Robbie Robertson, Live, Onstage at TAXI's 2006 Road Rally

Part three

Interview by Michael Laskow
Robbie Robertson-future of music
I know that you and Martin Scorsese actually lived together during the period when you did the film, The Last Waltz. What was that relationship like?

Well, he's a frustrated musician, and I guess I was a frustrated filmmaker. So, it was a perfect connect. I would turn him on to music of great obscure things that end up in a lot of these movies, actually. I would try to think of something that would just blow his mind. And he would screen movies for me—like trashy B-movies that are amazing in their own way. It was never the obvious. He was never showing me D.W. Griffiths' movies or what are considered classic films. They were always off the beaten path, but very interesting—Sam Fuller movies, things like that. So, we traded back and forth on all these kinds of things. He knew that I was a film buff long before we crossed paths, and I knew that he was a music fanatic long before we crossed paths. So we had something to work with there.

How much leeway does he give you in his films? Is it pretty much your call? Are you good enough at second-guessing the way you think he might want to go with music?

No, it isn't like that. It isn't like, "You figure this out for me." Because what I've done in working with him—and other filmmakers too—over the years is really try to brainstorm something up to a certain point that we could figure out what goes against the grain here beautifully, and just pushes a button in you that you didn't even know was there. That's the most exciting thing.

In the first movie after The Last Waltz that I worked with him on, Raging Bull, I remember very specifically that what I did was suggest songs and pieces of music that ended up on the movie. And I also did some source music for the movie, which means it's actually happening in the scene somewhere—like when they're in the Copacabana and there's a little group playing on the stage while Joe Pesci is beating the shit out of somebody. It needs to evoke the right thing and be just the right feel and tempo and all that stuff.

This is when I got hooked on this thing. We were watching the beginning of Raging Bull and there is a man bouncing up and down in slow motion in a boxing ring with a leopard-skin boxing outfit on. It's a nice shot. He's [DeNiro] kind of off to the side of the ring a little bit, bouncing up and down in slow motion. It's an interesting shot. You put this Mascagni music with this shot, and it's like, "Oh my God. This is a classic." And the movie has just begun, already you're in, you're part of it, it's already getting to you, and we just have a man bouncing up and down in slow motion in a leopard skin outfit.

Normally you would think, "OK. So? What's the big deal here?" And immediately that music comes on and you are carried away. That's the power of music in film. So, that's very exciting to see that you can get that much out of it. And if you take that music away, it's OK. It's a nice black and white shot, like I said, but it doesn't evoke any feelings in you. But you put that music on... I went through countless numbers of versions of that music by different conductors and orchestras from around the world trying to find just the right one. And the best one—the one that's used in there—is by this almost incompetent little orchestra from Bologna, Italy. It's not the best quality. Other versions of it were much better quality. So, I had to work on that too, just to make it so it didn't sound too scratchy and distracting. We even had to deal with some pitch issues that sounded like somebody must have bumped into the tape machine during the recording.

And you couldn't fix it with Pro Tools back then.

There was no Pro Tools. I had to physically VSO the thing to keep it on pitch. I had to drive it with a little steering wheel, and just keep doing it until I finally got it where it seemed like you couldn't tell that that had happened.

You know, it's funny that you're talking about it being in black and white and the guy just bouncing. Without the music, no senses are aroused. You add the music, you can smell the mat, you can smell the perspiration...

Yeah. And it had to do with having the instincts to not choose the most perfect version of it. The version that most filmmakers would have chosen is not the version that Marty would have chosen. That's why he's really good, because he has that sense; he has an instinct that you can't even explain. And he would know it, and I'd say, "Listen, it doesn't sound as good, but it just breaks your heart. It's not as big."

What was it about it that made it so perfect?

An innocence of some kind, and a passion. It's just filled with passion, and it's got nothing else but that. And that was stronger than anything else by Leonard Bernstein or any of these other great conductors that have versions of this music. Nothing could compete with that thing that just goes directly into your heart, and you don't even know what's going on. It's just magic in music.

