Mike Ragogna: Tim, we’ve already seen your musical side in the movie Bob Roberts. What got you into music and why this album at this point?
Tim Robbins: Well, I guess it’s because my father and mother were musicians, and I’ve always had a real respect for the process that goes into creating a piece of music. I’ve seen my dad working over musical compositions for hours and hours. When Bob Roberts came out, I got a few people that were interested in me playing and singing and doing a record. At the time, I felt that Bob Roberts was a character I enjoyed playing, but I didn’t think I had something to say as myself, as a songwriter, as a storyteller. I also didn’t like it when I saw other people exploit their fame for the purpose of being a temporary rockstar. If I was going to do it, I wanted to do something that was well thought out and something that spoke to me–a story I wanted to tell, a complete story. I’m also a big fan of albums that have a journey. Not just the idea that if you write a couple songs and do a couple covers, that that makes an album. So, I waited. I waited until the time was right. I’d done a demo just to get some things down on tape. A friend of mine heard the demo, who was a producer named Hal Willner. He’s the one that encouraged me to the next step–found the musicians and told me that he felt there was an album in there. He’s the one that really made it happen.
MR: It’s a very warm album, and like Bob Dylan or Robbie Robertson’s works–two artists who might have influenced you–there’s a lot of love there for “the album as artwork.”
TR: Yeah, I’ve been a huge fan of both of those guys for many years–also Tom Waits and Bruce Springsteen. I’m a big fan of storytellers–Johnny Cash, Warren Zevon–and the idea that a story can take you somewhere in 2½ or three or four minutes. I’m used to working in a longer form, writing and directing plays and movies, and there you have a two-hour format. With songs, it’s much more of a challenge because you take them into a world in less that four minutes. It’s amazing–the concept that a song can change the way you feel about something in that amount of time.
MR: Exactly, you have to be so concise to get the story just right.
TR: Right, and I was incredibly fortunate and blessed to have parents that saw that as a legitimate thing to do with your life, you know what I mean? A lot of people aren’t that blessed. From a very early age, I saw a passion for music in both my mother and my father and that passion, when you see it expressed–when my dad would sing a song and my mom would sing with her choral group–the amount of emotion and truth that came out of that was such a rare, beautiful gift to receive. And then I took that into acting and storytelling of a different kind, but still the root of music has been there that long and it’s something I knew I was going to do at some point. I’m really, really happy to be able to be doing it now.
MR: Does it seem like this is your life coming full circle?
TR: It’s like I finally got around to what my dad’s profession was. (laughs) I’m like the guys whose father made shoes for the town and went off and had a bit of an acting career and came back to town, and now I’m making shoes. Seriously, you know?
MR: And what wonderful shoes. (laughs) My favorite thing about this album’s packaging? “Music and lyrics by Tim Robbins.” It’s your statement, your album. Do you feel like, in the context of how albums often function creatively, that this is a journey from A-to-Z?
TR: I feel like the way the structure of it is, yeah, I do feel that. I think that I shaped the album.
MR: Now, your dad is Gilbert Robbins of the group The Highwaymen. Do you have a couple of memories you could share with us from those days?
TR: Well, yeah, there were a lot. The first music memory I have in life involved seeing him onstage. The laughter that was emanating from the audience, and the idea that the audience joined along with my father in singing a song, was a very, very strong impression. And the idea of community that was created by my dad, I’ve always loved that about the live experience. The idea that strangers can come into a room and sound so beautiful together when they’re singing. Pete Seeger did this for years–when he was blacklisted and on the road with his banjo. He would say to the audience, “You know, I don’t have a band with me, but I need you to be part of this musical experience.” That was in the mid-to-late ’50s, and I’d guess about 80 or 90 percent of the young men and women that wound up in Greenwich Village in the late ’50s and early ’60s that created that folk revival had been to a Pete Seeger concert somewhere in the United States of America. It’s that kind of community building that I really love about the live experience–it’s something you don’t get with movies. You can get it with theater to a degree, but with theater, it’s always a specific story. That’s all great–I love doing theater. But with music, it’s an individual relationship between yourself and these strangers that have entrusted you with their time. That’s not lost on me. I don’t take anything for granted when people come see me live, I really feel very grateful that they’ve made the effort.
MR: With theater and film, everything’s spelled out, whereas with performing live, songwriting and making records–without the video, of course–your mind still has to fill in the blanks and make a story visually for yourself.
TR: Yes, that’s the great thing about music. We all create different movies in our heads of the same song.
MR: What’s the story behind the song, “Book Of Josie”?
TR: “Book Of Josie” is a song I wrote after I read a book called The Gnostic Gospels by Elaine Pagels. The book had been given to me by Sister Helen Prejean, who wrote the bookDead Man Walking that I made a movie based on. Essentially, what the book makes you do is kind of re-imagine who Jesus was and what he meant at the time that he lived. One of the things about The Gnostic Gospels is that it talks about these gospels that were kept out of the bible and discovered in 1948. They were the gospels of James and Thomas and Mary. In the Gospel of Mary, you come to understand that Mary Magdalene very likely was an apostle with the others, considered an equal with the others. It’s nuts. She’s not someone who had a deeper relationship with Jesus. And so, I imagined what that was–the idea of a woman and the love she had for a man that would later be known as a deeply spiritual force in the world.
MR: It’s really interesting when you look at what was removed from the bible, Lillith’s being another example.
TR: Yeah. These Gnostic Gospels have kind of an eastern feel to them as well–they include the idea that God is within us–the Buddhist kind of philosophy. I’ve always had a problem with any religion–Christian, Jewish, Muslim–that would speak of their own God at the exclusion of other gods. “We’re right, you’re wrong. You’re infidels or sinners because you don’t believe in the God that we believe in.” That always leads to trouble, it’s always going to create a bad situation. I’m kind of interested in the idea that there’s a spiritual leader that would probably acknowledge other spiritual leaders as being legitimate. If you think about it, when you meet the Dalai Lama, he’s not going to say that the Pope is full of s**t, you know what I mean?
MR: Absolutely. Its seems the less worried you are about your own bottom line, the more focused you’ll be on your followers’ evolution or spiritual growth.
TR: Which is why I don’t think that, for example, God would have a commandment saying, “You have to love no God other than me.” Because if he’s God, he knows he’s God, right? It shows a deep sense of insecurity to make your number one commandment, “Gotta believe in me.”
MR: Yeah. Tim, how did you assemble the “Rogues Gallery” that accompany you?
TR: That’s Hal Willmer, he’s the creator of the Rogues Gallery. He put the band together for a series of concerts he did about three years ago, and we did the album in between two of those shows. On their two days off, we went into the studio and did the album.
MR: When was the album recorded?
TR: I think two years ago. I have no reason to rush this kind of thing. The album came out last fall in Europe, we were waiting for a distributor that understood what it was and how to properly release it. We finally found the right people and we’re really excited about releasing it.
MR: The Savoy Label Group–429 Records in particular–has had some interesting releases recently. You’re in a nice stable over there.
TR: I know, I really like them a lot and I like their taste in music too. The great perk is that when you go over there and say hi, you get some really good CDs.
MR: (laughs) Which songs on this album resonate the most with you when it comes to personal experience?
TR: Oh, they’re all based on personal experiences.
MR: Are there any in particular that you have a very strong emotional connection with?
TR: Well, “Crush On You” is a tough one to sing live because I’m always saddened by the story. You’ve got a kid that decided to live in his own skin in a kind of intolerant area of California. He started to declare that he was gay and dress like he wanted to and wear what he wanted to and tell who he wanted to what he wanted to, and he paid a deep consequence for that. Telling that story every night is always emotionally difficult, but it’s a story that needs to be told I think.
MR: You made a statement, and I’m paraphrasing, that’s basically, “At two in the morning, I’m not likely to go home and act, but I am likely to go back and write a song.” Is that what it’s been like for you?
TR: Yeah, I’d say seven out of nine of these songs are written in hotel rooms late at night.
MR: What’s your creative process?
TR: Well, it’s different from song to song. Sometimes, something’s just stewing for a while and I’ll write down a few lines of it, and then write down a few lines later after I pick it up again. Sometimes, it comes all at once. “Time To Kill” was a song I wrote in a torrent after I had talked to this kid in Grand Junction, Colorado. That just came all at once and pretty much because all the images in that song came from his mouth. It was just a matter of documenting the conversation I’d had with this kid.
MR: What is your advice for new artists these days?
TR: First of all, don’t call yourself an artist. Approach it as a worker with a discipline. It’s up to other people to call it art. Do what it is your passionate is about, and do what will bring you joy. What I always tell actors who ask whether they should go on or not is if you’re doing it to become rich and famous, it’s probably not a good idea. If you’re doing it because nothing else brings you that joy and that fulfillment, then yeah, pursue it because you have to.
MR: Even though there are going to be some times when you bottom out.
TR: It doesn’t matter who you are or how successful or famous or rich you get, there is always a bottoming out.
MR: I have to ask you an important question. Obviously, you are no stranger to The Gaslight in New York City and I wanted to ask if you were as scared as I was standing under the gas sign outside the club as a kid. That had to be a health hazard! (laughs.)
TR: (laughs) Yeah, it was a health hazard. Pretty much that whole place was a health hazard. I’ve been in it recently just to take a look. Obviously, it’s not The Gaslight anymore, but it’s really small. Super small.
MR: It’s amazing going back to these clubs years later and realizing how tiny they were.
TR: Yeah, tiny and, you know, less magical. Have you been to Le Poisson Rouge? That’s where The Village Gate used to be. That’s the one for me. For the very first incarnation of Bob Roberts, that’s where we did the live shots of him singing, at The Village Gate.
MR: Nice. You’re going to go on tour for this record, right?
TR: I am going on tour for this record. We’re starting off in Canada and then we’re going down the west coast in America–from Seattle to Portland to San Francisco to Los Angeles July 21st, and then San Diego. Then we’re going to New York July 25th and 26th and doing The Letterman Show and Le Poisson Rouge. Then we’re going to Washington, D.C. and Philidelphia, etc.
MR: Are you going to have any opening acts with you or anybody that you’re promoting?
TR: Actually, part of the tour–for New York anyway–I’m going to have my son with me. He’s got a band called Pow Pow that I think is going to be opening for us. I’m going to get him up onstage with me for a couple songs.
MR: So, your band’s coming with you?
TR: Oh yes, the full band will be on tour.
MR: Tim, I have to ask you at least one movie-related question. Which of your movies means the most to you?
TR: Yes, I’m like Altman in this regard–I’d ask him what his favorite movie was and he’d say, “It’s like children. It’s the one everyone ignores that you love the most.” So, I would have to say its Cradle Will Rock, the movie I wrote and directed in 1999. I really am proud of that one.
MR: Tim, thank you very, very much. This has been a great pleasure.
TR: You’re very welcome.
MR: All the best with the new project.
TR: Thank you very much.
Transcribed by Claire Wellin