just did that melody, and that led to the guitar riff. We were like, ‘That’s kind of a cool melody.’ Just singing something dumb like that, and that turned into a really heavy guitar riff that turned into a song, that has nothing to do with a funny line from a movie. But it inspired a guitar riff, by just singing the line from a movie in a funny melody. It’s really odd how songs come about with our band. Literally, anything.”
The video for “Out Of Pocket” is undeniably serious. The storyline centers on a young white male burglarizing a middle-aged black man’s home. It seems like an inversion of the racial stereotype. There’s no graphic violence, but it’s still a heavy view. “Our whole thing is, that video, the bigger thing for us, over the racial thing was, just being a good person. That’s what the whole thing was,” states Chris. “The song, lyrically, is talking about over the last few years, I think we’ve all gotten out of rhythm. We’ve all been imositioned. With the world being the way it was, and every country’s leaders having to figure out how to try to do what they thought was best for people. It had us all in a f*cking panic man. We didn’t know what to do. And we all, I’m sure, made some difficult decisions, and decisions we wish we could take back. I think the whole world got out of rhythm for a while.”
“‘Out Of Pocket’ is just another way of saying we’re not locked in together. That video man, the kicker of it for me is the fact that you’ve got somebody who was going in to take things from somebody to better their lives, and in that final moment, had that realization of, what the f*ck am I doing? I’ve got to change myself. Dude, if the video helps open eyes and stops stereotyping, then obviously I’m all for that because I think a big part of the problem is the way the media tells us we should think. Last I checked, we live in a country where you’re free to think and believe however you want to. That’s the way I’ll continue to live my life. I cancelled our TV. We don’t have cable TV at our house. It all happened during the pandemic man. I’ve got a little boy that’s going to be 11 years old this year, and the last three years of his life, TV has been the most negative sh*t on the planet that you could ever put in front of a kid. So, we said during the pandemic, ‘Let’s get rid of this.’ We can monitor the TV shows and the level of negativity in this house much better that way.”
Being “out of rhythm” as Chris mentioned, seems to be a lyrical theme throughout the album. For example, the title track contains the line, “We’ve had enough of this sh*t, you know we all need some healing.” Isn’t that the truth? “Yeah man. Look, I’ve always been outspoken. Since 2011 when I kind of had a nervous breakdown, I’ve been very outspoken about mental health. Before it was even cool to be a guy talking about mental health, I was outspoken about it. And I took the hate on every website you could think of that ran and picked up the article where I did an interview and talked about that I believe in God. I came out the other side of a depression and I’m still here. I caught a lot of hate man. I caught a lot of sh*t. But I look at like, 12 years later, I’m still here. I’m still standing, still fighting. Haters can still hate all they want, that just means we’re doing something right. If me being open about the struggles that I deal with on a daily basis… or if I’m able to convey that in my contribution lyrically to the songs, whatever lyrics I may write… if people can relate to that, then I figure me just being an open book about it, and being honest, saying this is how I feel… I’ve got to imagine at some point somebody else has felt that way too. I can only hope that people will relate to these songs, and they carry across the way we intended them to.”
The aforementioned “Raindrops On A Rose” is actually titled “R.O.A.R.”, as opposed to “Raindrops On A Rose”. Chris shares the reasoning behind the abbreviated title. “So, the story on that song is, the original idea of it was born during the pandemic. We had finished our record; we weren’t able to tour. I was just kind of going down to the studio and writing songs with buddies. I had never written songs that weren’t for Black Stone Cherry. I had never sat down and tried to write a song and it not be for Black Stone Cherry. So, I just wanted to go write some songs with some friends; some buddies of mine that I’d always admired. They’re great songwriters, great guitar players. There was a day where somebody couldn’t make it, whatever happened. I went down to the studio, just me and Jordan, our engineer, were the only two there that day. A little bit of a backstory just to make it all make sense – my Dad had been diagnosed with Stage 4 Cancer a couple years prior. Things were… it was if-y at best at this point. More problems had started to arise in his situation. My Dad would come over every morning, and in his position, when he found out he had cancer, there was really no sense in him stopping smoking cigarettes; it wasn’t going to improve anything. So, he would come over and we would sit on the porch, he’d smoke cigarettes – he lived right beside me.”