I've been in the business, not quite as long as you, but for 31 years. I've got to say, I have worked with Tommy Dowd—who was my first mentor in the business, and I'm sure you know who he is and how important he is to our world. But he explained passion to me very early on in my career. He said, "I would much rather have a song with an acoustic guitar and a shitty vocal with a lot of passion than a full-blown 24-track thing that was passionless."

It's an interesting thing to point out. Somebody just reminded me of—just because you mentioned that—Jerry Wexler, who was the producer that Tom Dowd was the great engineer for, for years on some of the great classic recordings of all time. He was telling me that they were in the studio recording an Aretha Franklin record. She was singing her heart out, everybody was playing great on the track, but something was missing. It was that thing that we were just talking about before. Whatever that thing is, that was missing. Nobody was satisfied with what was happening with the particular song they were recording. And finally he said, "Aretha, could we just try something? Could you sit at the piano and play this song while you're singing it? And let's just see what happens." She sat down and played, sang it, and in one take, they had it. It was just that difference for all the musicians in the room, the way she would sing—because you have to concentrate on your playing too—but it makes you sing it a little bit different and phrase it a little bit different, because you're phrasing it around your playing. We're talking about the magic of stuff happening with music that you don't really understand. It can't be explained. It just is.

Is the discipline of doing music for film dramatically different from working with the Band or doing a solo record? I want that answer first, then follow it up, if you would, with which one do you enjoy more?

Well, I'll answer that one first. I don't like doing music for movies that much. No. It doesn't interest me. I do it because it's Martin Scorsese. And I've worked with Oliver Stone, and I've worked with Barry Levinson on other things too. But it's an accompaniment, and I'm used to looking for the accompaniment. But I do it with Martin Scorsese because he's one of the greatest filmmakers of all time, and he's a terrific friend of mine. We have this game that we play with music and movies from over the years, and it's different on every movie. So, the challenge of it is exciting to me. And, is it the same as the other things? Not at all.

In a lot of cases, I'm not writing music. And I don't call it writing music, I call it making up music. That's what I do in his things. And sometimes it's choosing the music or figuring out what would go beautifully against the grain that will do something to you. Just like we were talking about in Raging Bull, I have many, many other things like that, and it's really enjoyable. But it's not your typical thing. If somebody calls me up—which they do all the time—and say, "Would you do the music for this movie?" I don't write music, I don't read music. You want somebody that does that kind of thing. I don't do that kind of thing. But if you want to figure out something that is much more interesting than any of those people are going to do, I'm kind of game for that because it's a great unknown and a challenge for me to put on myself to figure out something that makes a left turn just when you think it's gonna go that way. Not on purpose, but just because it just feels so good.

Was there one film that sticks out, that's your favorite, that you're exceedingly proud of?

No, because, like I said before, they are really different animals and they ask different things in these movies. That's what's exciting—it's never the same thing. When you just score movies, it's the same thing with a different score, you know. And I'm just not interested in that really.

Do you think of yourself more as a writer or a musician?

I don't think of myself in any kind of category, because I like the idea that I'm willing to try all kinds of things. Stuff that I'm working on right now I've never done before. That's what excites me.

Do you folks in the audience know that Robbie's an actor too? Because he's got so much spare time that he decided to become an actor.

Which means I'll do anything.

In the movie Carny, your character scared the crap out of me for the rest of my life. I can't ever look at a clown the same way. I was affected by your character. You could smell him; you could feel his greasiness and his badness, if you will.

I worked in a carnival when I was a young kid for a while. It was like a summer thing, and I was fascinated by it because it was frightening in a way. They are scary people and they're very proud of it. So that was just another challenge. But when you're young, you don't know about danger and stuff like that; it was just a job for me. But if you were going to take a job delivering things at the drugstore, or take a job working on the midway, in a place where these people's rules are just different than anybody else's—a piece of Americana that's got a real mystique to it... Like, what the hell goes on back there, and who are these people? I liked that part of it. I also have written about it in songs too. I have a song called "Life Is a Carnival." I wrote about it in a song called "King Harvest" too.

