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 Highwaymen—their take on the spiritual “Michael Row Your Boat Ashore” reached No. 1 on the Billboard charts in ’61—and 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 Robbins—he went through a breakup with fellow A-lister Susan Sarandon and a movie he was backing unexpectedly fell through—although 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 recently—in 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 extras—we 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 was—which 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 moment—that feeling of the studio—into the stage show.

Your stage shows seem to play out like a family affair in that you had photos of your parents on-stage at your last stop, siblings involved in the project, and your son is opening for your East Coast dates. Has that always been your family dynamic?

Well, to be clear, it’s a show of carefully rehearsed professional musicians. (Laughs.) My brother is a professional musician. My son is really super-talented musician and he’s been writing songs since he was 12. He’s a really sophisticated songwriter, I believe. We’ve performed a couple of times together. The latest was the Pete Seeger tribute we did in Madison Square Garden a couple of years ago. I remember when they asked me and I asked if I could bring my son. They said “Sure,” because, you know, folk music is kind of like that. You pass your songs on to the next generation, to your kids, and so on. Folk music is filled with that family stuff. And so I went to him and he said, “Sure, Dad. Where?” We had done a tribute the year before at Webster Hall. But when I told him it was at MSG he was like, “Are you out of your fucking mind?” I said, “No, I’m not. It’ll be fine. Come to rehearsal and see what happens.”

I believed that he had the right to sing that song no matter how big the stage was because his grandfather sang that song on stages throughout the United States for years. The song being “Michael Row Your Boat Ashore” from my father’s band, the Highwaymen. So we went to rehearsal with Rufus and Martha Wainright and the McGarrigle Sisters and so it was already like a family back there. They encouraged him and calmed his nerves and so he came to MSG and went up on stage and he was fantastic. It was great.

Speaking of that kind of generational hand-me-down that’s associated with folk music: Is there anything in particular about your father’s musicianship or playing style that has stuck with you?

I think it’s everything about what I got from my dad. I mean, originally, all the musical influences he brought into my life at a young age. We didn’t have a television in my house, but we did have a nice stereo with big headphones. We had so much vinyl in our house. And then we grew up with the idea that music is a legitimate way to live your life and to pursue your living it. That’s pretty unique, I think. Most parents indulge the arts and then they tell you to get a real job. As far as the concerts go, there are a few songs from back in the day that we bring in with our new songs. And a few covers of other folk songs.

What about growing up in the Village? What was your relationship with the local music scene?

My dad helped run the Gaslight Cafe on MacDougal Street so I was always there. I saw so many acts—Sonny and Terry, Brownie McGhee, Eric Andersen. Who else? Cat Stevens when he was starting out. I got kicked out of the club one night when Richard Pryor was playing. I was too young.

I feel like songwriting is different from acting in that you’re responsible for the creation from the ground-up. How do the two compare as far as nerves? In terms of vulnerability, I guess.

Oh, yeah. Well, it’s a different kind of storytelling. When you’re doing live acting, you’re telling someone else’s story and you’re assuming a character that you can hide behind that character. With live music, when you’re doing your own stuff, it’s much more personal and immediate. But then again, they are my songs and I’ve been singing them for a few years so I better have them memorized. (Laughs.) There are always nerves before you go out on stage. I always have a respect for the audience—I want to give them the best show possible and I don’t want to fuck up.

Whenever I’m about to go on stage I remember one of the greatest lessons I ever got from an acting teacher. It was to never assume that the audience could afford the tickets that they bought to see you. Just assume that everyone paid their last dollar to for that show and then invest that kind of energy into your performance. So that’s kind of the way I’m approaching it. We’ve had great shows so far, so that’s been nice. The people are approaching the show with a kind of curiosity, you know? I’m deeply grateful that they’ve even come to give me a shot with my music. But in the course of the evening it changes from curiosity to enthusiasm and that’s been really exciting for me to experience.

“Time To Kill” is one of the more melancholy tracks off the album, with references to children dying. What’s it about?

I ran into this kid in the bar in Grand Junction, Colorado. He was 22 years old and had been on three tours in Iraq already. He came up to me after recognizing me and asked if he could talk to me. I said, “Sure.” So he sat down and two hours later he had just vented everything to me. He told me this terrible story about being put in this dangerous situation and then overreacting to that dangerous situation in a way that he’ll regret for the rest of his life.

It was so sad. I asked him why he was telling me, and he told me that it was because he knew I was against the war and that it would be safe for him to tell me. He said, “I don’t feel like I can tell my friends that, and I don’t think I can tell my family that.” I basically realized that it was an honor to receive this story and my responsibility to write it. So I went home and wrote it. You know, that story is ultra-common. When you put these young men in dangerous situations with weapons. Things are gonna happen and they’re ultra human and tragic. I think it’s a difficult story to tell but one that’s necessary to tell.

Tim Robbins & The Rogues Gallery perform at Le Poisson Rouge tonight.