“There was one morning in particular, that morning I was going into the studio. I was sitting over here, and it was raining. We’ve got rose bushes right in front of our porch. I was watching it, and I was waiting on Daddy to come over. He was a little slower that morning; he wasn’t feeling the absolute best. I was watching it rain, and the rain on the rose petals was just f*cking beautiful man. The way the water would just bead up on there. But then it would get too heavy and just have to let go, and start its cycle completely over again. I don’t know why, but it stuck with me. I was captivated by the rain drops – the way they would puddle up and then fall off that rose. I went to the studio, and I just had that line, ‘Raindrops on a rose, they’re easy on the eyes, but they’re heavy on the soul.’ I had that stuck in my head. The song is basically… we kind of came up with a version that day, me and Jordan. Then, when we came to write songs for the record, I showed that one to the guys, and they were like, ‘We f*cking love this!’ We took it and made it a Black Stone Cherry song. The guys added so much, and that’s what makes our band so great, in my opinion. The fact that one guy can have a song, but it’s not what it is until you bring it to the whole band, and we all put our stamp on it. That’s happened so many times over the years. Ben’ll bring something in, or John Fred will bring something in; then it turns into a Black Stone Cherry song the minute we all get in there and start doing our thing.”
“But man, that whole song is kind of me talking to my Dad. I got to play that song for my Dad before he passed, and he really liked it. But it’s kind of talking to him. The line that says, ‘Sometimes it feels hopeless when everyone knows it’s only a matter of time.’ That was basically what we were given when we found out Daddy was sick – ‘You’ve got this amount of time if everything goes absolutely perfect for you, Mr. Robertson.’ We don’t live in a perfect world, and things don’t go perfect. The possibility of five to ten years turned into almost three and a half years. A diagnosis that has a normal four to ten month rate, we got a month after that diagnosis. We don’t live in a world where things are perfect; anything can happen at any time. That song is… I don’t know, something inside of me wanted to call that song ‘R.O.A.R.’, and ‘Raindrops On A Rose’ is a really long title. It’s a very beautiful title, and an intriguing title, but something about calling the song ‘R.O.A.R.’ also very much so gives the feeling of the song to me because, a lot of times, when I think about those times, I just want to scream because, much like anybody else in the world, you want to think, ‘Why did it have to be me?’ But then I remind myself, if it wasn’t me, it would have been somebody else’s Daddy; and I would never wish that on anyone. So, ‘Raindrops On A Rose’ is the really soft side of that song, but then ‘R.O.A.R.’ kind of gives you that just wanting to scream about it, side of it.”
And that scream ties into the album title, Screamin’ At The Sky, as well as the artwork. It’s such an incredible image. You can look at it forever and continually pick out different things, which is something that’s been missing in album covers for far too long. “We commissioned it from a guy named Sam Mayle, he’s an incredible illustrator! He’s done work for Star Wars, and a bunch of different stuff. He’s a big fan of the band, and we’ve had him do stuff for us in the past. He did a couple other art pieces for us. We basically just gave him the title and said, ‘We want your vision of what this title gives you.’ And he gave us a couple different options. The person screaming at the sky was the one that hit us first. The thing I love about it is, for me, my instant look at it was, it was screaming life and letting death go. And everybody interpreted it different. The other three guys all saw different stuff, but for me, that was what I saw. I saw the back of the head as the dead trees falling away, and the life being screamed into the sky with the butterflies. It was letting go and moving on. That’s kind of what the whole song ‘Screamin’ At The Sky’ is about. We’re kind of old school around here, where we’re from.