It's funny that you mention it being a part of Americana, because so much of your work is a slice of America... almost like it's in a painting of American life.

I come from a storytelling tradition. In Indian country, that's part of the tradition—that's what's passed on. It's a big part of life. So, I cherish that, and I've always wanted to be a part of that thing. I would rather tell stories.

You took a trip over to the dark side a few years ago. You went to work as an A&R executive at a record label.

I did do some work for Dreamworks, but A&R wasn't even spoken about. David Geffen just said to me, "We're trying to have the coolest record company out there now. Why don't you come and just do that with us, and do whatever you want to do in it. You'd do your thing and everything, that's all fine, but at the same time, just be a part of what we're doing, and it'll help make us look cool. So, we do a lot of things. We're making movies, work on the movies, whatever, animation, or help us find some interesting new artist, or help steer us in the right direction of things. Just contribute what you can do."

So I thought, I've never done this before—it was another one of those things—and it's kind of curious and interesting.

Did your perspective get altered being on the other side of the glass, if you will? I'm sure they brought you in saying, "This will just be cool. Just be here and bring whatever it is that Robbie Robertson is to our little camp here." Were you affected at all by numbers, quarterly profits, any of that stuff, or did they truly just let you do your thing?

Yeah, I didn't have to be bothered with that. They knew what not to ask me as well. And I tried to be very open about things, and I wanted to learn about everything that I possibly could. It was another interesting experiment. I found out in the course of this that when there was an artist who was talking to several different companies, that were trying to sign them, that I was really good at convincing these artists—just because of who I am—that signing with Dreamworks was a good thing to do. I found that that was quite effective. And we did have some fun doing it. But it was also at a time when the record industry was all of a sudden going into a tailspin.

It still really hasn't come out, has it?

It's still finding itself, and it will find itself. Music isn't going away because of business. It's just not going to happen.

It's kind of a discouraging time when you see musicians not getting paid for their talent and their creativity and their hard work. I worry about that a lot. But I hope you're right.

It's just being reinvented, and we're just in between worlds right now of that. But I think that when there is music that inspires... Once again, the music came before the business came, and I truly believe this. I think that everything is a reflection of good work, and that's what's going to happen again. I think it all goes around, and we go through periods where music is quite disposable and doesn't have as much meaning in your life. Then it goes around and there's another time when it does start to connect and people start to connect, and there a unity between music and what's going on.

You know, I was fortunate that, on the train that I came in on, the music was the voice of the generation, so you weren't questioning anything except trying to make that voice more interesting than what it was yesterday—and more vital. So, that stirred things up in that period. And then you go through other periods like the punk period, where everybody's just rebelling against the rebellion, you know what I mean? That's healthy. That stirs things up once again.

How do you explain disco?

People like to dance, you know? I'm sorry. Since the beginning of time, people like to dance. I was working on a record awhile back, and I was working with this guy from the London underground, Howie B. I was doing a Native American project, working with a lot of different Native artists, and also people like him that work with Massive Attack. We were working on this one song, and we realized that the world that he comes out of, where it's filled with beats, smoke, dancing, is the same thing that the Native people were doing thousands of years ago—beats, smoke and dancing. So we were like, "This is timeless. This is so fantastic that we're actually putting these worlds together and trying to make something seamless out of it, that it doesn't feel tacked on or anything like that." But there's a certain truth in that. There is cool dance music and then there's kind of hokey dance music, in the same way in Pop music all across the board. There's stuff we think is really good, then we hear another thing and we think that it's really corny or it's hokey and obvious. But, sometimes those things are great for somebody else, and that's OK.

Well, I can't thank you enough for taking the time to be with us Robbie. This has exceeded my expectations!

Thank you, Michael. Thank you, everybody.

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