- 22 Sep 22
53 years ago today, The Band released their iconic self-titled album. Featuring classic tracks like 'The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down', The Band is widely considered one of the greatest albums of all time. To mark the occasion, we're revisiting an interview with The Band's lead guitarist and songwriter, Robbie Robertson...
Originally published in Hot Press in 2011.
One of the greatest songwriters in American post-war music, both solo and with The Band, Robbie Robertson was Bob Dylan’s right-hand man throughout the firestorm of the mid-60s electric period and Martin Scorsese’s music producer of choice for three decades. Now, as the living music legend releases a solo album featuring collaborations with Tom Morello and Trent Reznor, he grants Hot Press a career-spanning interview.
Interview: Róisín Dwyer
As a member of The Band he changed the course of modern rock. Now Robbie Robertson is about to release his fifth solo album, which features contributions from Tom Morello, Trent Reznor, Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood. It’s his most personal work to date. On How To Become Clairvoyant Robertson examines his career highs and lows, the successes and excesses, the murky depths and dizzying peaks of the rock & roll rollercoaster.
“There was a period when Martin Scorsese and I were housemates, we had a place in Los Angeles and one in New York,” he says. “At one stage of this madness Marty had to go into the hospital and he was really, really ill. I went to visit him and it became very clear from what the doctor was saying that that was it. The jig was up. We really had to change courses, the party was over.”
Robertson at once revives and exorcises these demons on the new song ‘He Don’t Live Here No More’ (“I was riding on the night train/I been moving in the fast lane/I was only trying to kill the pain/Too far gone”). On previous long-players he has explored a variety of subjects, including his ancestry – Music For The Native Americans (1994) – but never before has the writing been this personal. Why now?
“There’s something kind of mysterious about ‘Why now?’, it’s something I don’t completely understand myself,” he says, relaxing in his Los Angeles home. “When I’ve been asked about this I think, well maybe enough time has passed from these periods that I’m talking about. I think it might have something to do with the distance, now I’m comfortable with it.
“After I finished this record I have to admit that I felt a certain relief. I think it was good medicine. It’s turned out to be one of the most enjoyable albums that I have ever worked on in my life so I’m really grateful for this experience.”
In a career that has spanned over five decades, Robertson has been at the epicentre of many seismic cultural shifts, most notably Dylan’s controversial 1966 tour.
“It was a fascinating period because when I first went into it I didn’t realise that we were part of a musical revolution,” he admits. “I just liked Bob Dylan, I liked him as a person. I only started to understand the music as we went along.
“At some point in that tour I really felt, ‘Whoa, we’re on to something here’. Even the fact that every night people booed us and threw stuff at us yet we kept getting back up there, there’s something to that. We didn’t get weak at the knees and walk away from it, we saw it through.
“And then a few years later when we did the Bob Dylan And The Band tour, everyone acted like, ‘Hey this is great – we knew it all along’,” he laughs. “That wasn’t true! What happened was the world changed and we stood our ground and that was a very gratifying feeling when I look back.”
As a member of The Band, Robertson crafted two of the most influential albums of all time, Music From Big Pink and The Band, which spawned such timeless compositions as ‘The Weight’ and ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’. He deals with the demise of the illustrious act in ‘This Is Where I Get Off’.
“You know, I didn’t know when I was writing that song that that was what I was writing about,” he says. “Very often in the creative process you just grab something out of the air and try to see if you can make it catch fire. This was one of those cases. I was just following a path and didn’t know where it was going. As it started to reveal itself to me I started to realise, ‘Oh my God, I’m actually writing about that time with the guys.’ When I finished recording it I had a certain sense of relief, of a weight being lifted off my shoulders. There were a lot of emotions involved on a lot of the songs on this record. Some of it was sad and some of it was joyous and this is one of those cases where emotions were all over the place.”
In the pantheon of great rock splits, The Band maintain a place of noteriety due to the legendary acrimony between Robertson and drummer/singer Levon Helm. But time may have healed old wounds. Robertson has recently stated he would have “no objections” to working with Helm and keyboard-player Garth Hudson again.
“I saw Garth a while back,’ he reveals. “We were receiving another award in LA. Garth and Levon still live in Woodstock and I don’t really get up there so I don’t get to see them at all. But I have nothing but fond memories and a great appreciation for their talents.”
The document that captures the musicians at their live zenith is the seminal concert film The Last Waltz, a finale for not only the band but for a musical era. The punk rock explosion was just around the corner.
“Well, for me it was a lot of work,” laughs Robertson, recalling the famous performance. “There was a lot of stuff going on because I was producing the film too. We had to learn lots of other people’s songs also, that was really difficult! One second you’re playing with Dr John the Nighttripper, the next minute you’re with Neil Diamond, then Muddy Waters and Joni Mitchell! It’s a wonder we didn’t end up with whiplash!
