Q&A: Tim Robbins On Growing Up In The New York Music Scene And Giving Audiences Their Money's Worth
Tim Robbins is used to the spotlight. He won an Oscar for his role in Mystic River, directed the acclaimed Dead Man Walking, and is the kind of actor who makes The Shawshank Redemption, The Player, or the light-hearted Bill Durham worth rewatching. And who could forget his role as Bob Roberts (in the mockumentary by the same name), a corrupt, folk-singing conservative running for Senate? The part of a music man was easy for Robbins to play, too. He was the son of Gil Robbins of folk group Highwaymentheir take on the spiritual "Michael Row Your Boat Ashore" reached No. 1 on the Billboard charts in '61and grew up hanging out at the Village folk den Gaslight Cafe.
While he's been involved in music for the better part of his life, the 52-year-old actor just recently shifted his primary focus over to songwriting. The past few years haven't been easy for Robbinshe went through a breakup with fellow A-lister Susan Sarandon and a movie he was backing unexpectedly fell throughalthough it's likely that those trials are precisely why he has the time to embark on this new career. The result of his endeavors can be found in his recently released debut Tim Robbins and the Rogue Gallery Band (429), which he is currently touring behind. We caught up with Robbins as he drove around Midtown, and we chatted about the motivation behind the project, performing a Pete Seeger tribute with his son and the Wainwrights, and how songwriting compares to acting.
So, why now?
Well, I've been kind of busy up until now. Just recently, when my youngest son went into college it seemed like a more opportune time to go out onto the road with my music. I've been doing it for quite a while. I had opportunities in the past to do it but didn't feel that it was right. Particularly in '92, when Bob Roberts and The Player came out. I played guitar and sang in Bob Roberts and a few people asked me if I wanted to do albums after that. It just didn't feel right at the time. My parents were both musicians, and I've always considered music to be something that you don't do lightly and that you should have something to say. When you're young and you come home from school and your dad is hunched over working on an oratorio, you tend to take making music of a real deep importance. And I didn't really feel like I had anything to say and I didn't want to take advantage of my being a celebrity to do it.
You must have gotten a few interesting phone calls after Bob Roberts.
Well, they wanted me to release the soundtrack, but I didn't do that. Yeah, I just didn't want to do it. And I had a few callers that thought it was a real documentary.
When you say that you didn't have much to say until recentlyin the past few years you went through a fairly public separation [from partner Susan Sarandon] and had a movie deal gone awry. I can't help but ask if what's happened in your personal life is what motivated you to start working on this album.
No, no, my personal life has nothing to do with it. The songs were written in the last 20 years or so. The love songs were written in the last five or six years and have nothing to do with my life. So, no on the personal side. Yes as far as the film falling apart. It did force me to get into the studio and do some things that I had been wanting to do, which was to get some of my songs on tape somewhere. At the time I was doing it more for archival reasons than to do an album. Then I ran into [producer] Hal Willner a couple of months after that and he asked me what I had been doing with music. We had had a lot of conversations in the past about music, songs I had been working on, and albums I had been participating in or helping to produce. I had some recordings of my songs and he asked to hear them.
It was really Hal that made the album happen. He listened to it and said, "I think we have an album here, and I think I have the perfect musicians for it." And then he asked if I could get on a plane in three weeks because the concert tour he was doing with the band was happening imminently. He'd do three songs a night at these shows and said we could go into the studio between shows and see what would happen. That's really how it happened.
A weekend in a studio seems like a fast turnaround for an entire album to be recorded. Tell me what recording was like.
It was really quiet, personal and intense. I would basically play the songs on guitar for the band and then Hal would suggest which instruments we should add in with the band. A lot of these guys played a lot of instruments. And then I would tell them the personal story of the songs, and tell them what was behind the writing. We would do one or two takes of each song. The album is essentially live. Hal and I did some extraswe added some background vocals with Joan As Police Woman on that song "Lightning Calls", but pretty much everything else was live. You know, there was the opportunity, of course, to make the vocals more clean and perfect, but I just didn't think that would be in the spirit of what the album waswhich was a moment in time. I don't mind imperfection. If you tell the story in a direct and personal way, then you'll get that.
Right now I'm singing a lot stronger because I've been doing it for a couple of years now. It sounds different now but I think the real trick of playing live is to bring that momentthat feeling of the studiointo the stage show.