"I’m 38, and bonfires are still a thing. Something about a group of friends around a bonfire… I don’t know man. When we were listening to music for Screamin’ At The Sky, all I can picture was a bunch of people around a bonfire, with a drink in hand, deciding to just let go and screaming into the sky, cause I’ve got this idea. And I really adapted it after I had a nervous breakdown – the things that are beyond your control, you have to just throw them into the cosmos and let them be what they are, and then figure out the world around them. Because if it’s beyond your control, what’s the point of worrying about it anyways? And there’s so many things in the world beyond our control at this point, it’s better to just let that sh*t go man, and focus on what we got today and right now. I very much have to live day to day for my best mental well-being.”
The last two songs on Screamin’ At The Sky – “Here’s To The Hopeless” and “You Can Have It All”. Those are diametrically opposed titles. “Here’s To The Hopeless” is kind of depressing, whereas “You Can Have It All” is so positive. On top of that, in “Here’s To The Hopeless”, there’s a line that goes, “God as my witness, I’ve never been religious, I’ll always believe in you.” That’s ironic as earlier in this interview, Chris mentioned that when he told the world that he believes in God, he caught flak for it. “Because for me man, there’s a big difference in being religious and having a strong faith. And for me, religion; it’s a touchy one. I don’t talk about it a lot because I don’t like to put my views on other people. But it’s often used as a tool in the wrong reasons, in my opinion, a lot of times. And I think faith is one of the greatest things anybody can have. Whether it be in humanity, in a higher power, in yourself – in whatever. Having faith in something is an incredibly powerful tool. You can believe in what you want without being a super religious person. But I think the biggest basis of that line is… what I was trying to get across is the fact of, if we get in a room with 100 people. There’s a chance, a chance there’s going to be 10, 15, or 20 different walks of life in that room. 10 or 15 different social beliefs. 10 or 15 different ethical standards; religious beliefs. But at the end of the day, if we put those 100 people in there with a common goal and we believe in each other, none of that other sh*t matters. And that’s what it’s saying – with everything in me, I’ve always believed in the person next to me.
“Cause that song is talking about, at least from my perspective, about how you wish you could be more for people at times; especially when they’re going through hard stuff. When you lose someone in your family who’s the cornerstone of the family, like your Dad, you wish nothing more than you could be more for the people around you. But you’ve got to heal and hurt as well. It’s a very, very difficult thing to try to understand and process. We get there, and we figure it out… but I know, especially for me man, the last several years, I lost my Dad, the band went through a change (in bass players), and the world has been through the biggest flip on its head since I’ve been alive. And I felt pretty f*cking hopeless through most of it, to be completely honest with you. But I feel like there’s an anthem for all of us that have felt so hopeless. And that’s why when that music was finished, ‘Here’s To The Hopeless’ seemed like the no-brainer title for the song. It’s one of those songs that I think is really going to resonate with people, and I hope that they catch it in the right light.”
Not to over-simplify “You Can Have It All”, but it’s kind of a re-write of the children’s rhyme “Sticks And Stones” when Chris sings, “If words were weapons, I would be a dead man.” Yeah, like I said earlier, I remember when I came out and I talked about wanting to end it all – and coming through that. People were saying, ‘You should have done it.’ You’re this and that, blah, blah, blah. ‘Why didn’t you stop wasting all the space and end yourself?’ I just remember back to that. Cause there’s always going to be people in the world that are going to, for no reason whatsoever other than jealousy, or their own laziness not allowing them to do what they want to do. They’re going to say sh*t. They’re going to have something to say about everything you do. That’s why the song says, ‘If you’ve all got something to say, don’t let it take you away, if words were weapons, I’d be a dead man.’ I love starting it out like that cause it just says, you know what, let it go man. Let ‘em do what they’re going to do. If you focus on what it is that you really want, you’re going to get that. We’re very fortunate to live in a world, in a place where if you put your mind to things – it’s a f*cked-up system. Everything is as broken as it’s ever been. But we still have the potential to… if you set your mind to it and you provide yourself the opportunity; they’re not always going to come to you. You’ve got to go out and get opportunities. But you can create the chances to do what you want to do, and you have to capitalize.”
(Photos courtesy of Jimmy Fontaine)