“But we got through the whole thing without screwing it up. It was a Guinness Book Of Records feat to be able to do that and it was a joyous experience. Everybody was at the top of their game and the feeling in the air was just extraordinary. And obviously Martin Scorsese and all these amazing cinematographers did a great job. God was on our side.”
The Last Waltz was also the birth of the working relationship with director Martin Scorsese.
“Martin is such a dear friend of mine,” Robbie says. “Every time I get the call from him, ‘Hey, I’ve been working on this project, see what you think about this’, I just want to do something great for him. We have been doing this together forever now.”
His work on Scorsese’s Shutter Island occurred in the midst of the recording of the album. According to Robertson, moving between the two contrasting creative outlets brought a new perspective on the record.
“It was a wonderful departure,” he enthuses. “For that project I had to really sink my teeth into modern classical music, I had to go through thousands of pieces of music to find what would suit the storytelling and also what I thought Martin Scorsese would be drawn to. It was like going to another world, it was such a great learning process.
“When I came back then to working on the record I had a completely different sense of clarity and I knew I wanted to do this song with Tom Morello and I knew I wanted to work with Trent Reznor. It just all revealed itself to me.”
What prompted the invitation to Trent Reznor?
“Both Trent and I move in a cinematic world, obviously he has just won the Academy Award, bless his heart. There was a piece of music I was working on that was quite traditional and I wanted to find a counterpoint to that. I wanted to find somebody who could do that in a modern, mystic, tasteful way. Trent was just at the top of the list so I asked him and he said he’d love to do it. And he did it and it was perfect.”
Another contemporary name amongst the credits which may raise a few eyebrows is Tom Morello.
“Well, I’m just fascinated by what Tom Morello does with a guitar. I have no understanding of what he does when he plays – I should know! He was amazing. On this record, it’s great casting on my part!”
As it happens, the album has its roots in some informal recording sessions with Eric Clapton.
“When we started to do it we didn’t know if we were making an Eric record or a duet or a Robbie record,” he explains. “After we did the sessions Eric said, ‘Well, you wrote the majority of the recordings, this should be your album. I’m just happy to be supportive, I’ll play or sing or whatever you want me to do.’ That’s what you call a great friend.”
Robbie laughs when he’s reminded of the backhanded compliment paid by Clapton in stating his reasons for breaking up Cream – because he had heard The Band.
“I met Eric in 1968 in a mutual friend’s house in LA and he told me what an impact we had on him. It was a good feeling to think that what you did meant something to people you admired very much but also to other musicians. The music had a big effect on the course of music over the years and it still does to this day.
“But we had been together for seven years before we made Music From Big Pink so there was a certain seasoning and a certain honing of the skills that had gone into what we did before we even made that record. Including being put through the mill with Bob Dylan trying to change the course of the world! All of these things added up. We had been on the road doing the Chitlin’ circuit down south and playing all over, gathering musicalities for years and years. So I think people could sense that there was a depth in the record because the response we got from other musicians was really extraordinary. It was a great response from the public in general, but what is so memorable is people you respect saying this is such a great piece of work, but then we made another album and people said, ‘This is even better!’ At that time we felt really good about being able to make a really worthwhile contribution to music and not by following anybody’s path but our own.”
The Band’s basement recording set-up in Woodstock was recreated by some quite famous fans he later worked with in the ‘80s.
“It was Daniel Lanois who arranged the meeting with U2,” Robbie recalls. “They were in the middle of The Joshua Tree. I had never met them before. I just flew over and someone picked me up and brought me to Adam Clayton’s house where they had all this equipment laid out. When I walked in the place it felt so odd and then one of the guys asked me did it look familiar. I didn’t really understand right off the bat but then I realised it was very similar to the set-up for The Basement Tapes!”
And how did he find working with Bono et al?
“We didn’t have a lot of time so we got right down to business,” he recalls. “We laid down some tracks and we went out and celebrated at night. We had a great time! It went by in a flash. The guys are dear friends to this day and I’ll always appreciate that.”
Did he sample some Guinness during his visit?
“Of course!” he laughs. “Otherwise I would have no proof that I was ever there.”
Robertson is in the process of writing an autobiography, and next month will be inducted into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame.
“They’re also giving me the Royal Order Of Canada which is the highest honour you can receive,” he states. “And they’re putting me on a postage stamp! I never thought that would happen!”
He will not tour this album and confesses he has not toured since The Last Waltz, declaring it to be “a young man’s game”.
“I know some guys will do it forever. Willie Nelson and Bob Dylan will be out there until their days are done and I respect that, I respect old road dogs very much. But to me it’s like being in the same play for the rest of my life. I’m not challenged by touring. It’s a great business and there’s lots of money to be made, but I’m just drawn to other things.”
Revisit The Band below: